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Who watches the Watch Dogs? A guide to getting started in Ubisoft’s hacker paradise

Watch Dogs
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Watch Dogs presents a chilling near-future Chicago in which a single cellphone has the power to commandeer the city’s infrastructure. That is, it’s chilling if you’re one of the millions of innocent residents whose privacy is at risk. If you’re Aiden Pearce, star of the story and wielder of the aforementioned cellular, life is pretty damn sweet. 

The Chicago presented in Watch Dogs is a giant playground. Aiden’s ability to hack virtually anything is a powerful tool, more potent than anything in Batman’s utility belt. The comparison to Gotham City’s Dark Knight is apt; Aiden’s a little less armored and a little more kill-happy, but both men are resourceful vigilantes, frequently at odds with the city they’ve sworn to protect.

Resourcefulness is the best weapon you can arm yourself with in Watch Dogs. There’s some degree of choice in the way you develop Aiden’s skills, but the biggest challenge you’ll ultimately face is responding to ever-changing circumstances. Watch Dogs is difficult to predict, but this guide will help get you started on the road to becoming an unstoppable hero hacker.

Hack the world

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Aiden’s cellphone is the most powerful tool in your Watch Dogs arsenal, but there’s a functional learning curve. It all starts with the X button (Xbox controller), which activates/deactivates the mobile’s hacking capabilities. You can tell you’re ready to hack when you see crosshairs at the center of the screen rendered as four slash marks forming an open-sided box. Note that this is separate from the crosshairs that appear when you draw a weapon.

The hacking crosshairs help to highlight anything in the world around you that you can tease information out of. Hover it over a random pedestrian on the street and you’ll get a brief bio. Hover over a security camera or traffic light, and you’ll get an X-button prompt letting you know you can interact in some way with the targeted object. 

Occasionally you’ll see a little battery icon with a number next to it alongside the button prompt. That icon relates to a battery meter at the bottom of the screen that refills over time. Many hacks in Watch Dogs don’t “cost” anything, but those that do have the little icon next to their button prompt. Your battery meter is broken into multiple bars (three to start with), and the number next to the icon lets you know how many bars you’ll spend to hack that particular object.

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Keep Aiden’s phone out as you’re strolling around and highlight every pedestrian you see until their bio pop up. Once you’ve scanned a person, you find out immediately if they’re hackable via a button prompt that appears. If the prompt is white, there’s no “value” to performing the hack unless you want a bit of background information on that person, which comes in the form of phone call audio or a text exchange.

Blue hack prompts are the ones you want to watch for. If the “Hack” text is blue, that means the person you’ve scanned has something you can swipe from them. Sometimes it’s an unlockable song, or a new vehicle to buy from the Cars On Demand app in Aiden’s phone. Sometimes it’s a text exchange pointing the way to a secret package. Most often, it’s cash. 

Take note, however, that some citizens — usually those with an affiliation to the Blume security company (always noted in their bio pop-up) — can tell when they’ve been hacked and will attempt to rat you out. You’ll still want to hack those Blume folks for whatever goodies they’ve got, but stick close when you’re done. Once they put in a call to report you — noted by a purple triangle icon that appears over their heads — get close and press B to knock the phone out of their hands.

It’s not a catastrophic problem if you fail to de-phone these Blume affiliates in time; it just raises Aiden’s bounty in the Watch Dogs online metagame and opens your game up to an attack by an outsider. There are other rewards for repelling those hacks, so some might prefer to let the Blume call go through.

Money is no object

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It’s very easy to get your hands on cash in Watch Dogs. The quickest method is to just wander the streets of Chicago and hack all of the marked pedestrians you can. Note that any cash you get in this way needs to be physically withdrawn from an ATM. Find a little bank card icon on your minimap (they only appear when you’ve got money to withdraw) and use the machine to add your stolen cash to Aiden’s account.

There’s also an assortment of side missions to complete that carry cash rewards. Fixer Contracts, Gang Hideouts, and Criminal Convoys (all marked by light blue blue icons on your map) carry cash rewards. They’re fun, and they contribute to your progression in other ways (more on that below), but hacking pedestrians is a much better use of your time if you just want more funds.

Once you’ve got some cash you can spend it in a number of ways. Clothing stores allow for purely cosmetic enhancements to Aiden’s wardrobe. His funky, near-future trench coat never changes, but the color coordination does if you spend some scratch. You can also buy new weapons, and it’s recommended that you at least pick up the grenade launcher (on sale for $4,000) as early as you can. You can count on picking up most other firearms during missions; grab a weapon off the ground once and it’s in your inventory forever.

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For the most part, however, you’re best off spending cash on vehicles in Aiden’s Cars On Demand app. Anytime you get behind the wheel of a vehicle for the first time, you unlock it in the app for purchase. Once you’ve bought a ride in the app, you can order it any time you want outside of missions at no charge.

Even that is of relatively low value, since decent cars are so plentiful throughout Chicago, In reality, money is of minimal value once you’ve got a baseline of weapons and vehicles set for yourself. Go after what you need, but don’t invest large amounts of time into building a massive bank account for Aiden. There’s just not enough to spend it all on.

Learning the trade

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You’ll earn XP and level up as you progress through the game, unlocking Skill Points to spend on improving Aiden’s abilities. There are four categories of skills, each with multiple paths of advancement: Hacking, Combat, Driving, and Crafted Items. Skill points come at a relatively rapid pace in Watch Dogs, so improving Aiden’s capabilities is more a matter of personal preference than anything else.

That said, you’re taught how to spend skill points immediately after the first mission concludes, with one point going into a required ability and five more to spend however you like. There’s no wrong choice here, but we’ve pinpointed a handful of recommended skills that you might want to consider as your first “purchases” with these five points.

  • Gates & Garages (Hacking tree, 1 point): You get this one automatically, so the point you spend doesn’t count as one of the starting 5. It’s how the game teaches you to spend Skill Points. As the name suggests, this gives you the ability to open/close any gates or garages you come across in the open world.
  • Car Unlock (Driving tree, 1 point): One of the two most useful skills that you should get right away. With Car Unlock, Aiden can steal any parked car simply by using his mobile (as opposed to breaking the glass and hotwiring, GTA-style). Having this ability means you can steal parked cars without anyone alerting the police.
  • Focus (Combat tree, 1 point): Alongside Car Unlock, Focus is a proper must-buy at the start of the game. Unlocking this skill adds a new meter to the bottom of the screen that tells you how much Focus you’ve got. To use it — it’s basically bullet-time for use both in combat and while driving — you simply click the right stick (R3). You can spend more skill points on improving the duration of your Focus later, but you’ll want to unlock the actual ability ASAP.
  • Bridges (Hacking tree, 1 point): This skill allows you to open and close bridges throughout the city. This is a great way to shake any cops or enemy vehicles that may be giving chase, as they won’t jump over a raised drawbridge. They won’t even follow you onto a drawbridge once it starts opening. You can’t use this to destroy your pursuers, but it’s very useful for slowing them down.
  • Blockers (Hacking tree, 1 point): Use this skill to raise blockers scattered around the city, effectively closing off streets to vehicle access. Very useful when you’re being chased, as we’ll explain below.
  • Extra Battery (Hacking tree, 1 point): You can’t ever go wrong buying more battery life for Aiden’s phone. You’ll definitely want to unlock Disable Reinforcements and Disable Helicopter/Improved Disable Helicopter later in the game, and both of those chew through your battery quick.

These aren’t the only useful skills, and you may even prefer to spend your starting five points on different ones. Car Unlock and Focus are the most universally useful; the rest are more negotiable, based on how you want to play. L-Train Control, for example, is very useful if you find it easier to escape on foot. Trains run frequently enough that you can easily evade pursuers by stopping on, hopping on, and riding it to freedom.

The thrill of the chase

Watch Dogs
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Watch Dogs goes all-in on car chases, with Aiden’s hacking abilities allowing for a much more dynamic test of reflexes than you’d typically find in an open world game. In addition to racing around, relying on driving skill alone to elude pursuers, you’ve also got the ability to bring a chase to a crashing halt if you time things just right.

Whenever you’re chasing a vehicle or being chased, keep an eye out for a round, flashing icon on the screen. It’s always accompanied by high-pitched warning beeps. Eventually, the icon turns into a button prompt (X) marked “Neutralize” and the warning beeps become an unbroken drone. Hitting the button triggers one of Aiden’s hacking abilities, changing traffic lights or springing up a set of blockers at just the right moment to give your pursuers/target a very bad day.

Getting these neutralize moments right during a chase is all about timing. It’ll likely take a few tries as you get used to spotting the icon; it helps if you just listen for the warning beeps. That allows you to keep your eyes on the road in front of you, since the sound changes once you’re clear to hit the “neutralize” button.

Also be sure to heed the advice from the skills section above on using bridges and trains effectively during a chase. Aiden’s pursuers won’t jump over an opened (or opening) drawbridge, and they quickly lose track if you manage to hop on a train. You can also hide in plain sight by pressing the B button while behind the wheel to turn off your car and duck down, but enemies will spot you if they get too close (the detection range is indicated in these situations by a blue circle surrounding you on the minimap).

Hack attack

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There’s no escaping gunplay in Watch Dogs, but much like Ubisoft’s Far Cry games, Aiden often has every opportunity to do recon and create beneficial circumstances for himself before a shot is even fired. Story missions offer up a variety of challenges, but many of them (along with a fair few side missions) boil down to the following scenario: there’s a heavily defended location that you must break into, for one reason or another.

It’s almost always possible to simply storm in and get bloody right away, but more prudent players will look for security cameras. Hacking a camera switches to a first-person view of whatever it sees. The important thing to understand here is that you can continue to hack things from the camera-eye view, even if it’s hacking into another camera. Jumping from camera to camera allows you to scope out the full layout of a locations, many of which are designed as mazes that test your observation skills.

The first thing to do when scoping out an area is take note of any hack-able locations (to create explosions or distractions) and mark any enemy you see. Much like hacking pedestrians, marking enemies is as simple as hovering the crosshairs over them until the bio appears. Marked enemies remain tagged until you take them out or leave the mission in question, appearing on both the minimap and in the HUD.

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More importantly, hacking an enemy also reveals whether or not you can interact with him, and how. Some carry grenades that can be remotely triggered (they’ll try to toss the offending explosive away before it goes off), some have communication systems that can be disrupted. Some even walk around with camera-equipped phones that you can hack into, giving you a mobile view of what’s going on. These hacks often cost you some battery life (remember: it recharges on its own), and some of the more powerful ones (Disable Reinforcements, for example) require certain skill unlocks.

Once you’ve got a sense of how a target location is laid out and where your opposition is… go nuts. What you do is always going to depend on the mission parameters. It might be tempting to start hacking explosions to take out enemies remotely, but be aware that doing so will put everyone else on guard. If staying out of sight is important, try to lure enemies away from where you need to be.

One explosion in a remote area, far from your target, will often draw most or all patrolling enemies over to investigate. Use that distraction to your advantage. Once you get to the point where you’re done hacking and back to controlling Aiden, Focus is a handy skill to have as well. If an enemy spots you, quickly drop into focus and pop off a headshot with your silenced pistol before an alarm can be raised.

Adam Rosenberg
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Previously, Adam worked in the games press as a freelance writer and critic for a range of outlets, including Digital Trends…
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