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Preview: Hacking, shooting, and plowing through the future Chicago in Watch Dogs

Check out our full written Watch Dogs review.

After a lengthy delay that pushed it out of the next-gen console launch window, Watch Dogs is finally nearing release. We recently had the chance to sit down and play a pair of sections from early in the game. From it we gained a clear sense of how the story begins, and the power that protagonist Aiden Pearce has over the connected, smart-city of Chicago.

The game is big – packed with a shocking amount of content and a staggering amount of variety. So much so that even after spending nearly a whole day playing it, we were only able to scratch the surface of what the game has to offer. Still, it was enough to know that fans should be very excited for Watch Dogs‘ May 27 release on PlayStation and Xbox consoles, as well as PC (with a Wii U release coming later this year).


Between the lines. Watch Dogs allows you to make protagonist and hacker extraordinaire Aiden Pearce into the type of person you want him to be. Your actions throughout the city of Chicago color the way people look at you and determine the type of man Pearce is. At its core though, Watch Dogs begins as a story of revenge.

The game starts with a botched robbery, in which Pearce is identified by the “victims,” who are the type of people that don’t call the police. This unknown group instead sends their own man to retaliate, causing a car accident that costs the life of Pearce’s 6-year old niece. The police and media both portray the accident as Pearce’s fault despite obvious evidence to the contrary, sending him off the grid as he plots his next move.

Watch Dogs preview
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Served cold. The game begins 11 months after the accident, with Pearce using his hacking abilities to break into systems and find the people responsible for the death of his niece. When he tracks down the man that caused the accident, it becomes clear that there is an organized group behind it all and they are not afraid to target Pearce’s family in order to get him to back off. When his sister begins to receive threatening phone calls, his motivations change from just revenge to the need to protect what’s left of his family.

How you go about the search for answers is up to you. The city of Chicago is a vast, open world that you can explore, with sidequests to be found on almost every street. The primary story is broken up into five Acts, with a total of 30 missions. Along with those main missions, there are nearly 80 optional missions and events scattered around Chicago, 53 Investigations that play out like quick puzzles, and countless collectibles to find. The game is massive in the amount of content it offers, and that’s not even counting the online offerings.


Third person action. In terms of gameplay mechanics, Watch Dogs is a traditional third-person shooter built around stealth and gunplay. In the missions we saw during the demo, there were sections that forced you to either use your weapons or stay completely out of sight, as well as a few that gave you the choice. In the pure gunplay missions, the Ubisoft DNA shines through, with stealth mechanics also functioning as cover mechanics. Those that played Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier will be right at home.

The game is massive in the amount of content it offers, and that’s not even counting the online offerings.

Pearce can carry several weapons, all of which can be equipped at any time using a weapon wheel that lists your inventory by categories. You pick the type of weapon type – shotgun, sniper rifle, handgun, etc., – and then scroll through your options until you find the one you want. You also have several items you can use to distract guards, which you create using a crafting system. Environments contain random items for you to collect, which you can then turn into things like sticky cameras and noise makers. As you progress, you’ll also find explosives that you can craft into offensive tools like sticky bombs.

Third person hacktion. While sneaking through enemy-controlled areas, cameras are of high value, and you can access one just by looking at it and holding the “hack button” (Square on a PS4 controller). Your perspective then shifts to that of the camera, and from there you can hack other items, including different cameras within sight. Using this method, you can jump from camera to camera to see where enemies are, and even interact with things like steam pipes that you can cause to explode in order to injure a foe or to distract those within range.

While in the perspective of a camera, you can still be spotted if you aren’t well hidden. Depending on the map, it may behoove you to instead stick with Pearce and gather intel using the HUD, which gives you a view of nearby enemy activity, along with what direction they are facing. If you move into their line of sight, you’ll have a few moments to hide before the alert icon fills up and all Hell breaks loose. However you find it, success rewards you with experience points. Although we weren’t able to see exactly how the experience rewards each style during our demo, Ubisoft confirmed that the points are designed to be balanced, so there is no wrong way to approach missions that give you multiple options.

Upgrade to ride. The city of Chicago is huge, so you’ll spend a lot of your time in vehicles driving from place to place. There are dozens of different cars and motorcycles to be seen, most of which you can hop into and drive. If the police see you steal a vehicle though, or if you commit a criminal action and are seen, you’ll need to run. Watch Dogs features a “heat” meter, signifying the amount of attention the police are currently giving you. To lower the bar, you’ll need to escape, which is where the ctOS comes in.

Experience earned is used to purchase new abilities, and once your hacking abilities are fleshed out, you can control sections of Chicago itself. You can raise bridges, open and close parking lot doors, force steam pipes to explode, and more. Using these abilities makes for a quick escape.


Protection. Watch Dogs encourages hacking even as a passive ability. The game’s conceit is that you are connected to the ctOS, and your smartphone is simply acting as an input device. Among other abilities, this gives you access to the city’s CCTV system, which in turn gives you a quick bio of the people you’ll pass in the street as they are identified by the cameras.

Most people only have a short bio on who they are and what they do, but others that you see carrying their own smartphones can be hacked. Doing this allows you to steal their ATM code (which you then use withdraw money at ATMs), or a song that you can then listen to. Sometimes you can even listen in on phone conversations. These occasionally leads you to sidequests, but more often than not they are just color, meant to give you a sense of life in Chicago.

Watch Dogs preview
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Your City. The digital city of Chicago is broken up into six, distinct areas, each with its own look and style. In order to reveal the wealth of content in each area, you’ll first need to hack into that area’s ctOS tower. These missions can be either stealth or assault, but once completed you unlock all the sidequests in the area, including the more “wacky” missions.

Watch Dogs is a grim and serious game, with a story built on revenge and death. There are several moments where it breaks out of this mold though, and just lets you go wild. Side missions range in objectives from simple races to stealing cars to minigames like chess, but there are also a handful of games called Digital Trips, in which you hallucinate over the top side missions. Of the two on display in the demo, one put us in the cockpit of a giant, mechanized assault spider and tasked you with destroying cops, vehicles, trains, and more. The other put you in a Death Race 2000 style scenario, where you earn points for moving down people before they explode. Both are completely random events that earn you experience without consequences. It just speaks to the wealth of options in Watch Dogs.


Every time you think you know what to expect from Watch Dogs, the game introduces a new facet. Watch Dogs is an action game and a stealth game. It features racing and vehicular combat. It packs all these things together and then let’s you go wild. We’ll have to wait until May 27 to see if it all gels, but there are a lot of reasons to be excited.  

(Media © Ubisoft Entertainment)

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Ryan Fleming
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Fleming is the Gaming and Cinema Editor for Digital Trends. He joined the DT staff in 2009 after spending time covering…
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