Cover mechanics, the bane of many console port
In-game combat makes use of the tried and tested sticky cover combat system common to console titles, but moving into and out of cover by mean of a keypress causes problems when timing needs to be precise. You'd be excused for finding it a hamfisted system initially – it gets easier over time – but even without these limitations it lends a staccato feeling to combat which should be more fluid in nature. Consider switching hotkeys to mouse buttons for easier access, but even with that in mind we've certainly seen better implementations elsewhere.
The game also makes use of a bullet-time-esq mechanic which Ubisoft are calling 'Focus'. Use of Focus (default as CTRL) slows down time to make aiming easier and reduce the skill required to defeat any particular encounter. Once again the default key is poorly chosen; yet more excuse to break out those many-buttoned mice and play around with hotkeys.
Health is of course a major mechanic and in Watch_Dogs it regenerates swiftly, if slower at higher difficulty levels; staying out of trouble for relatively little time will allow you to get back into trouble with relative impunity. Health loss thanks to fall from great heights and vehicle crashes are a part of the game but rarely fatal on lower difficulties. This does reduce the overall level of complexity in the game, leaving it more accessible and certainly more familiar to those weaned on a steady diet of console shooters.
A guarded gated compound as seen through a hacked CCTV camera
We had high hopes for the hacking mechanic, and to be frank we found it to be troublingly superficial for such an important thematic element. Aiden's super-smartphone is the chief conceit, a device which all but automates hacking to a fixed effect on a given object or target. As a consequence the only option given to players is if/when a 'hack' is used with only one hack available per object.
Outside of combat Hacking boils down to 'press Q to steal money from an NPC', 'press Q to look through CCTV cameras' or 'press Q to interact with the environment'; yes once again your 'Q' key will be getting a workout. Only objects or NPCs in line-of-sight can be hacked, leading to a peculiar (and not fun) camera-hopping exercise where you're trying to find the one at just to right angle for your next goal. Also frustrating is discovering that only one object on your screen can be interacted with at any time, resulting in an awkward 'glance-and-look-back' exercise as you try and highlight the one environmental element you want to interact with rather than that camera nearer and in close angular proximity.
An Intrusion is often the objective of a hacking session, and requires the solving of a simple logic puzzle
In combat hacking is slightly more dynamic. Through it you can interface with ctOS to perform major changes such as raising/lowering a bridge, or minor ones like disrupting enemy comms to briefly stun them. The dynamism is however based on the limited window in which their use is appropriate rather than solutions becoming novel, plus they're almost required in driving/evasion missions. At no point do you feel particularly empowered by your skills as a tool, and combat will often be seen as a break from monotony.
The third leg to the mechanic tripod is driving. In Watch_Dogs any car is your plaything, so long as you find it in the world or unlock it, and when you're not on a mission you can call one to you via Aiden's smartphone. What the game doesn't do is approach it from a fetishistic standpoint – there are only a few car categories and no real performance ratings, so there's no real sense of what's 'better' by some arbitrary yardstick. Instead it's very much framed as process of collection, with out-of-game achievements to match.
Controls are, of course, awkward but in this case we don't blame Ubisoft too much. Keyboards are inherently poor for driving games thanks to their lack of analogue input options and so is perhaps the one aspect naturally enriched by using a controller; the keyboard is okay for getting from points A to B, but not fantastic and rarely precise.
In the right vehicle we have to admit that Watch_Dogs simulates a feeling of speed pretty well, and especially when riding on a motorcycle and weaving in and out of traffic. This may be partially down to feeling ever so slightly out of control, but given that even dedicated driving games often fail at this hurdle it's worthy of mention.
Hacking as it intersects with driving is important as a test of both skill and navigation. Plotting escape or interdiction routes is a real strength to the game, and using hacking to elude foes is critical to prevent the onset of monotony. Our one reservation is slow-motion special effect to showing off collisions caused by your neutralisation of a foe; as fun as it was the first time it later becomes a distraction, and then a distinct annoyance which you wish could be disabled.
Speaking of NPC AI, a slight in-game oversight is the uncanny way that Aiden can jump into large bodies of water and completely evade police and gang members. Any evasion is therefore trivial if you're close to water, with the added benefit of motorboats being faster than any helicopter they might send after you!
Perhaps aspects which could be improved all involve the NPC AI. There appears to be very little reaction to stealing cards, and driving past the police with a clearly banged-up vehicle doesn't make them so much as blink. On the other hand you can be stuck in traffic and a police car can hit you, triggering an alert and having the whole precinct hunting you. To say the least it is inconsistent.
Overall Ubisoft could have done more with this part of the game, but it serves as a strong complement slightly undermined by the controls on the standard PC. Building on it though meaningful DLC and multiplayer content could really bring it to the fore.