In our world of anonymous hacker groups, citizen protests en masse, and NSA leaks and scandals, it’s not hard to imagine an Orwellian dystopia in the near future. When Ubisoft’s hacking-centered Watch_Dogs was first announced with these ideas in mind, I’ll admit I wasn’t all-aboard the hype train that continuously whisks gamers away to the land of disappointed expectations. But with over 100 crazy hours into the Blume-controlled Chicago, I’ve experienced the hype first hand, and there’s certainly a lot to say about one of 2014’s most anticipated releases.
The story finds us controlling a determined and slightly intemperate Aiden Pearce, a man hell-bent on seeking vengeance over a tragedy that took the life of his niece. After a fixer job gone horribly wrong, a kill order was issued for our troubled protagonist; but the botched job inadvertently culminated in the death of 6-year-old Lena Pearce, leaving a very pissed off Aiden in sorrow’s wake. The result is Watch_Dogs, a promising story of hacker revenge and hi-tech sabotage that ultimately falls short due to its own unique sense of over-shot plot details and misguided characterizations. But take away the story, and you’re left with a highly-advanced technical playground — complete with mannequin loving NPCs and Ubisoft wise-cracking some of their own beloved shortcomings.
Plot wise, the game is nearly underwhelming. While there are definitely a fair share of exciting campaign missions and climactic cinematic cut scenes, the story consists of one-too-many weak plot devices. What we see is a classic trope of a man on a mission: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. Watch_Dogs was an entirely too predictable series of quixotic events mixed with unnecessary sub-plots that only serve to make us scratch our heads and ask “why the hell was that even in the game?” The two that instantly come to mind are Defalt’s strangely irritating hacking psychosis and Poppy Dean’s 5 minutes of nonsensical fame. The enormous amount of potential both of these characters held was overshadowed by rushed story telling and poor campaign planning.
That being said, there are still a great deal of galvanizing campaign moments. When first entering the game, you’re tasked with attempting to escape a packed stadium undetected. This first mission was not only exciting for its introduction to the game’s hacking mechanics, but it served to set the pace for the entire story. The prison mission is also one of exceptional merit, not only placing heavy emphasis on stealth and hacking tactics, but also allowing the player do what everyone enjoys: balls-to-the-wall gun play. While these and other separate campaign missions are fueled by excitement and our inadvertent need to hack all the things, bundle them together and it all becomes a blurry and questionably forgettable mess.
Luckily, there’s so much more to engage in than just the campaign. Along with a 5 act story, there are a countless number of side missions to partake in. From fixer contracts to criminal convoys, human trafficking investigations to burner phones, all of these seemingly meaningless mission add an indispensable amount of context to Watch_Dogs‘ back story. While some may be more exiting than others — and get a tad repetitious if doing them back-t0-back — they’re a fun way to get acquainted with the city and its people.
Ultimately, it’s the hacking mechanics and their implementation in the wide-open Watch_Dogs world that truly brings the game to climax. The city of Chicago is watched by the ctOS — a highly advanced city guardian system developed by the Blume Corporation that controls the electrical infrastructure of Chicago. Sometimes the best parts of the entire game don’t even involve physical action. Through well-organized mechanics and strategic use of backdoor viruses, Aiden is able to use the thorough and readily-available ‘big brother’ tool to his advantage, turning any dangerous task into a game of ‘find the camera’. The hack mechanic allows you to jump from camera to camera — including hidden cams on select persons — in order to gain not only a tactical advantage, but even reach your goal without heaving to step foot inside a restricted area. With enough patience and a fervent desire to hack the living crap out of anything in sight, very rarely do you actually have to engage in any long-term combat.
Of course, cameras aren’t the only hackable object in Watch_Dogs. The ctOS is connected to almost anything in the city, meaning that steam grates, electrical boxes, spike strips, and blockers are all at your beck and call. You can also hack into main ctOS systems to spy on unsuspecting Chicago citizens. The world is full of little privacy invasions, and you’ll never know what you’ll find. My favorite to date definitely has to be the man putting some moves one a manquin he stole from a department store. Creepy, yet oddly engaging. Honorable mention goes to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed knock and mock, placing a father and son in a room watching Altair speak to one of the many enemies he assassinated hidden blade style.
But the ctOS isn’t just a modern-day Eye of Sauron. Through a complex system of computer nonsense that I’ll never be able to understand, the ctOS is able to collect and store thousands upon thousands of bits of encrypted information on every living resident of Chicago — and Aiden sees it all. It’s by far one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, if not a major selling point. With cellphone in hand, Aiden is able to profile every living thing that crosses his path, and in turn hack them for all their worth — whether it’s their money or hacking components. Name, age, occupation and income are all available for consumption, and often-times we even get a glimpse of their dirty little secrets. While some citizen descriptions are average and nondescript, others tote a much more facetious branding; “frequent online purchase: hentai.” There are hundreds more with hilarious and sometimes highly inappropriate descriptions like this, making the world of Watch_Dogs feel vibrant and bursting with life.
After all, it’s the one thing that Ubisoft continually does right — creating worlds in which a player can immerse themselves in for hours at a time.
Mechanics wise, almost all the controls feel incredibly fluid, but fall in line with almost every other open-world third-person shooter. Walking is an act of true patience, and the running feels like a pretty safe choice in almost any situation — it’s not fast by any means, but feels as close to the real thing as possible (well, it’s faster than I can run). The option of focus — slowing down time — feels like something out of Red Dead Redemption, but a pleasant edition, none the less; it’s helpful when going for the headshot or even evading the cops. Choosing your weapons from the designated wheel is simple, and firing them isn’t anything incredibly special — although the weapon wheel does contain a pretty hefty amount of choices.
Between an array of automatic berserkers and silenced concealables, there’s always a weapon for any situation. I found myself using Aiden’s 1911 variant with silencer for almost 99% of the game. Between using ctOS hacks and marksman accuracy, most of the situations I found myself in never escalated to a full-blown gun fight. Of course, if charging in guns blazing is your thing, the slew of automatic weapons at your disposal will probably make you a very happy gamer. I found the goblin to be a pretty fun weapon, although the burst fire element of the gun became annoying almost instantly; the low sustained fire makes the gun less desirable when in a tight situation. But never fear, there are a countless number of IEDs, handguns, SMGs, shotguns, and ARs that make any killing spree fun Hell, you can even equip a grenade launcher (which is THE best thing against both online opponents and convoy fixer contracts). Complete assigned missions and you’ll also have access to spec ops variants of some of the weapons.
But if weapons ultimately aren’t your thing, the weapon wheel also contains some of the coolest gadgets I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. You can cause blackouts, jam signal trackers or communications with the jam comm tool, or pinpoint enemy locations on your map with the ctOS scan. The jam comm and ctOS scan are probably two of the most important gadgets in your arsenal, but the lure is a nifty tool when you’re in a jam, allowing you to distract your opponents with whatever sound happens to pop out.
I’ve talked a lot about some of the main aspects of the game, but we have to remember there’s an entire city to explore, and all the tools necessary to do so are right at your fingertips. Taking hints from some of our favorite social apps, Watch_Dogs implements every teenage girl’s cellphone right into the game. Check in to 100 scattered Chicago locations using the City Hotspots app, or track down that one song you heard blasting in a passing car with the SongSneak application. All of these apps are found on your phones interface, which is pulled up easily with the touch of a button. The interface is clean and easily to navigate, and it’s full of goodies. Check out your progression, statistics, and skill tree, or try your hand at and online contract. You can even call in for a car delivery.
There’s a hefty selection of cars — including a great deal you have to unlock through either stealing or story progression — ranging from compacts to behemoths. I’ve seen and heard a great deal of gamers speaking either very highly of the driving mechanics or hating it to their very core. For an open-world third-person shooter, the driving mechanics are decent. Remember, this isn’t Forza or Gran Turismo we’re playing. With some patience and practice, all the vehicles start to handle well.
There’s also heavy criticism over the inability to drive and shoot at the same time, to which I have only one retort: with one hand on the wheel and the one on your smartphone attempting to hack your way out of a bad situation, there’s just not enough hands to shoot the crap out of whatever may be chasing you. On the bright side, the game comes equipped with an extensive and killer soundtrack. From pop-punk to house, there’s something that will be kind to everyone’s ears.
While there are a plethora of great game aspects, there are certainly just as many things that take away from the entire experience. One of the biggest concerns I found in my 100 hours of Watch_Dogs is the lackluster and often-times non-existent multiplayer aspect of the game. For those not playing on a next-gen console, we’re limited in our multiplayer capabilities — having only online hacking, tailing, and mobile contracts as opposed to the free roam aspect. As it stands, Watch_Dogs was not made with multiplayer in mind, and it definitely shows. Between arduous wait times and a significant amount of disconnects and lags, it’s hardly an enjoyable experience. Tie these issues in with the back-breaking experience PC gamers are having, bugs and all, and you could definitely say it’s been a tough launch.
I think, in the end, Watch_Dogs did a lot of things right, and then proceeded to miss the the mark on everything else. It’s an experience you can either love or hate, but one you’ll certainly have to try for yourself. If anything, I think we can now all unite in our collective paranoia. Be honest, the camera on your computer has gotten 10x more freaky since playing the game.
There goes dancing in your underwear to Taylor Swift.
- A fun, open-world Chicago at your beck and call
- Numerous side missions and random mission goodies
- Fresh mechanics and gameplay variables bring the world to life
- Lackluster storyline with forgettable and lazy character development
- Online experience wrought with bugs and indifference
- Repetitious mission elements detract from the entire experience