STAFF REVIEW of Watch Dogs (Xbox One)

Thursday, May 29, 2014.
by Adam Dileva

Watch Dogs Box art When Ubisoft announced Watch_Dogs for the first time back in 2012, it instantly caught the eye of many people, myself included, for its gorgeous visuals and intriguing gameplay based around hacking. Then just shortly before launch it got delayed six months to the disappointment of many, but here we are those six months later and Watch_Dogs finally exists for all of us to play. Ubisoft wanted us to believe that Watch_Dogs was going to change everything. So does it? Kind of…

Watch_Dogs at its core is an open world action game, and essentially plays as if it’s one part Grand Theft Auto and one part Assassin’s Creed. The backdrop is Chicago, though drastically different from the one we know today in the real world. Chicago in the world of Watch_Dogs is hyper-connected with a new infrastructure network called ctOS. This allows everything from all technology, communication, traffic, security systems, and more to be accessed easily, even in unintended ways.

The ctOS system really shows how interconnected everything and everyone is when there’s only one infrastructure in place. I’m not sure whoever thought putting a whole city behind one accessible wall would be a good idea, but luckily it works out for the hero of Watch_Dogs, Aiden Pearce. If you watch the TV show Person of Interest, you’ll have an idea of what ctOS is capable of in the wrong hands. Sure ctOS may boast a better city for the average person, but in the wrong hands, the city can literally be used as a weapon.

Aiden Pearce is a talented hacker who is haunted by a past family tragedy. Naturally he blames himself and seeks revenge for what happened, and does so with his hacking abilities and using ctOS in ways that don’t seem all that unbelievable in today’s world. Aiden has taken a step back, away from his family, yet he still watches over them almost obsessively, even when they just want him to let it go and move on. That’s not good enough for Aiden, as he needs justice to move on, and will find the justice he seeks by taking matters into his own hands. Most people think of superheroes as someone from a comic book, but Aiden instead is just a normal guy with extraordinary hacking abilities that I would best describe as a blend of Max Payne and Batman. I can see Aiden’s personality not being pleasing for everyone, but I quite enjoyed seeing him slowly deal with his internal anger and extracting revenge in the way he only knows how.

Aiden not only knows how to hack seemingly almost anything, he can also defend himself up and close with his baton, or if need be, in a shootout with almost any firearm. Aiden will eventually gain access to quite a number of different traditional weapons, ranging from all your standard pistols, shotguns, rifles, snipers, and more. In most cases you can choose how you want to play; the stealthier type, the all-out action shooter, or a blend of both.

Chicago is a large city, and to get around Aiden will need some wheels to quickly get from place to place. Watch_Dogs has a large number of vehicles within that Aiden can either steal or order with his phone when needed. You’ll notice right away that driving feels very floaty, even more so than Grand Theft Auto, and every car seems to handle slightly different from one another, making it even harder to get used to. Some cars seems to handle very well and others you need to almost make a complete stop to take corners. Another oddity is the fact that Aiden can’t use a weapon while driving, at all. Maybe the justification is because he’s always trying to look at his phone at the same time (to change traffic lights and other barriers), but it becomes frustrating when you have a mission to take down a target in a car, but can’t actually shoot at them. Sure you can stop them by hacking the traffic system and causing something to happen in front of them such as changing the traffic lights or raising a bridge, but sometimes a simple shot would also suffice. You’ll also notice that the majority of the cars in Watch_Dogs are seemingly indestructible, even the very small economic vehicles that can take quite a beating.

Technology, specifically Aiden’s phone, is going to be your biggest weapon throughout the game. As you’ll always have your phone on, the ‘Profiler’ app is the one that you see in use constantly. This allows you to see in real time information on any character in the game that is nearby, all shown in a slick augmented reality way. Simply looking at any person in the world, and you have instant access to all of their information; habits, bank account, salary, phone calls, and more. Certain characters will allow you to hack into their bank account, with the single press of a button, and siphon some funds into your account which you can then go retrieve at any ATM. Your phone, coupled by hacking into ctOS, is also so mart that it can warn you ahead of time when a crime is about to happen, and you can then choose to go intervene or not. This plays into a Criminal or Vigilante mechanic in place which will either have cops more on the lookout for you or you being more discrete and citizens feeling safer in the city.

As mentioned above, you can choose to favor a stealthier playstyle if that suits you better, and frankly, it’s heavily encouraged given Aiden’s unique ability to hack into almost anything. Aiden can scale chest high walls and obstacles to traverse up onto ledges and rooftops, then also hack into any nearby security cameras and use them to set a plan of attack or even other tricks. If an enemy is carrying a cell phone, Aiden can cause it to ring or text, causing the enemy to be distracted and allowing him to sneak by unnoticed. Certain enemies also carry explosives on their persons which can also be remotely hacked and caused to detonate. There are other environmental ‘traps’ that can be used such as steam pipes, transistor boxes, and more that can be utilized as a weapon.

Very similar to Assassin’s Creed’s viewpoints that need to be scaled to unlock a portion of the map, Watch_Dogs has an almost identical system in place where Aiden needs to reach certain antenna towers that allows him to hack into ctOs for a specific district in Chicago. The catch with these towers though is that it’s not just as simple as traversing to the top of a building; instead you’ll have to hack into a security camera and daisy chain from one to another until you find specific objects to hack into, such as control panels, lifts, and door unlocks so that Aiden can even get to the tower. These are quite fun and I do wish there were some more of them in the city.

Like any respectable open world game, there’s a vast amount of side activities for you to partake in should you desire. There are a ton of smaller games to play, such as chess, poker, drinking games, and more, but there is even a fully-fledged Four Square-like check-in system in place where you can go to Chicago landmarks and try to become the mayor of that spot by subsequent check-ins. It may be something minor, but I found myself making many pit stops on the way to my bigger destination just to virtually check-in at a monument. What as my life turned into?

Certain spots in the city will also allow you to play some interesting augmented reality games such as Cash Run, where Aiden needs to run through Chicago collecting digital coins that only he can see while avoiding red skulls and under a time limit. The real fun minigames though are under the Digital Trips category. These are exactly as it sounds, as the real Chicago is transformed into a virtual world based on which Trip you’re playing. One Trip is essentially like playing the old Carmageddon game, mowing down demons in your car, another has Aiden bouncing from flower to flower for points high above the city, but the standout is easily the Spider-Tank, which you may have seen in one of the trailers. Here you’re controlling a massive Spider-Tank (as the name implies) and your goal is to simply cause as much destruction as possible. It’s brainless fun and is quite the distraction if you get tired of Aiden’s typical outings.

Unsurprisingly about an online hacking game, there is an online component to Watch_Dogs that allows for up to eight players in competitive and cooperative matches. Online Races seems basic at first, but it has the Watch_Dogs hacking twist to it. While the goal is to get from point A to B along a specific path, there are some shortcuts to be found and you can use your cell to hack traffic lights and blockades to use against your opponents, though you need to be careful when doing so, as if you do it too early you might actually block or cause yourself to crash.

Decryption mode is a lot more fun than I was expecting. Here two teams of up to four each (though I did have one match where it was a free for all) battle against each other in a small corner section of the city. The goal is to capture and hold onto important data and keep it away from the opposing team trying to steal it and keep it for themselves. At its core it may be a single flag CTF variant, but the unique twist put onto it is quite fun when you get a team of friends together and drive around with the data in a single car, defending against any pursuers. The more of your teammates that are within the ill cause the decryption to finish quicker and the same goes for the enemies. If the enemy has the data, you can steal it just by being close to them for a certain amount of time; the more of your team (in a single car for example) and it’ll steal quicker. It’s quite a thrill to be a driver while three of your teammates hang out the windows shooting at the enemies.

The highlight of the multiplayer modes though is easily the online one-on-one hacking. Very much reminiscent of the invasions from Dark Souls, here one player randomly joins another player’s game and attempts to install a backdoor virus on their phone. The hacker is disguised as a normal civilian and must hide within range of the player as the progress bar fills. The victim player must search through the crowd of NPCs, trying to weed out who the hacker is and stop them before it’s too late. If found, the hacker must try to get away before being killed and I’ve had quite a few memorable matches, being the hacker and the victim. There’s nothing quite like hiding hunched over in a car watching the victim frantically trying to find you as you speed away after completion. It should be noted that while all the mode in the Xbox One version are available, the only two missing from the Xbox 360 version is the Decryption and Free Roam modes due to hardware limitations.

Early in the game I was very conscious of whom I was hacking and actually thought about if I wanted to steal from their bank account or not. Sadly, there’s no moral meter or anything of the sort in regards to this, so there’s no reason not to other than your own personal morals. A few hours in I had no problems stealing money from a cancer patient, or a recent widow, or someone that made under 20k a year, because you know, it’s for the greater good…right? The same goes for the profiles of enemies, as maybe they are good people in a bad situation based on the ctOS information given, but none of it matters in relation to gameplay at all.

While Watch_Dogs is an open world game, more often than not, you’ll be playing out a scenario as Ubisoft intended for you to. Missions may be focused on stealth and hacking at first, but other times it will always end in a firefight, magically spawning enemies, or a car chase regardless of how you may have played the first section of the mission. If you hated the tailing missions from other games where you can’t be seen or else the mission fails, I’m sorry to tell you that there are certain missions like that here, most notably a prison escape mission that took me quite a few retries.

Also, don’t go in expecting the visuals that were shown off in the announcement two years ago. Even on next-gen, you’ll see a lot of pixelated shadows, low-res textures, empty areas, and random pop-in and hitching. The main characters all look decent, but there has been much better looking elsewhere. Oddly enough, the city looks its best at night when it’s been raining, as you’ll see puddles form and textures that actually look like it is wet. That being said, aside from the one very long load time when starting up the game initially, there’s virtually no load times with its massive open city.

In games like Grand Theft Auto, I’m usually very good and strict about staying on the path for the campaign without getting distracted, but I found myself almost constantly sidetracked in Watch_Dogs with the mass amounts of side events to be had, not even including the online component. Even though I wish the hacking was a little more in depth than a single button press, Ubisoft has done a great job at creating a believable world where a technology driven city can have its perks, but also shows what could be done with that power in the wrong hands. I truly hope to see a sequel one day and I really enjoyed the premise and can’t stop getting sucked into the most mundane activities within Watch_Dogs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have another game of Poker to cheat…er, play.

Overall: 8.3 / 10
Gameplay: 8.8 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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