Who watches the Watch_Dogs?
Ubisoft has been working on Watch_Dogs, the open city information technology hacking game for some time now and we've seen how it's changed from its inception, to the finished product. It took us around 30 hours to finish the main story of Aiden Pearce, tech-savvy vigilante and the game's troubled protagonist and we enjoyed every minute of it, even when the game threw some annoying mission design our way. Our biggest criticism is that Watch_Dogs has a habit of taking control away from the player at key points to show an NPC bad guy legging it, then switching back to Aiden who's now surrounded by bad guys who haven't been paused during the scene.
The moment you get control of Aiden again he becomes a bullet sponge, or has to sprint to grab a car from a passing motorist/parking area and then chase down aid fleeing scumbag badguy. Said badguy is already getting further away and a helpful timer ticks down to show you just how long you've got before you fail to get him. Fail and you're back to a previous checkpoint after a short loading screen.
Surprise-Surprise, now there's a handy vehicle close by that the developers have spawned in for Aiden to use... so sometimes it's worth failing the first chase scene just so you can get access to the right vehicle for the job. It's a minor issue because the checkpoints in Watch_Dogs aren't too bad, but it's still annoying mission design.
Watch_Dogs is a great game which is let down in places by some of the mission design, a few choices here and there and it seems to lack the cooperative element that was prevalent way back at E3 a few years ago. There's multiplayer free-roam which is kind of like GTA IV (with a few added mini-games) but when you've been playing GTA Online or Red Dead Redemption's free roam... you notice the step back in the design right away.
Regardless, Watch_Dogs is a solid step forwards for the gameplay of open world/city games and is laced with a lot of content bound to keep you going for ages, beyond the main story and well into around 100 hours or so of play to see all the game has to offer. It has the seamless Dark Souls style invasions that transform your free roaming single player sessions into a tense game of cat and mouse for a start, these invasions happen more and more when you pursue other players yourself too, so if it's an element of the game you really like you can be assured Watch_Dogs will track that and ensure you're always looking over your shoulder. If you don't like it, you can turn them off in the options and you won't be invaded by a human player - be warned, you'll lose any notoriety that you gained (your hacker xp for online play) and be reset to zero.
Aiden's story is one that we've seen before across various media, it plays out in a predictable manner for the most part and the treatment of female characters, minorities is stereotypical and in this day and age, dare we say it: terrible. Revenge and betrayal are all well and good when you care about the characters, but the writing is lacking here. Then you have the juvenile attempts at GTA-style humour, they don't come across as well as in the GTA games though, because Rockstar tend to understand the subtle nuances (and not so subtle) most of the time. Here it's often crass and cringe-worthy when listening to the many repeated conversations over the phones of the many inhabitants of Chicago.
The game's story is broken into five acts, with act I being the slowest. When you hit Act II the glacial pace of the game evaporates and you're thrust into a better set of missions. You also unlock the skills needed to handle the later elements, including a lot more hacking abilities that are the star of the show. Watch_Dogs relegates a lot of the hacks to a simple X button press to hack a phone, check out a suspicious text or package or change a traffic light's sequence. I don't mind this at all, it lets you feel like a badass Hacker Batman and when you start to look at your gun battles in a new light, looking for cameras, exploits and more, this is when Watch_Dogs shines.
It shines even more when the hacks are actually puzzles where you need to get the flow of data through the hacker circuit and activate a node. Many of these hacks are part of the ctOS station assaults where you need to hack the main server of the station, sneaking around, or taking down/out the guards that patrol there. Once you have ctOS access unlocked you can use the profiler and hacks in that section of Chicago.
Yes you can go in guns blazing, hope you don't get flanked and bullet-hosed by the bad guys, or you can tuck in and watch their patterns, observe them through the many cameras that litter the area. Seamlessly and fluidly moving from one camera position to the next like a voyeuristic peeping Tom triggering explosives on their belts, causing comms malfunctions and detonating environmental hazards. Watch_Dogs gameplay is solid, the gunplay really good, and the cover system borrows from the likes of SC: Blacklist. You can vault (tap B) over low objects, parkour (by holding B) and climb most things, Aiden will auto-beatdown any bad guy that gets in his way when vaulting or dropping on them from a height too, so you get some nice takedowns.
Watch_Dogs supports a guns blazing approach, a mix of guns and sneaking, or in many cases an outright stealth approach where you never have to set foot in an area to accomplish your mission objective. Using the various cameras (including helmet and belt mounted on the bad guys) you can get into a zone, scope it out, tagging guards on the screen and even reaching your hacking objective without needing to even touch the same ground as the guards are walking on.
Again, it's when Watch_Dogs plays to this it becomes a superb game.
The driving is good enough, it's not quite as tuned as GTA V, or as light as Sleeping Dogs - we really love the first person in-car camera though. It's probably the first time we've seen a playable vehicle in a game like this with first person driving. At times Watch_Dogs became a city driving simulator when we were free roaming and looking for the many collectibles, investigations and various challenges around Chicago and Pawnee.
New Hack City
Hacking is everywhere in Watch_Dogs and everyone is a potential target for Aiden, depending on how you choose to play him. Our Aiden was a fairly good guy, he tried not to put people in harms way and he profiled (using X) a lot of folks with that phone of his. The normally random NPCs on the city streets were made more interesting by the NPC creation database Ubisoft had built for Watch_Dogs, giving each NPC a life, background, connection and elevating them from window dressing.
Our rep tipped towards Vigilante early on, we were Hacker Batman and even criminals were given the non-lethal beatdown on the street. Our rep soared into Vigilante before Act I ended and we kept it there (mostly). The random crimes were fairly repetitious with only a handful of bad guys picking a different method, in many ways we were reminded of the promises of the first Assassin's Creed...it's not bad, but you can see the potential in something that's been further polished and refined.
We gained XP for doing all sorts of things, from Fixer Contracts (driving missions, cool stronghold takedowns and more), built our skill tree (it's huge and some skills are unlocked via challenges as well as story progression) and had more and more fun free roaming the city stopping rival (PC) fixers from taking our data and causing us havoc. Mostly though we focused on single player, seamlessly working through multiplayer when needed (Online races, Decryption - an entertaining game of cat and mouse between rivals trying to steal and unlock a file) and even a bit of free roam anarchy.
We even invaded a couple of rivals too. We tried our hand at online Tailing and that was fun, since you really have to try and blend in to observe your target. Emulating an NPC and stopping to pretend to talk to other NPCs worked a few times, it threw our rival off the scent a few times too.
We did a few challenges via the ctOS Mobile app too, which seems rather cut-down from the original promises that were made. I seem to remember footage of someone cooperating with Aiden in his single player game, hacking chopper lights and raising blockers to decimate pursuing cops. We couldn't find any kind of option like that so we went back to single player, not wholly impressed with a lack of proper co-op.
We found that the hacking element of Watch_Dogs really came into its own when we combined a few one-time hacks together, using the tips provided by the game. See, when you commit a crime, the police are looking for you via ctOS and they can scan your movements. If they reach 100% scan with you in their sensor circle, you're going to get some angry and tenacious cops on your tail. So our plans became more elaborate, we crafted (yep, you can make explosives etc and other gadgets from spare bits you find lying around, or buy from various shops) Blackouts and Communication Jammers.
The cops can't use ctOS if the system is down, and they can't call for help if you jam their comms. So we'd often escape by raising a blocker or closing a gate, triggering a Blackout when we were speeding off and slipping away as the cops couldn't raise the bridge, open the gate, or get past the blocker.
Aiden also has focus that can be spent to slow down time whilst driving, hacking, shooting on foot. There's no in-car shooting since Ubisoft would rather you took down your target with a well timed blocker, gate, traffic light or steam vent.
We agree with them there, it's more fun than just shooting out their tyres. Of course if you're on foot and the perp makes a run for a car as they did last night, shooting their tyres in focus mode before giving chase is useful since it stymies the perp's ability to escape as effectively.
Watch_Dogs has potential, that's the best thing we can say. It isn't the same game we were promised at E3 a few years ago, the graphics are OK but they have been downgraded a lot (as you'll doubtless see and hear from Youtube) - a neon-lit night, in a full blown storm, with the rain hammering onto the roads and footpaths, spotting onto the car's luscious paint job covered in some nice reflections creates a really good looking game.
Aiden's coat physics, physical movement, interaction and animations are great. As are many of the animations in the game, the physics system that brings wind into the weather, ties into the AI so they close their coats, pop umbrellas and seek shelter during heavy downpours adds a layer of immersion to Chicago that's missing from a lot of open world games.
It may not be the pretty-pretty game we were promised, but it's packed with content, with diverse NPCs and densely packed with secrets. There are little places in Chicago you'll probably not see on the first play of the game and there are big locations where you'll probably love the fact that most of the buildings can be explored, and if a firefight breaks out, used to your advantage without your enemies ever getting the drop on you.
The reputation system helps keep you on the straight and narrow, there's an economy where you can buy and sell stuff at the shops. You're always using money, hacking it from citizens who don't (or do) deserve it and making little moral choices that shape your gameplay experience. That's the core of Watch_Dogs, add to this the invasions and the feeling that you should ALWAYS be looking over your shoulder and you can see how Watch_Dogs shines (and why we scored it as we did).
There are issues that rear their ugly heads with the writing and there are some gameplay design problems with some missions, not all. They don't spoil the game, but they take the shine off what could have been a really amazing tech-hacker thriller.
The sheer amount of side content is mind blowing, there are Digital Trips that transform the game into something else entirely. From a driving game where you have a demon soul powered car, to a tense game of cat and mouse where you struggle to purge darkness from the ctOS controlled Chicago where you're one of the only humans left, machines control all. All of this is huge value for money.
Pop open your smart phone and Watch_Dogs grows even more, with ARG's like NVZN (Invasion) where you get to shoot 8-bit alien holograms, Cash Run, where you get to collect coins and score big by avoiding the red skulls. Add to this poker tournaments, chess puzzles, shell games, criminal convoys and more and you've got a heck of a lot to see and do. Another cool thing about Aiden's phone: need a car, Car on Demand App has you covered, any unlocked car can be sent near to your location when you're not on a mission.
Random crimes always appear and even though they repeat, it's a lot of fun to pretend to be Hacker Batman and stop them before they escalate. If you want, you can watch Aiden's coat physics (the best) and just walk through a city teeming with life and character, drive those streets slowly in first person and just enjoy the atmosphere that the game creates.
We had fun with it, we enjoyed it despite the flaws. A good solid game.