Watch Dogs Review: Digital playground
I took my cellphone out of my pocket and browsed down to the Cars on Demand app. I then selected a fast motorcycle, since I knew the criminal convoy I was tasked with intercepting was nearing its destination. I hopped aboard, cellphone still in hand, because I like to live dangerously. If I play this smart I can cut them off without rousing much suspicion. I drove past the convoy and straight to the bridge, pressed a button and watched the bridge go up, cutting off the convoy's route. I drew my gun and attempted to get rid of the driver and make my getaway.
Things didn't go so well and I missed the driver's head by a hair, and he floors it, makes a u-turn and tries to make his getaway. His mistake. I still rule the city. I got on my bike and waited for the best opportunity to take him out until he drove over a sewage pipe. With a press of a button, that pipe exploded, leaving his car incapacited and him running for his life. I hopped off my bike and started to run after him, cellphone still in hand of course. He made a turn into an alley, running by a steam pipe that I could conveniently burst. He fell over, stumbled a bit, and then his face met my baton. He was down for the count, and my reputation with the city increased.
That's just one example of a side mission.
Watch Dogs is Ubisoft's newest open-world IP, where the city of Chicago lies in the palm of your hand, quite literally. You play as Aiden Pearce, a hacker whose life turned upside down after a hotel robbery went wrong and he pissed off the wrong people. With his young niece dead and others still out for his life, Aiden takes it upon himself to enact his revenge on everyone involved, full vigilante style.
Truth be told, I didn't love the story, but I think a major contributor to my disappointment was with Aiden himself. Aside from his noble desire to bring justice to his niece's killers, he's a pretty unlikeable character. To be fair, his personality is tied down to the game's narrative, as he's closed off for a reason, but the main point here is that if you're going to force me to play with a character for over 20 hours, at least make that character likeable and compelling. However, Watch Dogs excels in pretty much every other department.
First is Chicago, a meticulously designed city that begs to be explored. Whether it's to hunt down elusive QR codes scattered around the city, take down robbers trying to escape in dark alleyways, stalk citizens with security cameras and hack those with rich bank accounts or simply drive around Chicago and its surrounding areas to take the sights in, it's one of the more interesting open-world cities to date. Chicago could certainly be a bit more populated. But even so, walking through the streets and scanning others to reveal personal, and sometimes embarassing info is something I never knew I wanted in a video game, and Watch Dogs executes this perfectly.
It's all thanks to Aiden's greatest weapon, his smartphone. This device not only allows you to see into other people's private lives and empty their savings, but it can also grant access to closed off areas, visibility in areas that are normally inaccessible and also allow you to take out your enemies using your surroundings. Everything from a steam pipe to a generator can be manipulated using your phone, leaving enemies incapacitated even without needing to step into their field of view. Aside from hacking, all side activities, music and even car purchases can be done directly from Aiden's phone, truly giving players the power at their fingertips.
The phone also provides the player with a visual representation of progress. This handy app is useful for completionists, giving them an easy way to track Watch Dogs' myriad of side content, and trust me, there is a ton. From various Fixer jobs that require completion using a vehicle, Convoys which must be taken out before they reach their destination, criminals must be observed and taken out before they harm someone and gang hideouts have to be cleared out. There are also a ton of side activities like the Augmented Reality games like Cash Run which make Aiden run through Chicago collecting coins, or NVZN, which has you shoot virtual aliens appearing in the streets. And then there's Poker, a game I normally never enjoy in other video games or real life, is made fun here with Aiden's ability to cheat by hacking cameras and seeing other players' hands, or monitoring their stress level so you can tell when they're bluffing.
And then there's the fantastic multiplayer. I never particularly cared for multiplayer in Assassin's Creed, though I enjoyed the concept of it. Here, the multiplayer is built in right into the main game, and somewhat building off of AC's concept. Without needing to quit the game and go into a separate menu, you simply queue up a match right from your map. You can pick the low risk Tailing mode which has you stalk another player and then disappear back into your own game upon completion, or the more risky Hacking mode where you must avoid contact with the other player, and stay out of sight as you download information from their phone to yours. Encryption, a mode only available on next-gen consoles and PCs, puts two teams of four players against each other, trying to steal a single piece of data successfully. No matter what mode you're in, you're always back in your normal game whenever the match is over, which is incredibly convenient.
The approach to combat is one of Watch Dogs' biggest strengths as it allows you to tackle it in various meaningful ways. Sure you can always go in guns blazing, use cover and take out enemies one by one with the squeeze of the trigger. But players who want to take the smarter and stealthier approach can stay out of the area completely, and move around by jumping from one security camera to the next, waiting for opportune times to take enemies out undetected. Whether it's waiting until a guard walks over to a terminal that can explode, or perhaps setting off an explosive that the enemy is carrying, there are tons of ways to manipulate these situations to your favor.
It would be a disservice to Watch Dogs to simply call it Assassin's Creed in the future. However, there is no denying that Ubisoft has used its flagship franchise, as well as Splinter Cell and even Far Cry to help shape the Watch Dogs experience. You'll still be taking over towers to unlock various side activities and points on the map much like Far Cry 3. Gunplay and its cover mechanics are almost straight out of the latest Splinter Cell, and stalking your prey to take them down insconspicuously is a mechanic straight out of Assassin's Creed.
The dev team also took some cues from Volition's Saints Row 4, which especially shines through the four Digital Trips Aiden can participate in. Whether it's terrorizing the tank in the awesomely powerful Spider Tank mech, demolishing demons in a Carmageddon like Madness, sneaking through a post-apocalyptic Chicago to take down sentient killer robots in Alone or propelling your body in the air and jumping across giant flowers (yeah, it's trippy) in the appropriately titled Psychedelic, all of them provide a unique game experience that's much different from Watch Dogs' core gameplay, and the game is all the much better for providing such variety.
Sadly, the game looks nowhere near as good as it did during its original reveal back in 2012. Chicago is much less windy, ironically, and the lighting doesn't seem to be as dramatic anymore. With that said though, I'd gladly take a playable and steady framerate build over a gorgeous one. Sure it's slightly disappointing that it doesn't look as good, but trust me when I say it plays terrific.
As ridiculous as having a single operating system control the entirety of a US city sounds, there is some scary truth to Watch Dogs. Information about yourself can be easily accessed online, as is evident through identity thiefs for example, and Watch Dogs provides this commentary on the age of information in a way that's eerily accurate. Sure, you won't be hacking a bridge with your smartphone anytime soon, but your personal info is out there. Bad people could have access to it, and that's terrifying.
Watch Dogs might not be the defining next-gen experience that Ubisoft has claimed it would be, however, being able to hack your way through Chicago might be one of the must fun open-world experience I've had to date, save for Saints Row 4 of course.