Review: Watch Dogs is a hacker's delight

Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, Ps4, and a WiiU version coming at a future date. 

For the past couple of years, the hype surrounding Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs has been massive. Thanks to impressive showings at E3 in 2012 and 2013, the game has been on a lot of gamers’ most anticipated games lists. Even with the six month delay, the controversy around the question of whether there was a downgrade in graphics, or early accusations that the game would end up being a GTA clone, the excitement persisted.

One of the main reasons for the continuing excitement, and the main thing that sets Watch Dogs apart from other, similar titles, is its focus on hacking. Inspired by today’s technology along with tech of the near future, Watch Dogs is an open world game based on hacking culture. In the game the city of Chicago’s entire infrastructure is controlled and monitored by the ctOS (Central Operating System). Traffic lights, electrical grids, bridges, security cameras, road blockers and spikes, garage doors and gates, and even equipment like fork lifts and cranes are controlled by this one system. Aiden Pearce, a master hacker, hacks into ctOS and uses the city as a weapon.

Why?

Let’s just say karma pays its debts. Aiden’s hacker life finally caught up to him when he decided to hack and rob the wrong person. The consequences affected the ones he cares about the most. At its core, Watch Dogs is a classic revenge tale driven by guilt, sadness, and anger. Aiden will do anything to bring pain upon the ones who hurt him, while in the process doing everything he can to protect his family. That can also mean helping to protect the city or being one of its terrorizers. While Aiden's actions are noble and have a purpose, I still didn't feel much of an emotional connection to Aiden or his family. I didn't care about the characters, like I did Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us or Lee and Clementine in Telltale's The Walking Dead, but I was entertained. There's plenty of action, twists, and turns in the story to keep you intrigued.

Skills

You start the game with an empty skills tree that is spread out between Hacking, Driving, Combat and Crafted Items. After the first mission you are given a handful of points to spread out among the skills. I decided to fill out my hacking skills tree first, which gave me the ability to control traffic lights, garage doors, road blockers, road spikes, steam pipes, trains, and several other “weapons.” I figured that acquiring these hacking skills early would give me a better advantage when being chased by police or enemies, which starts from the get-go.

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Along with Hacking, I also beefed up my Focus skill, which is under the Combat skill tree. Focus is Watch Dogs’ version of “bullet time” and slows down the action giving you the chance to activate a hack when being chased or selecting a weapon in the midst of a shootout. The Combat skill tree also carries improvements to your aiming, proficiency with specific guns, and defense against bullets and explosions.

Crafted Items and Driving skill trees are a bit smaller but still have some valuable assets. The city wide blackouts that you’ve seen in all the trailers? First you have to acquire that skill in the Crafted Items tree, then you need a specific list of items to craft that ability, including component keys which are sometimes carried by the citizens. It’s a valuable ability that you don’t want to use unless you’re totally outmatched. And when activated? Awesome.

The City

After that first mission, I walked outside into a virtual Chicago and was a bit overwhelmed. Watch Dogs’ Chicago looks breathtaking, especially at night. I was playing the game on a Playstation 4 and while it may not look as superb as the E3 2012 demo, there’s really nothing to complain about here. The graphics, the animation, the shadows, the reflections, the rain, the sunset, the sunrise...it all looks fantastic.

It’s a living city whether you’re downtown, in the suburbs, or on the country roads. The people are active, walking around, going about their business, having conversations among themselves about everyday life. You have immediate access to some sort of personal information about every person walking on the street, some of it hackable, some of it not. It took some time getting used to all of the pop-up info for every person you pass by. The pop-ups that are framed are in blue are hackable and range from ATM bank access, music, and the previously mentioned component keys. You can also look at people’s texts and listen in to their conversations.

I wondered, since the game is based in Chicago, if any of it would address some of the social issues and violence the city has been dealing with for the past few years, and I found that these issues do have a presence in Watch Dogs.  For example, once I happened to hack into a phone conversation where a man was talking about his son not wanting to leave the house because of local violence. His son would just go to school and church, until he left for college. That would be his escape. That conversation kind of stuck with me and was a sobering moment.

Other times, walking around the city, you’d just happen to walk by a freestyle session on a street corner. Like the video below:

 

The citizens also comment on your presence. As you progress through the game, you build a reputation. The people on the street will notice if you walk around the hood with an AK-47 or if you’re stopping criminals in the act of crimes. The way you behave on the streets affects your reputation which determines whether a citizen on the street will cheer you on or call the cops on you. You can’t punch random strangers on the street like you can in Grand Theft Auto V, but you can shoot them, kill them with explosions, or hit them with your car. Speaking of which…

Driving and gameplay

I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto V for the past six months and I’m pretty comfortable with the driving mechanics in the game. So when I started driving in Watch Dogs, it felt stiff, not as responsive as I’m used to, and at times a little out of control. Although the driving mechanic is more arcade than sim, it took some time to get used to because it feels like it tries to have a happy medium between both. I don’t want to say it’s terrible, but it’s definitely a different feel than what GTA players will be accustomed to. There are upgradeable skills in the Driving skill tree that’ll make things easier, but even without those eventually you’ll find a comfortable groove. There’s a decent variety of cars to choose from and they all feel a bit different. You start off with a roster of free cars to order and have delivered to you at any time (except during a mission). After you make some money, you can buy more cars to add to your roster. You can also carjack anyone on the street or grab any parked car.

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I ended up being the most comfortable with the performance cars. The speed and the handling felt the best. There are also budget, sport, muscle, and heavy cars as well as motorcycles to choose from.

It's impossible to play Watch Dogs without comparing it to  GTAV, so most players will notice some major differences. For one, you can’t do drive-by shootings in Watch Dogs. Yes, you actually have to get out of the car if you want to shoot someone. Also, the music that plays while you're driving… yeah, I wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t recognize very many of the bands on the playlist aside from Kid Cudi, Kidz in the Hall, Nas, Smashing Pumpkins and a track from Alice Cooper. For the most part the soundtrack seems like a bunch of indie, up-and-coming bands, and lacks in variety.

Your basic movement controls for Aiden on the street are simple and straight-forward, similar to many third person action games. Instead of a jump button however, you vault and climb, which makes for some cool scenes when you’re running after someone or running away. Hacking is as simple as holding down a button for a couple of seconds, but when in the midst of a chase or shootout, it’s all about timing it right. The cover system is great too, making it easy to move from cover to cover in the midst of a shootout or working on a stealth mission. The aiming in Watch Dogs may take some time to get used to, as there isn’t any automatic aiming help here.

Missions

There is a lot to do in Watch Dogs. First, the story campaign is split into five acts, with each act containing six to fifteen missions. These missions can vary widely, and range from hacking into a ctOS district area to chasing down a guy who has information for your next mission. You can choose how you want to complete each mission, and either way you’ll be rewarded. I particularly liked going stealth. If I was taking control of a ctOS District, I would scope out the area using the security cameras, make note of the number of guards, and take them out one by one by overcharging electricity boxes, explosive vents, or even detonating grenades that the guards were wearing. Of course, you can also go in with guns blazing. Load up the AK-47, blast all oncoming enemies and if they try to call for back up, block their communications using the Jam Comm that you crafted. There are also plenty of foot chases, car chases, and even boat chases, and the story moves at a brisk pace overall.

 

In between campaign missions, you’ll be notified of fixer jobs, crime prevention missions, mini-games, and online missions. The fixer missions will vary between having you hack and download an enemy’s data while you chase them across the city or preventing a criminal convoy from reaching its destination. There are also fixer missions where you have to distract the police while another hacker does some dirty work. Sometimes, what may seem like a simple job of moving a “hot” car to another location turns into an all-out chase -- and I was on the run for 45 minutes during one such mission. Every time I thought I was in the clear, police radar or a helicopter would find me and I’d be running again. Overall, the fixer missions are fun and addicting. Even though I’d be determined to get to the next part of the story, all it would take was a nearby fixer mission to distract me.

My first attempt at fighting crime was a failure. I was tipped off that a crime was going to take place and was able to profile the criminal. I knew the guy was going to kill his girlfriend after hacking into a conversation he was having with his buddy. I followed him, but not too closely. Eventually I lost him, but I heard him find his girl, start arguing with her, and kill her while she screamed for help. Whoever they got to voice the girlfriend did an excellent job because those screams sent a chill down my spine. I chased down the guy and took him out, but only got a marginal reward because I could have stopped the crime. I know, I’m sorry. Guilt over my failures would be something I would have to learn to live with, as other times I would approach the crime too early and not catch the criminal in the act. Sometimes, though, it all works out: if you’re there just in time to save the victim and take down the criminal, your reputation will go up as a result.

Mini-games can be found all around the map. Play poker, play slots, run a timed parkour route, take a “digital trip” (which is as trippy as it promises), or you can even play a full game of chess. Watch Dogs offers plenty of options to break up the main gameplay.

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The other great distraction in the game is the multiplayer aspect. Online multiplayer is integrated into single player when your console is online. The multiplayer component consists of one vs. one hacking, online races, and a mode called Capture the File.

For my first experience with one vs. one hacking, I was on my way to another mission and was interrupted by a message saying my information was being downloaded. I needed to find the downloader. Soon I was running up and down the block like a crazy man looking for the hacker, and at the last second found that it was Ubisoft developer hiding in the subway stairs. It was too late; he already had my information. Another failure, but an entertaining one. It was educational too, as later on I was able to hack another player while I silently sat in a car and watched him run around searching for me.

Capture the File is a take on Capture the Flag where teams try to steal a file and decrypt it while fending off the opposing team. The online races are laps and checkpoint races against random players while the upcoming mobile vs. console player mode will have a mobile player trying to capture or kill a console player by controlling the police force while the console player is trying his best to escape the madness. We tried to use the mobile mode the morning of the game's release, but we were unable to connect for most of the day. Hopefully Ubisoft will get this issue fixed quickly.

My View

Here are the criteria I consider most important for judging Watch Dogs:

Presentation: 9/10

Despite the grunts and moans about a “graphics downgrade,” on the Playstation 4 the game looks fantastic. Detonate a couple of steam pipes if you don’t believe me.

Story: 8/10

I’m a sucker for revenge stories, especially when there’s family involved. There still wasn’t that much story to have me emotionally invested, but it kept my attention. It has its mysteries and twists and turns that should keep the player intrigued.

Gameplay: 8/10

Even though the driving and aiming take some getting used to, the third person action is simple to maneuver and the hacking is as easy as pressing a button -- as long as your timing is right.

Missions: 9/10

There’s an incredible amount of stuff to do in Watch Dogs. It could take you well over 60 hours to complete everything. And yes, even the side missions are fun.

Overall: 8.5

Does Watch Dogs live up to the hype? It depends on how hyped up you were. For me, the game wasn't a disappointment at all. It’s a fun, addictive game that will offer hours upon hours of playing time. The hacking aspect is the shining light of the game, and is done very well. With that said, I didn't feel like it was breaking much new ground in terms of gameplay or story. Watch Dogs is worth the investment, but don't expect something that reinvents the wheel.

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