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Watch Dogs: A Review
About the Author
John Roberts is a video game critic on HubPages and YouTube, reviewing that he sees worthy of the former, whilst reviewing Playstation One games on the latter channel. When he isn't trying to think of excuses for not making any video reviews, he likes to go into town wearing a cap, motorcycle mask and trench coat holding his touchscreen phone pretending to be Aiden Pierce. It's the coat that makes people avoid him, not the phone.
The last time Roberts attempted to hack into something, it was in Dragon's Dogma where he wanted to hack into a gryphon's skull. Hailed as a hero when he promptly moved to Chicago, he was quickly elected as Mayor. Using his catchphrase in a stereotypical accent, "Don't worry about it!", he managed to answer a question by accident. The question was 'should we use a supercomputer to run our city'? He has never used that accent since.
Hack 'n' Slash
When I'd first saw the cover art of Watch Dogs I didn't know what to think. iPhones, gangsters and even the shooter and dog simulator Dead to Rights: Retribution came to mind. Speaking of being bitten in the crotch by a bloodthirsty hound, an air of painful averageness loomed around this game not long before its release and I couldn't help but feel this sense of dread much like said dog's fangs sinking into my most intimate areas in slow motion. It wasn't until a night before its release when the full crunch came and I winced at how stale gameplay looked. Now that I'm playing it, does the game match my low expectations?
Players take control of Aiden Pierce, a hacker who must find and destroy those who took his niece from him after a car chase for upsetting a Chicago gang. Not only is he the master of computers but also a getaway driver, gun expert, martial artist and knows his fair share of parkour despite his rather large frame. Aiden used to run with a crew until one job went terribly wrong and managed to get his vengeful partner both crippled and mentally scarred. He has spent the past few years hunting those who were responsible for his niece's death and make it up to his fragile team for the last data heist that went badly.
Despite everything Aiden has lost and the things he's done it's hard to like him, not because of what he does but how he does things. For example he seems to be very similar to the vengeful father Gerald Butler played in Law Abiding Citizen, talking about the torture and murder of those close to the ones who were related to the murder of his niece. I loved that character that made it hard to tell if he was an anti-hero or a true villain who lost the way of his original good intentions, but here that's done poorly. Aiden contradicts himself by saying he'll do anything to pay the blood price by using mob bosses' nearest and dearest to betray them, only to start beating senseless petty criminals and keeping them alive because "it's the right thing to do". It's actually the rest of the cast who I love more, my favourite being the hitman Jordi who enjoys his job a little too much. Not only does he have a lot of wisecracks but he's far more animate than the statuesque Aiden, who always looks solumn. That's fine in cutscenes, but when I have to play as him like a character from Heavy Rain, it's pretty depressing and not for a good reason.
The Chicago Way
I've never been to Chicago so I can't comment on how beauteous the city in its state of Illinois is, but if it's as spectacular as it is in Watch Dogs (and preferably without the gangs) I'd love to visit some time. As always Ubisoft's art teams have put so much passion and love into their world, not just by making it big and adding countless skyscrapers but little details and even some platform-puzzle challenges that rival the Batman Arkham series of games. It's not my favourite open world city because I don't remember most of the locations or routes around places like I do in all the Grand Theft Auto games I've played, so making an escape from the police with a tried and true route doesn't exist. What does exist however are plenty of tools to aid my escape, which we'll move onto shortly. Chicago is controlled by the world's most sophisticated super computer, which uses facial recognition and invades people's privacy in order to prevent crimes; a feature you as a hacker can use to your advantage and sometimes to the disadvantage of other players. I don't feel like I'm a rebel exploiting the system similar to the Prototype games, Deus Ex or even The Saboteur. This is a shame because I don't feel like the world is different just because it's now governed and policed by a machine which sounded awesome before having played the game. If there was more paranoia and tension I'd probably want to hack the world more often, but as it stands people just get on with their lives and hacking is more of a convenience than it is a weapon to be feared.
Despite the world's size it feels compact due to how much stuff is available on each road or street you choose to go down. ATM machines, people of interest to hack into, meaty side missions to get involved in, ctOS hacking puzzles and lots of opportunities for 'free running', another feature that was underwhelming when I'd played this title myself. But I'm not complaining; Ubisoft have made use of this gigantic world as opposed to having a few missions spread across the entirety of the map.
Besides Grand Theft Auto 5 I have never seen so much attention to detail in a world nor as much work put into civilian lip-syncing and voice acting. The world feels alive and no other game has that bustling feeling, something Fallout: New Vegas absolutely needed to pull off the somewhat underwhelming arrival in the Strip. It's just too bad that the daylight sequences in my playthrough have been short, so I can't fully appreciate the detail in what my experience was rather gloomy. This is how you do open world.
When you play as a hacker you're doing more than just a lockpicking mini-game (though there are segments where you get a great one), but quite simply picking up your phone and taking the data. What ensues is both risk and rewards, as you can earn a bounty if you hack too many people consecutively, allowing other players to 'invade' your game and kill you to claim their rewards. This of course only happens if you're opted in for an additional skill tree. When hacking you can steal music to play in any car you drive, break into bank accounts and steal cash, distract people with their most intimate secrets by blackmailing them, observe the city and have complete view with camera hacking and so much more. If you're driving, change the traffic lights to cause pile-ups and collisions, bring up barricades and road spikes to decimate those chasing you, or even raise bridges so an enemy won't chase you if they can't make the leap. In combat, hacking becomes a weapon as you'll find yourself blowing up fuse boxes to electricute enemies, explode grenades attached to guards and hack every day objects to crush, detonate or burn your foes.
Not everyone can be stolen from or exploited through your phone, as most NPCs won't have much of interest, but that doesn't mean Ubisoft has made them lifeless ragdolls. I actually like walking the streets to use my 'profiler', which brings up information on each character in the world with a piece of information, as well as their name, age, occupation and income. Obviously for the hundreds of thousands of people in the game there'll be multiple of each, but you can seeing the notable ones more than once still cracks me up. One of my favourite secrets was from a 29 year old security guard who was "taking poledancing lessons", or a student who "regularly purchases hentai". You can also hack into some phones to view conversations which often end in "That does it, I'm going over there to kill them.", resulting in a side objective opening up so you can prevent the crime moments before it happens. This is dynamic world content done right, giving you constant work wherever you are rather than trekking to a zone miles away for a mission you might not enjoy. Here you can choose to let it slide, or start the mission and save the day. It makes for some spontaneous fun when you're looking for a break from side missions, and I find myself doing these a lot despite their repetition.
"It seems Ubisoft have learnt a lot from Splinter Cell: Conviction with its fast paced sneaky gameplay."
Believe it or not Watch Dogs has some minor roleplaying elements involving progression, reputation and crafting. When you evade the police, kill hostile targets, hack items of importance, clear missions and free Chicago from the limp grip of its technological security, you'll get experience points. When you get enough experience points you gain a skill point which can be invested in any of the four skill trees: hacking, combat, driving and combat. Each are self explanatory with easy to understand perks when you invest in them, as well as a video demonstrating what they do similar to Dante's Inferno and Crackdown. It's unfortunate that it doesn't get harder or take longer to get these skill points with each 'level', as you'll find yourself completing the skill trees in less than 16 hours, and will have enough points to get all tiers except the final ones before the 12 hour mark. As you progress through the talent tree you will need invest more points to unlock later abilities, so that does somewhat pad out the time it'll take to get the points. At least it discourages actively grinding for skill points because kills aren't that rewarding, and it's police evasions and mission successes that bag the most experience.
What will take you a while to get and undoubtedly is the strongest of this element is the progression tree. Here it's certain you can't grind these out because they require patience and often luck, plus the unlocks are done through meeting a number of objectives as opposed to skill points. Here there's six trees: Main missions, side contracts, mini-games, online activities, investigations and collectables, and if you think that's short wait until you see how many branches there are, as well as the perks. Most of these will offer you additional guns and cars for your 'car on demand' app, but some will provide passive buffs to your character, weapons and vehicles. For those who need to get the most bang for their buck the profession trees will keep you occupied for a humongous extra 30 hours.
Finally its crafting system, while not very in-depth, is one of the better ones I've seen. By collecting chemical components, electrical parts as well as other trinkets throughout the world you can build gadgets that will lure enemies, blackout nearby lights, scan for hostiles and you can craft your own grenades. Not only does the crafting skill tree open up more options for items to build, but it increases the effectiveness of them too. For those looking for a complex crafting system they may not like this one, but it helps when you need a gadget on the fly.
Watch Dog's combat is as basic as it gets with regenerating health, one weapon of each type per inventory slot and a dot on the centre of your screen that's supposed to be your crosshairs. If it sounds familiar, it should. While taking the exact same combat of Grand Theft Auto 5, Ubisoft have still retained what makes it so good: guns have an impact, something I rightfully expect from next-gen consoles. The pistol, shotgun and assault rifle all feel like that headshot hit home, or pumping someone's chest full of lead feel like I was auditioning for ED-209 in Robocop. What makes Watch Dogs stand out is the health system which isn't indicated by a bar but blood around the screen, but as proven by Fable 3 it just doesn't work in this kind of game (but why it does in first person shooters, I don't know). When Aiden takes damage you get a thick red splatter around the edges of the screen so it makes it clear when you're hit unlike older GTA titles, but you don't know exactly how much health you have past that first hit. Even when I invested in the talent to take less damage from enemy bullets I not only felt no difference, I still couldn't guess how much rounds it took to bring me down. This makes combat infuriating especially when the AI has the intelligence to flank you and maneuver so they surround you, another great feature that's only frustrating due to the health system.
But if you're a glutton for punishment you can do something else many open world titles fail to offer: raise or lower the difficulty. The difficulty levels are the same four that you'd expect, and even on Normal the enemy AI is very responsive and acts accordingly to your actions. If you're looking for more of a challenge in games like this, Watch Dogs will interest you.
Of course you could just get better at the game if you're getting taken to the cleaners like I am. Stealth is not only an option for all missions (but in some it's mandatory), but it feels clever when used. Sneaking past the guards and using traps they walk into is so satisfying, and the use of a cover mechanic only enhances the experience. It seems Ubisoft have learnt a lot from Splinter Cell: Conviction with its fast paced sneaky gameplay. This isn't saying much but it shames Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed because of how Aiden attempts to sneak, and it doesn't just feel like the developers care but you too find it's rewarding and intelligent. Using guns is satisfying but it doesn't feel nearly as clever as bobbing and weaving through cover past them. Seriously guys, stop making the AC games. Make a pirate IP, and pool your resources into a sequel for this title. This game's combat deserves to see more action in the future.
The concept of hacking into someone else's game, kind of like drop-in/drop-out coop sounded really good, but I absolutely hated Watch Dogs' multiplayer because of how people hijack my game. Not "drop in", but force me out of the proverbial car that is my enjoyment, drive off in it laughing, and have me chase them otherwise I get punished. This is not how you do drop-in/drop-out gameplay. The idea of opting in for invasion is that at any time when not on a mission you can be 'invaded' by a Fixer - a rival hacker - who wants to steal your data. By being hacked you then have to find the hacker in a potential area by identifying them with your Profiler app. This allows for some tense hide 'n' seek gameplay from both the seeker and the attacker, and there's a limited amount of time too. When the rival fixer locks onto you, they begin to steal your data shortly over time until they are either caught or have 100% of it. When they're caught or have it all, they need to escape and if they do so successfully they get Notoriety. You on the other hand can lose notoriety if you fail to participate or even identify the Fixer.
It's good only when you want to partake in it but if you're on your way to a side mission, your safehouse, a main mission or even a wifi hotspot you can't. Everything disappears and you can't even interact with an ATM or gun shop until the Fixer has been located, killed or has evaded you. This means you can either wait and lose your hard earned notoriety rating, which is by far easier to drop than is to raise, or slog through it if you're not in the mood to prevent yourself losing most of it. It's more of an obstruction than anything and being able to deny the Fixer the challenge so I can do what I wanted to originally would be great. It's almost like ganking in an MMO where the enemy drops in on you and you barely have a fighting chance, and if you refuse to fight (or don't have the skill/strength) you only get punished. I wouldn't mind as much if the hacking process didn't take so long. At least let me say 'no' without having to opt out as I might want spontaneous challenge without having to reset my notoriety rating to zero when I opt out. Thankfully it's not all bad, as there are some modes that utilise this game's excellent combat far better that involve stealing data from a VIP then evading other players. With friends this can be a hugely social experience, but anonymously it can be horror. It can also take some time to get into a match should you choose to opt in for online missions.
What is Notoriety rating? It's another skill tree that can't be invested in via points, but is a rating you earn over time. This can only be done through online interactivity and because you can lose notoriety, you can indeed lose your perks. This adds unimaginable replay value to competitive hackers, much like Player versus Player ratings in MMOs, but in an MMO there's also a coop most of the time. How come there's no such thing here? I imagine it could be infinitely more fun, with wave survival or just tagging along to do missions. Do I need to bring out the whiteboard with GTA5 on it again?
While the online competition is indeed a good feature it's execution is shocking, and serves only as a PvP mode and a tool for random ganking. Some cooperative features would make me like the online mode far more, even if it was an instanced area of the city or just one island out of the many there are. Hopefully in DLC and patches more can be done to make Watch Dogs' online invasions more interesting for people who aren't entirely interested in PvP.
Watch Dogs' visuals are astonishing and the attention to detail is by far some of the most impressive I've seen for an open world game. What's more impressive is that on all generations on console you'll get almost the same looking world that has seen work over the five years it's been in development. Not just the streets, character models and the so-called parkour, but inside the buildings you can go in and your safe houses. As I'm only playing this on the Xbox One I can't comment too much on just how well this game runs and looks on other consoles, but if you own a copy or have seen the gameplay for yourself (and I don't mean on YouTube) then let me know in the comments below.
What I didn't find impressive was the game's soundtrack. There's very few tracks on the radio and what songs you can unlock via hacking are still unimpressive. Out of the fifty or so available songs on the radio I enjoyed a grand total of two, and only one of them I managed to remember. The songs composed by Brian Reitzell and Peter Connelley were mostly loud and obnoxious, and in the optional missions became irritating. The only song they composed that I did like was used in the trailer called "Waiting for a Sign", which even then only worked for the trailer. More radio tracks or even stations for WD would hugely improve my experience while driving, but the news reports were pretty enjoyable to listen, if few and uninformative.
To answer the original question, was Watch Dogs the painfully average game I hoped it wouldn't be? Hell no, and I dare say there's not a thing that isn't average but at least good. I will say that the controls at first were some of the most unintuitive I've ever played, and even 10 hours in I was ocassionally looking at the controller to remember which button did what action. The driving was fun, but the cars are pretty much the same and come close to competing with a sports car in terms of how fast they can travel, so some serious work with cars is needed. Other than that, Watch Dogs is easily a game I can recommend for those who loved Grand Theft Auto, The Saboteur and Deus Ex. What this game does, it does magnificently and I only hope with patches in the near future we can expect improvements. If you already own an Xbox One, PS4 or PC that can run this work of art, get it for those. If you can get it for £40 or under, consider it a steal.
To conclude Watch Dogs does what it said it would, delivering a world sprawling with content and people, a simple yet fascinating hacking mechanic and some fine combat combined with multiple levels of challenge. Expect to be wowed by this game once you're halfway through the first act!
Thanks for reading, and have a pleasant day! For more updates on games I'll be reviewing soon, be sure to follow me on Twitter! And let me know your thoughts on this game in the comments below!