I don’t always pre-order, but when I do, I like to commit to finesse. The panache and originality of the newly released open-world hacker-centric free-for-all Watch Dogs, out now for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, and soon Wii U, was billed as just one such distinguished title. With the next generation consoles on-hand offerings relatively meager at this point, I was eager to tie one on with the slightly nefarious anti-hero of the Watch Dogs, Aiden Pearce.
I had my doubts, however. I like to practice that awful habit of judging a book by it’s cover, to some regard. If the trailer looks too impressive, for example, it typically means to me that the developer is overcompensating for vapid game play with shiny, inviting graphics. If a game takes place in an open world, I have to weigh the pros and cons; an open world means more missions and sometimes more missions means a cover-up is afoot (covering up a weak plot with distracting tangents, for example). If the game offers some sort of great DLC incentive or perk (season pass, for example) I worry that this means that the game can’t stand on its own two feet. I may or may not have bought the season pass. Sometimes I have great luck with this (like in World of Tanks, the pass was totally worth it), but so far, it is not looking like it was worth the extra coin.
Before I go ANY further, I have to say that no matter what, this game has won my heart thanks to its cameo voice actors. Slipping in and out of video surveillance, you will eventually encounter one Aisha Tyler, whose name probably sounds familiar if you spend a lot of time in the Danger Zone. That’s right: Lana Kane, saucy spy-vixen, Fiocci knockoff aficionado and partner of Sterling Archer (AKA “LANAAAAAA!”) in the FX series Archer (or secretary of the devil in Lucy, Daughter of the Devil if you’re THAT cool) is nestled cozily within the Chicago community that you explore. I almost died. The rest of the game could have been penguins going down slides and go-kart races populated with cacti in wigs, for all I cared. But I will try to remain focused, for your sake.
So: Pearce, a bad guy gone good, is a hacker with a storied past who’s pulled one job too many. When his latest caper devolves into an aborted mission, Aiden’s niece gets caught in the fallout and dies in a car accident as a result of his litany of offenses. Aiden’s mission, then, is to track down those responsible for the murder of this beloved niece, trailing chaos and mayhem behind him in a very tech-savvy, vigilante way. (So mourned, this niece is, that after a few hours there is little to no mention of her at all. Maybe Pearce reasoned that she wouldn’t have wanted him to grieve too terribly?) The technology at the heart of Watch Dog‘s plotline, ctOS, which the city of Chicago has recently employed, links everything with a computer chip–from communications to transportation–together using a tool at your disposal, the profiler. Pearce joins forces with other hackers and miscreants from the seedy underbelly of Chicago’s tech scene. Some of these ne’er-do-wells make more than one appearance, and some are not at all memorable characters. (Aiden Pearce, however, appears to be the only hacker who is either stupid or genius enough to use his real name when almost everyone he associates with has a cyber pseudonym. What’s that about?)
Aiden progresses through his missions, picking up jobs that will earn more and more skills, unlocking more and more missions. Eventually, his subversive intelligence gathering and extensive history with computer fraud (plus all of the firing at police he does as he evades detection) land him a bench warrant. Add to that that he’s not being quite as discreet as you’d imagine a hacker would be about snooping, and it’s not long before he’s picking fights and dodging behind partitions and just in general digging his heels in. His adventures and investigations lead him down a rabbit hole of corruption that seems to lead straight to the (hackneyed) top as he (slowly) investigates the hit put out on him that led to his niece’s demise.
This game captures the paranoia of a wanted man and hacker adequately, although he remains ballsy and doesn’t let his fear of being caught deter him much from accepting missions. Pearce takes on, as the game progresses, a sort of hero-vibe. He even sort of sounds like a dirty, poorly dressed Batman at times. He breaks up fights, intervenes in violent altercations, and stops crimes in progress. Combat and melee are street-fight savvy, and limited to a couple of punches, really. Nothing to write home about. Not dissimilar to Ryse, Aiden performs a series of predetermined movements and take downs, not necessarily fights. Not that I expected him to do a ton of fighting. Firefights in Watch Dogs are satisfying, and an appropriate number of weapons are garnered as the story progresses. Often, you’ll notice that Pearce is almost constantly holding his phone in one hand and his weapon in the other. He is the equivalent of most of us today: unable to detach from that great umbilical cord of your most constant companion, the internet. (To be fair, my phone doesn’t allow me access to Seattle’s infrastructure or the private information of it’s citizens at a glance.) I think that players will be surprised at how very many shoot-outs this game offers. For a game about hacking, I thought that it was strange how often Aiden used that arsenal of his to get out of tight jams.
I’m not going to be one of those women who rant about the roles of women in Watch Dogs, largely because I think it’s all in good fun. I will say, briefly, that this title is pandering to a largely male demographic here. Don’t get me wrong, I love auctioning topless women–if there’s one thing I’m always saying to my man, it’s “Baby, how long has it been since we picked up one of them bitches down at the warehouse?” And–duh–I rock lady wood for BadBoy17, AKA Clara Lille, punk-chic hacker who assists Pearce by…never mind. You’ll get there on your own. However, I have as of yet to see a developer design a nut-crushing side mission where I microwave my opponent’s balls. And I ask you, is this justice? I would like to call to Ubisoft to make a game for my people. I want to be able to remotely spy on my man, picture-in-picture, via his phone. I want a game that will let me slip something into my own virtual drink and try to dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller until my avatar passes out (it’ll be a Kinect game, obviously). Why can’t I find a video game that will let me steal other people’s cats and squeeze them into cute outfits, a la The Wolf Among Us? (Toggle B to get the goofy hat to stay on kitty’s head.) Anyway, women are the butt of more than a few jokes and the object of crude social commentary in Watch Dogs. I love it. If there was one aspect of this game that kept me playing, even when I was sarcastically announcing “Oh no, not the cops. Whatever shall I do?” and pressing the X button blandly (X activates your super hacker tool, the profiler), it was the sense of humor embedded within the sometimes lusterless city and its characters.
Much like in Grand Theft Auto, there are a wealth of missions to supplement campaign mode. And, like Grand Theft Auto, the combat puts a strong emphasis on taking cover. There’s sort of a departure from the GTA-isms, however, when it comes to how hidden that Pearce must remain in order to remain undetected (a take on tactical stealth that sort of smacks of Assassin’s Creed, if you ask me). The biggest difference, and the real selling point of the adventure, is the amount of control and the level of invasive information at your fingertips about nearly everyone around you in the game. Whether you’re driving around or skulking in that thick, rather conspicuous coat of yours with the hat that doesn’t really match, you can control and interact with elements to block those who would stop you. Evasive maneuvers really do immerse the player in the tech-savvy, powerful world of Pearce’s hacking capabilities, and it’s good fun for the most part.
Characters cell phones, for example, become virtual dog tags using that profiler tool, helping Pearce identify his targets and marks based on identifying information available at a glance. This info includes a name, talking point (ex: into erotic asphyxiation; bassist in garage band; high school valedictorian and prostitute), age, occupation and income. As you gain XP and unlock skill points, Aiden adds more keys to the ring that makes him master and commander of his city. Change traffic lights, access power transformers, operate trains, open doors remotely on foot or in traffic, raise and lower draw bridges and activate a seemingly limitless barrage of closed circuit CCTV surveillance cams. Pressing the X button initiates the neutralize protocol, which can mean a lot of things are predetermined to happen when you get close enough to interact: pipes burst, lights change, street spikes appear or retract according to your needs.
Also using the profiler, you can accumulate goods–you can “hack” your environment, if you will. Some of the passersby have bank information available for you to use. Others have songs that you can lift digitally from their phones (which was neat, but not something I made a point of doing). You can obviously buy things with the money you earn, such as weapons, outfits and cars (although only the former held much appeal for me). Any information that is wireless or digital, from personal to corporate communications, are at the disposal of Mr. Pearce thanks to his prowess in digital espionage. The concept is dizzying and powerful, and, in its finest moments, accomplishes just that.
The general precept is that Pearce holds the key to his city’s powerful infrastructure thanks to the interconnected “smart” tech that the city has invested in to streamline and modernize. I watched the Snowden interview in between my Watch Dogs marathon, and I have to say that the game seemed to echo the real-life admonition to be wary of the technologies we have come to rely on so blindly.
A note on “hacking”. Hacking is what the game seems to believe Pearce is doing any time that he engages in piracy. You “hack” vehicles and heavy equipment. You can hack enemy weapons and enemy smartphones. You hack surveillance cams. Perhaps most true to the hacking experience, you must hack cams to get to other cams in order to hack into other, more specific cams for which there is no backdoor or alternate route. (This element of the hacking seems to be pretty accurate. I imagine hacking isn’t really an action-packed thrill ride.) Occasionally, you will find yourself being “hacked”, yourself. At inopportune moments, other players may choose to try and steal information from you. (To these other players, you look like a different character; you will not appear as Aiden Pearce, for obvious, reality-bending reasons.) I thought this was pretty cool…until it happened a few times. Disabling multi-player mode kills this distraction, so if you’re not dying to get interrupted, you can disable this hassle (as well as the bonus rewards that come along with allowing them, which, in my opinion, are relatively minimal). The multi-player integration is pretty in-depth in Watch Dogs. Just as Forza 5 employs Drivatar’s to encourage that camaraderie and friendly spirit of competition between friends, Pearce can see your friends and their activity, sort of like Facebook or Foursquare, in-game.
The environment outdoes itself in Watch Dogs. Chicago, like GTA’s Los Santos, is exhilarating in it’s depth and detail. The scope of the city, the attention to minutia, and the freedom of the open world is comparable if not superior to other similar games in this genre. I say comparable with a note of dismay. Tomb Raider’s Definitive Edition really raised the bar for me in terms of open world environments. Chicago was accessible in Watch Dogs, but it was as unfamiliar to me as if I were actually visiting Chicago. TRDE made the fabricated jungles and mountain crags seem welcoming and familiar, and not intimidating or foreign in the least. While weaving in and out of crowds, passing textile merchants and restaurants, stealing other people’s bank information and blackmailing my fellow citizens, I felt a little drained. I’m not saying it’s bad–that’s definitely not the case. I am saying, however, that this environment lacked the panache and sexy grime that I was hoping to embroil myself in (and that I’m hoping that the upcoming title Murdered will deliver in spades). Still, the sounds of the city, the wind, footfall, radio play in the cars which Pearce lifts to traverse his city map, the quality of the cars and the buildings and the way the clothing moves–that next-gen quality is upheld, even if the bar isn’t necessarily raised.
As for the missions, the story itself, I will say simply that it holds its own. The scope and the forethought and the script of these games is inventive and detailed, albeit slightly…rusted? Creaky? The skill and weapon trees keeps your skills, as well as the mission, on track, and main missions prove satisfying. If I have any problem with Watch Dogs at all, it’s that the ratio of “Wow” to “Huh” was only slightly tipped to “Wow”. Maybe a little more than slightly. It’s rare that a game is released and it was everything that was promised in it’s marketing–that’s the thing about marketing. Watch Dogs holds up to scrutiny, although I occasionally was looking for more polished graphics and that almost indiscernible extra effort.
But the variety is impressive. Inconsistent, maybe, but impressive. The apps on Pearce’s phone alone rival my own. There’s music to be stolen, crimes to commit, ATM’s to loot, shoot-outs to out-shoot; some nudity, some hallucinations, some drinking and gratuitous violence. The constant level of connectivity is indicative of and accurate to real life. Unfortunately, the mimicry to my everyday love affair with my phone left me feeling occasionally guilty (and maybe a teensy bit bored) doing as much in a game. Made me want to play on my real phone. And it made me mad that I can’t use my real phone to change traffic lights and make grenades explode within range of wifi.
There is no way that I can say I’ve completed even three-fifths of the missions at present. Jonathan Morin, the creative director for Watch Dogs, speculated that around 40 hours is the amount of time a player would have to spend to complete campaign mode. I’d concur, with the caveat that I was perhaps 15 side missions deep before the shoot-outs that I seemed to embroil myself in grew tiresome, and I probably gave the campaign mode less attention than it deserved. (Don’t judge me! I’m going back to it!) I can tell that this is not Ryse; I will not divest myself of this game as soon as the story mode is complete. There is so much to do and accomplish here. The level of involvement, of creativity that developers have invested into creating back stories and identities for the inhabitants of this fair city is staggering. And funny. And I like both of those things.