Watch_Dogs released on May 27 of this year after a long anticipated development cycle. While the game is good, and the extra time needed to polish it was well used, there’s still some room for improvement.
In Watch_Dogs, the player takes the role of Aiden Pearce: equal amounts of genius, conscience and larceny. The opening sequence gives you the backstory: Aiden and his partner Damien are looting a computer at a prestigious hotel, squeezing it for money and information. A second hacker intrudes on the network, prompting the hotel’s security to lock on to Aiden as he breaks the connection and leaves. Later, a hit man is hired to deal with Aiden, but instead ends up causing an accident in which Aiden’s young niece is killed.
Flash to present, Aiden has the hitman cornered in the locker rooms of a stadium during a baseball game in a fictionalized version of modern day Chicago. I say fictionalized because during the course of the scene, the radio announces that the Chicago baseball team is ahead by 8 points, clearly a work of fantasy. Well that and the fact that Chicago is set against the backdrop of the mountainous region of Illinois…more on that later.
The mission starts off when Chicago PD is alerted to criminal activity involving one of the local gangs (this version of Chicago only has one) at the baseball game, and Aiden has to to avoid detection while escaping the stadium. From there, Aiden embarks on a crusade to find who is responsible for ordering the hit that killed his niece, and in the process uncovers a conspiracy encompassing private corporations, the Mob, the Mayor (clearly Ubisoft did their research as to how politics in Chicago work), militarized security forces, and those closest to him.
Watch_Dogs presents some very interesting storytelling points, about the dangers of turning over oneself entirely to computer automation, privacy, and civil liberty. Some of what you see in the game may be possible, other things are just a wee bit out there. It is a game after all.
Watch_Dogs promised eye popping graphics that would make your GPU scream in pain. In the trailers during the development cycle, everything looked top of the line. The actual release product was not quite as impressive however. Don’t get me wrong, they were good but certain settings broke the game and resulted in horrible stuttering and lag. Early on in my experience, driving was almost impossible until I started researching tweaks to resolve the greater issues. About two weeks into release, a mod started making the rounds that re-enabled some features turned off in the final version. The result brought things closer to the Watch_Dogs experience I was hoping for and was very easy to work with. Ubisoft stated that the features that were turned off broke the game in some way, and that re-enabling them could lessen the experience, for my part, all it did was improve it.
With the mod installed, things got really interesting. I started noticing a lot more detail in the game, vehicle headlights seemed to work a lot like headlights do on actual cars. Light played more of an important role, and driving in rain became hazardous since it obscured your point of view. It’s hard to qualify exactly what is different, you have to experience it yourself. And yes, I did jack a taco van with a sombrero on the roof, and you can too.
The game world is positively huge, encompassing much of Chicago and part of the suburbs. The depiction of Chicago had a degree of accuracy, and there were some areas in the game world that I could identify by sight, having been to the real locations myself. Some locations are named, like the Sears Tower (no, not the Willis Tower, dammit) and The Bean by Lakeshore Drive while other locations like Portillo’s, The Billy Goat Tavern, and Chinatown are missing (probably due to licensing and marketing limitations). Other parts of Chicago are just a little off, and while you can tell Ubisoft did their homework, they fell short on one or two items. Like…mountains.
There are NO mountains anywhere near Chicago. It’s in the Midwest, and though you may see the occasional hill every now and again, the backdrop that Ubisoft presents does not exist. Chicago is built on the shores of a lake, hell the shoreline exists because the trash of the 19th Century eventually accumulated and formed a landmass that folks started living on. So, no mountains. Anywhere. Nope.
My absolute favorite part of the game was blowing shit up and shooting fools during one scene with “Jesus Built My Hot Rod” by Ministry playing as the background music. Watch_Dogs has a number of songs that you can collect in game, ranging across all genres. Once you find a song (either by completing a mission, stealing a vehicle, or hacking into someone’s electronic devices), it is added to your phone, which features a media app and allows you to play it in game at any time during the main story or side quests.
Apart from the absolute outstanding inclusion of the soundtrack, a number of smaller details add up to a wonderful experience in game. Though not quite to the degree it is in real life, Ubisoft captured the mouthiness of Chicagoans in spirit. Conversations, spontaneous rap sessions and dialogues do repeat somewhat, but the sheer size of the game world makes up for that. One point I was impressed with was the voice acting for Aiden; even though Ubisoft made a cardinal sin in hiring a Canadian to voice the character, Noam Jenkins was able to emulate a Chicago accent fairly well.
Watch_Dogs works much like a modern day Assassin’s Creed, with many of the same game concepts, including unlocking locations, crafting and multiple side quests making you feel as though there could be a tie in at some point.
Aiden is a vigilante, so there is a lot of crime fighting: catching thieves, preventing assassinations, and giving a little payback to Chicago’s mob. Depending on your style of play, you can opt for stealthy takedowns or do as I did and try to kill every damn enemy on the map. Your reputation plays a role too, stopping crimes and leaving civilians unharmed makes you look like a good guy, which results in fewer times Chicago’s Finest are called whenever you jack someone’s car. Doing bad things, like say…jumping your muscle car over one of Chicago’s multiple drawbridges and landing flat on a group of pedestrians, or tossing a grenade into a pile of cars make you look like an asshole and the PD gets called whenever you sneeze.
Still this sort of forced moral choice doesn’t seem to make sense. Aiden is a vigilante, looking out for his surviving family and trying to take out the bad guys, yet there is no penalty for walking down the street and yanking money out of someone’s bank account, even if that person is a terminal cancer patient. If you hack the traffic signals in the city and cause an accident, you can gleefully sit back and watch cars collide, and then explode shortly after impact, and not feel bad about it at all (a frequent pastime of mine). If the Chicago Police are chasing you, they will run down pedestrians, bounce motorcycles off the hoods of their cars and fire automatic weapons into a crowd indiscriminately just to get to you (Okay, maybe that part is accurate).
A couple of gun stores make it easy for you to purchase weapons and ammunition ( we will just overlook Chicago’s Gun Control laws for the time being ), and you can also buy components at different places to construct various improvised explosive devices, grenades, decoy lures, and other goodies as well as sell off all the crap you get when you walk up to a car and steal it. You can have cars delivered to you via a contact, but what is the fun in that? Besides, I REALLY wanted that station wagon.
You have to adapt your tactics to your style of gameplay, and follow cues in side missions to unlock additional content. There are numerous side quests, mini games and other distractions which will constantly pull you off your mission and start you in a different direction. Here are a couple of tips for you though: If you know you are going into an area where there will be heavy gunfire, such as a Criminal Convoy mission, arrive at the mission start checkpoint in an armored truck; you can just roll over all the bad guys and not worry about wasting ammunition, plus they make a funny sound when you hit them (Cement Mixers, Fired Department Ladder Trucks and Delivery Vans are not quite as good at this). You can seed a Restricted Area with all sorts of explosives for lots of mayhem, and use vehicles to pre-block avenues of escape but if you leave the Restricted Area even for a second, all your stuff is gone. Oh, and if you obtain the single shot anti vehicle sniper rifle, camping out on the back end of a boat and aiming in from across the waterway makes taking down those troublesome enemies a breeze, seems they can’t swim.
Of course, there is a progression system in place that allows you to purchase perks and bonuses after completing certain tasks. Certain skills allow you to perform better with firearms, increase handling of all vehicles, allow you to craft certain items or increase the battery power of your multihack phone.
Now, there are some problems with the PC version to talk about, however. I can’t nail down the specific purpose, but at random times the game goes into an input loop, where your last action is repeated over and over despite you trying to do something else. This happened to me mostly in combat, and would result in Aiden continuing to fire a weapon without me touching the mouse, running in a specific direction despite me trying to do otherwise, and driving backwards with me touching the mouse or keyboard. The game becomes really frustrating at that point, and sometimes even reloading a previous autosave does no good. In those cases, I would have to close to desktop and reload the game altogether. Other times I could stop the loop by not touching anything, forcing a covered position, or entering a vehicle, but it was really random and there was no way for me to tell what would work.
Recent patches may fix some of these issues, so I will give the game the benefit of the doubt.
There is so much content in this game that it is impossible to finish every single mission, obtain every collectible and objective in game your first time playing it. Like I said earlier, you will get distracted by side missions, and some things will steal your focus away so completely that you won’t realize that you’e been sitting at the game for hours. It’s a lot of fun, and with the addition of multiplayer racing challenges, and the ability to invade another player’s game to hack THEM, or catch them as they try to hack you adds an element to the game that is surprisingly fun.
The in game Digital Trips are awesome. Billed in game as a sort of questionably legal mind altering experience using neural stimulation, you find yourself in a mini game complete with level progression and perks. Whether you are happily blasting away at the population of Chicago in Spider Tank, or using an armored sports car to run down demons and collect souls in a nightmare version of The Loop, you will want to see these mini games to the end, and then play more (and there are quite a few).
Normally a game that gave me so many headaches as Watch_Dogs did with the input loop glitch would earn a vile rating from me, but Ubisoft managed to grab me with this title despite all that. With the amount of content in the base game, the addition of Digital Trips and the multiplayer perspective, I am not disappointed in the amount of money I spent one bit.
Watch_Dogs is a great game that could be even better. Optimizations and bug fixes coming up in the patches and updates will make this game shine even more. With all that taken into consideration, I think it would be an excellent addition to your library. Oh, as a side note, I work in Computer Security, so please do not try to blow up your city’s infrastructure with your iPhone.