Who Watches the Watchmen? I DO!
Everything is connected. That’s the theme of Ubisoft’s newest release, Watch_Dogs. The game centers around a man with a criminal past on a path of revenge. It sounds like every game released from GTA 3 up – but Watch_Dogs is definitely it’s own game.
Watch_Dogs is a open world game, with all that the moniker entails. Given the entirety of a digital interpretation of Chicago in which to work his will, Aiden Pearce – masked vigilante and pseudo-family man – is a hacker on a mission. After being burned in a hack gone wrong a year ago and losing his niece in a hit meant for him, he’s putting the pieces together by hacking the surveillance system that keeps Chicago running: the ctOS. With the machines and networks of Chicago working for him, he’s determined to defeat drug dealers, mobsters, serial killers, other hackers, and the sinister spider at the center of the ctOS web, Blume, to get at the people who destroyed his life and make them pay.
There’s plenty of ways to get what you want, but the game’s primary tool to gain Aiden’s vengeance are his Smartphone and hacking skills. His hacked mobile app allows him to open doors, manipulate cameras, and activate wireless devices remotely. Need to tail some scumbag back to his lair or case an area for the best infiltration route? Hack a camera to maximize your knowledge of the area and respond accordingly. Got guys on your tail while driving through the Mad Mile? Hack the traffic lights or blow a steam pipe to make life difficult for your pursuers. Want access to more things in the city? Hack entry points into ctOS datacenters and cell towers for more access and availability. You’ll also find all of the old standbys of the combat trade. There’s more guns than you’ll know what to with, and cars to boot.
Another integral part of gameplay focuses around devices that Aiden can create or buy to make infiltration or combat simpler. If you want to draw attention to a fatal exploit, use a lure to draw nearby combatants. Want to know where enemy units are located but can’t quite get the camera access? Use a ctOS scan to home in on and track hostiles. Want to add a little twist to a convoy mission? Plant an IED to stop targets without all the need for high speed chases.
By far one of the more interesting tools is the Profiler. With the tap of a button, you can scan faces in a crowd and learn about their online footprint. These scans reveal the trivial (frequently purchases online games), the criminal (convicted of Manslaughter), the tragic (recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease), and the downright weird (Cthulhu Enthusiast).
In addition to the data you pull up that’s descriptive, sometimes people have useful things on them. Cyber criminals carry one-time hacks, citizens have funds you can siphon, music to poach, and sometimes you’ll even find that you’ve tagged another player who might not take kindly to having their data stolen, or you find a Blume associate who rats you out and places a bounty on you.
From direct campaign missions to all of the side jobs and mini games, all of them run the gamut of play styles. There’s a mix of surveillance missions where you have to tail individuals, cars, or even helicopters and boats. There’s take down missions and high-speed pursuits. There’s infiltration and investigations. And to boot there’s more than enough ini games if you’re interested. Digital Trips give you options to play in wholly simulated digital environments where you run down rogue souls. There’s chess games, Augmented Reality games where you repel dimensional invasions. You can even get in on poker tourneys and drinking contests. And all of them unlock skills options and items.
Lastly, you have an experience system behind it all, as well as a reputation system. Run over too many people and you’ll find the city of Chicago won’t be very friendly to you. Complete enough missions and watch your skill points accumulate to allow you to do bigger and better things such as crafting new items, becoming a bigger bad ass on the roads, and unlock trophies and achievements.
There were a lot of folks lined up to talk smack on the title before it even came out. After the launch was delayed in November of ’13 the rumors abounded. The game was incomplete. It was delayed so as to not interfere with other products from the studio. It had deficient graphics despite being on next-gen consoles. I am pleased to tell you that those fears were unfounded (mostly – we’ll get to somewhat legitimate gripes in a moment).
The graphics – a bone of contention from a lot of corners of the internet – are fantastic. For those who are claiming the game’s visuals are dumbed down from the E3 and original presentations, of course they are. When Ubisoft put out their initial renders for pre-release consumption, they were using top of the line PC hardware to show it off. Consoles are always going to be on the light side of that equation, but with the next gen consoles (XBox One and PS4) you’re still looking at some of the most in-depth and cutting edge graphic results. The environment and the people in it feel real. The city and the people in it seem to be as present as they could make them, and most behaviors of the hoi poloi are convincing and organic. The environments and atmospherics are quality as well. It’s all very immersive. You feel like you’re a part of the world and that can be a powerful draw; so powerful in fact, that I spent a whole twelve hour chunk playing this past weekend in which I had to recharge the PS4 controller twice. Kept playing too, even if I had to connect with the stock, three foot recharge cable that is made for shoebox homes. I’m sure my eyes will heal soon from the experience of playing two feet away from my television.
The game also plays insanely well. At first I had to adjust to a few things – there’s a lot of things you can do, and not everything you’re capable of is immediately apparent. But the learning curve isn’t that steep for an open worldgame, and once you’ve mastered the interface the world is your oyster. You can really do everything the game has been promising in the past few years, and the results are spectacular in terms of play. Likewise, there’s moments where the game seamlessly shifts to cutscenes. No waiting, no load times. It just flows. You move from objective to objective without ever really losing the thread of what’s going on.
One last thing to note was something I uncovered quite by accident and that is that the game seems to actively encourage some out of the box solutions. for instance: The game establishes early on how car chases work. You get your take down target, and you do what you have to do to chase them down and crash their car. Most players are going to take the direct route. Ram, push, sideswipe, and otherwise use your vehicle to make your opponent stop. In one mission I realized that the convoy I had to bust up was slow. So I took an alternate ploy. I drove ahead on the route, got out of the car, and planted explosives along the route. It was far more effective than the straight on approach and resulted in a quick end to the chase which had, up to that point, proven difficult. The game lets you play it how you like for the most part. You may get objectives such as making sure your target lives, working under time limits, or protecting side characters. But, ultimately, it is a quintessential open world game since it lets you choose the playing style that works for you to achieve those goals in the manner that is going to work best for you.
You can argue that the point of reviews is to find bad stuff about games, and you might even have some valid ground to stand on. But honestly, the things that I did find that were bad were mostly minor.
There is one graphic fluke that I found that was jarring, but only because I knew it was there to look for it. What you may have heard about reflections being broken is true. Look in a reflective surface in the game, and you get a generic street reflection. It doesn’t accurately represent the scene it’s reflecting. Honestly though, this is something in my estimation that is forgivable given everything else they got right.
There also are some crazy physics going on when it comes to driving. Cars naturally are going to perform radically different from model to model, and a sports car won’t handle the same as a dump truck. But sometimes the physics get downright cartoony. I understand that if the game presented conventional physics, Aiden would die almost constantly. But when you hit a telephone pole and it breaks into four even shaped chunks and spills out into the road, you lose that flow. Same goes for car jumps – when you land at a 45 degree angle, front bumper first, your car is done – hell, youare done. But, the amount of punishment a vehicle can take is off. I understand that an SUV or a utility vehicle has more staying power in terms of damage, but a Honda Civic (they can call their stock sport hatchback whatever they like, it’s a Honda Civic) is going to crumple the first time a firetruck smashes into it. It’s meant to be more cinematic, but sometimes the driving element is a little too off from reality to keep you in the story.
The cops need a little work, too. I can drive over people, ignore traffic laws, take my pick of any car on the side of the road – no penalty. I can mow down bad guys in the middle of the Loop, assault civilians… nothing. But man, you pull one guy out of a Fiat in any neighborhood at any time of day, and as Deadpixels says, it is fucking on. Carjacking seems to be the one thing that the city of Chicago is not fucking around with. Cops only seem to care if you jack someone, or if the campaign mission requires it. Off mission, the city is one big, consequence-free smash and grab.
I’m gonna break format here for a moment to note some internal logic stuff. I don’t know if Ubisoft intended some of this or not, but I use the hell out of some exploits of my own. It’s kind of meta. I’m playing a game about a guy who exploits the system only to find and use exploits in the game’s system during play. If you’re a fan of playing a game straight, you can – but there are some exploits that may have been overlooked.
The most egregious example is what I have come to call Grand Theft Boat. I discovered it when trying to escape the Black Viceroys and found myself on the river bank in the Brandon Docks with a very broken – and exploded – muscle car. I leaped from the vehicle, jacked a boat, and sped away. There was no other boat to tail me but I figured they’d drive along side the river to keep at least a visual on me. Nope. No chase, not even a half-hearted chase one from the Viceroys gang who were definitely out for my blood. Later, when I had to ditch mafioso chasing me from a human trafficking auction downtown I did the same. I found the river, jacked a boat, and once again sped away. It seems that if you get into a boat in this game, the bad guys will not follow you – at least so far. Maybe there’s eventually a boat based faction that will mount an epic chase through Chicago’s waterways, but… I kinda doubt it.
Likewise, in an example that I don’t think Ubisoft intended, I drove under a covered bridge in Pawnee (the middle of nowhere) after ditching ground pursuers but still being followed by a helicopter. I stayed under the bridge and eventually the chopper gave up – despite there only being two directions I could have left that bridge. I know choppers can spot you on the ground running or swimming as well if I tried to hoof it, so… what did that pilot expect? It could have called in reinforcements to get me, but instead they just gave up. Here I was in East Bumblefuck with nowhere to run, but that chopper can’t see me for twenty seconds, damned if it’s gonna waste time on an easy target. Worst pilot ever.
To sum things up, buy it. Because Ded Sec is watching you. And they’ll know if you don’t.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), PS3, XBox One, XBox 360, PC; Publisher: Ubisoft ; Developer: Ubisoft Montreal; Players: 1 with Multiplayer Options; Released: May 27th, 2014; ESRB: M; MSRP: $59.95 (Retail)