"You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day..." - Harold
Okay, so until we're all inevitably wearing Google Glasses, the closest we're gonna get to living in a world where every citizen's private info is just a GUI away we can passively watch CBS' hit show Person of Interest or we can lose ourselves in Ubisoft's Watch Dogs.
Seven years in development, the game takes place in an open-world "futurish" Chicago. You are Aiden Pearce, a hacker out for revenge for the death of his niece, Lena. The twenty-hour plus campaign is wildly entertaining, but more importantly, is the first sandbox game that while not as great as GTA V, points towards a world beyond just grand theft. Even better, it's way less convoluted than those Assassin's Creed games...
In many ways, we've all been waiting for this experience since Hackers, right? Time to hack the planet!
1. Sweet Home, Chicago.
This is definitely Lower Wacker.
A native of the Windy City, I was pretty excited about returning to my hometown without the now tired prohibition era Capone tropes of titles like EA's Mafia. The Chicago of now is extremely tantalizing. Even without all the cool cyber tech (see next point) it's a joy to roam Millennium Park, walk down Michigan Avenue, and even visit the game's version of Cabrini-Green housing projects - which were demolished back in the 90s. There is, however, the caveat that Ubisoft didn't get the rights to calling the Hancock building the Hancock. The famous bean sculpture looks more like a cashew now, but that's okay. This isn't the goofy over-the-top send-ups like Rockstar does in their GTA series.
The Midwestern metropolis is home to all sorts of activities for Aiden. Like GTA, the map is divided into six sections, all completely open at the start and all of it looks stunning. (I played primarily on Xbox One, and a little on PS4 so I can't attest to the fidelity on the last gen consoles.) Specs-wise, the boot-up takes about a minute, which is pretty normal for a world this large. Both PS4 and Xbox One run at 30 frames per second, not 60 as some might have hoped. Honestly, except for a few frame-rate hiccups, I think it runs really well. I never noticed that a rainy night walking by the Merchandise Mart was lacking those extra 30 fps.
One of my favorite touristy aspects of WG was checking in at well-known hot spots. Each place is equipped with a funny blurb about the building. Think of those descriptions found near your favorite Picasso at the museum, except way more sassy. Also cool is whenever you check into a new hotspot (there are a hundred in all) you can see if other players have left you money, ammo, even drugs; you can then do the same. Simple, but an effective way of reminding you that you're in a world that others are exploring too. This helps to strengthen the whole "you are being watched 24/7" vibe.
2. Hacking Made Easy, Really Simple, and Pretty Fun.
The controls can be similar to GTA, like jacking a car (hit Y on Xbox, triangle on PS4) except for when it isn't. The hacking in the game isn't a mere gimmick; it's very much the core aspect of experiencing the world of Watch Dogs. One might think a game about hacking would have many mini-game puzzles, but there's really only one used for cracking into certain systems. The whole tech angle is a part of "CtOS" or Central Operating System, a supercomputer that connects pretty much everything in the city. A high chase by Chicago's finest gets hectic as you can change traffic lights on the fly, or bring up bridges, etc. It took me a while (and many crashes) to get used to using the B button on Xbox to interact with all the cameras and other devices while on foot or driving at ridiculous speeds.
In a bold move in player design, Aiden doesn't have any real combat skills. He can shoot and cover like any other third-person character, but there's no punching or kicking. The closest to melee controls are context-sensitive take takedowns. Also weird, when pursuing someone in a vehicle you can't shoot. Ever. Again, your main tool is hacking, so it's more about using the environment to your advantage. A baddie walking by a potentially explosive pipe is yours to exploit by holding down X. There are a lot of puzzle sequences where Aiden is hiding, in which surveillance cameras are used to scope out potential attack plans. It gives the player that Person of Interest God Mode feel; a feeling that never tired for me.
I do wish the driving of vehicles was less clunky though. My advice: stick with motorcycles. Just imagine you're Sam Flynn in TRON: Legacy. The accompanying EDM tracks fit perfectly for cruising "the grid" of Chicago.
3. Looking Into Strangers' Lives Never Tires.
It's interesting to think that only a few years ago, a protagonist that kept his head down and only focused on his smartphone would seem ludicrous. Yet now we're all like Her's Theodore Trombly, walking and reading our iPhone while ignoring everyone in the real world.
It's probably the dream of every open-world developer to make the hundreds of NPCs that the player comes into contact with feel unique. Think of the first time you ran into that dude who said "In the Navy!" in GTA III. By the twentieth time you heard that Navy bite, it broke the illusion of Liberty City as being ever-changing. For Watch Dogs, the citizens you'll pass on the street might be a variety of maybe twenty different facial types, but the information you'll see about them makes them feel like real people. People, I might add, who all seem to have a lot of issues.
All I'm saying is there ain't a lot of "love puppies, runs a school" to be found.
Some of my favorites:
Latter Day Saint
Barred from Canada
Medieval History Expert
Listed as Agnostic on census
Family Member Committed Suicide
Special shout out to a couple kissing in a park.
Woman: Squandered Family's Fortune
Man: In Treatment for Low Libido
The practical reason for all this eavesdropping is to raid a stranger's ATM or listen in on their phone calls or text messages as some lead to side missions. Mostly, though, they're just a great distraction. I mean that in the best way possible.