“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.
4. A Refreshing Story That Doesn’t Need to Rely on GTA-like Satire.
I’m a huge fan of the GTA series, but I agree with my fellow gamers who feel that it’s time for Rockstar to stop with Weazel News and the like. (“It’s iFruit,” like iPhone, get it?!” Sigh.) So I’m pleased as punch that Watch Dogs does not go down this route. I’m not saying the writing doesn’t poke fun at politics, hacking, etc. but it’s done in a less loud and obnoxious way.
And the story is all the better for it.
I do wish that Aiden Pearce as a character wasn’t just another brooding trench coat loner, but the cast of characters and the way the story unfolds works like a great episode of 24. (The early seasons.) After the somewhat predictable motivation of Aiden losing his young niece, Lena, by an unknown organization that tried to snuff him out, the rest of the script settles into a more grounded (okay, “grounded” for a videogame) moments. Aiden will need to keep a close watch on several people in Chicago and the outlying rural area of Pawnee in order to crack the mystery of what exactly is being covered up in a world where privacy seems all but a distant memory.
As a narrator, Aiden’s monotone-spteak could be better, but I didn’t mind. I sorta felt his detachment fit a person who looks a people as ones and zeroes. Still, I do wish I felt a little more invested in his personal life.
The main story has over forty missions played out in a five-act structure. This is about half of what you’d get in a GTA game. (IV is usually upwards of 90 missions.) At over 20 hours, Watch Dogs keeps its main campaign lean and pretty engaging, up until a few last-act shenanigans that I won’t spoil.
5. Pretentious Assassin’s Creed Vibe Is Still There, but More Enjoyable.
My biggest fear with Watch Dogs was that Ubisoft’s Montreal Studios, the same developers who launched the Creed series, would wallow in a too-serious tone. I loved the look and the parkour stuff of AC, but man, the missions were so repetitive. Wisely, Watch Dogs shows that the designers have learned a lot from the scripted format of GTA IV. Tasks lead to bigger ones and then veer off in unpredictable routes. It’s not that that all sandbox games aren’t essentially making the player do the same few things (kill that guy, get the package, protect that girl) it’s really more about how the player doesn’t notice that they’re doing the same five things over and over.
Further, even though I’ve already mentioned how lacking in personality Aiden is, the writing never becomes overwrought with pretentions. I honestly never cared about the Abstergo conspiracies in Creed and frankly, rolled my eyes at how seriously those games took themselves. Which is why the pirate tone in the series’ last venture (AC IV: Black Flag) was so welcome. Who knows, maybe after the success of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, the developer finally loosened up. Amen to that.
6. Hacker Clara Cooler, More Tattooed Version Acid Burn.
Angelina Jolie was never hotter for teens as she was as Kate Libby aka Acid Burn in the cult classic Hackers in 1995. Clara is like the version 2.0 upgrade that partners with Aiden. She’s a well-written character, and unlike Aiden, does a good job at unfolding bits of information about her in a compelling manner. Her entrance is coded goodness. If it’s not the short hair, the tats get me every time.
7. At the Very Least, Aiden Is Never Mistaken for “the One” a la Neo in The Matrix.
This never happens, because ya know, he and by extension “we,” are not gods.
The Verdict: No, Watch Dogs is not the GTA killer some might have dreamed, but I wholeheartedly applaud Ubisoft’s ambition to try something new. I look forward to more drama in the word of code. Oh, and hack the planet!
Previously by Peter Paras:
Seven Ways the Veronica Mars Movie Doesn’t Suck for Noobs
TR’s 12 Best Video Game Moments of 2013
Grand Theft Auto V: Ten Things to Love and Two Teensy Gripes