Though there was disappointment with the six month delay of Watch Dogs from the PS4/XB1 launch, it might have been worth the wait.
You play as recovering hacker, Aiden Pearce. Due to Aiden’s past shenanigans, he was responsible for the death of his niece, Lena, in a revenge attack from an unknown assailant. Hellbent on revenge to bring some closure to the misery he has caused his sister and nephew (and himself), Aiden is back hacking and fighting his way to a vengeful conclusion. There are lots of roadblocks along the way, and even some detours.
While I can’t reveal details of the entire narrative, just know that you’re in for a well-written story from Ubisoft Montreal. The main storyline of the game seems pretty straightforward, but halfway through you’re going to find that all is not what it seems. You’ll be given a variety of missions that have you going stealth, toggling with cameras and equipment, and even going third-person action on the gameplay. All of this plus a large amount of driving through the streets of Chicago at insane speeds. Watch Dogs gives you a various amounts of missions that require different plans of attack and outcomes. It’s actually quite impressive.
One of the most impressive parts about Watch Dogs is how non-linear the gameplay feels. For example, there was a mission where I had to eliminate a man for certain reasons (don’t want to ruin the story, just know that he deserved it) and the cinematic portion of the game had me alerting his bodyguards, who were shooting at me, while he jumped in a high-class car to escape. The first attempt to stop him had him ram into my car, which led to my demise via bullets. The second attempt had him escape, while I was shot up before I could even get in my car. The third time had me chasing him, via cars, through the streets of Chicago, while trying to wreck his car — that took some time, but ended up killing me at the end. The fourth time I decided to actually clean up my strategy a bit and think things through. I ended up taking out two of his men, then killed him before he could even reach his car. The fact that I didn’t have to go through a car chase to get this man was impressive. The game gives you wide-open options like these throughout the storyline. If you can think a mission through and run through possible scenarios (that are realistic within the Watch Dogs world) to stop him/her, then you should try them because they very well might work.
It is truly by every definition of the word a ‘non-linear’ form of gameplay.
Need another example? There was a scene where the mob in the game had me surrounded at a marina. I had the option of blowing up one of three cars approaching before the bad guys could get out. The cutscene in the game pretty much pointed me to one specific car to blow up via a steam pipe underneath the streets, which I did. The car exploded so beautifully, and the men were killed, but this also left the other car of baddies open and free to roam. Because I didn’t destroy the other car, one of the mobsters called in for reinforcements. At this point you’re thinking, “Well, that’s what the AI was told to do and regardless of how you do this scene, it’s always going to do that.” Yeah, that’s not true. After getting overwhelmed and having the reinforcements call for reinforcements, which eventually killed me, I tried a different strategy. How about I take out the car I’m supposed to steam by just killing those men via guns and save the steam for the other car. Steam the others and see what happens. I did that and the mission was over in about two minutes.
Watch Dogs allows you to think through some strategy and allows you to test out that strategy (if it’s humanly possible within the gameplay realm) and most of the time execute it. In short, there’s just not one way to complete missions — there are multiple ways. That’s some nice non-linear gameplay that changes a lot when it comes to the open world genre. Don’t get me wrong, we see this a bit in its simplest form in Grand Theft Auto V, but even major missions in Watch Dogs have multiple ways to complete them. I guess this is what has been taking Ubisoft Montreal five years to complete this sucker, as they had to think through every possible scenario that gamers would have to think through. That’s a lot of planning, folks.
True open world gameplay is nice, but what about controls, hacking and methods to make the non-linear gameplay interesting? Well, the hacking is as fascinating as it was when it was announced back at Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) last year. You can hack into ATMs, phones, cameras, transformers, traffic lights, trains and such. You’ve got a wide range of hacking tools at your fingertips to make you dangerous in the game, though you don’t start out with all of them. If you’re in the midst of a police chase and you need to change some traffic lights to cause a collision with the cop cars then you can by hitting square button at the right time. How do you know it’s at the right time? The game will actually change the alert icon to say ’Neutralize’ when the time is perfect. It’s neat to see in action and adds some thrills to the chase. To get more of these skills, you’ll have to earn them and upgrade Aiden.
Watch Dogs has a skills tree, which allows you to slowly but surely add different types of hacks, combat and driving moves and even crafting abilities. When you complete missions or you reach a certain level in your XP, you earn skill points. These skill points are applied to your skills tree and allow you to become more technologically powerful as the game progresses. The tree itself is relatively simple and you can’t really make a mistake with your skill upgrade choice. I say ‘really’ because there are certain points in the game where certain skills (like making C4) can come in handy and allow you to complete missions quickly. Without certain skills sometimes you have to go through a mission the long way. So, choose wisely when you’re upgrading Aiden’s skills and think through possible scenarios where they might come in handy. For me, maxing out Pearce’s hacking skills was my number one priority. But, after going through it all, it seems I could have made things easier on myself if I had spread it out a bit.
Anyway, once you open up a good majority of the hacks then you will absolutely have a blast (no pun intended) with this game. Having a wide variety of ways to create havoc remotely is what makes Watch Dogs fun. Taking out gangsters without using a single bullet is something to behold in this game. It’s the gimmick of the game, and that gimmick works quite well.
Of course, if you don’t open up the Central Operating System (CtOS) in all your areas then hacking won’t be worth diddly-squat. As you visit new parts of a very large Chicago area, Aiden will need to visit CtOS terminals, hack into them and free the area up so that he can hack anything at anytime. Getting into these areas basically consists of a shootout. Once you’re done killing all the bad guys, you hack the main terminal and are taken into a simple puzzle where you guide a series of blue streams through pipes to get all the terminals unlocked. Think of a cleaner version of the pipe puzzles in the first BioShock and you get the idea. Once hacked, and I’ve only failed one hacking attempt since getting the game on Thursday, you access the cameras inside the CtOS server room. You can either go ahead and unlock the area immediately and go about your business, or you can decide to peek in on footage of what the world is doing behind its closed doors. That footage can be really funny at times or the footage will require the entire household to be asleep to view on your television (there is some raunchy stuff at times). There’s lots of content available during the CtOS hacking sessions.
Once you open areas up, you can hack people’s cellphones to steal their money, be nosy about their lives or help prevent crimes from happening. The first hack you’ll do on someone at the beginning of the game, reveals a crime of passion that is about to go down in an alleyway. You’ll have the opportunity to go stop it or ignore it and go about your business. If you go try to prevent it then you can earn skill points and your reputation goes up, if successful. If you don’t prevent it then you lose nothing. These are little side quests that are planted everywhere in what appears to be the most violent town in North America.
Should you hack too much in the game then once in awhile a good CtOS citizen will call and report your hacking activities. If you get to them and prevent them from making that call then you scare them to death. If they make the call and you don’t get to them on time then a police chase ensues. These assholes are represented by a purple communication triangle above their heads. When they start dialing you’ll see this come up on the screen. It’s random, it’s neat and it adds more decision-making drama to the mix. That’s a lot to watch out for in the game.
This is a lot of stuff for a simple open world game. The game does get a bit deeper, though.
As you are jumping from mission to mission, you are alerted of criminal activity and given the opportunity to do something about it. You can ignore it, as I did most of the time, but the fact that it randomly crops up on your way to a mission is freaking brilliant. It certainly adds a bit more depth to the game and the crimes are sometimes exciting and worth the risk. If you decide that you want to take one on, then you’re led by a series of blue arrows to the point where it’s happening. You have to tread lightly in the game to the exact spots because you don’t want to scare away the criminals. If you do that then the mission is over and the criminal runs free. If you don’t scare them away then you have to watch a percentage gauge climb as the criminal is confronting the victim. If you let that gauge get too high or you act too late then the criminal will either hurt or kill the victim. You get less reputation points and reward. You have to patiently find the right time to act before the criminal completes their act. It’s tough to find the right time, as each crime is different than the other. It’s fun, though.
Outside of stopping criminals, you can also stop gangs (and destroy their hideouts), prevent illegal shipments from occurring (lots of driving) and other wonderful little side quests. For people who love getting distracted on side quests during main missions (like Skyrim and Fallout folks) then you’re going to be in absolute heaven.
What about this online stuff? Well, this was an absolute joy. During your regular campaign, you’re given the option of hopping onto online missions. These missions are directly related to other actual players of the game. These missions are called Online Contracts. The first one that I came into contact with was against me. It was called a Hacking Contract. This meant that a player was stealing information from my player in a particular vicinity (we’re talking in a 3-4 block radius). I had to seek them out, kill them or contain them before they scored a 100% of my information. You lose valuable points if you don’t track these invaders down, as I did, and you feel a bit embarrassed with yourself. It’s a very one-on-one online situation, which makes it intriguing and eventually vengeful. About 5-10 minutes after losing this online match, a notification popped on my screen asking me if I wanted to accept an online hacking contract to get the player back. I did and had fun taking them down.
Outside of the hacking contract, you also have the following online options:
Tailing Contract — You simply tail the person without being seen. It’s much tougher than it sounds, but when you have all your hacking skills at your disposal it can be really fun.
Race — While we have yet to get into the car aspect of Watch Dogs, this is what it sounds like. Racing through the streets of Chicago can be fun when you’re up against 7-8 other gamers. Be careful though, if you get the wrong car, it can be a bitch to drive.
Freeroaming — For more multiplayer traditionalist out there, you get to roam in a world full of gamers. It’s fun and exciting at times, but I honestly prefer having online sessions randomly pop up once in awhile during the campaign.
Decryption Contract — The first night playing Watch Dogs, I was sucked into this online game. It gives you a restricted area to play in and the point of it is to obtain a file and hold onto it the longest, while fighting off your fellow fixers (think of it as Capture the Flag). The most memorable part of this game for me was launching a fixer high into the air thanks to a limo going about 100mph up a set of stairs. The guy online laughed his ass off because he was launched high in the air and absolutely didn’t see the limo coming. It was breathtaking. A God Hand-like moment.
Companion App — This was not available at the time of this review, but I’m dying to get my hands on it. Tomorrow it shall be downloaded.
While you won’t find anything online that is comparable to Grand Theft Auto V’s online gameplay, what you do get seems to fit within the world of Watch Dogs. It doesn’t get in the way and imagining the insane chaos that is going to ensue tomorrow when it goes online just puts a huge smile on my face. It’s going to be fun.
Pulling back a bit, let’s discuss this ‘car’ thing.
Stealing cars in Watch Dogs is essential for your happiness. It won’t prevent progression in the game, but if you want some great mean machines then you need to steal cars. Be forewarned, though, if you steal the wrong car then you will have the police called on you. Try and go for the cars parked on the street, as they usually don’t draw anyone’s attention. If you find a car that you like and you want to steal it, but a crowd of people are around, then set off another car’s alarm to divert attention (another hack). The more cars that you collect in the game, the more cars are unlocked for you to purchase and drive. There are several categories of vehicles to obtain in Watch Dogs (sports, trucks, heavy, etc.) and they all serve a purpose.
Understand that Ubisoft Montreal has looked into how different vehicles act and how much damage vehicles can take — when chased or when driving like lunatics. Need an example? In one mission you’re being chased by a boatload of mobsters in cars/SUVs. My tiny Mazda Miata wouldn’t outrun these suckers. Instead of trying, and failing, I found a beautiful armored vehicle at a stop light. I figured ‘what the hell’, got out of my Miata, pulled the driver out of the armored van and took it. That vehicle took so much damage from being slammed into, so much damage from bullets and gave far more damage than any other vehicle I owned. Ubisoft really thought through each vehicle, as each one brings a different set of attributes to the table. Another example of this is accessing a super car and having the ability to absolutely outrun the police. If your vehicle gets outside of a gray bubble on the hud (which is the police range) then you escape the police. Any writer trying to sell you on the fact that Ubisoft just put a pointless range of vehicles together for this title simply didn’t play the game enough to realize the details. The cars/trucks (and even boats) play a vital role in this game and Ubisoft seemed to treat them as such.
As you can tell, there’s a lot to this game and there isn’t much stumbling about when it comes to finding something to do. Ubisoft Montreal throws a lot of worthwhile gameplay to the gamer in Watch Dogs. Nothing feels forced or out of place. Everything feels like it fits into the scheme of what Ubisoft Montreal was trying to do. Is it going to knock off GTA anytime soon? Probably not, but I had a bit more fun with Watch Dogs because it felt like a tightly knit game when compared to my experience with GTA V (even though its world is large and flexible). I’m curious to see what the updates and DLC will bring to this world.
With gameplay almost entirely explained, what about those visuals? The current generation systems will easily make the depth of the environment never ending. The Chi-town landscape is truly something to behold when you’re viewing it onscreen. You can see mountains in the background, buildings, a good looking sky with proper lighting structure coming from the sun (when it’s out) and the waves…my goodness the waves in the water. The environment you play in is just simply gorgeous. You will find some jaggies here and there on wires and far-off buildings, but nothing too bad that will make you wish for The Order to get here already (although, I do really want that game here ASAP). Watch Dogs is impressive when it comes to the environments.
As for the character models, you still get a lot of smooth animation from Aiden and company. His clothing flutters in the wind, gets wet in the rain and flexes/unflexes when it needs to do its thing. The lighting, shading and details that reflect off Aiden when he’s within certain environments are very obvious and proper. His overall character model looks good, though not as good as he originally looked like in E3 demo last year. I’m sure the PC folks will get closer to that demo than the console versions, but they’re not too far off.
Other little details in the game that make you go ‘wow’ include the environment’s reaction to the weather. When the wind is blowing, the tree leaves are stirring. The puddles on the street show proper reflection from above. The cars reflect perfectly when going through certain environments of the city. There’s a lot of little details that make this game absolutely stunning to look at, but if you’re expecting what Ubisoft showed off last year at E3, then you’re going to be disappointed. Just know that it looks much better than the PS3/Xbox 360 version.
As for the cutscenes, they’re divided into good and bad. The story cutscenes, the big ones, look gorgeous. Fully animated and detailed, you can see some absolutely stunning effects and details in folks faces and movement. The other cutscenes, which lead directly into gameplay, are two to three steps above last generation graphics. You get stiff hands and a little dead-eye action in these cutscenes. They’re generally short, but they are a reminder that the current generation hardware is still getting figured out. Honestly speaking, The Order is the first title that looks like a current generation game separated from the last. When SCEA is in your backyard helping you that probably makes things easier.
Anyway, the visuals aren’t perfect, but they’re much better than most people are expecting. They’re certainly going to make a lot of PS4 owners enormously happy. I was certainly satisfied with them.
Heading toward the end here, is the game difficult? This goes back to my previous statement of properly planning your way through missions. Outside of stealth missions, you’ll find multiple ways to handle bad guys and bad situations. The only times I was ever frustrated with the game is when the controls were fighting me a bit, and when I had to guide another character through a mission (I can’t tell you much about that, as it would ruin the story, but just know it’s the only ‘linear’ portion of the game that is limiting). The controls are a bit of a fight when you’re going from cover to running. Watch Dogs doesn’t want to break cover unless it absolutely has to break cover — and that’s more on the user than it is on the game. Still, I can’t tell you how many times I had to constantly reposition Aiden behind cover, only to struggle to find the ‘O’ button to get him out of it. It seemed like an annoying step and I never truly got used to it. The cover system is nice, though, but sometimes it can get in the way.
Another element that made the game difficult was the randomness of the enemy artificial intelligence. This is a complaint that is on me more than it is on the game. Once you restart the mission, the game will sometimes randomly give different actions to the enemies. Instead of them going left, maybe they go right. Instead of them jumping over a fence, maybe they hide behind a car. This is in addition to the game switching up the characters and their clothing (not sure why they did this, but it does add some random intrigue into the gameplay). As a gamer that has spent years chasing the same patterns during battle, this threw several unexpected wrenches into my strategy when trying to complete missions. It was annoying, but I have to give them props for its randomness. It’s nice to see a game that keeps you on your toes, regardless of difficulty.
Anyway, there weren’t many stumbling areas in the game that caused me to curse, just a few here and there.
So is this game worth the price and wait? Yeah, I think you’ll find 85% of what you were expecting out of this game at the end of the day. It certainly won’t take the GTA series over in terms of depth and open world playability, but it’s going to make Rockstar think about when it needs to do to prevent the next Watch Dogs from taking it to the woodshed. It’s going to be scary to think what Watch Dogs 2 is going to look like once Ubisoft developers get the hardware sorted out. Until then, buy and enjoy Watch Dogs.