City of Missed Opportunities: Watch Dogs [Review]
At this point in gaming, when you create an open-world game you have a lot to live up to. Games like GTA, Saints Row, Red Dead Redemption, and Assassin’s Creed have set the open-world bar pretty high, so even if your game is the first in a hopeful franchise, a lot is expected of it. Watch Dogs has been riding the hype train since initial trailers were released for it. Before it even came out it was being praised for being unique and was touted as the definitive next gen experience, but does it really live up to that hype? As it goes with most passengers on the hype train, I don’t think so.
I need to start by saying that in no way is Watch Dogs a clone of any game that came before it. Sure, it takes some good ideas like the car delivery systems we saw in Saints Row and Sleeping Dogs, but a good idea is a good idea, and you don’t need to reinvent every wheel. The foundation of Watch Dogs, however, is hacking… Everything. I’m talking traffic lights, bridges, cameras, phones, the power grid, ATMs, cars, boats, helicopters, and even fucking sewer pipes. And if you think causing a sewer pipe to explode by hacking it is weird, wait until you can remote detonate someone’s grenade that’s on their person. Who makes grenades with remote detonators? Who buys grenades with remote detonators?
In Watch Dogs you play as Aiden Pierce – a hacker that used to use his skills at a thief, but after an incident left a family member dead, he’s now on the search for answers. While there are side missions that allow you to take on your everyday criminal, the vast majority of Aiden’s dealings will be directly related to Aiden getting revenge. I was disappointed when I found out that the game was just another revenge story, as it would have been much cooler if the main game was about a 21st century vigilante who pisses off the wrong bad guy and has to take him down.
The game’s trailers like to make you think that you control the city with your hacks, and this is true to a degree. Ultimately your hacks allow you to become the city’s biggest dick. When you hack a traffic light, you don’t just turn your side green and other direction red – you turn all sides green, ultimately causing an accident. Other dick moves include putting up a bridge, completely changing the flow of traffic, and blowing a sewer pipe, causing accidents and possibly death to unsuspecting civilians.
It’s clear that your driving hacks are specifically tailored for you to use as a getaway mechanism, and you will be doing a LOT of getaway driving in this game. It still doesn’t change the fact that you just caused a 12 car pile up to get away from one guy, though. On the plus side, driving and hacking is very easy and smooth. This is something that could have easily been messed up, but instead you should find that you can keep the pedal on the floor in most cases and still execute hacks with ease.
The biggest dick move has to be hacking people’s phones and emptying their bank accounts. This is how you get the bulk of your money; or at least how I did. These aren’t bad people either. Your phone has a feature called the profiler, where when activated, it gives you information on people all around you. You get their name, things they may be involved in, and then you may be able to listen to their current conversation, intercept text messages, or as I mentioned before, hack their bank account.
Some people you find are a bit unscrupulous, like ones who watch child porn or deal in prostitution, but others are just everyday people with everyday problems. One guy’s conversation I heard was about him having to pee really bad while having sex, so he faked having an orgasm so he can go take a leak. We’ve all been there buddy (*puts up three-fingered Hunger Games salute). One guy I stole from had just lost his job, another was about to start paying child support, and another just went through a divorce. Things like that make Aiden Pierce, the game’s protagonist, the biggest dick in Chicago. The funny thing about it is that the people may still love you for it.
There is a reputation system in play in Watch Dogs. The problem is that I can’t really tell you what it does. You hear about how people feel about the vigilante (that’s you… and I’ll get back to that later), but that’s about it. You get positive reputation for helping citizens and negative for killing them, but unless you’re bad at the game, killing citizens should be a rare occurrence. The only negative reputation opportunities that you regularly come into contact with is when you are trying to stop a crime in progress. If you kill the criminal it comes off as negative, but it’s so easy to catch and stop the criminal that killing them makes no sense. I would expect that hacking and clearing bank accounts or causing car accidents because of hacking a traffic light would be worth negative reputation points, but I would be wrong. The only way to negate all of the positive reputation you get just by playing the game would be to go on a killing spree in the city.
I’m not even sure if there would be any difference with the gameplay if I had negative reputation. With positive reputation all I notice is that on news reports people support the vigilante and say they would protect him from the police, but I’ve never had any citizen help me. It might be cool if citizens reported you to the police if they saw you while your reputation was negative. It’s very possible, since citizens call the police if they see you committing a crime like stealing a car, but I’ll never know since the game only has one save file and I’m not about to go on a killing spree on my current play-through.
The place where Watch Dogs misses its mark is in variety. Like I mentioned earlier, other open world games have set a high bar, and one of those high points is mission variety. While playing GTA, Saints Row, or Sleeping Dogs I rarely felt like I was playing similar missions. To be honest, I can’t name a single mission in GTA 5 that reminded me of another in that game. Watch Dogs has a few types of missions, and then that’s pretty much it for the campaign.
The one you will come across the most are infiltration missions. You are sent to a location which is heavily guarded. You’ll find a camera to hack, and then move from camera to camera trying to locate a person of interest – usually someone with some type of access code to get into the room you need. This is also a good time to take a look at the area and see where all of the enemies are. Once you see an enemy on camera, that person is marked on your radar for the remainder of the mission or until you die. The thing I found funny about the camera situation is that it appears the only person using the cameras is you. You never have to worry about being in the view of a camera. No alerts go off or anything when you’re spotted. Very convenient.
Anyway, once you have the access code or whatever you needed to get first, you find a way into the area. You sneak around until you get to your objective, which is usually a person, computer, or some type of junction box for you to hack. Intruding one of the junction boxes (which usually gives you access to more cameras inside a specific location) is a bit different from your other hacks. Your other hacks activate at the push of a button, but with intrusions you have to solve a few puzzles to complete the hack. Nothing difficult, and even if you’re not good with puzzles you can just keep knocking away until you get what you want.
Most of the time you can level these missions unscathed and get out quietly. Other times, or if you manage to alert someone, you will need to escape and lose your pursuers (usually in a car chase). Alternatively, you can kill everyone there after you’re caught, or if you know you’re not the sneak in/out type, kill them before you reach your objective. As the game progresses you will start to encounter more enemies. Of course you get your under-armored/equipped guards, but you will also run into more heavily armored ones – and some of them wear so much armor they just become douchebags and talk shit the entire time you are fighting them. You also have enemies that can call in for reinforcements, so taking those guys out would be key.
You can go in, guns blazing, to each area, but it’s clear the game wants you to be stealthy. Using your hacks can do things like cause distractions by calling certain guards’ phones, making exploitable objects explode (including guards), and cause machinery to move around and possibly fall on enemies. If you play your cards right in most places you’ll never have to touch anyone directly. Those overly-armored douchebags? Drop a shipping container on them. Those two guards by the door? Make a fuse box explode.
In the event that you do want to get your hands dirty, you can take enemies down stealthily, or you can use your vast arsenal of weapons to kill enemies. The game’s tips recommend using silenced weapons, but I only had one, so it was more like silenced weapon. Besides having to adjust for the analog stick, shooting in Watch Dogs was pretty smooth. You can choose from an assortment of pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, and assault rifles. Each weapon feels a bit different, so even if the gun you’re using isn’t rated the highest, it may work better for you depending on your play style.
Additionally, as you play you will pick up supplies that allow you to make useful devices. The earliest one you get allows you to create a device that will make noise to distract enemies and make them go in certain directions. As you progress, you will get other devices that can jam communications and even cause area blackouts which can help you sneak past enemies. Between the hacks and devices like this, you have plenty of tools to reach your objectives. Of course, you can just do things the old fashioned way and kill everybody.
Not all of your hacks and devices are available from the start. There is a leveling system, and every time you level up you get points to put in your skill tree. The skill tree is broken down in to hacking, combat, driving, and crafting areas. Hacking unlocks new hacks, but also improves others. It can also improve the battery life on your phone, which is basically how the game controls how many hacks you can do at one time. Combat focuses on improving your gun play and how you take damage, while driving improves how your cars take and output damage. Crafting is how you will unlock new devices to craft using your parts.
Like I said, there wasn’t much mission variety. Besides the infiltration missions, the only other missions you will see are ones where you need to guide someone through an area, missions where you need to tail someone in a car or on foot, and some missions where your only objective is to go from camera to camera until you reach the person you want to surveil. I don’t count the missions that introduce you to side missions as true campaign missions, either. Do they push the story forward? Yes. However, it’s very obvious they just want to teach you how to play these types of missions. It’s a bit unnecessary, however, since these missions become available to you before you play them in the campaign. I don’t know about you, but when I see a new icon pop up that I’ve never seen before, I’m going to check it out.
Something that annoyed me big time were the Online Intrusions. This is when another real player is able to invade your SINGLE PLAYER game to try to cause some type of disruption. They may try to hack you, tail you, or something else, but if they are successful they will get notoriety points and you will lose some. Those point give you extra perks like being able to do more damage to a vehicle or getting more money from side missions. These missions annoyed me so much because they can unexpectedly stop you from progressing. I had a few times where I was getting ready to start a mission, only to have the mission disabled and I was notified that I was being intruded. Then you have to find the intruder and take them down before they complete their objective.
To be honest, it wasn’t difficult to find most players. They don’t move like NPCs, so if I saw a person standing still in an awkward place or start running, I knew that was my guy. One person that was trying to intrude my game ran into three cars and ran over four civilians… That’s how I knew he was the guy. When someone is intruding you they cannot hurt you, only you can take action on them. I never lost an intrusion, but after the sixth time it happened I was done with it. Luckily you can disable Online Intrusions and go about your business.
The side missions are pretty cut and dry. During crimes in progress you have to wait for the criminal to start attacking the victim and stop them before they are successful in whatever they are trying to do. If the criminal sees you beforehand, they will bolt and you get no points for the mission. Also, if you are too slow they will start to run away and you will need to catch them. Don’t worry, they don’t move too fast. I think they go to Planet Fitness. Gang Hideouts are where you have to reach a gang leader and knock him down, but you cannot kill him. The purpose in those missions is to show that you can get to anyone anywhere, anytime.
My least favorite of the side missions is the criminal convoy. You are given a path that a group of criminals are going to take, and it’s up to you to stop the convoy and take out criminals. These are usually pretty boring since you need to wait for the right time to make your move, which may or may not come depending on traffic or what route they take, or it can become a huge cluster fuck if they discover you beforehand – calling in reinforcements that make your life miserable. If they do call in reinforcements, you will need to either escape or kill them all before the mission is complete. It seems the only time the AI is a threat is when you are in a car, because outside of the car these guys are pushovers.
The AI is one of the biggest problems I had with the game. There was a stark difference playing AI while in cars versus not. While in a car the AI felt clairvoyant. They always seemed to know exactly where I was even if I “lost” them. You can hide in cars, and somehow the AI would just happen to know which parking lot to pull into or street to go down. If you manage to get jammed up between a few cars, or stop long enough for them to get out of their cars and start shooting, expect to get torn up by some pretty accurate gun fire.
Outside of vehicles in the restricted areas you are supposed to sneak around in, enemies aren’t much of a threat. One thing they keep is their accuracy; they will tear you up if you are out of cover, but other than that, they are easy to trick and get rid of. The biggest problem the AI has is that they like to cluster together if something explodes. Let’s say you blow up a fuse box or toss a grenade in some corner – the AI will go on alert and then, as a group, go and check out the noise. At the very least this allows you to go around them once the coast is clear. Sometimes they cluster so tightly in a group that you can toss a grenade right in the middle of them and blow them all up. Apparently they don’t notice the grenades when you toss them at their feet.
Let’s say the noise you made wasn’t loud enough to get everyone’s attention. I had several occasions where I would make something explode and kill someone whose body is now 5 feet away from the explosion. The AI would come over, check out the explosion, be in perfect view of the body, and then give the all clear. The only time the AI would recognize a downed ally was if I used a take down or a silenced weapon to kill them. This may be more of a bug than anything, but it was consistent and made the game easy and predicable. This isn’t the only bug I dealt with, either. I dealt with a few, but the one I dealt with the most is disappearing enemies. Sometimes if you die while on a mission, when you respawn all of the enemies would be gone from the area; allowing you to walk out with zero resistance. I hope this is a bug and not a feature.
Outside of the side missions you have various activities that you can participate in. You can play poker, chess, or you can challenge someone to a drinking contest. There are others, but to be honest, the only one that felt interesting to me were the D-Trips. When you take a D-Trip you are dropped in a virtual world that acts as a mini-game. For example, in one minigame you get to play as a gigantic Spider-Tank that can crawl up buildings and is equipped with a mini-gun and rocket launcher to deal with any cops that show up. Another good one was Alone, a game where you have to use stealth to reach various points in the city. If you are seen, the robot enemies in this D-Trip can disintegrate you. D-Trips pop up around the city, but once you wake up from one you won’t see it again in the same location.
There were a few things that were jarring about how Watch Dogs handled its characters and story. First off, with so much hacking and digital control I though the game was going to be taking place in the near future, but it actually takes place in November 2013, so it feels a bit silly to watch this guy hack everything in the city with the equivalent of an iPhone. Am I looking for realism? Not really, but if the game was a bit in the future it would have felt better. I also don’t like the disconnect between what the game tries to portray and what it actually is portraying.
Based on the news reports you hear and what people are saying in the streets, you would think Aiden is some kind of hero. Sure, the side missions allow you to stop crimes and take down criminals, but the campaign is squarely focused on Aiden getting revenge. He doesn’t really care about fighting the good fight. He does whatever it takes to get what he needs. He doesn’t care about blackmailing you, and he only kind of cares if it kills you. Ask the guy whose identity he stole to gain access to a location how good he thinks Aiden is. Lastly, the amount of damage he does to the city, all of the civilians that you steal from, and all of the citizens that you hurt just by using your hacks vastly outweighs any good he is doing. It felt like they wanted to have good and bad paths in the game, but then decided not to do it.
Another thing I found disappointing is that I really don’t consider this a next gen experience. I played this on PS4, and it looks like a PS3 version with higher resolution textures and a faster frame rate. With next gen technology I’m looking forward to higher polygon counts for better detail in the face or hair, and better looking cars. The city looks nice, but honestly, GRID 2 had a better looking Chicago. The audio was also something I wasn’t liking too much. The sounds for the guns and vehicles was fine, and the voice acting was OK at best, but the dialog some of the henchmen had was pretty weak. The worst was the high-pitched screams of the guards. One more octave up and the credits would have credited Ned Flanders with the henchmen voice.
Watch Dogs isn’t a bad game, and I did enjoy playing it. I do feel that there were quite a few missed opportunities, and that those extra months they pushed the game back to polish it really didn’t work out that great. I can only imagine what we would have got if they released it on time. It’s selling well, but is nowhere near ready to sit next to great open-world games like GTA or Red Dead Redemption. The overall package does make it worth the asking price, but I wouldn’t call it a must play – so if $60 is a premium for you, you may want to wait a bit before picking it up. It’s selling so well I can’t imagine it will take much time before it is discounted.
The control scheme is great, allowing you to hack, drive, and switch between functions all at the same time.
The city turns into your playground thanks to the game’s hacking mechanics.
The story moves at a nice pace and is still a decent length.
You’re not stuck in one area for too long. The city is fun to traverse.
Character movement is great. Won’t be getting stuck on anything.
Doesn’t feel like a next gen experience. Feels like a previous gen clean-up.
The music and dialog from some of the guards wasn’t the best.
AI is dim. Very easy to get around.
The story seems to conflict itself.
Missions feel repetitive.
Watch Dogs is a good overall game, but in the end it feels like it under-delivered. Based on the bugs and AI, it feels like the extra months Ubisoft took to “polish” the game was really a tune up job. Chicago is your playground in this game, and even though the missions are repetitive, they are still fun to play. Good game and a nice start for the series, but will need much work to join the greats.