I thought I had been vigilant about my initial scans of the facility. Hacking between cameras to tag the guards and find a quick route to the terminal. Carefully sneaking around in cover, I subdued most guards with my baton, but had to pull off a few quick suppressed pistol shots to keep from raising an alarm. Having pulled the information I needed from the terminal, I turned to high tail it out of there, only to find one guard that I hadn’t accounted for. He signals for backup as I hop over a fence to find the SUV I had arrived in. My radar shows three enemy vehicles fast approaching as I speed down a busy road. With the enemy on my tail, I race through an intersection, and hack the traffic lights so that it becomes a four-way green light. One pursuer can’t react in time, and veers into oncoming traffic. Two left, and a bridge is up ahead. Hacking the bridge, it starts to raise and I launch over the river below. Lucky for me, my pursuers weren’t feeling as brave as I, and slam on their brakes. I’m home free.
Watchdogs, the much anticipated and oft-delayed open-world game from Ubisoft, creates a near-future version of Chicago and then gives you the tools to create these exciting moments. The city is constantly monitored and controlled by a system called CTOS, a vast network of interconnected cameras and datacenters staffed by the Blume corporation. Couched in the idea that constant monitoring will yield security and convenience, data on every persons lives is collected, processed, and stored. Not content to sit idly by, an underground group of hackers known as DedSec constantly subvert and infiltrate the system in an effort to raise awareness that citizens freedoms are being taken away from them. There are a couple of twists along the way to keep things engaging, but at times some of the story beats and motivations feel off or completely lacking. And very rarely did I ever feel like the end of any particular mission left me with a cliffhanger, if not even an exact idea of how the next mission will play out – gameplay design and all.
You assume the role of Aiden Pearce, a man presumably afflicted with terribly poor circulation and a sun allergy given the amount of fabric and leather covering him at all times. A hacker by trade, though not officially aligned with DedSec, the game sets off with a digital heist gone awry. You and your cohort Damien Brenks are interrupted by a mysterious third hacker, who is able to ascertain your identities. A hit is then put out on Aiden’s head, but results in the death of his niece, Lena. Filled with a need for revenge, and spurred on by a manipulative Damien that still wants to complete the job, Aiden is set to take on CTOS in any way he can. Along the way, Aiden has aid of his hired fixer named Jordi, and a helpful yet anonymous hacker by the handle of BadBoy17.
With the opening setup complete, the game sets you out into a beautifully created, technologically laden Chicago. Now, I will refrain from using the phrase “accurately” created Chicago, as my memorable exposure to the city is just a short weekend in the last couple of months. While things like heavy pedestrian and vehicular traffic do not meet my recollection, the scale of buildings, beautiful bridges over the river, and distinct feelings for each section of the city ring true. The map is decently sized, taking around 8 minutes to go from corner to corner in a standard vehicle. While there is an early appreciation for the detail put into this city, that becomes harder to enjoy as you race through just to get to the next mission or event. By the later parts of the game, I found myself using the fast travel systems to go to one of my many hideouts, or to hop on the L-Train and get off at another stop. The times I did, the game loaded very quickly and I was right back in the action.
The story progression takes place over 39 distinct missions, but the game offers a vast array of activities to partake in. Story missions often have you infiltrating a base, chasing down a runaway contact, trying to escape custody – or a smattering of all three in one go. These basic frameworks are also represented in side missions, tasking you with busting up a gang hideout, stopping an incoming convoy, or doing a delivery of certain vehicles. Unfortunately, things can become rather formulaic and drag on, especially if engaging in any of the side quests while still progressing the store. There is also a set of little games like poker, a drinking game, logic puzzles on a chessboard, and a foot race to collect coins. To fill the role of completely off-the-wall endeavors, there are a set of “Digital Trips” that have you bouncing on psychedelic flowers, or controlling a huge mechanical spider that terrorizes the city. These experiences are replete with the requisite animation of you collapsing to the ground as you fire one up – be sure to go into a seedy alley by a dumpster to get that true addict effect. Then, there are some more controversial or emotional sides tasks. Hacking a citizens CTOS system to see inside their home in the aptly named “Privacy Invasions.” Stopping a human trafficking sex trade ring by locating the buyers and making sure they won’t ever buy a human being again. Locating missing persons, and finding out what lead them to their fate. These are heavy topics to broach in a video game, and yet they are handled with an appropriate amount of respect so as to not come across as crass.
What really helps aid in the diversity of gameplay available is the presence of the hacking system. And what is so elegant about the system is its simplicity. In many games, a complicated puzzle is required to accomplish a hack, to make the player feel like they earned it. And while there are a couple of these puzzles at very secure terminals, it is by no means the norm. Cameras, traffic lights, car alarms, remote explosives, cell phones, and even helicopters – all of these can be hacked by simply holding down X. Now a lot of these functions will need to be unlocked via the skill tree, but the game is fairly fast and loose with experience that you are not often missing out on something new to play with. The real key to success is hacking cameras, because when you are looking through a camera, you can chain together more hacks. There are times where you have to hack a camera, to see a laptop in someone’s office, then hack that laptops camera to then see a control panel that you can activate. Or you have to use cameras to guide an ally through a hectic scene, avoiding danger by scouting ahead and telling them when to move. Although taking a different approach to world interaction, I saw a lot of exciting similarities between the hacking in Watchdogs and that of the Syndicate reboot that came out in 2012 – fast, easy, satisfying, and integral to your experience.
With any open world game, there needs to be a focus on refined mechanics for driving, shooting, running, environmental manipulation, and in the case of Watchdogs, hacking. While the game does not fall flat on its face in any regard, it does fail to excel. Driving a vehicle is floaty and unsatisfying, though I did find that riding motorcycles was more accessible than most other games of its ilk. Foot travel lets you vault, run, and climb objects, and you can hold down sprint and the vault button to automatically handles obstacles as they come your way. But you feel as though you’re lumbering about, and there is a complete lack of a jump button. There were times where I could have easily jumped up a small rock or jumped a tiny gap and carried on, but the vault command was of no use, stymying forward progress. Combat does feel like an improvement for the genre as a whole, and the use of Focus (think slow motion, almost like Max Payne bullet time) can get you out of a pinch. But aside from using a silenced pistol to try and maintain some semblance of a stealthy approach, many of the wide selection of other weapons felt similar. This is made a small problem by the fact that, in late game, you need headshots to effectively dispatch enemies without trying to unload a full clip. And with targets at distance, accuracy and sustained fire can be very hard to manage.
What became a real struggle for me was that any system in the game that requires specific interaction via button prompt has some high-tech mind reading technology that figures out what you want to at a given time, and then does the exact opposite. Trying to get out of cover to use Focus and pull off a headshot on a sniper? Sorry, you’re stuck here for now! Oh, you just got out, and you see the sniper lining up his shot? Well, we can’t have you being behind that car right now, that would be too helpful! Need to get into that car, because four cop cars just rolled up and are opening for on you (after you so helpfully incapacitated a murder – where is my thanks)? Pound on Y all you want, you aren’t getting into this vehicle. Need to subdue that enemy that is coming around the corner of this barrier? I’m sorry, we’re going to vault you over this piece of cover instead, exposing you to the two enemies that you were trying to remain hidden from. Want to hack that camera that is above this explosive wall unit? Nah, you actually wanted to blow that unit and alert everyone to your presence. I would be hard pressed to find any mission in the game that went exactly as I expected on the first try, as there was invariably one of these missteps that threw off my best laid plans.
There are some very strong graphical flourishes and design choices present, but some odd decisions had me a little let down. When hacking into certain servers, there is an ASCII hacker animation that was immensely satisfying. There are some neat interface designs in short cutscenes, and some cool high-information, low-data animations that represent the video data collected by CTOS. Fast travel brings up a representation of Chicago that is nothing but white dots that was very neat the first few times. Streaming in data about those around you via a real world HUD, as you stare down at your phone feeding you the data, is creepily invasive, and handled very well. And of course, real-life Chicago is a lovingly crafted world. What really bothred me are the tropes of internet culture coming out in spades with character design. As noted earlier, Aiden is completely covered in enough clothes to keep a family of 5 warm through the winter. Clara, a female hacker you meet early on, is a tattoo covered, leather pants wearing, shaved head with ponytail bad girl. Defalt, a rival hacker, is a straight knockoff of the musical artist Deadmau5, replete with a brand of humor straight from a 12 year old script kiddy. Any and all of the main characters would feel right at home in the movie Hackers, but I feel like there was really no need for them to be so over-the-top.
Though on the whole the audio is on the good side, it is a bit of a shame that the best audio in the game is found in the voice acting of a small side character, Jordi. The writing and delivery made his short interludes exciting, but he was sorely underused. Aiden’s voice actor ventures all over the map, but stays more on the angry and sulky side of the scale. During his finest moments, it’s as if Michael Ironside, Kiefer Sutherland, and Batman had a “gravelly voice-off” and then were sampled together. I may be spoiled by games like Grand Theft Auto, but the choice of audio when in a vehicle is severely restricted. Nothing along the lines of radio stations, a song just starts playing and you can opt to stop it our skip to a new random song. And regardless of your choice, it is superseded by chase music if applicable. The worst part is when a city-wide announcement is made. For some baffling reason, the audio of these announcements was a good 2 – 3 times louder than the rest of the game, coming out at a deafening level. As I would never know if one was going to happen, I had to have the remote handy in case I had just watched a cutscene where Aiden’s low voice was barely audible.
Watchdogs brings in some new gameplay ideas, and tries to polish the existing ones of the genre, and combines that with a realistic city and predictable story. The complete package is definitely playable, and a good experience, but one that feels a bit lacking. Some of the best parts of the game are tucked away in a menu, or in a terminal that you can optionally hack. An overwhelming amount of activities are thrown at you, and while their subject matter can be engaging and provocative, the raw mechanics are rather played out. It’s very clear that Ubisoft is looking at this game in terms of a new series, and with focus on the right areas I could see a sequel being a phenomenal success. Just think of the Assassin’s Creed series – a lukewarm first offering, but it has evolved into a massive and varied library, each offering bringing in their own ideas and settings.
Overall – 7
Review by Parker