Set in Chicago, where a central network of computers connects everyone and everything, Watch_Dogs explores the impact of technology within our society. Using the city as your weapon, you will embark on a personal mission to inflict your ...

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Review: Privacy Is Obsolete

Platform: PC (Microsoft Windows) - 16 views - 0 likes

Watch Dogs is a game that many enjoyed hating at the time of its release. Thanks to the marketing machinations of its French developer/publisher Ubisoft, most people conceived an overblown impression of what this game was supposed to be. Having finally played it to completion, I realise that there is an unusual silver lining in reviewing it six years post-launch as I’m unlikely to be influenced by the downgrade controversy surrounding it.

I am Vengeance

Being set in a near-future city of Chicago where everything from the city’s infrastructure down to personal information of every citizen is networked and processed through the Central Operating System (ctOS) gives Watch Dogs and incredible potential in terms of storytelling and gameplay. A potential that is only partially realised in gameplay and completely missed in terms of the narrative. It came as a disappointment to me when, halfway through the game, I realised that the ctOS and all its misuses and abuses by the corporation that designed it, as well as the city government, among others, is simply riding shotgun to Aiden’s revenge tale.

The game opens in media res with our protagonist Aiden Pearce and his partner and mentor Damien utilising their hacking skills by syphoning the money of top-one-percenter clients of a five-star hotel into their own pockets. Things take a turn for the worse when an alarm goes off due to the actions of a third hacker and Aiden pulls the plug on the mission, much to Damien’s chagrin. The rich and wealthy being what they are, don’t like someone else putting hands into their pockets so a contract gets issued on their heads by a mysterious figure. However, proving that the line: “If you want something done, do it yourself” still holds, the hitman manages to bungle the job, resulting in Aiden’s six-year-old niece dying instead of him. Fast forward a year, and we step into Aiden’s shoes as he’s already established himself as the infamous Vigilante in his search of those who wronged him.

Aiden Pearce is a fundamentally flawed character. Too often, in the course of the story, he is willing to do whatever it takes to punish those responsible and protect his family, including trampling the rights of other individuals along the way. In a way, he comes across as a hypocrite who doesn’t want to acknowledge his part in the tragic event that befell him, focusing his rage on others, instead. It is his inability to cope with his niece’s death in a constructive way that witch puts his family in the crosshairs of dangerous people multiple times. He paints himself as their protector, yet doesn’t realise that without his meddling there would be nothing to protect them against.

If one were to look upon him solely through his interpersonal relations he would come out as a psychopath. Aiden constantly relies on the people around him for help, yet he never shows his appreciation, discarding people when he no longer needs them. The bare minimum of backstory provided would have you believe that his behaviour reflects his cunning and intelligence in using social psychology knowledge to always get what he wants from others. Instead, that just comes out as an excuse to try and hide his lack of interesting personality and interpersonal skills. All of this makes Aiden a difficult character to love.

The overall feeling is that the developers tried making him a-lone-wolf-with-a-rugged-voice type of character but tossed him in situations where too often he has to rely on the help of others to accomplish his goals and the result is a protagonist who masks his insecurities around others with a domineering stance and hostile behaviour. Nothing of this would be much of a problem if we got to witness Aiden’s personality change throughout the game as he realises his mistakes to become a better man. Sadly, that never comes to pass.

Come to think of it, there is not much characterisation in Watch Dogs, to begin with. The most interesting aspect of supporting characters is their visual design, showing the developers didn’t lack originality in the graphical department. Shame then that the same could not be said when it came to writing those character’s personalities and stories. The one side character that stands out the most in that respect is disappointingly the one not integral to the game’s story, whose role could be relegated to simple comic relief.

Perhaps the title of the best character in the entire game should go to the city of Chicago itself. Whether you’re driving through puddles in Mad Mile, the city’s financial district, on a rainy day or taking a stroll through the sun-drenched streets of Pawnee, the rural town on the outskirts of the city, you can’t help but enjoy the atmosphere surrounding you. Pull out your personalised smartphone and the Profiler app will start displaying juicy pieces of info on every NPC you encounter, showing you things like their age, occupation, income and some rather personal and useless tidbits like: “HIV positive, blood donor”, for example. It’s exactly this that makes Watch Dogs’ world feel truly alive even though the NPCs don’t do much in and of themselves. Combine this stream of information with little imagination and every NPC on the street becomes a potentially better character than those involved in the storyline.

Hacks of Mass Destruction

However, Aiden’s smartphone is a lot more dangerous than that. Through various CtOS exploits installed, the entire city is at the player’s disposal. With a push of a button, Aiden can explode nearby fuse boxes and steampipes, raise road blockers and bridges as well as distract his enemies by texting them mid-combat. All of this comes particularly useful and, to a point necessary, during high-speed car chases as, unlike his enemies, Aiden can’t shoot while behind a wheel. While that can certainly be annoying in rare instances where there are no hackable objects nearby, timing the hack just as an enemy vehicle is above a steampipe is an extremely satisfying experience that never gets old. And if a chase gets prolonged, as is the case when the player gains a higher heat level (Watch Dogs’ equivalent of GTA’s wanted level), breaking the enemy’s sight, finding a hiding spot and turning off the car’s engine and headlights become a viable escape strategy. It’s precisely those moments of high-octane action which feel like they belong in a Hollywood blockbuster, that represent one of Watch Dogs’ greatest strengths.

When it comes to confronting enemies on foot, things are a little different. One aspect of combat that deserves praise is the fact that most scenarios can be tackled with either stealth, guns blazing or some combination of both. Enemy takedowns, performed both from the front and behind, manifesting in fluid animation display as Aiden utilises his retractable baton in a swift set of moves, are pleasing to witness.

In terms of gunplay, things are not much different from other typical third-person shooters. It often comes down to utilising a vast array of weaponry, ranging from shotguns to assault rifles to grenade launchers which all conveniently fit inside Aiden’s custom-made trench coat, in cover-based shootouts. Among all those traditional weapons, you can also take the advantage of your smartphone to blow up conveniently placed electric boxes or, if you suspend your disbelief long enough, even set off an enemy soldier’s hand grenade and watch as he tosses it in a group of his friends in a panic. While certainly useful at times and funny to witness, relying solely on your hacks during combat is not feasible, if for no other reason, then because of the smartphone’s battery which depletes with every hack and takes a bit of time to replenish. So contrary to the game’s tagline, hacking is a weapon to be sure, just not the weapon of choice when it comes to combat.

Speaking of hacking, the game features a simple character progression tree split into four categories and thus more advanced hacks or combat skills can be acquired with experience points earned through the story or side content. The thing is though, levelling Aiden becomes obsolete halfway through the game for all those, who like myself, balanced out finishing main missions with side content. Reaching the maximum level at that point did by no means indicate that I would stop receiving experience points for accomplished actions, however, as annoying notification pop-ups would remind me of all the surplus XP points that I had no way of spending.

Regarding side content, it’s abundantly clear that Ubisoft’s trend of favouring quantity over quality holds for Watch Dogs as the game is littered with activities for players to participate in. Of those more substantial are the side missions, divided into four categories, each of which features 20-40 variations of the same thing. Despite this, perhaps the most appealing to me were the Gang Hideouts requiring Aiden to take down one or more central targets non-lethally, dealing with others as he sees fit. Missions like those are precisely the ones in which player's freedom to approach situations differently is most manifested.

Perhaps the most original side content is ironically the one that doesn’t stand out as much, the so-called Digital Trips offering players four or five different psychedelic experiences. For example, one of them would have Aiden strapped in a driver’s seat of a demonic car as he drives through the hellish streets of Chicago with the intent of running down as many demon NPCs as he can, all the while ranking combo points. It’s precisely this content that should have been made more visible to the players both through various trailers as well as in-game, considering that by the time I got to taste it, I already suffered from collectable-induced fatigue, being the OCD player that I am.

Intrusion Detected

If by any chance this abundance of side activities is not enough for you, there is also a multiplayer component of the game. Ubisoft’s effort at designing a multiplayer aspect of the game that feels unique to Watch Dogs as well as making it a seamless transition from the singleplayer component is commendable. It comes with five different modes, four of which I got to play, as it seems the one requiring the mobile app is no longer supported.

The one advertised the most is Online Hacking, a mode that pits players 1 on 1 in a nerve-wracking game of cat and mouse. Invading someone else’s game and trying to remain hidden until your hack is finished, all while the enemy player frantically profiles nearby NPCs in search of you is an anxiety-inducing experience, but an oddly satisfying one if you manage to survive long enough to reach that 100%. The mode I enjoyed most, however, was the Online Racing, available to 2 up to 8 players. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking to be said about it, but trying to be the first to reach the finish line in a no-holds-barred struggle is extremely rewarding, especially at times when you manage to win last second thanks to a shortcut you found or a hack you used. However, it, like many things in Watch Dogs, is not without its quirks, as the occasional pop-in of vehicles several inches in front of you will bring your momentum and enjoyment to a full stop.

Cold Night in Chicago

When it comes to the overall atmosphere of the game, Watch Dogs, is without a doubt, pleasing to look at. The game’s visuals, despite the “heinous” downgrade, definitely hold up six years later. The balance of colours, the difference between night and day as well as different weather patterns are realistic enough. Standing out for sure, are the water effects. Lake Michigan, as well as Chicago’s many canals, look jaw-dropping, especially for the time of the game’s release.

In terms of sound design, there is a decent collection of 20 or so licensed tracks which fit into the game’s collectable category as they’re not all available from the get-go. The fact that, after spending more hours on this game than I would care to admit, two or three of them still elude me is more than frustrating. On the negative side, the sound mixing leaves a lot to be desired, as more often than not, Aiden’s phone conversations were barely audible even when the voice slider was cranked to its maximum and would often get muffled among too loud sound effects which makes subtitles non-optional for those wanting to pay attention to the story.

Watch Dogs is a game that certainly doesn’t deserve the backlash it often receives. Thanks in great part to Ubisoft’s mastery of hype building and marketing lies, the game often gets lower review scores than it deserves as crashing someone’s high expectations you helped create in the first place, is always hard to stomach. Is Watch Dogs a great game then? In short, the answer is no, as it represents a prime example of a great (perhaps too ambitious) vision that falls flat in its execution. Taking a surveillance state setting and turning it into a predictable revenge story is not a decision to be commended and paying more attention to how the characters look rather than what they think and how they feel makes their overall beauty superficial.

In conclusion, Watch Dogs is not the best game in existence but it certainly isn’t the worst either. It is a solid entry into a genre popularised by the GTA series, which by no means implies that it is just another one of its clones. With an abundance of unique features and interesting game mechanics, Watch Dogs is more than capable of standing on its own two legs, as feeble as they are.

Score: 6.7
Verdict: Good

Positive points
  • Beautifully realised setting
  • Simple, yet fun hacking mechanics
  • Freedom of approach regarding combat
Negative points
  • Cliché storyline
  • No character development
  • Quantity over quality in terms of side content


Total score