Watch_Dogs – review
The first footage from Watch_Dogs revealed at E3 in 2012 was not only a great surprise, but, in a sense, visualized hopes on what will the so called next-gen games offer and look like. It is true that the six months release delay could arouse doubts, but ultimately it was worth the wait.
Chicago, autumn 2013. Aiden Pearce is an experienced hacker, whose criminal past has led to a family tragedy. He decides to find and take revenge on the perpetrator with the help of his indestructible smartphone and access to the city control system called ctOS. The story may seem trivial, and in this case, it is. The main plot is completely detached from the city exploration part. And, it isn’t even possible to replay completed missions. The game is maintained in a fairly serious tone and humorous elements may be found mainly in side quests, or numerous easter eggs.
As far as Aiden is the protagonist, of course, it is the city that plays the major role. Or rather just a vision of the city, which in its entirety is linked to one control system. The game shows pretty well the problem of surveillance by authorities and the ease with which individuals can take advantage of the tracking systems for their own purposes.
I am amazed how easy it is to control the environment. You can not only manipulate the traffic lights, keep track of people with cameras, and cut off electricity in an area, but also read a short summary of every man or woman encountered on the street. Nobody is anonymous. And, many times I would wonder those few seconds longer and ask myself: “Do you really want to shoot or rob a person with cancer or a four-time divorcee?”. The reputation system implemented into the game is not an empty statistic. The worse reputation, the more often Aiden will be in the news, and people on the streets will be more eager to notify the police.
The city is vibrant, colorful and available as a whole from the very beginning, offering many more or less famous places and buildings in Chicago to check out. Around each of them there is a plate that provides basic information about the property and allows you to cross it out of the list. You can also visit some clothing stores, coffee shops and places like that and at the same time observe how each individual is a bit different and takes care of its own affairs.
In the intervals between the story missions and sightseeing you are free to take care of a quite a number of side quests, standard mini-games like chess and poker or try Digital Trips. One of such “digital trip”, for example, is a brilliant simulator of a giant, mechanical spider that terrorizes the town or you can try the one where you literally jump from one flower to another in the rhythm of the music. There is plenty to choose from.
Hacking. This is probably the most important element distinguishing Watch_Dogs from the sandbox games crowd. Cameras scattered throughout Chicago and the surroundings are the best friends of you, the hacker. You can easily track the target or watch the situation and plan the whole operation while sitting relaxed a few blocks away. And all of this is possible with just a single button. In addition to that the stealth system works as it should and thereby the game successfully encourages you, to complete missions in the way of the ninja. Even escort missions, so much hated in many other productions, have been well designed and do not frustrate.
However, if the situation requires some fire and death, hacking can also come to our aid. You can blow up installations in the walls and under the streets, play with the traffic lights and road blockers, or even turn off the power in a whole area – works extremely well after dark.
While being on the streets you can choose from all sorts of cars and motorcycles to fool around. The driving system is very arcade and allows you to easily make use of the interactive elements of the Chicago infrastructure as you drive. And all vehicles offer a camera view from the cockpit.
Chases in Watch_Dogs represent quite a different approach to the topic. You can’t shoot while driving, so to eliminate enemies or escape, you are forced to make use of the traffic lights, gates and bascule bridges. There is even an option to hide inside your car when the engine and lights are off. I do not know, however, why the Chicago police do not have water units, so in the case of escape, you can simply take the first boat you see and sail away not giving a crap.
The soundtrack composed by Brian Reitzell is surprisingly refreshing and extremely fast catchy. I also like the idea of customizable playlists in Aiden’s music player instead of a car radio and that some songs must be heard while exploring the city in order to unlock them.
Watch_Dogs is beautiful. The light effects dependent on the weather and the time of day are amazing and the way the environment can be destroyed – incredible. At least most of the times. However, I do not understand why there is one static texture visible on all glazed buildings instead of some real reflections and why some of the most obvious light sources, like car headlights, do not cast shadows. PC version suffers from similar problems, but one of the modders has already fixed them and released an unofficial patch to unlock even more graphic details. When it comes to optimization, the PS4 version works without complaints. I noticed that the only time when the game could slow down a bit for a second was in the online racing mode and occasionally during autosaves.
The multiplayer mode seamlessly meshes with the campaign through an awesomely designed system of interaction between the players. It’s best seen on the example of the hacking and online tracking modes. Each player connected to the Internet can be attacked by another player. One has to steal data, and the other must detect and eliminate the hacker. It’s a perfectly designed variation of hide-and-seek.
The Free Roam mode allows you to play along with seven other players throughout the city. The only major drawback is that there are no missions to play together. There is also a slightly modified Capture the Flag mode, heavily simplified, but enjoyable online racing and the ctOS challenges. The latter mode is particularly interesting because it allows you to play with people who downloaded a special, free application available for Android and Apple devices. One player is a police chopper with the power to summon police units or manipulate the environment and the other, who plays the full version of Watch_Dogs, has to escape while going through some checkpoints in a given time. The only requirement is a 3G or WiFi connection.
Watch_Dogs is a pretty strong 8 out of 10. Aiden Pearce is like a poor Batman. He drives other people’s cars, has only one gadget, and funds his cause with other people’s bank accounts. However, he is quite efficient and in fair player’s hands, he could be called a superhero. Despite the not-so-easily-visible simplifications, Ubisoft provided a game that is firstly, exciting to play and secondly, blazes new trails for other developers and a possible sequel. Especially in the field of online modes and the interactivity of the city.