Note: The following review is SPOILER FREE!
It’s almost midnight and you’re quietly hiding in a dark red sports car. You hack a surveillance camera connected to the roof of a drug store and use it to scan the area around your car. Recovering addicts, college students and rich business people all pass you, unaware that you are profiling each one of them, waiting for a rich bank account to plunder. Suddenly the screen flashes and a purple icon box appears; another player is hacking you! Springing from the stolen car, you sprint from person to person, in an attempt to discover which character has invaded your game.
Pulling your grenade launcher, you blow up a parked car and scatter parts all over the streets of downtown Chicago while civilians scramble for safety. That’s when you notice one person crouched behind a dumpster that isn’t moving. The second you identify them as the hacker, they run for their motorcycle and hop on, revving its engine. Aiming carefully, you take another shot with your grenade launcher and blow both the motorcycle and the hacker riding it, straight back to their own single player story. That, folks, is just a fraction of what “Watch_Dogs” has in store for you.
You aren’t chained solely to cutscenes.
“Watch_Dogs” drops you into the trench coat and ball cap of Aiden Pearce; a man with an impressive grasp on anything with a Wi-Fi connection (and most things without). The introduction has you learn the controls by overseeing an intense and violent interrogation, as you’re searching for answers to the death of your niece (you can’t be a vigilante unless someone innocent dies.) From there you begin your quest for truth, power and the ability to protect your sister and nephew from the technical powerhouses that control Chicago.
The story overall is pretty basic in terms of loss, betrayal and redemption. The presentation, however, is what makes the difference. There is a fluidity of the delivery that makes the story flow so well. You are not chained solely to a series of expository cutscenes in order to learn something new. Instead, you’ll have cell phone conversations, read text messages and see videos on giant screens in Chicago that all do their part to push the story forward as well as the cutscenes. It might seem basic, but having a conversation on a cell phone that moves the story forward while racing a motorcycle through Chicago is an awesome experience.
Hacking is awesome.
The question that most people ask me, is whether or not the smartphone system works well. Simply put, hacking is awesome. The smartphone-hacking interface works smoothly as you run around Chicago taking control of just about everything. Your point of view switches as you hack a surveillance camera and transition from the POV of whatever camera is in your range to control. Icons pop up around transformers, forklifts, steam pipes and other items that you can manipulate to blow up bad guys and hack your way around a compound without leaving your vehicle.
Driving through the city, being chased or not, you’ll be able to hack streetlights, set or drop spike strips and so much more. The camera control system while driving, however, is a total nightmare. It’s easier once you spend time with it, but deploying a traffic jam or busting a steam pipe at just the right time during a car chase can hinder driving performance. The game speed slows, the camera pivots to view the destruction and then flips back to see you driving head on into a car/building/wall or whatever else because you had no way of controlling where you were going.
Depending on what you’re looking at and how far you have leveled up whatever skill tree you favor the most, “your” version of Pearce can be a technical marvel or an effective assassin. However you want to lay waste to the scum of Chicago is wholly up to you depending on how you want to spend your points.
There are five game modes to pick from in “Watch_Dogs.” The one I outlined in the introduction is the 1v1 hacking game. There’s also an open world roam and car racing. The most popular seems to becompetitive decryption combat, where two teams of four players race to get a hold of a file and decrypt it, while the other team tries to steal and kill; it’s chaotic and a blast. The last gameplay mode is one of the most innovative and also the one with the most bugs. The ctOS mobile appchallenge allows players with a smartphone or tablet to challenge racers on consoles in a timed waypoint race through the city. As the racer on the console burns rubber, the player with the mobile device controls the helicopter that shoots at the driver and dispatches police cars, sets off road blocks and does everything else Pearce can do in single player to halt your progression. The mobile app user can create their own tracks and challenge whoever they want online, but the biggest problem a buddy and I kept running into was if he was playing with his smartphone, a phone call or text message would disconnect him from the game and I’d lose all experience points regardless of how long we had been playing. So I recommend playing it on a tablet instead of your phone for the sake of connectivity.
You know what the Midwest is…
The digital city of Chicago is full of archeological staples and an authentic feel. When “Watch_Dogs” hits it, it nails it right on the head, like with the L train, the John Hancock Center and the Holy Name Cathedral. When it misses, however, it drops the hammer, like with the rendering of “The Bean/Cloud” that looks absolutely horrendous in the game. What should be solid shaped and a reflective silver/mirror, is a strange white shape with a hole in the top of it. It might be to copyright laws, but it was so jarring to see it stick out amongst all the work they put into Chicago that I really wished they would have just omitted it completely.
The in game moments are all solid and look and sound great. You’ll be standing on a street and see/hear a tin soda can roll past you that’s totally different from an empty paper coffee cup. The voice acting and lip syncing throughout the game are all top shelf as well, and though I could do with more emotion from Pearce considering all he had been through, the supporting cast all does a great job with inflection and building real character moments throughout the story to make his allies seem sincere and his enemies seem threatening.
”Watch_Dogs” gets so many things right with the maiden flight of what is sure to be a long lasting franchise, that it’s easy to overlook some of the multiplayer missteps, shoddy car camera and digital misrepresentations. The side quests, collectibles, online gameplay and joy you feel while hacking your way through Chicago will keep you playing for hours after completing the story, and is definitely a game you should add to your collection sooner rather than later.
Did Ubisoft outdo themselves with “Watch_Dogs?” What’s your favorite aspect of the game? Hack the comments below and leave an encrypted message for all to decode?
*This review of "Watch_Dogs" is based off playing a retail copy of the game on the PlayStation 4 console.
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