Watch Dogs – Afterthoughts

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By Jordan Schilling – 17th June 2014
Watch Dogs – Afterthoughts

Now that the dust from E3 2014 has settled, I’ve finally had a chance to finish hacking my way through Chicago with Watch Dogs. I have to admit, I was one of the many who were intrigued by the E3 2012 debut trailer. Sure, I already have plenty of open-world, city-based sandbox games in my collection- Prototype [2], GTA V, Saints Row the Third and Saints Row IV all come to mind- but none of them feature any sort of technology-based gameplay mechanic.

I’ve encountered a handful of titles that have hacking elements, but none of which feature them as a primary element of gameplay. With a few exceptions, hacking mini-games eventually become somewhat of a chore towards the end-game stages of a title. Deus Ex: Human Revolution features hacking mini-games, where Jensen needs to route a signal through a series of interchangeable junctions; even after boosting his hacking skill-tree, hacking turns into a bore, acting as an artificial extender. On the flip side, the Arkham saga features the Cryptographic Sequencer, a device that allows Batman to hack into terminals by solving passwords. It’s a simplistic interface, and in most cases, hacking takes zero time to complete.

Of course, nothing can match the simplicity of hacking into devices in Titanfall…Well, almost nothing, as Watch Dogs simplifies it down to a mere button press.

From what I’ve read across NeoGaf, Reddit and various media outlets, people seem to dislike the simplicity of Watch Dogs’s main feature. To be fair, games with any kind of hacking elements have always presented them in a challenging matter; there’s always some kind of puzzle and/or time-limit to deal with, on top of enemy-pressure. At any given time, Aiden can use the “Profiler” app on his phone to show all hackable targets within a certain range. All that’s needed to do this, is a simple button tap- that’s it. To hack into something, whether it’s a camera, phone, or some terminals, simply hold down the same button…It’s absurdly┬ásimplistic. However, with so many targets in Watch Dogs, I would be very frustrated if I was required to solve a puzzle-based mini-game every single time I tried to infiltrate something.

Watch Dogs night screenshot

Nighttime in Chicago (PC version, Medium Settings)

While the core mechanic has been streamlined, Watch Dogs isn’t without its puzzles. On occasion, I found myself performing the same “complete the circuit” puzzles as in other titles, but this was more prevalent in story-based missions and collectible-driven side-quests. While these puzzles were scarce, I found myself head-deep in vision and camera-centric puzzles: It should come as no surprise that Aiden Pierce can hack into a camera, to then be used as an extra source of vision. However, after hacking into one camera, you can then point at another camera, and hack into that one, and so-on and so-forth. Very many- in fact, almost 80% of the missions- involve playing “camera hopscotch” to find better vantage points, tag enemies, scope-out territories, or hack into terminals that may be outside of the normal viewing area. It’s a very unique element of gameplay, if not slightly overused.

The story is admittedly lacking focus, losing steam very early on in the game. At best, I could say Watch Dogs is a tale of revenge. After completing a job, Aiden’s target retaliates by sending a team of hit-men after him. The resulting accident injures Aiden, but kills his niece. Despite promising his sister on his niece’s grave that he’ll give up being a tech-based mercenary, Pierce falls back into his old habits. Rather than use his abilities in “for hire” situations, Pierce hacks his way through Chicago’s criminal underground in search for answers…all while killing numerous individuals, stealing cars, and other unlawful acts. While it could have easily stuck with the “Niece is dead, find killers” plot, Watch Dogs feels it’s necessary to add several other story devices into the plot, such as ulterior motives of NPCs, and conflict within criminal organizations. Normally, any extra story-driven fluff is welcome, but here, it distracts from the initial goal, and leaves for a convoluted experience.

Aiden frequently reminded me of another protagonist bent on revenge- Alex Mercer. Though one is obviously more violent and rash with his actions, both protagonists suffer from the same lack of a moral compass. Both characters have a clear intention at the start of their respective games (i.e. Watch Dogs and Prototype), which is then lost among the convoluted plot. Much like Alex Mercer, I found that many of Pierce’s actions are followed up with something to the likes of “What have I done? I’m not really a killer, am I?” This statement is then subsequently followed with mass murder. While the supporting cast may fall into several archetypes (“the new girl”, “the psychopath”, “the anarchist”), each character’s personification remains true throughout most of the game, which is a much needed counterpart to Aiden’s own random ambiguity.

DedSec operative Clara Lille

DedSec operative Clara Lille

As a staple for sandbox titles, Watch Dogs offers a huge plethora of activities, many of which I found by accident. For online play, Watch Dogs allows players to compete in highway races, fight over sensitive data, and invade other games. There’s also an online “free roam”, where multiple players enter a hosted game, and are free to do whatever they please, in the same vein as GTA V and Saints Row (though not as large-scale). Part of Ubisoft’s marketing campaign included a huge push for the mobile ctOS app. Those who have it installed on their mobile device of choice, have the ability to create custom challenges for console/PC players to perform. During my time in Chicago, some of the ctOS challenges that I accepted included a race across the Windy City, outrunning police, and trying to outrun the ctOS user as he/she set-off hazards. My game was invaded several times over the course of my review-run; I ended up disabling the feature, due to the game placing enemy players in unreachable areas. Also, invasions cannot be refused, and will halt any in-progress missions until the invasion sequence has been completed.

If you aren’t distracted enough by the various collectible-based side-missions and various online modes, Watch Dogs has a completely different set of mini-games that can either be accessed in the world, or through Aiden’s phone: “NVZN” puts the player against retro-themed aliens in an augmented-reality shooter; “Cash Run” is a parkour based time-trial mode where the player races around the city to collect money; “Digital Trips” are psychedelic mini-games that feature anything from controlling a giant mechanical spider, to bouncing across flowers. Upon taking a casual stroll through the streets of Watch Dogs, I also came across a few drinking and luck-based games, along with poker and blackjack. That said, if you can’t get into the story that Watch Dogs has to offer, there’s plenty of distractions to keep you occupied for hours- almost too many distractions.

Poker cheat-sheet in Watch Dogs

Poker cheat-sheet in Watch Dogs

I’ve made a ton of nitpicking statements regarding Watch Dogs, and I haven’t even touched on the visuals of the PC version…that will come as another post. However, Ubisoft’s IP isn’t necessarily a bad game; I’ve had plenty of fun eavesdropping on unsuspecting citizens, and taking out thugs by exploding electrical breakers. The true Achilles’ Heel of Watch Dogs lies in its story; it lacks focus, and quickly descends into a convoluted mess, much like the main protagonist. If you can look past that glaring issue, Watch Dogs is a unique treat, and a fantastic new take on the sandbox genre.