For two years, there's been no escaping Watch Dogs. Ever since it made it's surprising debut at E3, the game has been one of the most hyped and debated titles in recent memory. After delays, hype and its fair share of controversy, does Watch Dogs live up to all of it? Unfortunately that answer isn't as clear as it should be, it's insistence on having something for everyone often get's in its way and as a result the game stumbles with strange AI, a problematic camera and an online suite that's downright suffocating for those who don't want to play online. That being said, Watch Dogs offers a compelling and fun twist on the open-world formula and feels like a great first step for a great new franchise.
Watch Dogs puts you in the shoes of Aiden Pierce, a Chicago based hacker who's looking to give his own brand of justice to those responsible for the death of his niece Lena in a car crash that was part of a hit ordered on him. The story expands from there and you'll meet a ton of interesting characters that are (mostly) well voiced; which is good because Aiden isn't exactly the most interesting protagonist. He's your typical brooding trench-coat wearing anti-hero and though the developers tried, you're not likely to form much of a connection with him at all.
If Aiden is a one-sided protagonist, the setting; a beautifully rendered (if not completely accurate) Chicago is a figurative hexagon. The entire map is open to you and having lived outside of the city for the vast majority of my life, I can tell you, Watch Dogs feels a hell of a lot like Chicago. The majority of the map is populated by a sprawling urban city-scape which makes it a literal playground for the game's unique mechanics. There are some smaller rural areas sprinkled here and there and though they're a nice place to get away from the action, there's usually not a ton going on here. It's also important to note that though the game features incredible effects for things like weather and lighting it's also not without its limits. I was making a getaway from the police on a mission when my motorcycle hit an invisible wall at the top of a hill. Talk about taking me out of the game. It also takes an awkward amount of time to cause damage to your ride. There were several times where I went head on into a truck, to come out with only a slightly scratched up front end.
What makes Watch Dogs different than other open-world games is it's unique profiling and hacking mechanic, which not only makes the game seem much fresher than it actually is, it also adds a ton of believability to the virtual Chicago. By using your cell-phone you'll be able to profile everyone in the city, gaining access to their personal information, contacts and even their bank accounts. It's an interesting mechanic and actually makes you stop and pay attention to the world around you since everyone could play a major part in your game. You could for instance hack into someone's cell-phone and overhear their plans to commit a crime and take action to stop it. Certain conversations will also give clues to the main game's campaign. It's an interesting mechanic that adds another level to the game that's missing from most games in the genre.
The hacking mechanic also finds its way into the main campaign. Where games like Grand Theft Auto and Sleeping Dogs give you few options other than shooting through your opposition, Watch Dogs offers you a ton of different choices. In any given mission, Aiden can hack into security cameras to get a better vantage point on his targets; he can also use them to hack into the electrical systems of things like utilities, machinery and even alarm systems. It all adds up to a very customizable game of cat and mouse that allows you to have fun with your missions, especially when you start to level up Aiden's abilities. It's extremely cool to cause a citywide blackout and strike against your enemies or trigger the traffic lights to change at just the right second, creating a pileup of epic proportions behind you, and allowing you to escape.
With all of this though, there's also the caveat that the AI is often laughably bad. To be fair, it's usually a fun inept enemy AI that's more often than not setup by circumstance more than anything else. Your enemies are somehow always in range for one of your hacking attacks. There was one mission in particular where I was surrounded by gang members in a back alley; as I took cover against a wall in the corner it became clear that nearly everyone was conveniently near an electrical box that I could explode. It's almost like the developers are pushing them towards your attackers to make sure you don't miss anything, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does take away from some of the challenge. It's extremely hard to get the cops called on you in this game as well and when you do, it's incredibly easy to escape them. I literally drove on the sidewalk, aiming for pedestrians and objects and when I finally got the police called on me after ten minutes, I simply had to hide in my car after making a slight turn down an alley ton confuse and lose them.
One of Watch Dog's strengths that is likely to go unnoticed by many is the fact that it offers a ton of answers to problems that have been plaguing the open-world genre for years. Using Aiden's hacks I no longer have to break into every car that I want to use, I'm simply able to hack into its electrical system and unlock then start it. I can also use my phone to simply order cars to my exact location. These may seem like small additions to a large game but when I'm trying to escape from the cops in a city where everyone has the potential to call on me, not drawing any more attention to myself is a great addition.
Watch Dogs starts to fall apart though when it starts to concern itself more with pleasing everyone than delivering on it's core mechanics. When Watch Dogs is building itself up as a paranoid spy thriller, it's great but when it brings itself down to the level of every other open-world action game and starts to get into the same routine of drive here, shoot this person, escape the cops, it begins to show it's issues more than ever. I got tired of
eliminating mob hang-outs and stopping random crimes throughout the city.
That's not to say that there are not things to do in Watch Dog's Chicago; in fact, the game is full of content. You can race through the city, complete missions for cash or even just go site seeing and check in at different landmarks and points of interest. There are also these strange digital trip missions which change the game dramatically, giving you augment reality type missions that populate the city with aliens, robotic spiders and even zombie things. For the online, the developers at Ubisoft attempted to integrate the online and standalone portions of the game seamlessly and while it's a great idea, it tends to lead to more problems than it's worth. At any time during your game another player can target you and start to hack you, you then HAVE to stop everything you're doing and try to stop the hacker. It's a bit frustrating when you're just trying to get to a mission but keep getting interrupted.
After all of the hype, rumors and delays; Watch Dogs is finally here. Was it worth it? The short answer is yes, but it's not as a resounding yes as we've hoped. When the game embraces it's true identity as a paranoid cyber thriller which also happens to have open-world elements; it's very well done but unfortunately Watch Dogs tries to be too much to too many people at one time. Does Watch Dogs live up to the hype? Unfortunately no, but it's still a damn good game in the process.