eBay was breached, Heartbleed is running rampant, Sony’s passwords were compromised, DDoS assaults are exceeding 100s of Gigabits of traffic per second, and upwards of 95% of the Internet is spam and attack traffic. To say that we’ve lost control of the power of the Internet is a criminal understatement. However, the vast majority of people are ignorant to these facts, blissfully unaware of a shadow world that runs just underneath the surface. Hackers are real, information warfare exists, and your world is anything but safe.
When the team at Ubisoft first showed us Watch Dogs in 2012, we lived in a world where we didn’t know for a fact that the NSA is recording all of our calls, we didn’t know who Edward Snowden was, and the government wasn’t installing trackers in our routers. It’s incredible how prescient this title really was, even then. The digital age we live in is run by progressively more powerful devices that get smaller and cheaper every year. Online purchasing, social networking, banking transactions, maps and GPS, email – all of these things can and are tracked, collated, and harvested. Our lives have been distilled to its purest digital form – we are, without equivocation, projecting a digital version of our analog selves for anyone with the right tools to see. Let that sink in and then ask yourself – if you had the skills to control all of those digital personas, what would you do with that power?
Watch Dogs takes place in a reimagined Chicago. After a tragic accident takes the life of his young niece, a very broken Aiden Pierce begins to dig into the suspicious circumstances that ended her life. As his past rises like a shadow behind him, Aiden is now on a hunt to find out who was behind the hit, but to get to the bottom of this conspiracy, Aiden will need information – lots of it.
“The Future is in Blume”
As a former Black Hat myself, a game based on the culture and power of hacking obviously piqued my interest. This is a double edged sword, as my deep knowledge of the subject matter makes it very easy to pick it apart. I was relieved to find out that Ubisoft partnered with antivirus/firewall experts Kaspersky Lab to vet their work. All of the scripts and hacks shown in the game are possible with the right scripting and preparation. As much as Watch Dogs is a work of fiction, it’s also an eye-opening window into a possible future. There is an undercurrent of social commentary running throughout Watch Dogs beyond the obvious “right to privacy” question. When you encounter people on the street and can intrude upon their personal lives, you learn more about them. They stop being roving cash machines that you can hack to drain at your next ATM stop. When you look at a person and it says “Convicted sex offender”, you probably don’t hesitate, but when the next target you select says “Took in a homeless person”, or “Recently evicted”, it gives you a moment of pause. The guy who’s profile said “Child Pornographer”, though? I just stepped up and made Chicago a better place and reduced the population count by one. The game doesn’t judge you, and it doesn’t affect your reputation (other than murdering people, obviously), but it makes you think beyond the confines of the game. Pulling a man out of his car and then seeing the profiler reveal that he makes less than $18,000 a year and was recently diagnosed with cancer, you instantly want to hand him cash from your wallet, put him back in his car, apologize, and wish him all the best. Speaking of money, if there is one criticism with the world mechanics of Watch Dogs, it’d have to be that money has very little effect on things. Sure you can purchase new weapons, and some of them are ridiculously expensive, but other than that you’ll just have hundred dollar bills hanging out of your pockets for no reason. You can purchase cars from the instant delivery service, but why would you do that when there is a plethora of vehicles parked and rolling around you? Similarly, you could pay $20,000 for a high end motorcycle, or you can grab the freebie one – you’ll likely ditch either of them when you reach your destination so it’s not a difficult choice.
There is always more to do in Watch Dogs. While I was equally distracted by the side missions and the main objectives, sometimes doing a story mission would unveil even more content. Through a mission in the second act, another ten objects to find in the world popped up on my radar, leading to a very satisfying optional mission. We aren’t talking the usual sandbox amount of content here – this is Skyrim territory. How much? 18 criminal convoys, 15 gang hideouts to close down, 11 missions to stop human trafficking, 39 main missions, four optional missions if you are playing on a Sony console, and all of this before you get to the 100 check-in locations, hidden audio logs, privacy-breaching voyeur opportunities, and on and on.
The check-in locations remind me of the app Foursquare. You can check in, earn badges, become mayor of an area (sadly I’m the mayor of a bar already), and collect or leave gifts for others. They aren’t just places you might catch a bite to eat or a famous monument though; sometimes they are famous for other reasons. I found several Valentine’s Day Murder sites, one for The Sausage Vat Murder of 1897, and many more informational gems. Each have a history attached that you can read if you are so inclined. When you toss in shell games, poker tournaments, virtual reality, competitive drinking, chess (full games and mini-challenges), and a VR-based game called Cash Run you’ve still only scratched the surface. I could list probably another 10 things to do in the game and still not hit it all.
There are also 40 side missions called Fixer Contracts. Sometimes you’ll be delivering up to three cars to their destinations with as little damage as possible in the time allotted. They can also be just getting to your destination without attracting police attention. Another mode asks you to act as a decoy, running through checkpoints while the police chase you to front for another heist. Other Fixer contracts prepare you for a similar online mode, asking you to tail a suspect and steal his data. One of the most challenging asks you to take out two targets without letting either escape. Your time results are tracked on a global leaderboard, so you can compete with your friends. These Fixer Contracts are as rewarding as they are difficult. These have a Dark Souls level of evil attached, though, as fast racing often ends in civilian deaths. Even though the multi-part vehicle delivery races are checkpointed after each car, the damage to your reputation is cumulative. Also, sometimes it seems the win criteria is mismatched with the crime. I once had to engage in an all-out firefight in the street with a pair of human organ traffickers, but I couldn’t shoot them – they had to be beaten down with my asp. On the other hand, I was asked to murder someone with a far more minor infraction.
When you need a break from the incredible volume of content in Watch Dogs, you are welcome to take a Digital Trip. These four minigames let Aiden take a full break from reality. Madness gives you a souped up muscle car and an imperative to run down flaming zombies to claim their souls as the city burns in the background. Psychedelic runs in the opposite direction, bouncing Aiden off of colorful flowers as he giggles with glee. Spider Tank, which is every bit as awesome as the name suggests, puts you in the cockpit of an eight-legged monster with a chaingun and rockets and the drive to destroy all the things for 15 rounds of pure chaos. Alone is the most unique of the four modes, putting Aiden in a robot-controlled wasteland version of Chicago that is immersed in darkness. Robots patrol and attempt to spot him before he can reach the generators that will re-light the city, freeing that district. It tests your stealth skills and is visually striking. The other three are good for when you are frustrated and just feel the need to blow things up or bounce around like you are in some sort of fever dream.
Beyond the content of Watch Dogs, the game turns in a solid performance mechanically as well. The environmental effects are the best I’ve seen in any game to date, on any platform. One-upping the team behind Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the water in Watch Dogs shows multiple layers of depth, making it near photorealistic. Wind stirs leaves and trash in the streets, and trees sway in the breeze. The only hitch I occasionally had was the physics engine.
Very rarely you’ll see trees swaying entirely too much, especially smaller trees that are enclosed by hedges. Also, when you drive into solid objects your vehicle will sometimes pop into the air in a very unnatural way, leaving it twirling like a ballerina. It just breaks a bit of the great immersion that the game works so hard to create.
The other hitch for most games is either shoddy or boring AI. Beyond the profiling aspects, the AI in Watch Dogs does a solid job of bringing Chicago to life. They get into car accidents, call the police, help other motorists, take selfies, react based on your reputation, and much more. Sure, occasionally they do dumb things too, but so do real people. It’s certainly better than average, and given how many people are in the city of Chicago, that’s saying something.
If there is one area where most sandbox games fall down, it’s stealth. Sure, developers always shoehorn it in, but most of the time they are just a painful slog. Shockingly, Watch Dogs handles stealth as well as it handles run-and-gun action. The cover-based mechanic lets Aiden stick to surfaces and pop up to fire. It also helps him sneak through dangerous situations without firing a shot. But it’s in these quiet moments that Watch Dogs shows you exactly what the team is trying to bring to life.
The best feeling of accomplishment in a game with stealth is to pull off a mission without firing a shot, so imagine being able to do it without stepping foot in the building. Aiden Pearce has an incredible arsenal of hacking tools at his disposal, allowing the player to infiltrate objects in the environment. This creates what I like to call “Digital Parkour,” allowing you to hack into a camera, then use that camera to zoom and hack into a cell phone in the breast pocket of a guard. From there, you sit as a silent observer as the guard walks right through tight security unchecked. Bouncing from there to another camera might allow you to unlock a side door turning your dangerous ingress into a walk in the park. Similarly, you’ll jump from camera to camera to ‘climb’ buildings to reach security panels that would be otherwise be impossible to touch. The team has created emergent gameplay that we’ve never seen in any game before, and it simply could not be more awesome.
Combat in Watch Dogs, like much of the rest of the game, is about options. You can use Digital Parkour, silenced weapons, shotguns, sniper rifles or machine guns, lob IEDs and grenades all of the place, jam communications to stop reinforcements, or any combination therein. You can also just avoid it altogether, completing entire missions without so much as firing a shot. It uses a similar mechanic as Splinter Cell, giving your enemies a ‘last known position’ silhouette, which you can use to flank your confused foes. There are also lures you can craft to attract enemies towards steam pipes you can blow up. That’s all child’s play compared to the destructive power of the Blackout.
Once you’ve earned enough points to select the skill you’ll be able to overload the ctOS system to trigger a city-wide blackout. When the lights go out, you are free to apply weapons liberally, sneak away, and much more before the lights pop back on in about ten or so seconds. The chaos this creates is pretty fantastic, and during some of the more difficult missions, entirely necessary.
In terms of value proposition, Watch Dogs is a game you’ll be playing for weeks. I’m estimating roughly 30 hours for the main mission and near 100 hours if you do absolutely everything. Once you do all that though, it’s time to head online.
In the past few years, Ubisoft has done a great job of creating new multiplayer experiences. Games like Assassin’s Creed have brought paranoia-inducing multiplayer, and Watch Dogs wants to expand on that idea. Like any of the side missions, you’ll occasionally get a pop-up from your phone asking if you’d like to tackle an online activity. There are several online modes to give you the chance to hack with or against your friends. You can act as a Fixer in a friend’s game, allowing you to sneak up on then and drop a backdoor into their phone to steal all of their data. Their job is to use their Profiler to track you down and pepper you with bullets. Another mode, Online Decryption, gives you the same objective, but expands the game for up to eight players. Racing with your friends is incredibly fun as Chicago is full of alternate routes and underground parking garages that can provide a critical advantage. All of the multiplayer modes are inclusive instead of intrusive, and your skills are entirely separate, so if adversarial or cooperative social interaction isn’t your thing, you can simply turn it off – it doesn’t affect the single player game.
Watch Dogs, for all it does right, does have a few hitches. Though the team worked hard to reduce voice repetition drastically, they certainly missed a few spots. During minigames you’ll have NPCs collect in the background, chatting as you do your thing. The Extreme Drinking minigame has ten levels, and you need five consecutive wins to move up to the next one, so you’ll hear these people have the same conversation over and over. The idea that the team had was to destroy any conversation you’ve already heard, but it seems like if you don’t hear the entire thing from beginning to end, you’ll just hear it again later. It’s not a big deal in the overworld, but I did find myself muting the sound during minigames.
The voice work for the main characters in the game, however, are absolute top notch. Noam Jenkins hands in a rock-solid performance as Aiden, Aaron Douglas plays Jordi Chin (a fellow Fixer) is one of the high points of the game), and I’m not sure who plays Clara Lille but her voice is pure silk. The only person I felt fell a little short was Anna Hopkins as Aiden’s sister Nikki. During a certain sequence of the game she goes from screaming in terror to joking with Aiden in the span of a single phone call and it comes across a little weird. Other than that, her performance is solid.
Mechanically, there is a common problem that rears its head in Watch Dogs – voice overlap. There are times when Aiden will start to recap what he needs to get done to remind the player of where to go, but he’ll get a phone call in the middle of that. The voices will begin to overlap each other. If you have subtitles on you’ll see both sets stacked on top of each other.
When I saw Watch Dogs about a month ago, I did note that there some rough framerate and pop-in issues. I’m glad to say that the vast majority of that has been corrected. Framerate issues are extremely rare, and almost always coincide with a background save. The pop-in is even more rare than that – it’s not something I noticed but twice in the span of more than four days straight of gaming.
Watch Dogs represents a step into a scary real-world future. It raises social and governmental questions around a person’s right to privacy. It delivers combat, stealth, story, and an incredible amount of side content to bring the whole world to life. I’m amazed at what the team at Ubisoft has delivered here, and I’m glad that they treated the hacker world with more respect and attention to detail than any other game or movie to date. I’m hopeful that Watch Dogs becomes a franchise because it is the best sandbox title I’ve ever played.