The above sentence pretty much sums up the heart of Watch_Dogs and could be used to describe pretty much any noir film in existence. Film Noir is a style of film with a low key expressionist style featuring hardboiled protagonists generally associated with a “dame that’s trouble” and a reluctant partner, Watch_Dogs has all of this in spades. We’ve seen the genre leach in to more modern works like Blade Runner or the Dark Knight series but it has also made its way in to the video game world with games like Hotel Dusk and Heavy Rain and Ubisoft tries its version with the Hacker Noir story Watch_Dogs. Much like Assassin’s Creed started as an update to the Prince of Persia series Assassin’s Creed itself served as a stepping stone for this new series.
Announced in June 2012 the title featured an impressively elaborate world with stunning visuals and a degree of interactivity seldom seen before. Early in the development process the PC was touted as the lead platform and the early visuals certainly looked like this was the case. By the time of its release the (delayed from late 2013 to May of 2014 for PC, Xbox and Playstation platforms and November of 2014 for the Nintendo Wii U) the title saw many changes. The first and most complained about was the level of detail, while the original visuals would have been impossible on the 360 and PS3 they were within the realm of reason for a modern gaming PC and presumably the at that time Next Gen consoles. The title’s minimum requirements were possibly one of the highest seen on a standard AAA title released to the PC market requiring a minimum 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8400 or an AMD Phenom II X4 940, 6 GB of Ram and an AMD Radeon HD5850 or an nVidia Geforce GTX 460 minimum. Recommended specs called for an i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM and an HD7000 or GT600 series video card which would have been reasonable if not a bit of overkill but for the fact the graphics appeared to be severely reduced from the press material that had been shown up until shortly before launch and the PC was roughly on parity with the console versions.
To add insult to injury PC gamers quickly found that these E3 textures and lighting effects were still present and could be re-enabled. The Mod community quickly turned this around with Ubisoft stating they could not garuntee the integrity of the experience (but very few people using these texture updates complained about instability).
On top of this the level of interaction appeared to be reduced, while still impressive the types of interactions shown in the early demos were simply no longer there. In early demos it saw you using your phone to take money from a person’s account and transferring it to a homeless person. This is relatively minor compared to the disappointment Wii U players must be feeling. Ubisoft has backed off from their relationship as a lead third party developer for the platform practically abandoning it. Early in development Watch_Dogs was touted as “ideal” for the Wii U and its tablet controller. Now as we close in on launch multiplayer has been stripped out of the Wii U version and they are not receiving any of the DLC (including the extensive story mission).
Despite all this, Watch_Dogs had a strong release leading as the fastest growing new IP for several weeks and continuing to beat out Destiny for that title in Europe months after launch. So, despite all this negativity is the game worth it?
In the game you play Aiden Pearce, a hacker living in a near future version of Chicago. The narrative conceit of the game is that Chicago has been wired up with a complex network named ctOS controlling every aspect of municipal utilities and reaching in to every home and business in the city. This is only partially fiction as Chicago is in fact the home of a very similar to ctOS controlling traffic, security cameras, and several utilities which has helped police cut crime and helped the city find efficiencies. Some of the surveillance technology used in real life is pretty scary and you get the feeling that Ubisoft were aiming for as real an experience as possible.
Aiden is not a “nice man” grieving over the loss of his niece after a hack goes sideways, the introduction covers the hack leading to his fall, Aiden is the point man for the “Merlaut job” a hack where Aiden is using his phone as a relay point to access other smart devices and computers in the hotel and get as much as fast as they can. This could have been very silly, goodness knows hacking in modern entertainment has not always been believable. Watching the movie Hackers I try and justify the over the top computer graphics by imagining this as the “mind scape” of the hackers the giant skull is their visualization of the impact of the script they just ran or the batch file they just executed but there’s only so far that can go especially when you get things like these two idiots and this one keyboard.
Ubisoft worked with Kaspersky Labs the internet security firm based out of Russia to give the look and feel of the kinds of software a hacker would use in real life. Of course this wasn’t exactly like real life because that would have been very dull but it at least gave it an air of authenticity. As Stephen Colbert would say it was a truthy experience. This starts to go sideways when Aiden and his partner Damien start downloading some very sensitive data and are detected on the network. Dropping the signal before they could get anything this doesn’t stop some Very Bad Men ™ from putting hits on them. These hit men are apparently very inept as not only do they not kill Aiden they kill his niece and leave him alive giving us motivation for that opening scene where you are “persuading” your would be killer to give up his employer.
From here the game opens up in to a GTA style open world game where you can stop crimes, hack devices, play poker, take part in drinking games or indulge in ARG games or “Digital Highs” both are basically the same type of thing, games that turn the environment sideways with bugs or giant flowers just one is implied to be trippy and the other nerdy. Both are kind of silly. Some of these distractions can be kind of fun though many (like the drinking games) devolve in to twitchy mini-games that become more frustrating than fun. The OCD completionist in me only got so far as to unlock the extra gear and upgrades and in most cases gave up well before I could get the achievements tied to these mini-games and in the case of digital highs I did one and was immensely bored and never did it again.
Very soon Aiden finds himself between two opposing forces DedSec which is basically a stand in for Anonymous and the Blume corporation developers of ctOS who are themselves being manipulated by the mob and their street gang allies. Fairly soon you team up with Clara Lille a French Canadian hacker and member of DedSec and “T-Bone” Kenney one of the creators of ctOS who went rogue and then off the grid entirely. Their main antagonists are Delford “Iraq” Wade an Iraq veteran who turned to a life of crime as a gang leader and Dermot “Lucky” Quinn an Irish mob boss. The unfortunate part of this is the bad guys are far more interesting than the good. There is a degree of sympathy for Iraq, a veteran who came home to nothing and instead of letting it get him down he built an empire, Lucky is an old school mob boss refusing to let technology stop him and his “old establishment” crime family. These are not Good Guys ™ by any stretch. They traffic in drugs, laundered money, and human beings and taking them down was immensely satisfying. At one point you sneak in to their establishment and meet a woman who was a victim of human trafficking. Having the ability to come up with a way to save her later was one of the most satisfying moments in the game but the unfortunate part is Aiden and his band of compatriots are miserable human beings.
Speaking of his friends or at least compatriots let's break down this team of misfits. First Clara, she’s about as stereotypical in her portrayal of “woman who is trouble” you could get outside the Curse of the Maltese Falcon. It was nice to see a French Canadian get some time in a big budget game especially for a company like Ubisoft who’s Montreal office handled the game but she vacillates between being shocked and being complicit and there’s not a lot of depth to her character. In many ways she’s a walking plot device there to simply move the story forward. T-Bone is Trevor Phillips of the game, the rock and roll hillbilly. Thankfully he’s not the vast and unamusing stereotype that Trevor is but he’s sort of a poor man’s Rob Zombie come hacker, a sort of updated punk rock Jaron Lanier which is kind of a cool deep cut but it gets pretty ridiculous when at one point Jesus Built My Hotrod plays during a key scene (though I have to admit it was pretty satisfying). Finally there’s Aiden, he with the stupidest of names, I picture this as a near future so the kids of our generation are in their thirties with the crazy old fashioned names that we’ve given them (seriously, we’re a generation giving our kids names like Minnie, Pearl, Homer and Everett are we trying to make sure our children hate us and cut off the social security network our parent’s generation are rapidly trying to destroy before we can get to it?)
Aiden is your avatar for the game and to a certain extent there is a degree of franchise in just how awful a human being he is. As you move through the city you can peek in to other people’s lives by hacking their phones. This person has a fungus in an unmentionable place, that person has a Latex fetish, that other person collects antique porcelain eggs. These are the things you can pull out of their life along with things like the charities they give to, their income, and their associations. This is kind of neat in a way and I did find it impacted my gameplay. One of the abilities you have is to hack cameras, using the cameras you can “tag” an enemy making them show on your mini map while you do this you see bits of their personality. Seeing a gang member who took care of his grandmother or a ex-PMC security guard who was in the KKK would often effect how I would handle the person (one would receive a non-violent take down the other… well if that grenade in his pocket went off so be it).
These kinds of moral decisions trigger a reputation system similar to that in Mass Effect or inFamous. The more you do to help people in the city the more difficult it is for cops to get you while if you're a jerk gunning down folks left and right the more likely people are to recognize you and call the cops. This kind of falls apart when people call out "hey that's the Vigilante hey Aiden I love you man!" Seriously, if you are a masked vigilante you think you'd try to keep a low profile. This is not Batman we're talking about but a older guy with a chronic stubble problem. It'd be one thing if his friends recognized him but random person on the street?
This extends to when you are walking around town. You can peak in to the lives of everyone you see and skim from their bank accounts and I would often feel a degree of guilt when there was collateral damage and a civilian was injured or I accidentally hacked some one’s account I didn’t mean to and as you unlock different areas you have the opportunity to hack people’s webcams using DedSec software (why would “White Hats” have software to hack civilian’s webcams?) This leads to some great scenes like the dad and son playing a video game together and the dad not getting it, a person eating “long pork” and a scene that was very reminiscent of Vince Vaughn’s defining scene in the Psycho remake. As a character Aiden can be as good or as bad as you want him and there were more than a handful of opportunities where I just felt bad coming away from it (which is unique enough in video games to be remarkable).
Flexibility is key, tools like hackable environmental elements, cameras, city utilities all mean you can use the environment for you. During missions as I mentioned earlier I would use the camera to tag my enemies, I’d also use the camera to hack cranes to drop boxes on people or call their cell phones to distract them as I snuck by. Everything is accessible in game though there are some points when it becomes ridiculous. Smart guns are happening, this is something I can understand but smart grenades? You actually have the ability to hack a grenade in the pocket of a security guard. This makes no sense, I would have rather we hacked their phone causing the battery to overload and explode but they went with grenade. That’s minus one point on the believability they worked on building up until now.
The world is layered and dense, though not as big as the GTA series it is the first in a new IP. Like Assassin’s Creed this is a trial balloon and I fully expect (as Ubisoft Montreal has also reiterated) they will be working on expanding and elaborating on the universe and the game world as it continues. Hopefully this involves building a protagonist that’s more relatable. They tried to create an anti-hero who people would relate to what they created was a man who risked his family multiple times, didn’t listen to the people who warned him away from these actions and despite repeatedly espousing how he was trying to do “the right thing” would kill at times indiscriminately. The disconnect between the gameplay and the narrative is not as dramatic as say that between GTA IV and Nico Bellick but it is there, to their credit Ubisoft give you the tools and options to not kill civilians or police officers (I got through the entire game without killing a single cop and though there were a few civilians caught in the crossfire my body count was low) that disconnect is still there.
This disconnect becomes really evident as you start taking contracts, moving through the world taking jobs for less than honourable parties ranging from trailing a person and stealing information from their phone as they drive to driving cars through the city at break neck speeds to take attention away from a robbery somewhere else, or even just getting a car from point a to point b. Combined with the raids on gang bases, the QR code scavenger hunts, and the time trials hacking boxes around the city there is never a lack of things to do but it’s hard to justify a man who’s trying to do good gunning down a convoy of cars on a crowded street.
Multiplayer in the game is actually kind of ingenious, as you move through the city you can be invited to or trigger events ranging from road races to bounties. In the case of bounties if you hack the wrong person or raise your profile too high a random gamer will enter your world, their mission will be to hack your phone and get away with data. Alternately you can accept missions and enter their game and do the same. This cat and mouse is quite fun and will often lead to finding hiding spots and waiting and watching to make sure your prey doesn’t get too close or in the case of a person being hacked tracking the hacker down and then getting them before they get away. At one point I tracked a hacker (which they call “Contractors” in the game) to the roof of a parking lot. I knew they were in a car somewhere so I pulled out my grenade launcher and started blowing up cars. They began to flee and I popped a traffic blocker and took them down as they got out of the car. It was really fun! The road races are okay but pretty bog standard with you involved in racing other players. The last type of multiplayer game play is the mobile challenge. This lets you connect with gamers who have the companion app installed. They work controlling the police dispatching patrol cars and helicopters, deploying traffic blockers and even hacking steam pipes. It’s neat in theory and the play is fairly fun on the PC but the companion app’s unreliable connection is at times frustrating.
The game has some great set pieces and despite fairly linear play in the end you face a point where you get to decide what kind of person Aiden is in how he deals with his former colleagues and his former enemies. In the end, you find out the line between you and them, it’s all kind of blurry and that’s what makes this game interesting. Though at times frustrating the ambiguity of the morals is never hidden and by the end Aiden’s justifications start to feel like the pleas of a man as much trying to justify his actions to himself as to those around him. Where this story suffered is the bad guys were at times cartoonish. Damien was a raging prick who for all his intelligence decided to be a jerk rather than work together holding just enough information back to keep the story moving forward but not so much to make it a real mystery. Iraq was the most compelling of enemies because in many ways he was a mirror to Aiden, a man who wanted to do right by his people so ends up leading his gang to a level of power never before seen. Lucky, well Lucky is the cartoon villain, he’s the closest to the “Evil Templars” the game comes and given the kinds of things the mob gets up to his portrayal is probably not unreasonable. In short this is an interesting start to a promising series and I’ll want to see where they go from here.
- Fun and solid mechanics
- Funny little “peeping tom” moments that aren't afraid to leave you feeling icky
- Dark story that was wasn’t afraid to get a bit Taken
- Innovative multiplayer integrating free mobile app
- Flexibility in how you resolved missions
- Characterization was at times shallow and suffered from ludonarrative dissonance
- DLC to date have been disappointing with many consisting of costumes that are nothing more than palette swaps
- Some of the mini-games were dull and repetitive but felt mandotry to unlock abilities and weapons