Watch Dogs Review – Xbox One

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I’ve always found the art of hacking and media relating to it extremely interesting so when I first heard about Ubisoft Montreal’s Watch Dogs I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the open-world cyber thriller. While not the first game to feature hacking to date it by far one of the most enjoyable ones that I’ve played in years. While movies over the years portray hacking in a seemingly easy thing to accomplish, attempting the real thing is not something that should be trifled with. Just like in the events that take place in Watch Dogs, attempting such actions could have severe real world consequences. So keep that in mind as you take to the fictionalized streets of Chicago as you assume the role of grey-hat hacker Aiden Pearce in easily one of the best open-world experiences to date on the Xbox One.

The story follows hacker, Aiden Pearce, the antihero of Watch Dogs, in a familiar but fictionalized version of the Windy City as he seeks revenge on events that claimed the life of his niece that take place prior to the start of the opening act. To do this Aiden puts his hacking prowess to use on the digital playground he’s been practically given thanks to the ctOS (central operating system) that ties the entire city together in ways that would make anyone’s stance on personal privacy stand up and kick the system to the deepest reaches of space. As you listen to the radio in any vehicle or walk down the street you will see and hear signs of a system that is supposed to make people’s lives easier but the ugly truth is that it makes the city ripe for the taking with just the slightest effort from hackers like Aiden via the use of his handy smartphone.

Nearly from the start you are introduced to the primary means of exploring, controlling and exploiting the systems as you use your phone to start small by hacking a guy’s phone to retrieve a message. Shortly after that you upgrade to hacking cameras to locate control panels and crafting hackable noise makers on the fly like a high-tech MacGyver. It’s not until you cause…well that would be spoiling the fun…an event that you realize the potential of the character that you are easily about to spend the next 30+ hours controlling.

The inhabitants of Chicago and nearly everything electronic in the city are all connected to the ctOS network in one giant big brother system and this is where I found myself enjoying the game most. Utilizing Aiden’s phone you can profile NPCs to eavesdrop on their conversations or texts and to learn about each individual. In my time playing I never saw the same profile twice despite a few repeated hobbies. More importantly though hacking their phones, tablets and other electronics can reward you with system keys, cars and cash. On the grand scheme of things hacking can be used to much larger effect such as hacking traffic lights, steam pipes, bridges and even helicopters to cause utter mayhem or as a means to simply elude pursuers.

While hacking makes up a large part of the game it isn’t the only type of gameplay mechanics to be found in Watch Dogs. When hacking environmental objects such as forklifts, power boxes and steam pipes isn’t enough to persuade your enemies to not mess with you a little combat is in order. Depending on your play style, Watch Dogs can quickly turn into a third person shooter with a cover system in place à la the Ubisoft series, Splinter Cell, though I personally tried to avoid gunplay as much possible in my play through. Watch Dogs actually promotes playing the game with a stealthy frame of mind as you can use parkour elements to slide over cover to take down guards or silently creep up on enemies to knock them out as there are instances where puzzles cannot be solved by merely hoping from one camera to the next to complete an objective. And for those perhaps a little less patient or trigger happy there is always the shoot first and explore later option.

Guns can make quick work of your enemies to great effect though if used in public can cause you a whole headache of problems. The populous in the surrounding area will often freak out in an expanding wave of chaos often times resulting in police chases that will vary in intensity depending on the severity of the crimes committed. It wasn’t until later in the second and third acts that gunplay almost became a necessity though after cut scenes developed more of the story I wondered if I could have done things differently to change what happened after certain events.

After one particular mission I actually felt like crap and wished I had tried that mission another way though I don’t know for sure if it would have changed anything. How the people of the city see you does take in consideration on how you handle things like crime prevention or whether or not you hose down a street with bullets.  If you do draw a gun accidentally or get shot at by an escaping assailant, citizens may actually call the cops and end up chasing you down instead of the real criminal which is complete crap. Of course if you get cornered you can always fake surrender and attempt to escape again.

How you handle public or more covert situations actually does matter in Watch Dogs more that you might think too. Taking down a criminal or any type of enemy to Aiden non-lethally actually nets you better experience rewards than actually pulling a gun and dropping the guy before he has much of a chance to run or attack. So while pulling a gun does save you from potentially chasing down a guy for several city blocks it just won’t pay out as well in the end. Yes that’s right, Aiden can be leveled up to earn skill points to unlock new means of making his life and you’re playing experience just a little bit easier along the way.

Upgrades including the ability to pull off more environment triggers thanks to a larger battery on your phone to the ability to slow time(Focus) to make hacking easier in chases to increasing the durability of your tires while driving are just some of the many thing you can purchase to save you some headaches later. The four areas you can improve Aiden in are Hacking, Driving, Combat and Crafting. For those seeking a more shooter based experience dropping points into Combat and Crafting is a good idea where as stealthy individuals will benefit more from a mixture of Hacking and Combat.

Driving skills can definitely help in the case of police chases as it is nearly impossible to get away on foot unless you happen to be exceptionally clever (or lucky) and don’t have a helicopter following you. One of the downsides of Watch Dogs for me is the driving the mechanics as it is often easy to accidently overcorrect or completely fail to make corners at higher speed while in chases. Luckily (or not) though you cannot use a gun while driving, something that GTA V failed horribly at attempting, which I preferred as driving a vehicle at high speeds with or without Focus activated is already enough of a challenge. Vehicles that you “own” however can be delivered to you on demand most of the time though which is a nice feature.

While gameplay is a critical mark to hit for a game to be successful, Watch Dogs is the first next-gen open world game to give players and consumers a taste of what the Xbox One can do on the terms of games actually developed mainly for next-gen systems. While Watch Dogs did get released on the 360, that version pales in comparison to the lighting and physics presented in the Xbox One version. While you might not necessarily appreciate the details as you’re driving at high speeds through neighborhoods, there are a lot of little details that one might miss if they aren’t looking close enough.

Details like dynamic lighting at night as you watch flashing neon signs reflecting of cars deep in a realistically lit parking garage to debris blowing around to the cracks in a road or the detail of Aiden’s various purchasable outfits are all nicely designed. Anyone one that’s been to Chicago or lived there will recognize several real locations or structures scattered around the digital city. Anyone looking for a mostly accurate portrayal may be disappointed though as I’m pretty sure Chicago doesn’t have islands in it. While that may not be the case it does do a good job of breaking the city up into different areas such as the business districts, suburbs and slums. Each of these beautifully created areas have nicknames like “The Loop” or “The Mad Mile” which pay homage to real areas of the Windy City.

On the subject of graphics, the Xbox One version of Watchdogs does not run at 1080p but rather 960 at 30 frames per second which is less than its other counterparts. Despite Xbox One users still not getting the 1080 experience for most of the games in its library, Watch Dogs still puts up a pretty good face. I did encounter a few frame rate stutters and several graphical glitches from time though none quite as bad as an entire character model being completely absent from a cut scene despite the audio still being there. Upon starting the mission over again (a mere couple of minutes) the glitch fixed itself but it was extremely weird seeing Aiden talking to a disembodied voice. One thing that annoy people is that the game does feature somewhat lengthy load times even with it being partially installed on the system. I don’t know if this effects digital copies as much but seeing as the entire world features no other loads screens save for mission starts or when you die it’s a small price to pay for uninterrupted access to the world.

I have to say on merit of keeping me entertained, Watch Dogs has far exceeded every hope that I had for it despite its delayed release. The campaign itself could easily net you 20-30+ hours of gameplay and that’s with completing a decent amount of side quests and mini-games to build up Aiden’s character for the later acts. As a gamer with a bit of a compulsive nature to complete and explore every little bit of content of gameplay, Watch Dogs has kept me busy for hours on end and I would still be playing if I didn’t have to stop to write this review. As mentioned briefly above players can take time away from continuing the story to stop random criminal acts or use the crime prevention feature of Aiden’s phone to stop a crime before it even happens. There are all kinds of mini-games including betting games like poker, a shell-game and a drinking game to do and that’s just the real world stuff.

Included in the game are several “Digital Trips” that send Aiden into a hallucinogenic digital world where you must complete all of the objectives, usually but not limited to waves, in order to compete them for some sort of reward. Psychedelic is by far the most colorful and bizarre one of the bunch as you bounce from flower to flower in music track themed progression. I still can’t decide whether I like “Alone” or “Spider Tank” better though. On the one hand you have a creepy ass world inhabited by drones that you have to restore while the other puts you behind the controls of a…giant metal spider tasking you with causing as much destruction as possible while completing objectives.

If you thought being in a smart city with a big brother watching over you is reason to paranoid then you’re going to love Watch Dog’s online features as well. As long as you are connected to the internet and Xbox LIVE, other real players can secretly invade your game and attempt to tail you or hack your phone (usually the latter) in an attempt to gain notoriety points or the somewhat rare resources such as system keys needed to craft items. You are always alerted when this is happening and you have until they hack you completely to stop them from doing so. You can disable online invasions but that takes away some of the charm and allure of the gameplay. There are a few modes like online races and the free roam mode that allows up to 8 players to freely roam the city and complete tasks as well as go up against each other.

ctOS iPad App Screens

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the accompanying ctOS Mobile app available for Android and iOS devices. This free to download app allows players to interact with other people’s worlds at random or that of your closest friends across all versions of the game in 1-on-1 matches. The App player’s job is to either set up challenges or initiate premade challenges where console or PC players try to hit checkpoints in a time limit while the App player utilizes the ctOS system and the Chicago Police in an effort to stop them. You can even interact with signs in a player’s game when competing against each other as an added bit of fun and annoyance to the other player.

So was the wait and anticipation of Watch Dogs for Xbox One really worth it? Well the answer to that from my perspective is absolutely. While it is true that it may not run as smoothly as other versions, Watch Dogs for the Xbox One is a certifiable hit with this gamer. The story is dark and engaging, the graphics are solid for the most part and the gameplay with all its different ways to do things and available content is enough to keep me entertained for quite some time. If you own an Xbox One then you owe it to yourself to pick up Watch Dogs today.

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