Watch_Dogs Review – PC/Steam

Watch Dogs is the long-awaited and much-anticipated cyber-thriller from Ubisoft Montreal (and four other Ubisoft studios); mostly the same people who brought you Assassin’s Creed, and in many ways, once you get past the modern Chicago skyline and high-tech concept of a world that is “totally connected” the similarities become obvious.  If you are a fan of cyber-fiction; shows like CBS’s Person of Interest or games like Lifeline (PS2, 2004) or more recently, République on the iPad then you fit the ctOS profile for the target audience of this new open world game.

Watch Dogs has refined the art of diversionary distraction to near perfection.  Sure, I’ve lost my focus in games like GTA and Saints Row but never to the degree of procrastination that I experienced in this game.   Part of the problem lies in the fact that the entire city of Chicago and some fictional woodlands north of the city are completely open from the moment the tutorial turns you loose in the Windy City.  The other part is that you are constantly being bombarded with things to do.    I was a good ten hours into Watch Dogs before I ever attempted the first Campaign mission and it was another ten hours after that before I resumed the story.

People seem genuinely shocked when I tell them I’ve spent over 100 hours with Watch Dogs and am still only 73% complete.  Admittedly, most of what remains are the online challenges which I am not terribly interested in pursuing, but let’s break down what the game has to offer.   There is a 5-Act Story that contains 39 missions that can be completed at any time, but they are balanced in such a way that you will likely want to partake in some of the 93 Side Missions or 362 Investigation in order to earn XP, boost your skills, and get some cash for weapons and such.  Some of these secondary objectives are purely collectibles like finding 23 songs to add to your playlist or visiting the 100 landmarks around the city and surrounding area then checking back in Foursquare-style to possibly become “mayor” or exchange gifts with other players.

Maintaining the “everything is connected” theme of the game, Watch Dogs is constantly online but not in a persistent MMO sort of way.  It’s more of a Dark Souls concept where people can temporarily invade your game (or you their’s) and engage in some PvP hacking action.  It has a really cool hide-and-seek mechanic where you must blend in with the rest of the population, much like the multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed.   For those who aren’t interested in these periodic intrusions you can toggle this feature off in the options essentially hanging a Do Not Disturb sign on your game.  You’ll still be able to participate in other online activities like Online Contracts, Racing, Hacking, and my favorite, Online Decryption.   In this game you play as part of a four-person team tracking down a data storage device.  Once you possess it you being to decrypt the data – a lengthy process that goes much faster if more team members are nearby.  Ideally, if you can all pile into a 4-door sedan and drive around you have pretty much won the round.   This and the other online modes are all surprisingly fun and addictive and easily accessible from within the main game since they pop-up just like any other mission or activity.

But wait…there’s more.  We have Mini Games like Shell Game con men scattered about the city, basement Poker games, an augmented reality space invaders game called NVZN (sound it out), Drinking games at a bar where you go shot for shot until somebody passes out, and even some brilliantly designed Chess challenges that either require you to survive for x-many moves or complete end-game checkmate scenarios.   And finally, there is an AR Cash Run that basically turns a small part of the city into a Pac-Man style maze where you run around grabbing floating gold coins while avoiding floating purple hazards.  And if this all weren’t enough, you also have Digital Trips; basically Watch Dogs’ version of doing drugs where you find some dealer in a back alley and go on a crazy mini-game trip like bouncing around town on flowers, piloting a giant spider-bot around the city wreaking havoc or racing around town in a Mad Max-style car running over hundreds of “people” to harvest their souls.   These mini-games are so in-depth they even have their own skill trees and reward system, so it is easy to spend hours with any or all of them.

There are some other interesting systems in place like the public perception meter that rises with each good deed like preventing a crime, or falls with each careless act like running over a pedestrian.   Your notoriety will determine whether some random person on the street spots you and pulls out his phone to either take a picture of “the vigilante” or call the cops.  Police presence is always in the back of your mind, or at least it should be as things can get deadly fast once the cops are called.  Police pursuits are some of the best moments in the game, allowing you to use your focus ability to slow down time and hack various obstacles like blockades, traffic lights, drawbridges, or underground steam pipes to disable the police.  Later in the game you can even hack overhead police choppers or blackout entire sections of the city to ensure your escape.  Oddly enough, despite have a huge police boat presence in the game, once you make it to any body of water you are almost guaranteed to escape.

There is a good chance that if citizens witness a crime or you carjack a person they will call the cops.  After a few police chases I learned to steal only parked cars or use my phone contact to have a car delivered to my location.  Even if you even accidentally draw a weapon in public, for just a second, somebody may call the police, so unless you have crafted a cell jammer you had better run.

Yes, Watch Dogs even has a crafting system in place that allows you to combine found or purchased ingredients into nifty gadgets like sound decoys, jammers, and even frag grenades and IED’s.  I really enjoyed this concept as it required a bit more strategy in deciding how best to use the ingredients I had on me at any given time.  In the later missions visiting a store that sold these components prior to starting the mission became standard procedure.

As you might have gathered by this point, there is a LOT to do in Watch Dogs, and while not all of it is required it is all presented in such a way that you are almost compelled to do it.  Yes, the core concept behind doing 40 Fixer missions or invading 15 Gang Hideouts is repetitive but thanks to a living, breathing city Chaos Theory makes each event unfold in a totally original and organic way each time you play.

When you do finally decide to consume the story portion of the game you will step into the role of Aiden Pearce.  We first meet up with Aiden on the job as a hacker, but when things go wrong he and his family become the target of retaliation that leaves his niece dead and his sister and surviving nephew grieving.   This backstory is explored a bit more in flashback events and cutscenes, but the game takes place a year after these tragic events.  The story is surprisingly quite good with plenty of unexpected plot twists and some great characters.  The missions do a superb job of unfolding across all the major parts of the city and surrounding area, so even if you are just doing the campaign you will get to explore most of the massive game world map.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in Watch Dogs, as the map quickly fills up with icons for things to do.  If you are an obsessive “map cleaner” like me then you won’t rest until all those icons are either gone or grayed out.  To reveal all of these icons you will need to hack into 13 ctOS Towers scattered about the city.  Think of these as the Viewpoints you climb in Assassin’s Creed.   There are also 16 ctOS installations you will need to breach in order for your cell phone to interface with the city infrastructure and hack into personal cell phones within that area of the city.   I made the mistake of hacking all the towers and installations from the very start, which created a very messy map and endless distractions for the rest of the game – something like this:  I’d do a QR code scan only to find a home invasion icon a half-block away…but wait…there are two landmarks nearby I haven’t checked in with, and that Gang Hideout mission will reward me with a skill point, but the car chase to escape the hideout put me in another part of town where…oh wait…there is an icon for a serial killer investigation only two blocks away but taking the shortcut through the alley to get there I meet a drug dealer who offers me a Digital Trip, so now I am bouncing off of flowers for two hours.  The game is fiendishly evil in the way it distracts you from the main story and even from other distractions.

The whole hacking concept quickly reveals itself to be the star of the show, allowing you to possess any of the thousands of surveillance camera and move around to other cameras or digitally access other devices like door locks and control panels.  Everything in the game works off line of sight, which is used to great effect to create some interesting puzzles like tracing back a data flow path across several blocks to unlock a residential router so you can take control over a webcam to view the interior of an apartment and hack the tablet on the table to empty their bank account.   Gone are the days of bumping into somebody and stealing their wallet.  Now you just walk down the street hacking phone after phone to digitally pickpocket the citizens of Chicago then retrieve your loot from the nearest ATM.   There was one missed opportunity that revealed itself during one of my bank hacks.  Each time you hack someone you are also reading a short bio about that person, which can make the crime a bit more personal.  Here I was stealing $180 from a “Single mother who had just declared bankruptcy”.   Yeah, I felt like a dick, and not only did I want to return the money I thought, ”how cool would it be if you could become a modern day Robin Hood, hacking the accounts from drug dealers and pimps and digitally redistributing that money to the poor and needy”.  Maybe in the sequel…

Watch Dogs is available on both next and last-gen consoles as well as the PC.  All versions require and use Uplay for the online elements of the game including matchmaking and leaderboards, but your social interactions are still restricted to the platform you are playing on, so PC gamers won’t be seeing their PS4 friends on the Cash Run leaderboards.  There is also a ctOS app available for iPhone and Android that allows you to connect and interact with Watch Dog players using your phone or tablet.  This is a really cool concept, although I did find the app to be extremely CPU intensive, generating a lot of heat on my phone and draining the battery in record time.

ctOS iPad App Screens

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While playing on the PC would certainly seem to be your best option for experiencing the best in graphics and gameplay there are multiple issues PC gamers have been dealing with since launch; many of which still persist today after a few patches.  I’m not going to get into the whole E3 graphics scandal or the mod files available that can make your PC version look like the 2012 E3 demo.   That mod does exist and it works – I tried it, but ultimately most of what those user-created patches restored was superficial to the overall experience.  The bottom line is that Watch Dogs is poorly optimized, unable to maintain smooth framerates even when you throw dual Titans at it.  Sure, it’s smooth enough to play, but the driving never feels quite right.  There are random hiccups in the animation every few seconds that can create lag in the controls triggering more traffic accidents than I care to admit.   Pop-up is also an issue unless you start tinkering with the depth of field settings that blurs everything more than a block away.  Driving was such an unpleasant experience for me in this game that the Fixer missions are the only secondary missions I have yet to complete, and I chose to either walk or fast-travel for most of the game.  The game can be played with either mouse and keyboard or a controller, but I found the Xbox 360 gamepad worked best.

The presentation elements for the game were great.  I loved the attention to detail to the city of Chicago; a city I visit numerous times each year, and the way the story is crafted to include elements from the city.  Chicago looks amazing at night; even better when it rains creating all these wonderful reflections in the pooling water, and any time I got in a boat and started cruising the lake and rivers I started flashing back to my days on the high seas in Black Flag.  Ubisoft has nailed water perfectly.

There are only a handful of characters, so the writers had more time to flesh them out creating some interested emotional attachments for some and extreme hatred for others.  Voice acting was also extremely well-done; even if Aiden’s whole surly demeanor comes off a bit like Bruce Wayne with a dash of Jack Bauer.  The music in the game is fantastic; especially the score that changes with the type of mission.  My favorite was anytime I was doing anything involving a car and this Tangerine Dream style of music would start playing.  I wasn’t familiar with any of the tracks that were playing on the car radio, but then again, I was never in a car long enough to hear an entire song.

Watch Dogs was everything I expected but not what I had hoped.   As long as developers insist on making cross-generational games everyone is going to lose; a fact that will hopefully be proven when Ubisoft releases their next-gen-only Assassin’s Creed Unity later this year.   I was hoping that by going with the PC version of the game – the version Ubisoft had repeatedly stated was their “lead platform” – I could avoid all the console war drama, but with the whole E3 graphics debacle and other performance issues it seems the PC version might be the platform to avoid; especially if you have a PS4.

Even so, Watch Dogs is a tremendous achievement in game design from a sheer content perspective and the way that content is arranged and presented to the gamer.   Despite its graphical and performance flaws the game is still a success.  After all; I’m not going to spend 103 hours with a game that sucks.   While Ubisoft’s ambition may have exceeded their grasp, or at least the grasp of realizing how important their PC base is, Watch Dogs is a fun, challenging, and extremely addicting game that is a worthy addition to an open-world genre that includes greats like Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row and of course, Assassin’s Creed.

Screenshot Gallery

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