Watch_Dogs Review: Digital Trips and Disposable Characters

While I would have preferred to utilize my typical format of “Initial Response”, “Progress Review”, and “Final Conclusions”, recent grad classes had gotten in the way of my usual flow.

Pffft! School!? Bah!

So here I am, a bit late to the game with my all encompassing review of the Digital Anarchy that is Watch_Dogs. #EverythingIsConnected

WARNING: This post is going to be long!

SETTING

Chicago at night
Image from Realotakugamer.com

As has been made overly apparent in the ad campaign for Watch_Dogs, the city of choice here is modern day Chicago. The world environment here is expansive, diverse, and highly detailed. While I am American, I unfortunately have only driven through Chicago on I-90 or had a lay-over in Chicago O’Hare Airport. Still, this city has been created by Ubisoft, the same company behind the extensively detailed cities of Assassin’s Creed. However, it has been noted by other parties that the similarities are striking. For a montage of selected scenes, IGN put together a nice comparison video. As seen, they are extremely close! I feel as they actually intentionally put in slight differences to avoid copyright infringement on some of the pieces of art, or to intentionally create some distance between reality and fiction.

Outside of the city itself, it had the standard alternate environments: the industrial zone, the docks, the slums (Wards) and the rural community (Pawnee). Each zone has it’s own definite flavor and cast of characters and factions. Between the Black Viceroys, Pawnee Militia, The Club, or The Fixers, there are plenty of people, besides the police, who are getting paid to make your life hell. If you take the time to actually look around this world, it’s actually quite beautiful. All the pieces of art, the scale of the buildings, the depth of the color palette, even the annoying sun glare all add to the experience and are testimony to the level to detail that Ubisoft committed to the project. 

PLOTLINE

While it feels a bit jerky and the flow is jerky, I believe it actually fits, but more on that later. There are two main focal points of the game. The first being, what else, a bit of a botched heist. This heist is to be known for the remainder of the game as “The Merlaut Job”, and all sorts of elements of revenge revolve around it until the absolute completion of the game. There is also Aiden’s personal quest to find out who put out a hit on him, and he begins with poor Maurice, a hitman who has tried to leave the world of crime but was mercilessly dragged back in.

From there, once you make your way in to the actual gameplay, Aiden Pierce furiously pursues every lead he can possibly get an angle on, and many people die along the way. Through the course of the game, there are a few characters that are with your for the majority of your journey.

Watch_Dogs Cast of Characters. Some are important to the plot line, some are, well, disposable.  And yet, there are still others not pictured that are integral to the plotline.
Image from http://www.hdwallpapers.in

Unfortunately, one character who’s image is missing from the pic above is Damien Brenks, and he’s pretty significant to the plot line. Damien was Aiden’s partner in a former life of cyber crime. He stumbles across some info regarding the Merlaut Job and manages to force Aiden in to helping him uncover more. For the sake of not risking spoilers, all I’ll say is that he stokes Aiden’s obvious rage and sense of vengeance to motivate him to seek out the answers he needs.

Because, ya know, poking the angriest lion you know is always a exercise in sound logic.

From here, the plotline actually takes on a bit of a 007 kind of feel, just without the Bond Girl, sense of British suave, or backing from an enormous government agency. Rather, Aiden sets out on quest to find the answers he needs, but in the process stumbles and hacks his way through the local mob (The Club), a military trained gang leader (The Black Viceroys), an elite hacker group (Dedsec), and the private sector variant of the NSA (Blume Corporation). Between stumbling over what all of these separate entities hold as their own private agendas, Aiden somehow figures out a way to finally find the answers that he’s looking for…Eventually.

The reason I compare the plotline of Watch_Dogs to 007 can be found in this pic:

Scene from the James Bond film “Skyfall”.
New age digital espionage, but sometimes you need someone to pull a trigger.

In this scene of Skyfall, James Bond is talking to his new Q. Unfortunately for Bond, he’s not getting any of the quirky gadgets like “Smoke bomb cufflinks” or “laser pens” for his mission. During this scene, the following conversation takes place:

Q: Well, I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.

James Bond: Oh, so why do you need me?

Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.

This is very similar to that of Aiden’s role. He’s a good hacker, but not the best. He ends up utilizing Clara and T-Bone for the more advanced hacking endeavors. However, Aiden himself has no problem getting in and getting dirty. With all of the hacking that occurs in the game, the overwhelming majority of it is Aiden infiltrating in to the city’s infrastructure. But that’s where is hacking ability really ends. He’s more of an “End User” of the hacking apps found on his phone than the person who actually designs and writes the code for the hacks.

GAMEPLAY

The controls are satisfyingly tight. In previous AC titles, the free-running has been a bit loose. Here, it feels much more natural. It may be due to the fact that the free-running around the city is actually down played and not a major aspect of the game’s movement. I was waiting to see how much mobility they decided to give Aiden, and I’m glad that they didn’t go down the same route as with Edward Kenway. Back while I was playing AC4: Black Flag I was constantly annoyed that we were forced to accept that a pirate scrapper would also all the abilities of a full blown Master Assassin with absolutely no training what-so-ever. For the most part, Aiden will vault over low barriers or spring up and over fences and a few walls, but little more. These kind of athletic abilities are much more believable and thus easier for the audience to accept.

Aside from the main story missions, there are two main types of side missions: Fixer Contracts and Collectibles. In Fixer missions, you will mostly engage in a variety of driving challenges. In each of these missions, it begins with Aiden tracking down a specific vehicle to utilize. Sometimes you’ll have to grab a high end sports car and immediately evade the police, sometimes you’ll have to race through the districts of the city through a series of checkpoints, and others will require you to deliver a specific vehicle to a remote location while incurring minimal damage. There is a good variety in these missions, as they may involve anything from cars, to motorcycles, to the occasional speed boat, or perhaps a combination of all three.

Other kinds of Fixer Contracts involve Infiltrating enemy bases or eliminating “Criminal Convoys”. With Bases, Aiden needs to infiltrate an enemy laden area and knock-out a selected target. With Criminal Convoys, Aiden has to track down an actual Convoy of enemies and Knock Out a specific member (or two) of that convoy. In both cases, Aiden has to “Knock-Out” the target, not kill. That means your best bet is to stealth it out as much as you can so you can get close to the target for a melee take-down. No sniping from a distance and avoid getting up close and personal with the thugs! Get in there!

Collectibles are more time consuming than challenging. For instance, there are 100 “hot spot” locations for Aiden to “Check-In” to, a’la Foursquare. There are also Privacy Invasions that add to the moral complexity of the game. This is where Aiden taps in to some service box outside a building, and sneaks a peak of what’s going on in someone’s apartment. Some of these invasions are comical:

The classic Plumber who is about to make his customer very happy!
From Ubi Blog

While others are quite troublesome and difficult to watch:

Yes, that pistol is pointed at himself…
From Ubi Blog / JagatPlay.com

Ya, that one is pretty intense and there are a few which get a bit more extreme. This gives you an idea of what you’re really invading in to with these. Some of them are seriously personal and emotional scenes that you witness, and definitely not things that a real person would want broadcasted across the world. Other collectibles include tracking down a serial killer, uncovering Maurice’s confession of why he carried out the hit on Aiden, tracking down some gun smugglers, and a few others. Carrying out these missions doesn’t really give Aiden any new abilities, but they will unlock extra vehicles and a few additional weapons. Their main intent is to add depth to the lore in which the game takes place. Complete if you want, but not critical to the overall story arch.

If you really want to question your moral judgement, seek out Maurice’s confessions. 

#EverythingIsConnected

Soooo many things are hackable in Watch_Dogs! Which is basically the point of the game’s theme, right? you can just spend time walking the city streets just stealing people’s bank accounts, an occasional song from their library, intercept their phone or text convos, sometimes even get the jump on a crime that is about to go down or learn about the drop point of a stolen item. When working missions, anything that may be able to explode in some fashion can be hacked to do so. Steam pipes, Transformer boxes, you name it. Aiden can even craft IEDs that can be remotely detonated. 

Pro Tip: Aiden can also craft small electrical “Lures” that can attract guards to specific locations. In one mission I had to get past a heavy guard, known as an “Enforcer”. These guys carry heavy weapons and are clad in advanced armor, very difficult to deal with.  I was able to toss a lure on to a below ground Transformer box and attract the Enforce to it. When he was standing right on the box, I detonated the Transformer and sent the dude flying! 

In many trailers and demonstration vids, Aiden constantly is hacking security cameras to get a better vantage point. As it turns out, these cameras are way more than just a novelty in the game. They are HIGHLY tactical as they will mark and tag enemies as they profile them. Early in the game, I was actually able to work my way from camera to camera and steal the info that I needed to obtain without actually entering the building! It took a little creative hopping between stationary cameras, hidden cameras on guards, and laptop webcam or two, but I was able to do it!

Aside from hacking, there are also several “Digital Trips” and “Augmented Reality” games that you can play. In both cases, they are separate minigames that you can play within the game of Watch_Dogs. Augmented Reality, which by the way is a real thing, is when a smart phone or other mobile device uses the physical world as a part of the game, and then digitally adds or “augments” different aspects of it with additional objects. These AR games are little more than distractions from the main plot line and side missions. (Side Missions of Side Missions? Meta-Missions?) Digital Trips are completely different beasts altogether. You once again use the existing physical world as the backdrop, but you play a completely different game. These Digital Trips are essentially the scale of smaller indie games that are embedded within the game of Watch_Dogs. Personally, I was too interested in making my way through the story, so I ignored the majority of these minigames entirely.

For a quick rundown of all the minigames available, check this vid from UbiCentral:

COMBAT

For the most part, I typically don’t vary m combat style much once I find a method that works. Once I establish what tactics work in a given situation, I’ll master that method. In Watch_Dogs, there are plenty of opportunities to mix things up with a variety of tactics and weapons. There is a whole assortment of assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols to choose from, as well as numerous combinations of hacks and bomb placement strategies.

But if you’re like me and decided to stealth your way through the vast majority of the game, you probably stuck to only a handful of guns and utilized the melee take-downs. Primarily, the silenced pistol.

As stated above and in my recent Thief post, I’ve grown to like the stealth method of attempting to work my way through a fortress without alerting a single guard. It makes exiting the building much easier, and I never run low on health! Sure, I have access to tons of each type of weapon, but why bother when I can headshot my way through an entire base without raising a single alarm? Still, by sticking to the same method the entire way through the game I feel that I’ve missed out on all the variety the game could have offered.

With the melee take-downs, I am also happy with how Ubisoft handled Aiden’s abilities. In the AC series, the designers created all sorts of flashy sword play and brutal yet artistic beat-down sequences. With Aiden, he utilized a collapsible baton and occasionally whatever gun he might be carrying at the time. If you get close enough for a take-down, Aiden will either choke the guard out with the baton or give a few well placed strikes to the knees and/or face. No crazy spin moves, no rolling over the enemy’s backs and slash them with their own lance. Just simple and straight forward face bashing with a baton. Done.

MUSINGS

There is so much to this game that I can’t possibly hope to fit it all in a single blog post and expect anyone to read it in its entirety! There are still categories I still haven’t addressed yet, but for the sake of fitting all the critical info in here withing a somewhat reasonable length, adjustments had to be made. 

As with AC, there are underlying messages in the game’s core. for this game (hopefully “series”?) it is the cost of convenience. There are many other examples of hacking in to things, like using Industrial Lifts to reach high places or toggling traffic lights to cause traffic jams and escape the cops. But the main point of all this hacking is this: As we become more and more comfortable with wireless technology, the more vulnerable we are becoming. All this interconnectivity is coming at a price. I was personally affected by the Blackout of 2003, and it blew my mind. I was on my way home from work, and noticed that certain traffic lights were out. “Well, that’s a pain. Some jackass must have hit a pole” I thought, and drove on. As I kept on, I noticed that EVERY traffic light was out. I hadn’t noticed that the entire city was out because it was August and it was still light out. It wasn’t until later when people began to realize the extent of the blackout, and people were rightfully freaked. Still, even back then, people began to become aware of how dependent we are on our electrical systems. Now, not only are we constantly plugged in to the power grid, but we are now more and more dependent on the communication network to make everything operate together.

Youtuber VSauce made this little vid regarding the possibility of most things that you could do in Watch_Dogs.

Summary: No, you can’t just tap an icon on your phone and have instant and seamless manipulation of everything, but we’re close enough that we should be alarmed.

The other issue that Watch_Dogs tackles is how everyone’s live are interconnected in a massive and complex social web. Aiden goes through a whole list of enemies, locations, gets involved in all sorts of activities and disrupts so many people’s personal plans and agendas in his search for his main single answer: Who put a hit on me? For the most part, the majority of characters introduce have absolutely nothing to do with his quest. They are simply in the way or are somehow used as a pawn to facilitate Aiden’s search. In fact, that is one thing that disappointed me in regards to the plot line: there were several characters that I wholly expected to be major players that ended up being single use elements and promptly disposed of. No back story, not relationship built with them. They are introduced, they are dealt with, and they are eliminated from the story. A few make it to the end of the campaign, but for the most part they are dispatched as quickly as they are introduced.

But that’s just how complex the world is. We pass countless people everyday, each living their own life and sorting out their own story. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have a chat. Most likely we never speak. Sometimes they end up be integral for an extended period of time, or sometimes we are the ones who help them achieve whatever goal they are setting out for. Other times, we are nothing more than a temporary vehicle on the grand stage for that specific instance.

CONCLUSIONS

Watch_Dogs is a MASSIVE game with all sorts of fun distractions. There are countless side missions, activities, mini-games, and even an entire system for invading another player’s game and cause some carnage! Still, the storyline felt a bit disjointed. Maybe it was because there were too many individual stories evolving simultaneously. Iraq’s ambition of controlling Chicago, Lucky Quinn’s manipulation of the Mayor, T-Bone’s….whatever T-Bone is trying to do, and Jordi just being Jordi. There were too many side conversations that never allowed for any one story line to fully develop in to something more before it was abruptly ended. I get it that for the story to progress, the smaller arcs had to find their own completion. But in some cases, like with Defalt, their relevant time was simply too short. It was if they were included just so they could say that they had that character type in the game.

Yet even with the disjointed plot, I still found this game thoroughly enjoyable. As with all my other AC posts, you should know that I’m quite the monger for wild conspiracy theories, and Watch_Dogs delivered! If you’re a fan of the Open World style of game play, this game is definitely worth you time. Heck, you can even boot the game up just for the embedded mini-games within. While I have currently completed the main campaign, I still have a few other side missions I can complete and mini-games to conquer.

Favorite Moment in the Game: At one point, Aiden teams up with T-Bone to defend T-bone’s base of operation. The local militia is bearing down on them. They set up a defensive position, and T-Bone decides that now would be a good time for some battle music.

Ministry: Jesus Built My Hotrod. And it made me so happy to hear that song….

To whoever made the call to use this song in the game, Thank You!

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