Do you have your phone? Check your pockets - you could have sworn you grabbed it before you left the house. Where is it? Oh, back pocket. Good, it’s safe.
Or it would be, if people like Aiden Pearce didn’t exist. That guy in the baseball cap you just walked past? He invaded your phone and took $1600 from your bank account.
Such is the peril of daily life in Ubisoft’s rendition of Chicago in its new free-roaming game “Watch Dogs.” There’s been a lot of delays and negative speculation surrounding the game, but has that muddled the game's experience?
Through Aiden’s “Profiler” tool, he learns a slew of information about each person he passes on the street, everything from their name, age and income to such idiosyncrasies as “frequent marijuana user.”
Hacking is one of the biggest draws to "Watch Dogs," but it’s honestly not that important or fun. Sure, you can move drawbridges, change lights and control some traffic poles, but you can just as easily go about your business without them.
Still, everything and everyone is connected in "Watch Dogs." It's also a great piece of social commentary: The Blume Corporation has installed a citywide computer tracking system called ctOS that monitors everything the citizens of Chicago do, based on their computer and phone data. They all carry smartphones, which broadcast GPS data, among other things.
Sound familiar? Hello, NSA.
Watch Dogs has you assume the role of Aiden Pearce, a gray hat hacker and vigilante opposed to the Blume Corporation. He plays the role of “The Vigilante,” the name "Watch Dogs" gives him. Since this is a new series, Ubisoft could have gone in any direction with Aiden’s character. Instead, it opted for a gruff, statuesque late-thirties white guy with a strong sense of justice and an obsession with revenge (Aiden’s enemies murdered his niece).
Aiden Pearce is like a poor Bruce Wayne, but without the Justice League-caliber one-liners. Or the snappy butler.
The people around him, namely Jordi, a veritable sociopath and semi-reliable partner-in-crime, and Clara, Aiden’s contact in DeadSec and hacking coconspirator, are more engaging (and in Jordi’s case, far funnier) than the Batman characters. Aiden tends to push everyone away, especially his remaining family. And he doesn’t think twice about killing villains in his way.
Yet, he’s compassionate -- part of his strong sense of justice, I imagine -- and he’ll assist random citizens who are victims of crimes, tracking down their would-be assailants and bringing them to justice with his fists (if you’re a good player) or his gun (if you’re a renegade). Depending on how you interact with civilians, Aiden can be seen as anything from Robin Hood to John Dillenger, and the public’s perception of him has a tangible effect on the "Watch Dogs" experience. You like running people over and shooting random pedestrians? The public will fear you, and when they recognize Aiden’s face, they’ll alert Chicago’s finest to your presence.
Still, despite his good intentions, his dialog is stilted and his emotional range spans “revenge” to “meh.”
Aiden’s athleticism is the best part of his character. He can climb and leap with aplomb, showing shades of the skills other Ubisoft frontmen have (Ezio, Connor, et. al), and his hand-to-hand takedowns are like excerpts from Ong Bak. Luckily, there are criminals for Aiden to take down everywhere in “Chicago.”
Ubisoft’s rendition of Chicago is massive in scope, with tons of alleys and secrets to discover. It looks decent, though the actual delivered product falls graphically short of the "Watch Dogs" demo that Ubisoft displayed at E3. The game doesn’t look bad on the PS4 (the version I tested), but it’s admittedly a bit gray and drab.
The bigger, multidimensional problem is the layout of the city itself: The "Watch Dogs" world is spread out across multiple islands like New York, but the real Chicago is nestled along Lake Michigan’s South Side on a united tract of land. I don’t understand why Ubisoft went through all the trouble of setting "Watch Dogs" in Chicago if the world they built wasn’t going to reflect the actual city’s structure.
The second piece of the city’s problem is its scope. Its size isn’t the issue -- the way you move around in it is. Because the city is so big in "Watch Dogs," you’re going to spend a lot of time in the quickest and most easily available method of transportation: vehicles. Which would be great, if it was an enjoyable experience like GTAV. But it isn’t.
Driving in "Watch Dogs" is like trying to perform remote surgery while wearing mittens -- it’s all wobbly and the inputs your fingers make rarely correlate to what’s actually happening on the screen. More often than not, you wind up smashing into something you tried to avoid two seconds ago, as your vehicle inexplicably decides to ignore your commands. If you manage to only sideswipe another vehicle instead or hitting it square in the face, you’ll bounce off like you’re playing Outrun.
Compounding this is the absolutely abhorrent camera. Whether you’re driving or on foot, "Watch Dogs’" camera is on a holy crusade sanctioned by Pope Ratzinger to completely disorient you. Change directions, and the camera follows ... a few seconds later. This is annoying enough while driving (not that you needed another problem with that), but it’s downright rage-inducing while you sneak from cover to cover or around walls on foot. Trying to get out of cover and run is usually greeted with Aiden having no clue where to go, as the camera zooms in on the front of his face.
It’s alright if you’re hanging back, sitting stationary behind cover and shooting enemies from a distance like a traditional third-person shooter. You can play most of the game that way, actually. Get the right guns and some ammo, and just mow everyone down. The weapons all work satisfactorily, and the targeting system is sharp, which encourages you to shoot with wanton abandon to satisfy your bloodlust.
But the real value in "Watch Dogs" is being patient and stealthy, stealing the information you need the quiet way and only firing your guns when absolutely necessary. It’s nice to have the option, and more often than not I found myself doing things the silent way. When the camera’s not getting in the way of Aiden’s sneaking around, it’s awesome to go in, confuse enemies, get what you need, and high-tail it out of there.
The delight is in the details with "Watch Dogs." Though the cars all handle like drunken frat pledges, Ubisoft clearly put a lot of effort into the visual and aural designs. There’s a hot hatchback sporting an unofficial Renault badge (referencing the French automaker’s line of quick, small hatchbacks) and a Pontiac Firebird clone that sounds like a proper General Motors V8.
Ubisoft clearly put a lot of time into the “joinable game” feature as well. At any time (outside of missions), another player can sneak into your game and start hacking your information. You have no idea until you receive an alert that you’re under siege. No loading screen, no stutter. In fact, the best part of "Watch Dogs" isn’t Aiden or his story, it’s what you can do with other people. Jump into someone else’s game, steal their money and evade them while they try to eliminate you. Trail another player and track their information flow without attracting their attention, then go right back to your own game. Or just hop in and kill them, if that strikes your fancy.
Bottom line: "Watch Dogs’" atmosphere is a great idea, but its story is slow and flat; there’s eventually some decent payoffs, but it revolves around a revenge plot. Its protagonist isn’t terribly likeable. Getting around the city is a pain, but there’s a lot of side missions to complete and plenty of areas to explore. Multiplayer is far more rewarding than single player. Worth playing if you like open-world games.