Chicago is brought to startling life in a world where everyone is reliant on technology, and that same technology makes their lives incredibly easy – but also more vulnerable than they realise. Critical information on everyone is attained and curated as you take on the role of Aiden Pearce – a man known by most people as The Vigilante. With all of the hype that has surrounded Watch Dogs since its announcement, I am pleased to say that Watch Dogs manages to deliver on most, though not quite all, of its promising premise.
The game starts off in tense fashion as Aiden is already in the thick of things. The tutorial is very well embedded into the story and while it throws a good deal at you immediately, it does just enough hand holding to get you through the beginning of the game while establishing the basics and the tone of the story.
As soon Aiden enters a car for the first time and work through the initial car chase, it is almost natural to want to compare Watch Dogs to the insanely popular Grand Theft Auto V. The comparisons have merit and continue well past the car chase sequences as Aiden continues to evade the police. The open world city and insane number of side quests provided make this digital version of Chicago feel like a living, breathing sandbox where you can spend Aiden’s time doing any number of things.
Aiden is an interesting enough character, living deep within shades of a very grey morality that would make him a very unlikeable protagonist under most circumstances. As the story continues to unfold, it becomes easy enough to side with Aiden’s cause because it feels as though the ends justify the often extreme means. He is neither good nor bad in and of himself, but someone who has to do bad things for what he believes is for the common good in the end.
In line with this undefined grey area is that Watch Dogs generally gives players a couple of ways to approach almost any situation. It’s possible to be subtle and use technological resources to try and thwart the enemy. Counter to that, brute force is also an option, with a variety of weapons at Aiden’s disposal. An early infiltration mission during the main story demonstrates this situation quite well, as players can move about using technology to create explosions, move machinery and study patrol habits using various cameras. I replayed that same mission using the more headstrong approach of using cover and a variety of firearms (but none of my gadgets) and was also successful.
I actually preferred the weapons blazing approach most of the time. The cover mechanics and feel of the weapons is good, but not great. However much like Mass Effect – which also featured fun shooting mechanics done better in other games, but made up for its slight weaknesses with special powers and squad commands – I found the combination of technology and firearms to be the most entertaining way to tackle most conflicts in Watch Dogs. It was supremely rewarding to scope out enemies using cameras and then picking them off with a sniper rifle, or causing something nearby to explode and then running in with a shotgun to take out a surprised opponent.
Most of the time the AI did a good job of adapting to my tactics, though in some situations they could prove to be a bit boneheaded; impossible to avoid with this genre. Enemies have a penchant for flanking Aiden and establishing good cover when trying to pin him down, despite a few of their sillier moments where running out into the open occurred for no logical reason.
The presentation values in Watch Dogs are generally quite good without really wowing me on the Xbox One. Draw distance is good and I did not notice an abundance of texture pop-in, and I could really appreciate the limited loading times. The city of Chicago feels appropriately sprawling and alive, with roads that weave in and around one another and buildings in convincing fashion. I did enjoy the evening visuals more, thanks to some excellent lighting effects. With all that said, it does feel as though this title was fashioned for last generation, and then scaled up to the new consoles. All of the visuals are underscored by lots of voice acting, almost all of which was quite good and also an excellent soundtrack.
Multiplayer is a bit tougher to judge, because of how few people were actually online prior to the release date. There were enough to get a feel for the different modes on offer such as racing, Invasion, Decryption and so on. It can become a little repetitive, but this is offset somewhat by the online skills system, providing progressive hooks that kept me wanting to develop my character further.
Thankfully exploring the city of Chicago in single player holds up very well. The plethora of options can keep Aiden wandering about almost indefinitely, but it is always easy to focus in on the main story to advance the plot whenever you would like as well. There is plenty of motivation for doing the side events, as any complete mission helps to level Aiden up. As Aiden gains levels, his skills develop across a rather diverse tree such as improvements for driving cars during getaways, improved combat, new technological advances and more.
The setting and story feel incredibly poignant right now, with so much discussion about censorship, personal information and more working its way into the media. I sat down, playing Watch Dogs on my Xbox One as I glanced at the Kinect. I was not using it to play Watch Dogs, but I could not help but recall some of the concern early on from some gamers that the Kinect would serve as an invasion of their privacy. That what the camera could see could prove to be a vulnerability in their lives.This sentiment is echoed throughout Watch Dogs as Aiden scans the faces of people in passing, knowing more about them than he rightfully should.
Aiden can tell if someone is a drug user, has a criminal record, does not pay their bills and more. He can access their personal information to draw money out of ATMs in that person’s name. Aiden can listen in on the music people are listening to or their private cell phone conversations. Sometimes this is little more than background sound of no real use in advancing the storyline, but sometimes this unlocks additional missions. For example, Aiden may overhear a cell phone conversation where someone says they will be dropping off some drugs at a nearby location. Aiden can then choose to follow that lead and put an end to the drop. This is a gritty, often depressing world Watch Dogs creates, but it is one that is absolutely worth exploring.
In a day and age when Internet and personal privacy appear to be very liquid ideas, Watch Dogs resonates with just a little more impact as you guide Aiden on his quest for revenge. The overall package is a good one, with a lot of care and features that make Watch Dogs feel like a more sophisticated Grand Theft Auto. It is not quite the revolutionary title people were hoping for, but Watch Dogs is still an excellent game in its own right.
– Nick H.
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