I’ve finally got my hands on Watch_Dogs and had time to give it a fair play-through, so thought I would post my first impressions. I’m currently on Act 2 of the 5-act story, and at approximately 20% game completion.
The most obvious question when talking about Watch_Dogs is of course, what is the hacking like? Thankfully, it works really well, and is fully-integrated into the game rather than an afterthought. Simple elements, such as switching traffic light colours and opening gates, are hacked by pressing X, while more complicated challenges such as important plot-related hacks require solving a hacking puzzle, such as in the picture below. These puzzles aren’t too difficult, as most are untimed- the ones with timers so far have the timers attached to one specific data point in the puzzle, so the timer will reset by moving that piece out of action then back in play. The ctOS towers (hackable control centres that provide more map information), while including hacking elements, are mostly an environmental puzzle. These vary in difficulty from incredibly easy to quite a challenge.
Environment and Gameplay
The in-game world (based on and featuring famous buildings in Chicago, though not intending to be an exact replica) seems relatively naturalistic. For one thing, civilians don’t drive absurdly slowly and carefully. Pedestrians will make comments about protagonist Aiden if he gets in their way, and will contact the police if they see a crime committed. Having Aiden’s profiler ability on when around pedestrians will also give little tidbits of information about each one, such as their occupation, likes, recent activities or internet searches. I haven’t noticed any repeats yet, which suggests that a lot of thought went in to making lots of different pieces of information. Car and bike handling is odd when compared to other sandbox games like GTA. Handling is more arcadey and less twitchy. Aiden rarely falls from the bike, and crashes are slightly muted even without the damage protection upgrades. While this prevents a few player deaths, a downside to this handling is that high speed controls can be unresponsive enough to make races more difficult. It’s one of the few games where going slow is better for winning races. Another notes is that engine sounds are surprisingly full for a game not centered around driving, especially the sound of kickstarting a motorbike. Vehicles can be accessed from a delivery service on Aiden’s phone, and arrive quickly- however, they cannot be customised or upgraded.
Campaign missions are a bit more linear than a typical open-world game, but less linear than a typical action-adventure game. Personally I like the way Watch_Dogs has handled this: although the first hideout stands out as being a bit too guided, the rest of the game clearly tells you where to go, but then leaves it to you to get past the obstacles in your way. Most of the campaign missions so far have either been a mixture of stealth and action, or fully stealth-dependent. This works quite well, as the mini-map clearly shows enemy vision cones, so their movement patterns can be worked out. In pretty much every case, stealth is a better way to progress, with guns being a secondary option. One area where guns are clearly secondary is the inability to shoot while driving- this means when a Convoy or Fixer mission goes wrong there is nothing you can really do to defend yourself. Hacking abilities can help with stealth: in particular, the ability to hack a guards personal secret camera and manipulate their vision away from your hiding spot, and the ability to travel from camera to camera along the network in order to reach and hack the server without physically being present at the hack.
Stealth is also made easier by the fact that while AI enemies have some intelligent moments (such as telling each other to cover/ throw grenades etc), they can also be quite oblivious, failing to notice Aiden a few feet away from them. They also have variable intelligence, with some enemies being able to realise the beeping noise coming from their belt is their own explosives and throw them away in time, while others don’t realise, making for an easy kill. Hacking abilities also mean you can choose to indirectly kill AI by making electronics explode near them, or psyche them out by making doors open around them or their communications systems fail. While attempting to psyche them out is fun, and is reminiscent of Batman’s tactics in some of his games, it only has limited use here as their AI presumably wasn’t programmed for that.
Watch_Dogs has a lot of side-content and world-content: there are random events; many different collectibles, such as QR codes which give extra XP or plot-relevant information; real-world minigames such as Poker, Chess and Drinking Games; and unlockable Digital Trips (Augmented Reality games within the game). Completing the extra content unlocks progression rewards such as extra weapons or more cars to reques. Digital Trips are a clever addition, as they add a little something different to the Watch_Dogs world that works with the theme of the game (DT’s can be justified as paying for the downloading of a temporary mind-altering experience, which fits with the slightly drug-pusher nature of the Digital Trip sellers), while adding fun and irreverence to what is quite a dark storyline and character.
Storyline and Characters
Aiden Pearce, anti-hero hacker extraordinaire, fits the trend for morally-ambiguous protagonists so well that he is almost clichéd. Of particular note is the Batman-style incredibly low voice, that normally signifies a character isn’t entirely on the side of the good guys.However, there are some differences, such as his preference for messing with people’s heads rather than using weapons, and, of course, his hacking abilities, having some potential to be used for good. While he works well in the game, and is a fairly interesting character, I doubt he will be memorable in the long-term. Nicky and Jackson- Aiden’s sister and nephew- are the only unambiguously-good characters. At the point of the story I’m in now, they haven’t had too much development beyond showing the effects of Lena’s death on them. Nicky’s struggle between caring about Aiden and wanting to protect Jackson from further harm has been hinted at, and is a potentially interesting storyline. However, I’m not clear whether Nicky knows about Aiden’s abilities and criminal behaviour, which would have been a good detail to clarify.Aiden’s hacking associates also seem somewhat interesting, based on the limited time I’ve met them for. Bonus points to the reveal of who the mysterious “Badboy 17” is… that one was unexpected.
Multiplayer options include Tailing (observing another player without being spotted); Hacking (stealing data from another player while avoiding discovery); Races; as well as Free Roam, which was unfortunately cut for the 360. Races are quite fun, as there is a lot of freedom between checkpoints- as long as you get to the checkpoint, you can get there however you want. Players with more points in the Hacking skill tree have a slight advantage in being able to use more environmental hazards against opponents, but this isn’t a game-breaking ability.
Tailing and Hacking are very similar in practice, the main difference being that if you spotted in a Tailing mission it is an instant-lose condition, whereas if you are spotted in a hacking mission you have the chance to evade the vengeful player. Both can also vary dramatically in difficulty based on whether you are trying to hack a skilled player or a novice. A minor annoyance with Hacking is that the stealing data aspect appears superficial, with successful hacks only awarding a small amount of money and XP.
The most original MP aspect is the Mobile Challenge, where a console player has to race through a series of checkpoints while defending themselves from a tablet player, on the ctOS App, who controls police forces chasing them. App players can also create their own checkpoint courses, and challenge console racers to complete them. However, while playing MP is entertaining when it works, the MP servers have been continuously buggy so far, making it hard to find online players, or cutting out halfway through a race/mission. These connection issues have a worse effect on the app, as it is completely inaccessible when the servers aren’t full-functional. This is bit of a shame, as the Mobile Challenge is one of the most innovative parts of the game. Another minor gripe is that while Races can be played against friends, there doesn’t appear to be a way of specifically hacking/ tailing friends: it isn’t a major deal, but hacking friends can lead to some interesting experiences, so having that feature would have been nice.
Most achievements are for completing entire sets of side-activities, such as stopping every crime, or doing every Fixer Contract (car delivery mission). This means that its not an easy 1000G- completing the main story would only get you about 1/3 of the way through, and investment in the full experience is required. However, there isn’t anything that looks impossible, and there are no missable story achievements, so multiple save files are not required.
Every gaming media article or opinion on Watch_Dogs has focused on its graphics. This is mainly because the very first E3 trailer showing Watch_Dogs showed an incredible render that made it appear to be one of the best-looking games of this console generation. Later trailers, and the actual gameplay, were distinctly average in comparison- not horrible, but nowhere near as good as the first render. Below are the videos of the original trailer, 360, and PS$, respectively. On my 360 (using a component cable, though there doesn’t appear to be much difference between that and HDMI), it seems to be in a sort of uncanny valley, with impressive features such as the water effects and night races contrasting with the underwhelming buildings and textures, and noticeable popping-in of pedestrians and traffic. Character models are similar, being well-detailed at very close range and in cutscenes, but generic at any distance. The X1 and PS4 versions are an improvement, but not as good as the original trailer, while the PC is a controversy all of its own.
Watch_Dogs promises freedom and power, and pretty much always delivers it. However, the one area where freedom was not presented was an area that could have added whole new aspects to the game, the ability to do good. While you can stop randomised crimes for a small reputation boost, there is never the option to do anything beneficial for civilians. The only option for generic NPCs is to steal their money. When the NPC is a tax fraudster, that’s ironically funny, but when they’re a single parent then stealing money from them is straight-up villainous. If there had been the option for more heroic avenues such as returning the money stolen by criminals, I think it would have added to the game. Furthermore, the option for Robin-Hood-style robbing the rich and giving to the poor would have been an interesting advancement, especially as it would have allowed the player to customise their Aiden’s morality by choosing who they wanted to help and hurt. I would recommend Watch_Dogs, as its a decent story carried and made great by interesting mechanics, as well as being a generally fun experience. However, it may induce annoyance in completionists, and people who don’t like playing the bad guy.