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Watch Dogs

Watch Dogs

Written by Sean Cahill on 5/27/2014 for XONE  
More On: Watch Dogs

Last year, Watch Dogs was the talk of E3 in Los Angeles.  Ubisoft has been showing off the sandbox-style title for some time now, and despite a couple of delays, it would appear that the wait was well worth it.  I am a Chicago native, and for a long time now, I have been clamoring for a sandbox title to be done in the Windy City, so when Watch Dogs was announced and showed the familiar skyline that had Willis Tower, the Associate Center, and Lake Shore Drive, I just hoped that Ubisoft did my hometown proud.  After spending many hours with Watch Dogs, I can confidently say that Ubisoft has succeeded.

Watch Dogs, as mentioned many times by now, is set in the city of Chicago.  The main protagonist of the title is a man by the name of Aiden Pearce, a hacker.  To keep this review spoiler-free as much as possible, Aiden's story revolves around getting revenge for a tragedy in his life roughly one year prior to the game's present day.  Chicago is controlled by a network called the ctOS, which is the creation of Blume Technologies, a corporate giant that convinced the city to allow them to connect just about everything in the greater Chicagoland area.  Traffic lights, road signs, police scanners, and much more.  Of course, when an entire city is controlled via one network, corruption is easy, and Aiden Pearce discovers this on his journey towards vengeance.  Aiden has been dubbed The Vigilante by Chicagoans; An unknown man who attempts to take out crime in his own way.  Of course, how the general public views The Vigilante will depend entirely on the player's direct actions.  Make no mistake:  Decisions can and will haunt you in this title.

The map of Chicago isn't exactly a perfect depiction of Illinois' largest city, for development reasons, naturally.  The city is broken up into several different areas.  The downtown area consists of The Loop and the Mad Mile, paying homage to the official nickname of downtown Chicago and a play off of it's familiar Magnificent Mile.  These two areas are actually shown as islands from the rest of the area, simply to break up the city.  Chicago's south side has been given the nicknames Brandon Docks and The Wards, while the suburbs finish up the map in the form of Parker Square and Pawnee.  Edge to edge, the map is about nine square miles (About 5,000 meters by 5,000 meters) and is full of activity.  Campaign hotspots will be depicted with yellow icons, allowing the player to determine when exactly to progress the story.  Dark blue ions depict various activities, which are generally for making money, such as poker, three-shell, drinking, and other various activities.  Light blue icons are various side quests, broken up into different categories that Aiden can complete to gain skill points, experience, or cash.  These will range in difficulty based on the area, and it is completely random as the player progresses throughout the campaign.

Aiden has control of some of the objects at the start of the game.  Turning on his phone with the X button will activate his profiler, allowing Aiden to see the names, secrets, and other information of every person as he passes by them.  Some will be hackable, depending on if they are on their phone or do not have any protection to their system.  Hacking an NPC may reveal information, though it may or may not be useful.  Some of the time, the player will get to see a little comic relief with a funny text conversation or some lewd phone conversations.  When Aiden hacks something useful, however, any number of scenarios can occur, such as gaining access to a bank account via ATM, eavesdropping on a potential crime about to occur, gaining a new song for the soundtrack (which is a rather clever addition to the game), or other helpful tools.  It all varies depending on the target.  Of course, Aiden will only have access to ctOS in the first district he starts in.  The other sections must be unlocked, though this can be done almost immediately with minimal progression in the story.  Gaining skill points is vital in unlocking other objects to hack, such as blockers, gates, steam pipes, and various other items in the city that will aid him.

Hacking can be a little cumbersome at first, but is quickly picked up with little effort.  It is vital that a player learns to hop from camera to camera in order to find a specific target that may need to be hacked, unlocked, or accessed.  The puzzles that are built inside of these systems will get progressively harder as well, whether it be needing to hop from multiple cameras or hacking into a mainframe with the firewall puzzle that is certain to give a player a mental challenge.  Some of these puzzles are pretty straightforward and do not require much in the way of time or patience.  Later on, the difficulty will increase, including escort missions through some dangerous areas.  Escort missions aren't fun, but when mixed in with puzzles?  It's a lot more tolerable.

This version of Chicago offers a lot in the way of side quests and entertainment.  One of the side games to enjoy is simply known as Digital Trips.  It's exactly what it sounds like, too:  Instead of being given a drug, Aiden will be offered a form of audio enhancement that will cause him to hallucinate and go into a rather peculiar world.  There are four forms of Digital Trips, with my personal favorite, the Psychadelic, being shown in the video below.  I do recommend doing Digital Trips as soon as possible, because they are a ton of fun and are a bit difficult to get through.  They are required for 100% completion, of course, so if you're aiming for that, you're going to need to do them anyways.

Combat in Watch Dogs is a mixture of stealth and front-line assault.  Experience points are earned for eliminating enemies, though the highest amount of points are given when these NPCs are eliminated discreetly.  There are numerous objects that can be hacked, resulting in an explosion.  If an NPC is nearest to these devices when they go off, then the highest amount of experience is given for a stealth kill.  The AI difficulty wildly varies.  I found that some areas, the AI was rather basic and tended to act like a bunch of lemmings just following one another when dead bodies are discovered.  In other areas, though, the AI is cunning and will attempt to flank Aiden, and many times, will do so successfully.  It's important to keep Aiden's head on a swivel and monitor all areas.  Also, several NPCs in areas will have the capability of calling for help, meaning that a limited number of enemies can grow exponentially and turn a tough situation into one that may be near impossible if not properly equipped.  Also, it does bear mentioning that the AI dialogue during combat scenes is rather limited and will result in loops.  This is a mild letdown but there's enough there to get the point across.

The police in Watch Dogs are tenacious.  The ctOS allows them access to the entire city.  When someone calls 911 and, believe me, someone will call 911 on Aiden, a ctOS scan of the city will begin.  The map in the lower right corner will show several yellow circles that will begin to scan through the area.  The percentage meter will show if they are gaining a lock on Aiden or not.  If that meter reaches 100%, it's time to bail out, because the police are usually there within a few moments, and they do not let up easily.  These police are very similar to those in GTA V in their bullheadedness to not let a crime go.  The meter will show how much heat Aiden has on him.  The higher the heat, the more he can expect to be dealing with.  Helicopters, cruisers, SUV cruisers, and unmarked vehicles will all attempt to take him out.  Usage of the ctOS network against them is vital, such as causing wrecks at traffic lights, raising and lowering gates or blockers at the right time, or staying out of sight of the helicopter by going into tunnels are all exceptional means of escape, but timing is everything, and triggering one of these hacks too early or too late will result in Aiden most likely failing and being killed by Chicago P.D.

Ubisoft's version of Chicago is a world that continuously moves, even if you aren't in it.  This means that the online structure works hand-in-hand with the single player world.  There are multiple game modes that players will have a chance to enjoy in online, which are accessible from Aiden's smartphone.  They vary in range from easy to difficult, and each mode has a different goal.  Tailing is simple:  The game gives you another player via online connection and brings you to their location, or at least near their location.  Your job is to track them down and get close, but not too close.  Getting to close will cause the player to profile you, resulting in a failure.  Online hacking takes this to the next level (pictured in the video below) by forcing the player to get close enough to hack their phone and install a backdoor.  This takes some time, which means that a hiding spot will be of utmost importance.  Getting profiled will result in a failure, but evading the target will at least limit the damage.  On the flip side of this, that player will receive a notification that they are being intruded and will have a set amount of time to profile their hacker.  Profiling and killing the hacker will result in a victory for them and will gain them valuable notoriety points that can only be gained in online mode.

Online Decryption, however, may be the most fun of them all.  This is a multiple player challenge, up to 8 players in one portion of the city, that will either be a free for all or a team-based game.  A file needs to be retrieved and the only way to do so is to pick it up and avoid the other players.  This is essentially a digital version of hot potato and can result in a lot of chaos.  There is also an online race that is self-explanatory as well as a mobile challenge, which I was unable to enjoy as I couldn't not find anyone attempting it during my review time.  Also, there is an online free-roam where players can invite their friends to simply roam Chicago and enjoy various tasks.

The campaign of Watch Dogs will run roughly 20-30 hours, depending on how diligent players are in knocking it out, taking necessary steps to build up Aiden, and other factors.  When it comes to the side content, it's hard to put a number on it because there are so many things to see in the city.  There are hotspots to collect, ctOS towers to unlock, games to play, crimes to stop, and the list goes on.  Ubisoft made sure to put in plenty of content into the game to make sure there is a lot to come back to.  Replay value is fairly high, though there aren't alternate endings based upon your decisions and the way the public views Aiden because of your actions to either help out civilians or mow them down whenever possible.  The story is fairly dark and riveting, with a few plot twists that aren't easily seen, and is guaranteed to span all across Chicago.  It isn't hard to enjoy it while trying to figure out what's going on as there are stories within the main story to try and figure out, as there always is with open world games.

To wrap it all up, there is a lot to love in Watch Dogs with very few complaints.  While the AI can be all over the place with its difficulty, taking control of Aiden and exploring the digital version of Chicago is an absolute treat and truly makes me feel like I'm back in my hometown.  The cyber-threat that always seems to loom over this world makes it feel different from GTA or Saint's Row in a good way, making sure to pull itself away from those unique worlds and offer a fresh take on sandbox games.  Online will continue to be fun for a long time, and with notoriety points being a great benchmark for online leaderboards, and will make sure to keep players interested for a long time.  Watch Dogs is a must buy, plain and simple.

With a deep storyline, plenty of side content, and a gorgeous rendering of Chicago to explore, Watch Dogs brings a lot to the table and truly unlocks next-generation graphics in a whole new way.  Watch Dogs is a beautiful, mesmerizing title.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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Sean is a 15 year veteran of gaming and technology writing with an unhealthy obsession for Final Fantasy, soccer, and chocolate.

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