Watch_Dogs: Hack the planet!


After about 6 hours of gameplay of the newly released Watch_Dogs, one of the most anticipated and hyped titles of 2014, I figured that I’d share a few quick observations about the game. This is not a review; it’s more a loose collection of observations and ideas that ended up too long to just email to my friends. There is next to ZERO discussion about the campaign’s story here — mostly because I’ve been sidequesting like a boss and haven’t experienced much of the core story — so you needn’t worry about spoilers.

Why doesn’t my computer look like that?!

My first thought when playing this game was, “HOLY SHIT! Why don’t my computers’ OSes look like that?! I want that!” There’s a close up of a faceless villain’s desktop in the opening cutscene that had me wanting to dig out my old Rainmeter skins to start customizing my PC and the game’s floating UI makes me think of how good something like Google Glass could be in a few short years. Say what you will about the resolution and the framerate, but the highest of fives go to whomever designs the interfaces at Ubisoft. Great job ladies and gents.

The highest of fives goes to whomever designs the interfaces at Ubisoft. Great job ladies and gents.

On the other hand, the sort of digitally degraded visual nature of the flashbacks is a bit annoying. If you’ve ever watched an old satellite TV signal on a rainy day or remember the early days of digital cable, you’ll know the artifact-y, ghosted image that I’m talking about. The protagonist Aiden Pearce’s memories are presented with this digital degradation as a stylistic choice, but, in a game that’s already highly stylized, it’s annoying to watch and doesn’t really make sense. Why would Aiden’s actual human memories look like that… is he a robot or something?!

The non visual interface (or control scheme) makes some interesting choices. The first mission tutorial is pretty good and introduces the player to the mechanics of free-running and simple hacking well enough while also dropping you right into the thick of the story, but skips some crucial control elements. For example, I got really frustrated when an hour into the game I couldn’t figure out how to put my gun away after accidentally drawing it. PROTIP: On the Xbox One, it’s the left bumper.


Aiden Pearce: the millennial hero

This is the first game that I’ve ever played where the protagonist walks around staring at his phone the whole time and I’ve got some odd feels about that. But Aiden lives in a world that’s not unlike ours. Look around you the next time you’re on the street and you’ll see people doing just that: walking around with a significant portion of their attention directed at the tiny screens in their hands.

That got me thinking: The heroes of the 20th century championed strength, resolve, and physical ability. Nathan Drake and Indiana Jones are a good examples of this. Both are smart men with strong minds and bodies, but their mental focus makes them unitaskers and they surmount their challenges in a very 20th century way, often punching or shooting their way out of trouble and always focusing on the task directly in front of them.

Aiden Pearce is possibly the first truly 21st century hero. Sure, he’s presented as physically capable, but what makes him interesting is that he champions the attributes that we (and I hate to describe myself this way) millenials think are cool. Aiden is tech savvy; he’s nimble rather than strong; and most interestingly, he’s an expert multitasker. It’s no coincidence that the game’s quick menus look a lot like a stylized smartphone interface and that the sidequest notifications look like smartphone popups. You can browse many of these menus without stopping the action to identify songs on the radio with a Shazam-like app or check into points of interest around Chicago without missing a step. Our generation thinks that it can handle texting while driving; Aiden takes that technological confidence and split focus to the next level.

This is the first game that I’ve ever played where the protagonist walks around staring at his phone the whole time. I’m not sure how to feel about a distracted hero.

You can also hack NPCs’ bank accounts without missing a step. Just walk around with your phone out and hold X whenever someone’s icon turns blue. It’s almost too easy to hack things, but that just illustrates the kind of hero that Aiden is. He can remotely accesses a traffic network and wreak havok on an intersection while fleeing the cops as easily as Nathan Drake can throw a punch. Case in point: I’ve been playing for hours and I’ve only pulled my gun’s trigger twice.

The other weird thing about this game that gets brought up is Aiden’s moral ambiguity. He’s a hero, but a selfish one. He cares nothing about the privacy of the people who’s identities, bank accounts, and digital lives he’s prying into and potentially destroying to further what he sees as justice. Come to think of it, it’s hasn’t really been stated at any point during my playtime that he actually is anything more than a bad guy seeking revenge against some badder guys.

Playing Watch_Dogs also has the odd/unfortunate side effect of making the simple act of walking to work and fumbling with my phone while listening to NIN seem disconcertingly epic. If I buy a duster in the next week or so, someone should intervene.

Hack the planet!

Being an Ubisoft game, a lot of the broad strokes of how you play Watch_Dogs are familiar to a player who’s intimate with the Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry series. You free roam chosing missions and minigames as you see fit. You unlock new areas by climbing towers. Freerunning and parkour, though nowhere near as extensive as the AC series, have been simplified to holding the stick forward plus B.

I get the feeling that you could try to play this game like a GTA/Assassin’s Creed/Far Cry clone and just sneak and shoot your way through it, but hacking is what sets this game apart from the rest of the open-world games crowding the market and is so much fun. For example, you could tail a baddie by sneaking around and ducking behind low walls, but watching things unfold by fluidly jumping between use of security camera feeds is both much more satisfying and much easier for Aiden.

 Our generation thinks that it can handle texting while driving; Aiden takes that technological confidence and split focus to the next level.

You could spend 20 minutes being high-speed chased around Chicago by the cops like I did, but hacking traffic lights at full speed is just cooler. You could shoot that guard, but hacking his phone or setting off a car alarm to distract him will let you slip by silently. Like the parkour in Assassin’s Creed, hacking is grossly over-simplified, but it ends up looking and playing out awesomely.


Digital distractions galore

Maybe this is just symptom of open world games and my “can’t miss a side quest” completionism, but I spent a lot of time just walking around not doing anything in particular. I saw the missions there, but sometimes I couldn’t be bothered to head “all the way over there” so I just walked around hacking things and fighting small crimes and admiring the visuals of digital Chicago.

The random notifications for crimes in progress in which you can intervene is an interesting mechanic. I nailed my first one perfectly — watching an abusive boyfriend interact with a woman and taking out a perp before he could kill her — but then I had a series of fumbles that were frustrating. I kept getting caught hiding behind a car or peeking around a corner. Thankfully, there are so many crimes in progress that you get plenty of practice. Remember, in this game the plentiful security cameras are excellent stand-ins for line of sight.

There’s another mechanic that lets you hack people’s bank accounts to make money simply by walking past certain “vulnerable” NPCs with your phone out and holding X. At first, I  just hacked everyone indescriminantly, but once I’d reached what I felt was a decent cushion of money, I started being more discriminant about who I hacked. The sometime hilarious descriptions that accompany the floating heads played big part in that. Donates to charity? You can keep your $550. Attends furry conventions? OMG HAX! Even if you’re not hacking security keys or cash out of the NPCs, it can be pretty fun just to walk around and listen in on people’s conversations and texts.

The best distraction from the very serious tone of the main story are the Digital Trips. Holy crap, they are awesome. These hallucinated mini-games place the character in absurd situations (such as in the driver’s seat of a giant mechanized spider-tank on a rampage) and add much needed levity to the otherwise dour exploits of Aiden.

Odds and ends

  • There’s a weird, slow-motion mechanic called “Focus” that isnt’ really explained well and doesn’t seem to come into play much during my limited play. I only ever activate it when I accidentally click the thumbstick.
  • Digital Chicago is goregeous, but the bean is nowhere near as chrome-reflective as it should be.
  • There’s an ability to buy new outfits in clothing stores scattered around the game, but they all look basically the same with different, more ridiculous color schemes.
  • I’ve only got the second-screen companion app to run once. Every attempt to login after that ahs been plagued by connectivity issues. DAMN YOU, UPLAY!


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