I love video games, but it’s rare for me to play them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me a somewhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game. I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that I’ve been meaning to play and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve had the time to start chipping away at the list. With that in mind, I’ve created a new series of posts called Late to the Party, wherein I discuss the games that came out in the preceding years that I’m finally getting around to experiencing. Today’s entry in the series is Watch Dogs. Today also sees my first attempt at including video clips that I recorded while playing the game. Hopefully the embedded Youtube videos works properly.

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[Spoilers in this paragraph] Watch Dogs is the story of Aiden Pearce, a hacker and vigilante who operates in Chicago. In Watch Dogs, Chicago has become America’s first smart city, with much of the city’s infrastructure and utilities being run by a single operating system called ctOS. Aiden’s story begins with a botched job that results in him being targeted by unknown assailants. The hitman who intended to kill Aiden, however, accidentally kills Aiden’s niece, and thus Aiden sets off in his quest to discover who ordered the hit on him and extract payback for his niece’s death. His journey takes him deep into Chicago’s seedy underbelly, where it slowly becomes clear that a much larger conspiracy involving ctOS is in the works. Complicating the situation, Aiden’s sister is taken hostage by his former partner in crime, a man named Damien, forcing Aiden to do Damien’s bidding until he can find a way to locate and rescue her. As he works to unravel the machinations of those who targeted him and are manipulating ctOS, Aiden makes a number of friends and enemies, ranging from an elderly crime lord to a hacking collective called DedSec to one of the engineers who originally designed ctOS. Everything comes to a head as Aiden puts the last pieces of the puzzle together and has a final showdown with Damien.

Driving through Chicago

As a story, Watch Dogs is good overall, but suffers from a subpar main protagonist. Aiden Pearce is about as stereotypical a video game lead as they get – a disgruntled, gravel-voiced Caucasian male with little personality and a penchant for acts of aggression. The only way we could make him even more cliche would be if he were a space marine. Aiden doesn’t change too much during the game, and even though we get a bit more insight into his backstory from some of the scattered audio recordings found throughout Chicago, I never found him all that interesting of a character. Thankfully the supporting cast of Watch Dogs is much stronger, with characters like the eccentric assassin Jordi Chin making up for a lot of Aiden’s blandness. Watch Dogs has a decent amount of action, suspense, and intrigue, as you would expect from a conspiracy-driven story, and the themes explored in the game such as overdependence on technology and the control of information were interesting enough to keep me invested in the plot all the way to the end. The one major part of Watch Dog’s story that I’m somewhat split about is the way it ends, as the conspiracy related to why Aiden was originally targeted turns out to be not quite as grand as expected. On one hand this was a bit of a letdown, but then again I realize that not all nefarious plots have to be world shattering. I suppose it would be expected that sometimes villains are after something comparatively mundane. The conspiracy surrounding ctOS, however, is much more sinister, and I’m sure that any sequel to Watch Dogs will further develop and expand it.

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All the information. All the power.

The city of Chicago and its surrounding areas have been masterfully crafted in Watch Dogs. True, it’s a condensed version of the city and some parts have been omitted, but having visited Chicago a few times myself, I was impressed with how much of the city’s iconic center had been recreated. All the major landmarks are in the game, and at times I would just drive around the city to find the places I visited the last time I was in Chicago. Even the parts of Chicago which I’ve not been to in real life, such as the docks and slums of the south side and the rural areas of the northwest, look believable enough that I assume the real places look much the same as how they are portrayed in the game. The world of Watch Dogs is also full of lots of small touches that I appreciated, such as people posing for photos at historical sights, a fully operational commuter train system, the random conversations you can overhear, and even everyone freaking out when they see Aiden running around with his gun drawn. It’s things like these that help complete the package of the game and make the Chicago of Watch Dogs feel like a living city with real people in it.

Starting a crime to stop a crime, and then fleeing the police

The gameplay of Watch Dogs will be familiar to anyone who has played open-world games in the style of Grand Theft Auto. You have a large map that you can freely explore from near the start of the game, and the map itself is littered with activities, missions, and collectibles you can tackle as you see fit, though you’ll need to breach ctOS stations to fully unlock everything in their respective regions. One group of side activities of particular note are the Digital Trips, which are an electronic version of a hallucinogenic experience and let you do crazy things like pilot a spider tank. To get around Chicago there are a wide variety of cars everywhere that you can make use of and a handy waypoint system can plot a route to wherever you need to go. Boats can also be found along the waterfront if you feel like taking a cruise, or need to elude pursuers (they are easily the best way to escape a chase). Interestingly enough, there are no aerial vehicles that Aiden can acquire, which I guess I can understand because that might make the game too easy in certain sections, but it still would have been cool to fly a helicopter through downtown Chicago. When it’s time for Aiden to go into combat, a basic cover system, four classes of weapons, and gradually recharging slow motion ability are at your disposal. In my case I only used a small number of the guns I acquired, and my personal picks were a suppressed pistol for stealth, a light machine-gun for going loud, a grenade launcher for destroying vehicles and armored enemies, and a heavy sniper rifle for distant foes. If I could, I would have dropped all the other guns in my inventory just so that I didn’t accidentally change weapons in a bad moment. To supplement your guns, you can also craft various items that can be very helpful for whatever task you’re trying to accomplish. An electronic lure can lead enemies towards a desired location, an IED can be placed on the ground as a trap, and a focus booster can immediately refill your slow motion gauge. For me the most handy tool was the communications jammer, which I used a lot to prevent enemies from calling in reinforcements, stop bystanders from calling the cops, or interrupt ctOS scans that were trying to locate me. Watch Dogs also has a morality system whereby your actions influence how Chicago’s people view you. Stop a lot of crimes and save many lives and the people will be on your side and be less likely to report your activities to the police. Cause mayhem and get innocents killed and you’ll find your face frequently showing up in news bulletins and random pedestrians calling the cops often. In my playthrough I opted to be a force for good in Chicago, but I confess that I was judge, jury, and executioner for most criminals. I was the hero of Chicago, handing out justice in the form of bullets.

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Carnage on the freeway

Where Watch Dogs stands out from other open-world games lies in one of its central game mechanics, hacking, which allows Aiden to take control various aspects of Chicago’s infrastructure, as well as breach other computer systems in the city. Every camera in the city is an extra eye you can harness to your advantage and things like traffic lights, road spikes, electrical transformers, gates, and steam pipes can be used to stop a fleeing target, eliminate enemies, or help you ditch pursuers. Additionally, most people in Chicago have smart phones, which Aiden can hack to discover side missions, raid banks accounts, and eavesdrop on the everyday lives of those around him. With everyone’s personal information out there for the taking, Aiden can profile anyone he sees and get a brief statement about who they are and/or what they do. Maybe it’s just selective memory, but it seemed to me that the citizens of Chicago had a fair number of ex-convicts and people involved in questionable behavior in their midst. Certain enemies can also be hacked, allowing Aiden to disable their communicators, trigger explosives they may be carrying, and keep them distracted while Aiden sneaks around. Watch Dogs’ hacking mechanics open up a new world of possibilities for how you can approach various game situations, and there’s an undeniable pleasure to fully utilizing Aiden’s tools to turn the city into your weapon. You’ll know what I mean when you systematically eliminate a group of pursuing cars or manage to clear an entire area of enemies without firing a shot.

Cruising the river at night

One part of Watch Dogs that I did not participate in was the multiplayer. In addition to a few basic multiplayer modes, Watch Dogs also has a feature where you can invade other player’s games and try to hack them, and conversely other player’s can invade your game. There’s a mission in the main game that gives you a taste of what this is like, and I was immediately not a fan of it. While invading and being invaded sounds sort of cool in concept, I didn’t want to have to worry about suddenly being invaded while I was trying to accomplish another task in the game, so I turned off this feature.

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I like to think that I punched this guy through the fence

I’m pretty positive about Watch Dogs, but before I finish up I should mention a few things that I did have trouble with. First, and this is really not so much a complaint as a testimony to one of my personal quirks, the starting world map for Watch Dogs is so cluttered with activities, missions, and collectibles that I found myself completing most of them early in the game just to clean the map up a bit. For me, it would have been better if these side objectives appeared more gradually on the map as I completed main story missions. Second, the driving sometimes felt a bit wonky, making some cars feel harder to control than they ought to. Lastly, Aiden only runs slightly faster than everyone else in the game, meaning foot chases could sometimes take much too long if a target failed to run past anything in the city that could be hacked. Shooting a target in the leg also only briefly staggers them, usually not buying enough time for Aiden to close the distance. Because of these issues, whenever it was not required to take down a fleeing target with a melee strike I would usually just activate slow motion and then put a bullet in their head.

Spider Tank (Digital Trip)

Like most open-world games, Watch Dogs is a slow burn at first, but once it gets going it’s hard to stop playing it. The story, except for Aiden, is interesting and as I unlocked more hacking abilities and other skills I wanted to keep going to see what I could do with them. In the future, it’s going to be weird to play other open-world games set in modern cities where I can’t hack the city infrastructure. Watch Dogs was an enjoyable game, I look forward to any sequel that eventually comes out.

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Saying goodbye to Chicago

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