Watch_Dogs

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B+ Overall Score
Gameplay: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Online: 7/10

Watch_Dogs is the newest intellectual property brought to the world by Ubisoft. Releasing on May 27th, 2014 for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4, the game follows the tale of Aiden Pearce in a virtual and modified city of Chicago. The terrifying reality is the not-so-subtle introduction to the complex surveillance network which hits closer to home than anyone could have possibly expected.

You take on the role of Aiden Pearce, a vigilante with the power of a city-wide interconnected network at the touch of a button. His smartphone is the gateway to opening gates, putting up bridges, siphoning funds from unsuspecting citizens, and the entry point to accessing the most private of moments. Did I mention he can remotely detonate explosives which are inexplicably networked to WiFi?

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The game itself can’t be explained in much detail without spoilers, or withing giving away the intricacies that are simply too fascinating to uncover of your own accord. What can be said however, is that the game provides the foundation for a rising franchise, in the same effect to what the first Assassin’s Creed did for the Creed franchise.

The most rewarding action in the game for me was being able to stroll the city with my phone out to learn and explore the intimate details of the citizens lives. Everyone in this game has a name, an occupation, a kink, a salary, a record … every person you walk past is a unique story with just enough information to stimulate the mind into the wildest of imaginations.

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From time to time you’ll overhear conversations, or hack directly into a texting conversation between two complete strangers. You’ll learn how others live, you’ll uncover criminal plots, and you’ll be put in the position of action versus inaction. The most salient conversations become the arguments that identify potential victims of assault, and through the guise of vigilantism there is a drive to save the unsuspecting victims.

The hero complex thrives in Watch_Dogs.

While the act of hacking makes you feel powerful by simply holding down a button, some have taken this to be a repetitive task. It reminds me of Assassin’s Creed and it’s repetitive missions that made many gamers shy away from the title at first. It’s an introduction, and any complex button mashing would likely result in a frustrating experience that would detract from the “power” you feel by having that kind of control at the palm of your hand. In it’s own weird way… it works.

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That phone is POWERFUL.

Someone is chasing you and you need an escape? Cause a major crash by hacking the stop lights. Need extra cash to buy a fancy new coat? Swipe it from a wealthy banker walking past you. Want to peep in on some strangers having intimate conversations with loved ones? Reroute the power and listen in.

This is not science fiction, this is just science.

Technology is increasing the access we have to digital information, and the exponential increase seems exaggerated and fantastical in Watch_Dogs, but the reality is we have access to this as we speak. We are wired with cameras that are networked 24/7/365 and the number of microphones in the world are astounding.

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As I write this, there are at least 6 cameras and 3 microphones near me. Is someone watching? Is someone listening? Who knows.

Watch_Dogs makes you think about it though.

The gameplay itself within the Watch_Dogs universe makes the game feel closer to an open-world city cruiser like Grand Theft Auto. In fact, the marketing campaign did such a good job of making people think it was the farthest thing from GTA that the game itself feels like it is constantly struggling to distinguish itself within a well established genre. The side missions, the phone based menu, the driving style … its all reminiscent of a GTA game with its own unique twist. The question then becomes whether or not it will stand on its own two feet.

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I mean, Saints Row did it … right?

In a sense, Watch_Dogs is all about choice. You can run about the city as the non-lethal vigilante that uses hacking and a baton to bring criminals to their knees, or you can charge into the world guns blazing and turn it into the wildest third-person shooter you’ve ever seen. I’ve tried both, and the reality is that although the game doesn’t encourage or punish you for picking one style over another, it somehow felt “wrong” to shoot indiscriminately.

I think it’s because everyone has a name.

I think it’s because I scan everyone I come across and use a sequence of predetermined prejudice to determine whether or not the justice I will serve out is lethal or nonlethal.

A gang of rapists threatening to assault more victims does not receive the same treatment from me as the petty thief stealing jewelry to feed his family.

Watch_Dogs actually makes me think before pulling the trigger.

And I can’t tell if that’s a good thing, or a bad thing.

Who am I to judge?

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Then there is the multiplayer.

The multiplayer for Watch_Dogs is a hot mess, and there is no other way to describe it. Watch_Dogs finds tremendous success in the integration and concept of hacking into the single player experience, and in doing so generates a fury of anxiety and paranoia. That is where Watch_Dogs excels at creating a unique experience that FITS with the experience. Tailing other players to “observe” their actions without them ever becoming aware that you’ve been tailing them fetishizes the voyeuristic nature of the game. Hacking other players generates spontaneous “Oh sh—-” moments where you scramble to defend your information, or protect your reputation.

This makes the unique online experience something to behold… up until you switch your phone on and attempt to join a free roam or decryption online game. Then it all hits the fan. The lag makes most online features entirely unplayable across the board, after multiple attempts to join different game types, on different connections, and constant attempts to join with friends … we learned that it’s simply not worth it. To make matters worse, the free roam option defaults to non-adversarial, making it a dull and meaningless online sandbox where players constantly attempt to crash into one another since there is no risk of death. Enabling the adversarial option generally drops you into free roam matches with only one or two other eager souls… an indication that either no one knows how to enable the setting or that it is a flawed design from the start.

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The online experience (outside of the single player mode) attempts to bridge the gap between sandbox games (Saints Row, Grand Theft Auto) and multiplayer sandbox expectations seen from modern era gamers.

It manages to do neither.

The free roam and decryption modes feel like a tacky add-on that was poorly implemented. It’s laggy and in a sense pointless. It tarnishes the experience of an online gaming experience that had potential to be something truly unique and powerful. What it accomplished with the ctOS app (mobile devices) was the tip of the iceberg on future potential. The interaction between companion apps and full fledged games are in a state of infancy, and they will only grow.

Watch_Dogs is a single player experience, where the only multiplayer elements should have been the intrusions.

Watch_Dogs is not the path to the promised land, but it’s a step in the right direction. It doesn’t set the bar for the franchise, but it provides the opportunity to elevate it’s own expectations with the potential to create something truly special. I predict that by the third iteration of Watch_Dogs, we will see multi-million unit sales and a franchise bustling with success and vigor.

For now it’s a phenomenal single player experience that begins to terrify us, by making the interconnected life we live that much more vulnerable.

Have you put tape over your cameras yet?

Many already have.

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Griffyth
Author: Griffyth View all posts by
Griffyth is the online alias for Alberto Ibarra, editor and doctoral student in Clinical Psychology whose research aims to tie together cultural challenges in the video game / gaming community. You can learn more about him at www.griffyth.com or follow him on twitter at @griffyth_psy.