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Watch Dogs: The Story is a Hack, But the Game is Fantastic

William Murphy Posted:
General Articles Bill Murphy 0

Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs is not what I expected to call an RPG. Ubi itself doesn’t refer to the game with that acronym, and we’re not even going to list the game here on our new RPG game list. But if the series keeps on its current path, we just might have to revisit that decision. When I heard about the game, watched it develop, and saw it at shows, I very much expected it to be little more than a GTA-like game with “hacking as your weapon”. But then Ubisoft sent me a copy for my PS4 (unexpectedly), and when I booted it up I was pleased to find an open world modern day RPG. In fact, it reminds me of The Witcher in a lot of ways, minus the medieval setting and far better storytelling.  

The story of Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs is your typical “gruff guy seeks revenge, uses gravelly voice to convey emotion, has help of over-sexualized woman/love interest, and questions the moral choices he makes along the way” kind of tale.  Run-on sentences aside, chances are you won’t pick up and play Watch_Dogs because of its thrilling narrative. It’s passable, but barely.  No, instead I suspect the things that will draw you in are the game’s massive open-world, its fifty levels of skill-point based progression, and the novel use of “hacking” as a gameplay and combat mechanic.

Ubisoft’s new IP very much an RPG in terms that you play a character and progress them through levels which help them grow in power. You also get to craft consumable items, go on tons of side quests apart from the main campaign, and you even get to play limited “paper droll” dress up with new outfits for the hero and over 30 weapons to find and earn.  If Watch_Dogs was not so closely compared to Grand Theft Auto, and were it not set in today’s Chicago, we probably would have already assumed it was an RPG.  But that’s a topic for another column, I suppose.

You play Aiden Pierce; a member of the elite hacker society of Chicago, with the game picking up one year after your niece was killed in a car accident because of a heist that went wrong.  I’ll save the spoilers, but chances are you won’t be surprised by what happens throughout the campaign.  It is a meaty campaign though, with around 40 missions of varying complexity.  If you do nothing but the main story, you’ll likely finish the game in around 20 hours.  But add in the many, many side missions, achievements, and seamlessly integrated multiplayer and you’ll tack several dozen more hours onto your experience.  Oh, and don’t forget the requisite Season Pass for DLC that’s being worked on already too.

Combat plays out in the third-person, with a really exceptional cover mechanic in place.  Health is measured, as it often is these days, by how much blood is clouding your screen and if you hide in cover or rest long enough it recharges.  Through the skill-point progression system, you can gain higher damage sustainability, but one thing about the leveling and skills system is apparent: there is no variation in builds for Aiden. Maybe if you finish the game before hitting the level cap, but chances are you’ll progress to the cap of 50 if you’re a completionist and like the multiplayer.  At this point, you’ll have all your skills, weapons, and unlocks.  There’s no real punishment for going down the path of hacking early on, while neglecting your driving skills for example.  Eventually, you’ll be all-powerful.

The good thing about WD over GTA is that you’re not playing a criminal… sort of. I mean, you still break the law as Aiden, but when you play the game you’re more of a Robin Hood sort of figure than a guy just robbing banks to get rich. However, GTA’s heroes always have far more layers than Aiden. In Watch_Dogs, you’re a hacker on the hunt for people who cause your family grief. There’s a larger scheme at play, but your motivations are clichéd and simple.  Find the bad guys, kill them, and make your family safe.  Along the way you can either go about life in Chicago as the good guy Vigilante, or play the darker side and help the criminals of the city.  There’s little gray territory here as the game rarely gives you the option to do the wrong thing, and instead most side missions revolve around you stopping criminal activity. 

You can, however, choose to take people out with your nonlethal billy-club or to shoot to kill. Using the club is more stylish and involves quite a bit more stealth. But since the game never punishes you for killing bad guys over knocking them out (unless it’s written in the mission objectives), you’ll quickly realize it’s far more efficient and fun to go in guns blazing.  Just watch out for those bystanders.

Speaking of bystanders, you can use your phones access to the ctOS surveillance system to profile anyone and everyone in Chicago. Not only can you gain access to useful side missions this way, but as an admitted people watcher, it’s grossly fun to listen into phone conversations, view text messages, and peep in on what people do when they think no one’s watching. Suddenly, I realize just how much I would abuse the power if I were part of the NSA.  Watch_Dogs makes you wonder just how much you’re being watched through your network usage, and at the same time shows you how fun it is to be a voyeur.

It’s also really amusing to use the ctOS hacking as part of your arsenal. The game’s tagline would you lead you to believe that hacking is far more useful than gunplay, but that’s really a half-truth. Instead hacking is just another toy to add to the staple of guns and grenades.  You can call a blackout to help you escape police at night.  You can hack into a gang member’s electronic explosives to make them blow up while they’re still on him. You can make pipes burst from stealth, scorching your enemies as they sheepishly walk by.  But my favorite has to be using the city-streets’ retractable blockers to cause chasing enemies to crash and total their cars.  The game’s camera slows and gives you as a nice cinematic view of the event when it happens, and the payoff is super satisfying.  And these are just a few of the hacks at your disposal.  DLC promises to bring even more, and I’m anxious to see how far the eventual sequels will push the mechanic without making it feel stale.

The side missions of Watch_Dogs are pretty amusing as well, though at first there may seem little reason to even bother with them.  If you dig deeper into the progression menu of the UI though, you’ll discover perks, weapons, outfits, and other things hidden behind completing Criminal Convoys, Gang Hideouts, and Fixer Contracts.  The more you do in Chicago, the more toys you to which you have access.  I haven’t had much experience with the multiplayer aspects yet because the UPlay network has been having some fits (Watch_Dogs is Ubi’s fastest selling title in history, if you can believe that) but the “sample” missions the main story uses to introduce the mechanic are compelling. 

Everything in WD is color-coded with MP missions showing up in your UI as purple.  You can line up a match-up via your in-game cell-phone for free roam, races, hacking contracts, and so forth all while playing the single-player campaign.  Sometimes the game will even suggest a match is waiting for you and with the press of a button you can accept and take part.  No loading screens, no queuing… just boom – new mission to play. In a lot of ways, this sort of multi-player in an open world is what one might envision as part of the next wave of MMOs (whether we like it or not).

Ubisoft has given players a huge open world RPG to play either completely solo, or always online.  When (not if) the technology catches up to let hundreds and thousands of players inhabit the same city block (as opposed to the 3-8 players in WD), we’ll be entering a new era of online worlds.  In fact, this is precisely what games like Elite: Dangerous, Star Citizen, and even Shroud of the Avatar are working towards: seamlessly offline and online worlds that let every player choose how they want to play the game at any time.   It’s also a big part of the reason you see publishers and people in suits veering away from the term “MMO”.  But again I’m getting off track.

Watch_Dogs has seen high praise for its new concepts, its faithful renderings of existing gameplay, and plenty of criticism for its clichéd story. But make no bones about it: if you like open world games, if you like third person shooters, and you like RPGs you should give Watch_Dogs a try. It’s on pretty much every console except Nintendo’s, as well as Steam (though I hear the PC version’s controls are hampered by port syndrome as well).  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go help some old lady who’s being mugged. I’ll use the club, because I don’t want grandma to call the cops on me.


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.