I swore to myself that I would be buying only one more game this year. Actually, I already preordered that game, Dishonored 2, which will be released in November. But then, while waiting for the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided DLC System Rift to come out, I bought WATCH_DOGS, an open world action RPG set in Chicago. That game, originally released in 2014, when I laboriously played through Assassin’s Creed Black Flag on my laptop, has since been adapted for PS4. It is, at times, an incredibly silly game. I still enjoyed it.
Here is why.
The silly, the stupid and the absurd
The main protagonist of WATCH_DOGS is Aiden Pearce, a 38-year-old ‘fixer’ of Irish descent. He’s broody, doesn’t have any sense of humor and, what I find most refreshing of all, totally embraces what he is. What he is, is a wanted criminal and, not only is he a criminal, he also has no intention of changing anything about the life he leads. Not even after a job gone wrong gets his beloved six-year-old niece killed.
So, this could have become a classic tale of revenge. Instead, Ubisoft decided to turn Aiden Pearce into a vigilante.
What, I ask, is so fascinating about vigilantes? I mean, they really do give honest policemen a bad name. Personally, I believe that fascination has everything to do with a deep sense of being powerless in world that still rewards and always will reward the strong of will or character or conviction, be they good or bad. By whatever measure.
In WATCH_DOGS, the reason why Aiden turns to vigilantism is not explained at all. He’s certainly not powerless. Maybe the fact that his niece’s death has been dismissed as an accident by the police plays a part in that. But it is the weakest point of the story and serves only to introduce a notoriety system built on Aiden’s reputation.
So, if he acts considerate, meaning he doesn’t kill the criminals he apprehends and does not harm any civilian (if possible), NPCs won’t immediately call the police on him when they recognise him, but take pictures instead.
If he kills the criminals and causes mayhem in general, they’ll call the cops the moment they recognize him (an already wanted criminal, remember?). Also, police tend to employ a shoot-first-ask-questions-never approach when they corner him. If you’re on the good side of the scale, they may just arrest you. Actually, since I love the prison break in the game, I think it would have been cool to have Aiden break out again, somehow, if that happens. Just an idea for another set of side quests. Instead, it’s ‘game over’, restart your ctOS-App.
I admit I tend toward causing murder and mayhem, because the police chases are such fun. And while they are that, this system and the entire vigilantism-thing are totally absurd.
Well, the writers didn’t check their own storyline and characterization. You see, after the initial prologue everyone already knows that Aiden Pearce is the vigilante. How and why? Who cares! Apparently, there was a big reveal somewhere in the old script, but that was dropped along the dev road and they forgot to eliminate the chatter pointing towards it. Oh, and that is everyone except for his own sister, who apparently doesn’t watch the news. Which is a plot-hole so big it really, really hurts.
Also, while Aiden is allowed to take down criminals non-lethally in the vigilante side quests, during others and during the main quest he is, more often than not, required to kill every single enemy. Sorry, Ubisoft, this has become lame in the Assassin’s Creed-franchise and WATCH_DOGS has actually more to offer than that.
Apart from that, it’s inconsistent. Aiden isn’t afraid of killing people, if he deems it necessary. Necessity derives out of protectiveness (defending his nephew) or else practical aspects (killing Crispin to infiltrate the auction). So, why turn to vigilantism? If you listen to his audio logs (Why?!), you’ll find he is quite comfortable being a criminal. Oh, and, the fact that shooting criminals in the kneecap is lethal (!) while shooting police officers’ legs only disables them is something that is really annoying. And while citizens recognise Aiden, police officers walk past him without any concern, even after they’ve just chased him all across town and he’s just escaped by a hair’s breadth. Which is – convenient?
I would like to write that, storywise, WATCH_DOGS tries too hard and achieves nothing. Yet, although there is a ton of inconsistencies, you’ll find a story that can be quite captivating, if you let it. All you have to do is ignore the entire vigilante-thing. Fact is, you do not have to intervene in any possible crime and, by default, completing main missions raises Aiden’s reputation anyway (“Vigilante intervention”). Which is another stupid design, but, well, I said we’d ignore that, right?
Oh, and Aiden is not a hacker. He’s a fixer, Ubisoft. Why else would literally everyone else be a better hacker than he is?
The good, the awesome and the beautiful
In WATCH_DOGS, the city of Chicago is the star. I admit I am a sucker for details and, although I have never been to Chicago and don’t know anything about it, I admire how Ubisoft has brought it to life. Sometimes, I just want to spend time walking along the beach. And while I know that there has been a lot of criticism concerning the graphics, if I want hyper-realistic images I simply go outside. It’s called the real world.
As mentioned above, Aiden is a fixer, which means he’s good at reading people and uses that to get what he wants, but, when push comes to shove, he is also highly capable of handling himself in a fight. What makes WATCH_DOGS a fun game, though, is the fact that he can hack into the city’s infrastructure and communication via a very smart smartphone.
Hacking cameras or phones or any other device allows for tactical gameplay during shoot-outs or car chases, which I appreciate very, very much. It’s incredibly rewarding being able to escape the police without any shots fired and very satisfying to take down a gangster during a black-out without his cronies even realising Aiden is there. Apart from that, there are a number of rewarding investigations Aiden can solve by using his hacking tools. Also, you can hack other players or be hacked by them, which is a load of fun.
Concerning the video above, I have only once managed to get the police to intervene in one of my gang hide-out missions. I tried to avoid hurting civilians during the following car chase, with less success than I’d hoped.
Driving through Chicago is great fun, although WATCH_DOGS made me realize that there is one thing I am even worse at than shooting, which is driving. Well, actually, I am pretty good at riding a motorbike. Also, I love the fixer contracts. My favorites are where you get to steal a police cruiser and the trap at Blume. Oh, and I learned that the easiest way to escape the police is by boat.
Last but not least, whoever curated the soundtrack has my utmost gratitude for allowing me to discover a number of incredibly gifted artists. Actually, I have never enjoyed in-game music as much as I did in WATCH_DOGS.
This is a prime example for an awesome game trailer (via Game Trailers).
Since, despite mixed reviews, WATCH_DOGS was a success, its sequel, WATCH_DOGS 2, is due to come out in November. I am still undecided whether or not to buy it. While it seems to tone down on the vigilantism and explore the far more interesting conflict between DedSec, a hacker collective, and the surveillance giant Blume, I have a feeling that it will also feature its own share of silly… But, as I have elaborated above, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
We shall see. Next year, probably.
Because first, there’s Dishonored 2.
And last but not least – My TOP tip for online contracts or How to know you’re being invaded: While walking around the city, if you notice that your profiler shuts down of its own account, that ctOS scan does not highlight enemies or that mini games and digital trips are unavailable, you are about to be invaded. Now you have a chance to evade the enemy fixer by grabbing a car or bike and race away. Another dead giveaway are hijacked cameras (In use). Someone’s watching you. So you better run. Also, look out for suspicious drivers, like cars racing into an intersection cause they are on a clock when installing the backdoor. Also, if you notice someone on a motorbike, that is your fixer. Aiden is the only one in all of Chicago who rides a bike. Seriously. So, if you are the one invading, be aware that you really are more conspicuous on a bike.
The most convenient hacking opportunity for enemy fixers arises once you are engaged in a police chase or shootout. If, during a chase, you hear the SWAT tell the cops that there’s another designated target, that means the fixer who’s on to you. Most enemy fixer’s will use you being occupied to get close to you, so watch for unusual activity in you vicinity. Use cameras to survey your surroundings. Fixers like to hide in cars, in parking garages or up on rooftops and if you see someone crouching behind cover, take them out. Also, fixers move more erratic than NPCs, like stopping mid-run or jogging instead of running, and they strike that classic Aiden-looking-at -his-phone pose when standing around. Good to know:invading fixers are not allowed to attack you, they are kicked out of the session if they do. As for you, you are weapons free. Happy hunting!