Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Watch_Dogs (Review for PS3 & Xbox One)

Ubisoft definitely put the hype machine behind it's newest franchise Watch_Dogs, but, does it live up to the hype? Well, that depends on how you look at it. Did it live up to the graphics from it's first E3 showing, clearly no, that was proven prior to retail release. Is it a large and open world? Yes it is, and it takes quite awhile to dig in to everything. Is Hacking really a deep and revolutionary mechanic? Yes and No, most hacking is done through a simple one button push which isn't all that revolutionary, some of it is done with Bioshock style data flow puzzles, which once again is nothing revolutionary, but what happens when you use it is revolutionary. So, as you can see Watch_Dogs was set up to be a game that will be nitpicked for years to come, there was just way too much promise for everyone to be truly satisfied. But, not living up to the enormous amount of hype put upon it doesn't make it bad game, in fact it's a very promising franchise that could change the game if future games in the series can continue pushing the envelope further.

You play as Aiden Pearce, a small time hacker who comes across something he was never meant to see. This spurs forward a series of events that leaves Aiden on a path for revenge. It sounds cheesy, and at moments the gravel voiced Aiden takes it to places that are cheesy, but it is interesting enough to keep you playing until the end credits. Aiden isn't a very likeable or even relatable guy for the most part. He uses people, and causes mass destruction, siphons innocent peoples bank accounts, and even kills people, all things that he is apparently opposed to. He's a little contradicting, and the Christian Bale gravel thing he has going makes it hard to take him serious. But Watch_Dogs does a really great job with everyone else in the story, all of the secondary characters are far more interesting than Aiden, and unfortunately you barely get to know any of them, you don't spend a ton of time with the secondary cast, usually just brief cutscenes or small phone call to guide you towards the next story point. It's unfortunate, but forgivable, this story is about Aiden, I just wish he was just a little easier to sympathize with.

The real meat of the game is marvelous open world sandbox of Chicago. The tagline of "The City is Your Weapon." is absolutely true. After a brief tutorial mission you will be set free in Chicago to do as you please. You can hack back accounts, check-in to hot spots, play poker, speed around the city in a variety of vehicles, take down criminal convoys, stop crimes, and well, whatever you want. The city is full of surprises and challenges awaiting your attention. Side Missions are split up between Gang Hideouts, Criminal Convoys, Crimes, Investigations, Privacy Invasions, and Fixer Contracts. Crimes are one of the first you will come across, as you wander the city with your phone out you will automatically detect crimes, they always go down the same, go to the circle on your mini-map find the victim or the potential criminal wait for the criminal to make their move and intervene. They quickly become tiresome, but if you need a quick reputation boost doing a few will raise it quickly enough. Criminal Convoys task you with stopping a, well, convoy from reaching it's destination. It's fun in theory as you can go about it in a million different ways, planting explosives in the road, rerouting them into a tight space, or just straight up shooting them. The problem, which will quite frequently happen solely by accident is you can not kill your target, you can only knock them down, kill everyone else, but not the target. It's annoying because sometimes you will be off by merely an inch or a millisecond and the target will put themselves directly into your line of fire or and explosion causing you to fail and start over.

Gang Hideouts are really fun, but can be equally frustrating. Essentially it is clear out the enemies by any means necessary, but not the target, yet again you need to knock down the target. These are more fun because beyond knocking down your target, you never have to step foot into the area. Through using Watch_Dogs brilliant hacking you can just bounce from security camera to security camera, luring enemies to where you want them and exploding junction boxes or even detonating a grenade that one of your enemies is carrying. The problem is there is room for error, say you explode a junction box killing one enemy that is nowhere near your target, but what you didn't see was the series of propane tanks that lead straight to your target, and boom, mission failed. You will experience this a lot, but it does add a tactical approach to it that is very welcome. Privacy Invasions allow for you to peek in on random people living their day to day lives, some are boring, some are hilarious, all should be explored. The combat in Watch_Dogs is fluid and responsive, all the guns in your arsenal are useful, but you will most likely find a favorite and stick with it. Earning Skill points (which you do for completing any task) will unlock new abilities for Aiden, the skill tree is split between Hacking, Driving, Combat, and Crafting. There is enough variety in the skills that they are all useful, so there really isn't that skill that you will never need.

Fixer Contracts are a mixed bag, and after the first 4 or so you do, well prepare to do them again, only in a different location. Considering you have to do 40 of them for an achievement/trophy, they are better done in between doing other things. Investigations are little diversions, they all feel like they are building towards something different and eventually end up being the same in the end, they are either a Gang Hideout, or stopping a crime, but they still offer something to keep you playing. These are supplemented by CTOS towers, CTOS Breaches, deciphering puzzles to unlock audio recordings, or locating mysterious packages. In general the sheer of amount of missions and side missions are staggering, even if they do become repetitive after awhile.

Then there are more leisurely diversions, these include Poker, variations of Chess, the shell game (you know the one where you try to follow the little red ball), the AR (Augmented Reality) phone games NVZN and Cash Run, and the now infamous Drinking Game. Chess is by far the easiest, Poker is all luck based, and the shell game and be slightly punishing if you aren't really paying attention. NVZN gives you a laser pistol and unleashes weird pink alien bugs from worm holes, it's a fun diversion and I found myself getting lost in it a few times. Cash Run is exactly what it sounds like, you collect coins while avoiding ghosts while running around a course. The Drinking Game is one of the most sadistic (or masochistic depending on how you look at it) thing I have ever experienced. It's part luck, part skill, and for the most part refusing to give up. For the 15G Achievement or Bronze Trophy, you will have to be all 10 levels of all 3 opponents. In each level there are approximately 5-6 rounds, you will take a shot, your screen will blur and a circle will begin to float all over the screen with no rhyme or reason, you will have to move that circle over a button and press the corresponding button, or you will have to keep the circle within another circle while it fights you every step of the way. It is so bad in fact that there is currently a petition to make it easier. I don't believe it is impossible to do, I think if they had given you 2-3 more seconds it would have made it much more manageable, as I always seemed to fail right as I was about to hit the correct button.

The online portion of Watch_Dogs is  mixed bag, and those on Xbox 360 and PS3 will be missing out on two game modes. Something I was unaware of until I booted up Watch_Dogs on my Xbox One. On last gen consoles you will have the ability to compete in Online Races, Online Hacking, CToS Mobile Challenges, and Online tailing. But if you are playing on PC, PS4, or Xbox One you get all that plus Free Roam and Online Decryption. Ubisoft claims it's because the previous gen consoles couldn't handle it, but I think it's more marketing than anything. I will explain why shortly, first I will talk about the modes everyone gets. Online Races are surprisingly fun, I am not a fan of racing games, I hated racing in GTA V, the last real racing game I enjoyed was Need For Speed: Underground on the Gamecube. But the ability to use all of the same tricks you would use in Single Player, is completely satisfying, solidifying your lead but bursting a steam pipe or raising bollards at the last minute is awesome. I had way more fun with it than I ever thought I would. CToS Mobile Challenges are pretty ambitious, you have a car and someone playing on a tablet has control of a Police Helicopter and the city, the goal is escape, while their goal is try everything they can to stop you.

Online Hacking and Online Tailing are the same with only slight differences. Tailing tasks you with simply observing your target, you can use security cameras, sit in a car, you just need to watch them, but you can't be profiled, if the target moves their phone over you it will identify you and at that point you need to get away from them before they kill you. Online hacking has you install a backdoor, and wait for the sensitive information to download, the catch with this is the moment you initiate the hack the player is given a circle to search to find you, for every 25% of the download the search area get's smaller. It's a truly thrilling experience when you hit 75% and the circle is right on top of you, if the player makes you then the goal is the same as it is with tailing, get away without being killed. If you are the victim of a hack you can defend yourself by using Jam Comms, which you can either buy or craft, this will stop the hack momentarily and give you slightly more time to find the hacker. Now for the  "exclusive next gen stuff", Online Decryption is pretty simple you and a group of other hackers are tasked with decrypting a piece of information, you all start at random points on the map you need to get the information and then hold on to it long enough to decrypt it. Anytime you have the information everyone will be able to see where you are, if they get close to you they can steal it from you, or they can kill it and take it. If you lose it your progress never goes down, gaining it back will start the decryption from where it was when you lost it, first person to 100% wins. Free Roam is exactly what it sounds like, free roaming think GTA Online. So, Online Decryption isn't all that complicated and if Free Roam is exactly like GTA Online, then why can't it run on 360 or PS3? Because if it did, you wouldn't go out and buy an Xbox One or PS4, holding out content makes people feel like they are missing out, and thus will be more likely to upgrade.

Taking Watch_Dogs online is definitely fun, and even when I was being invaded I was quite happy about it. But where the online portion falls short is the leveling system, otherwise known as Notoriety. You gain Notoriety from successfully hacking someone, successfully tailing someone, coming in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd (if there are more than 3 players) in online races or online decryption, or by beating your mobile opponent. But if you fail your hack, tail, or come in anything other than the top in a race or decryption you will find yourself losing your Notoriety. Rather than just having you gain minimal to no Notoriety, you are actually penalized. It's ridiculous, and makes for a rather rough time ahead against some of the better players. Turning off online will completely reset your Notoriety back to 0, this is another reason why I didn't care much about my Notoriety, it's not something you ever really hang on to, you can potentially be hack or tailed while you are in the bathroom and lose your Notoriety. It's a terrible design flaw, and should be eliminated in the next game.

As if all of that wasn't enough there is also a crafting system, it's not incredibly deep, but it's useful for making everything from explosives to devices capable of luring enemies to where you want them, or knocking out the power to an entire area. It's all handled through the weapon wheel, simply hovering over the item and pressing a button will craft the item, so long as you have the proper components which can be found or purchased at pawn shops. But as the picture above shows there is much more under the surface. Digital trips are available on your phone or through select dealers on the street. There are currently 5, 4 included with the game, and one through DLC. Madness has you driving through the streets of hell mowing down demons to fuel your car with souls, while Psychedelic has you belly flopping on giant flowers, I didn't try the third one so I can't explain what it is. But, everyone's favorite is Spider Tank, you are a giant Spider Tank and you get to terrorize the streets climbing on buildings, using your massive legs to crush police and pedestrians alike. All feature the common theme of having specific goals for each round, you even gain skill points that can be spent to help improve your chances of meeting the goals.

Watch_Dogs despite looking better during E3, still looks great on the PS3, and only slightly better on Xbox One. I spent quite a bit of time marveling at the water (something Ubisoft seems to do well), but I didn't notice a great graphical jump between previous gen and current gen. Watch_Dogs is literally bursting at seams with content, it might actually be too much at times, when your mini map becomes over crowded with a million blue icons it's hard to see the little things you might rather be doing. But, you are most definitely getting your $60 worth. With the exception of a slightly flat story, horrible online progression system, and a brutal mini-game, Watch_Dogs does everything else right. You may feel letdown if you allow yourself to buy in to all the hype, or the stinging reviews, but if you just allow yourself to get into the world of Watch_Dogs you will be happy you did. Here's to hoping Ubisoft doesn't milk it's new Cash Cow dry. 8 out of 10.