Book Review: The Art of Watch Dogs

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Watch Dogs is the hot new game on the block. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Ubisoft’s open-world hacking blockbuster has only been building hype for nearly two years now. As is the case with any new game with so much anticipation to live up to nowadays, the Internet seems to be predictably split between folks hating on it for not living up to some unobtainable pie in the sky expectation, PC players having issues with hardware optimization and uPlay connectivity, and other folks who don’t fall into the hype trap and are simply enjoying the ride for what it is. I’m in the latter group. So far, playing on PS4, I think Watch Dogs is technologically impressive, and as a game it’s well made and generally a lot of fun despite a few glaring flaws. (Damn those insta-fail stealth and car chase missions!)

But we’ll dig deeper into the discussion about the quality of the game in a review to come at a later date, once we’ve finished it all the way through. There are other supplementary topics to touch on in the meantime. Namely The Art of Watch Dogs, the latest art book companion from publisher Titan Books.

Titan once again comes through strong with a hardbound compilation of video game concepts and renders revealing the artistic vision and inspiration behind the Ubisoft production which has already sold over 4 million copies in a week. The book’s artwork is categorized into four main sections, beginning with the first chapter, Dramatis Personae, which introduces the key players in the Watch Dogs cast. Of course, that means you’ll get to see stylish poses of vigilante hero Aiden Pearce rocking his iconic mask and wing-tailed trench coat, and gain insight into how details such as the autumnal setting and inclement weather of the game’s environment influence character design and costuming. This game takes place in the Windy City, after all, so Aiden needed a coat that would look bad ass flapping in the wind. It probably won’t spark a video game fashion trend like Nathan Drake’s half-tuck, but it’s still pretty cool.

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Aiden’s partner in hacking, Clara Lille, gets much-deserved page time. Her alluring punk rock sex appeal and air of mystery and danger are sure to capture any reader’s attention. If you’re into body ink, you’ll appreciate the close-up look at the design behind some of her tattoos. It’s also nice to see what she looks like with her hair down for a change, something I haven’t seen her do in the game yet (and don’t believe she does, but I can’t say for sure). From Iraq’s intimidating urban military fashion to Poppy’s extravagant dress contrasting with the scars and nose chains that indicate her captivity as a sexual slave, the book provides some interesting background detail about all of the main characters.

Chapter 2, The Living City, shifts the attention from the character roles to the real star of the game, the virtual open-world city of Chicago. I’ve never been to the city to make any personal comparisons, but according to the book the game version of Chicago isn’t identical to the real place, but does incorporate the city’s scale, history and weather, while establishing a slightly more high tech theme without going overboard into futuristic sci-fi territory. Real-life Chicago ties go even deeper than that. The work of Frank Lloyd Wright was a key source of inspiration to many pieces of the game’s architecture. A major reason behind the choice to set the game in Chi-Town was Operation Virtual Shield, an extensive video surveillance program which served as the model for the ctOS network Aiden hacks and cracks from his smartphone in the game.

Specific locales were also designed as analogues to real Chicago neighborhoods. For example, Windy Hills in the game was inspired by the residential Oak Park area. The Loop was modeled in the likeness of the real city’s Old Town district, with its vintage stone and brick buildings. Mad Mile’s glossy, sophisticated style is equivalent to Chicago’s ‘Magnificent Mile’ business district. The city’s minority populations, such as the Hispanic and Latino communities of Pilsen and Little Village, appear in the game area known as Parker Square. It may not be 100% authentic, but from an art design perspective the Watch Dogs version of Chicago seems to faithfully represent the real city’s diverse scenery and melting pot of culture, architecture and citizenry.

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A deeper sense of place and cultural diversity is established in the third chapter, The Underground, which takes a closer look at the iconography used to distinguish the game’s different factions. Hactivist group DedSec’s use of optical and ASCII art has an edge of illegality and rebellion mixed with bright neon colors and a retro aesthetic that speaks to the underground hacking movement. Urban areas like The Wards and Parker Square have completely different identities using more traditional graffiti to represent each community’s financial status and culture. Having read through the art book, I now find myself exploring the game noticing the different graffiti murals and identifying where I’m at in the city based on the surrounding street art I catch out of the corner of my eye. It’s things like this that make art books such a wonderful reference. Even if it’s only a small detail, I always seem to gain a greater appreciation for a game after learning about the artistic inspiration behind its creation.

Last but not least, the fourth and final chapter, Everything is Connected, touches on the ctOS design elements, including the appearance of the actual ctOS cameras and boxes blanketing the city as well as the logo/icon imagery seen in the game’s HUD. But really, this chapter is all about showing off action shots of Aiden hacking the citywide operation system to his advantage. Most of the images have been seen in screenshots and artworks Ubisoft released publically during the game’s development, but there is something about seeing scenes of Aiden causing multi-car traffic accidents and exploding power boxes to stop fleeing criminals dead in their tracks all blown up and professionally staged on a glossy piece of paper that is so much more visually impactful.

The Art of Watch Dogs is one of if not the smallest of the Titan Books art books that I have reviewed so far, and by quite a substantial margin. Previous books have been at least 180 pages, but this one comes in at only 144 pages, which is somewhat surprising given the game’s extended development cycle and lofty ambitions. Then again, this book is only $29.99 whereas previous releases have typically sold for no less than $34.99, so the price has been appropriately adjusted. Thankfully, Titan and Ubisoft don’t waste a shred of the limited page count, offering Watch Dogs fans a stylish gallery of concept art, sketches, 3D renders and screenshots that fully showcase the game’s edgy, high tech hacker theme. The running developer commentary only helps to enrich the experience of playing the game.

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Disclosure: A free review copy of The Art of Watch Dogs was provided to VGBlogger.com by Titan Books.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!