Ever since its eye-opening debut at E3 a mere two years ago, Watch Dogs has been heralded as the true arrival of next-generation gaming. Ubisoft itself has done little to discourage this notion, barrelling full steam ahead on an unrelenting hype train. But the game that steps off at the end of the line isn’t the revolution many were hoping for. More than anything, it’s a reminder of generations past rather than gaming’s future. It borrows concepts from other Ubisoft franchises and feeds them into an open-world built in the same vein as those that followed in Grand Theft Auto III’s footsteps, relying on a unique hook to differentiate from the rest of the pack.
That hook is its hacking, of course. You’ve no doubt seen protagonist Aiden Pearce with his “iconic” baseball cap tilted downwards, face buried in a cellphone as he interacts with the ctOS – an online mainframe connected to every piece of technology in Chicago and your gateway to various hacking opportunities.
“The conspiracy lying at the story’s heart carries some sense of intrigue, but Watch Dogs’ narrative is rather forgettable and inconsistent”When we first meet Aiden he’s already an accomplished hacker, putting his shady skills to questionable use to siphon data and funds from Chicago’s richest fat cats in a brazen cyber-heist. Predictably, it doesn’t take long before things turn sideways and Aiden gains the unwanted attention of some nasty individuals. A contract is put on his life, resulting in a botched assassination attempt that ends with his young niece fatally caught in the crossfire, leading the way for a revenge-fuelled tale of computer-assisted violence and vigilante justice.
It’s a clichéd set up and the rest of the narrative does little to deviate from more predictable tropes. The conspiracy lying at the story’s heart carries some sense of intrigue, but Watch Dogs’ narrative is rather forgettable and inconsistent, with pacing issues aplenty. For the first half of the game it chugs along rather meticulously before suddenly picking up pace towards the end, dashing from plot point to plot point as coherency goes out the window and it feels like the writers suddenly ran out of time and had to hurriedly reach a conclusion. Even the relationship with his sister and nephew feels like it was altered in the final stages. They seem much more like a wife and son, leading to the game’s most important relationship feeling rather erratic.
Its characters, too, are of a stereotypical variety. They exist to serve the plot as genre caricatures rather than believable people, floating in and out of the story so you have very little reason to care for them. Aiden is the worst culprit, however, filling the role of the gruff, anti-hero with a voice that surprised me every time it didn’t growl “I’m cyber-Batman”. He’s as dull as you can imagine and a jumbled mess of conflicting motivations.
Watch Dogs at least tries to make him relatable with his “I’ll do anything for my family” motif, but that “anything” nearly always revolves around murdering a load of people with zero consequences. He’s the sole cause of all the tragedies that befall those he loves, yet apart from a few throwaway lines, the story never makes him recognise his role in any of it.
Consider the fact that one of your hacking abilities lets you alter traffic lights to purposely cause car accidents, despite Aiden’s niece being killed in a car crash herself. The indignities that affect him matter little when they happen to other people, even if innocent people die as a direct result of his actions.
Not A Deep-dish Pizza In Sight
It’s clear Ubisoft wanted to establish a bleak tone with Watch Dogs, and that extends to its recreation of Chicago. The weather is often dreary and the colour palette favours shades of grey – as you can imagine, it’s not a particularly exiting city to explore. There’s a lack of visual variety, and most importantly, a lack of character. This doesn’t feel like Chicago – with all its diversity and rich racial history – but generic American City Number #647. A place where people jump out of their skin when you park your car near them, and where emergent moments are disappointingly absent. Even the distinctive accent is missing. This is not a Chicago you inhabit but a videogame sandbox you simply visit. Another missed opportunity.
Alternatively you might pull up your phone to reveal information about civilians you walk past on the street, displaying random titbits about them like this woman is suffering from cancer or this guy enjoys bondage. If you want you can listen in on their private phone conversations or hack in and empty their bank accounts, stealing the life savings of someone who volunteers at a homeless shelter or a convicted sex offender – the difference matters little to Watch Dogs‘ moral compass.
Perhaps you’ll head down to an apartment complex and hack into a terminal, peering into people’s homes at their most intimate moments. Find someone else doing the same and Aiden will disapprove of their disturbing actions, but he has no problems doing it himself. None of this is ever frowned upon or even mentioned within the story, it’s just a simple hacking gimmick for kicks and giggles, rendering Aiden’s constant hypocrisy a moot point in his selfish search for justice.
With a better script these moral quandaries could have been explored rather than completely ignored, crafting Aiden as a flawed character rather than a flaw of the writing. Instead, Watch Dogs is content to waste its potential, only grazing the surface of themes like the state of privacy and government surveillance in this digital age, displaying them as simple window dressing rather than interesting avenues to explore. Watch Dogs has nothing worthwhile to say.
Fortunately the narrative’s misgivings do little to hamper its gameplay. Watch Dogs is a hybrid open-world stealth-action game and a curious amalgamation of previous Ubisoft titles. You’ll hold the right trigger to sprint and seamlessly vault and climb over objects like Assassin’s Creed, hacking data towers to reveal more of the map a’la Far Cry 3, while stealth comes complete with an array of gadgets much like Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell. Combat is satisfying – if a little easy – with a proficient cover system, and while the vehicle physics feel like they’re pulled straight from 2008, driving is enjoyable once you get the hang of it.
It’s accomplished and certainly entertaining, but there’s a distinct sense of familiarity, especially if you’ve played a Ubisoft game in the past five or so years. The hacking thankfully alleviates this somewhat, altering the structure of recognisable mission design, even if its use is fairly basic. You can hack a variety of objects by simply holding down a button, be it security cameras, mechanical gates, explosive pipes and so on. In combat this might lead to scenarios where you’ll hack an enemy’s grenade, detonating him and anyone else unfortunate enough to be standing too close. Or you might hack a circuit box, causing it to explode before creating a piece of cover to dodge the barrage of bullets heading your way. Basically it just gives you new ways to blow stuff up, which is significantly empowering even if it’s not particularly varied.
Elsewhere the hacking is used more purposefully, specifically within the confined structure of story missions. Before most you’ll likely want to scout out an area before infiltrating (if you even do). By hacking security cameras you can move safely through an enemy complex, switching from camera to camera provided they’re in your line of sight. At times this can mean completing an objective without ever moving, using your hacking skills to do all the work. And if you do choose to venture inside and get your hands dirty this also proves useful for marking enemy locations, and perhaps taking a few out via the aforementioned explosive techniques.
It’s all fairly simple stuff, earning brownie points for its splendid ease of use. And once your skill tree spreads its branches there are plenty of gadgets thrown in to the mix as well, providing myriad options and a satisfying sense of progression. Each combat scenario becomes a new stage to experiment with your latest skills, deploying distraction devises to lure enemies away, or creating a district-wide blackout to infiltrate under the cover of darkness. Or maybe you’ll just shoot your way through – there’s a robust arsenal for those that prefer popping headshots over snapping necks.
“There’s a robust arsenal for those that prefer popping headshots over snapping necks”On the road the hacking manifests itself as a refreshing respite from the open-world genre’s fascination with pursue and evade missions. They still exist in the land of Watch Dogs but there’s no more car shunting and dull escapes, just barricades to be activated, steam pipes to be ignited and bridges to be raised. It resembles Black Rock Studio’s forgotten racer Split/Second more than any Grand Theft Auto.
Away from the trappings of the story there’s a veritable boatload of side activities to partake in. The map is densely populated with various markers on every street. You might want to try your hand at taking out gang hideouts or destroying enemy convoys, checking-in to hotspots like FourSquare and taking hallucinogenic drugs to fight robots in a desolate version of Chicago. Some of the more outlandish diversions feel like they were ripped straight from the cutting room floor at Saint’s Row developer Volition – particularly one augmented-reality mini-game that has Aiden piloting a giant mechanical spider – while others are as you would expect.
With so much variety there’s conceivably something for everyone, though I found most of these secondary jaunts rather monotonous after a few plays. A hunt for a serial killer proved most intriguing, but even that ended in disappointing fashion with a brief crime stopping mission I’d already played a dozen times before. There’s repetition in such a wealth of content; finding one that digs its hooks into you will be a difference maker.
And the same can be said of the multiplayer. You have your predictable suite of online races and the inherent mayhem present when shoving a bunch of people into a public free-roam, but there’s also a unique ctOS Mobile mode, too. Here, one player uses the companion app for tablets and phones to deploy and order law enforcement about to takedown a live player, while Dark Souls-esque “Invasions” task one player with hacking and stealing data from another without being spotted. These prove enjoyable asides, once again calling to mind Assassin’s Creed’s cat-and-mouse tomfoolery. It’s just a shame you can’t invade your friends.
But, hey, who needs friends when you’re a mass murderer like Aiden Pearce? Narrative misgivings aside, it’s difficult not to be disappointed by how Watch Dogs turned out. Not because of the excited hoopla that came before, but because of what it could have been. Here we have a game that borrows too heavily from others – entertaining as those mechanics may be – robbing it of its own unique identity. The hacking rectifies this somewhat, providing that differentiating hook, but even that’s not enough to elevate Watch Dogs above the sum of its derivative parts. You won’t regret your time spent in Aiden’s shoes – most likely you’ll enjoy it – but there will always be that nagging feeling that this could have been something greater. This could have been the next-gen showcase we’ve all been waiting for, rather than another routine adventure.