Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan
If Watch Dogs will be remembered for anything, it’ll be how divisive the game is. You’ll come away liking it for reasons in which you didn’t expect, and annoyed at how it negatively defies expectations as both a genre entry and what you would have wanted from Watch Dogs. It’s likely because this new open world play-thing more resembles the work of profit handling executives, and looks less like a product from a creative team of designers.
And yet, despite a severe lacking sense of identity, Watch Dogs still turns out to be a pretty good game.
Ubisoft is going to get themselves into trouble from all the wasted hot air they fill your head up with at trade shows and incessantly aggressive marketing campaigns. Table setting buzz lines like “Every citizen’s darkest secrets will be at your fingertips” and “You, Aiden Pierce, a man shaped by violence…” that carry an emphasis on world building and character development, sets a false precedence to what Watch Dogs really achieves.
In reality, Aiden and his quest for vengeance following the death of his niece is lukewarm at best. Any investment Watch Dogs expects from the player isn't earned with an artificial effort in attempting to get you to care for his family’s safety. His gruff, one note and painfully monotonous attitude in executing his own line of justice against those sons-of-bitches, and his superficially developed relationship with his sister and his nephew isn't nearly enough to evoke any significant level of emotional attachment to the plot direction Watch Dogs ungracefully wobbles itself towards.
It doesn't help that Watch Dogs fails to upkeep the whole notion of "vigilante". Aiden's notoriety is similar to that of the protagonists from the Infamous series as the citizens respond accordingly to your actions. If Aiden pulls up his scarf to mask his identity whenever he jumps into action, why is it Chicagoans point out "Hey, isn't that the guy from TV?" as Aiden casually strolls the streets? And when Aiden seizes the identity of someone else while still donning that trench coat and baseball cap, why is it that no one recognizes him then?
The title itself, “Watch Dogs”, refers to the privacy violating oversight that a centralized network-powered city allows with the fictional ctOS. Watch Dogs has been paraded as the video game equivalent of social commentary on wiki leaks and the NSA. However these winks and nods only come in the form of unsubstantiated reminders, depicting an unconvincing and occasionally campy alternate reality rather than the unnerving “What if?” Watch Dogs tries to be.
Aiden’s cell phone is the single most powerful weapon in Chicago, capable of carrying out acts of war-on-crime terrorism from exploding underground steam pipes, raising bridges, and commanding traffic lights – to looting bank accounts through the phone’s profiler, gathering intelligence, and tapping into phone exchanges to predict crimes before they even happen.
The use of Aiden’s device turns car chases into Split Second like affairs with satisfying ease that’s more empowering than most city sandboxes, and it allows enemy infiltrations to replicate what we’d imagine if the Dark Knight himself ditched the cowl and his non-lethal code.
But even with Aiden’s puppet master control over Chicago, Watch Dogs often feels like it misses what many would imagine a hacker to be. The one-button prompts and the nature of often only a single domino falling instead of a cascading deliberate chain reaction made me feel less like a hacker and more like a voodoo priest. I admit that I’m being almost entirely unreasonable, but somehow I expected more.
Nonetheless, once you take away Aiden’s cell phone, Watch Dogs then becomes the latest and most obvious example of what a game production factory Ubisoft really is. As Gamespot’s Danny Odour stated, “Watch Dogs is a game without a soul”, Frankensteined together with an amalgamation disembodied parts that create an ugly yet efficient and anthological machine.
Watch Dogs’ most faithful preservation is proven in how it arguably has the most mechanically sound cover system to be used in any open world title. The Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon influences are striking. And though they’re basic in comparison to other Ubisoft’s core cover based stealth action games, the cover system here is incredibly organic, allowing you to adapt to any makeshift situation much like the traffic pile up seen in Watch Dogs' original reveal in 2012. Though Watch Dogs was, in many ways, a concept two E3s ago, this is one of the few elements that have sustained its promise over the years.
Watch Dogs’ stealth systems is best executed in this franchise’s publisher wide version of “outpost infiltration” design; better known here as Gang Hideouts. It’s here that the term “Phone Batman” really comes to play. Lures are similar to Far Cry 3’s “rocks”; but with their sticky characteristics, they can attach to any surface including gas lines and transformers in which Aiden can detonate when enemies are within range. Aiden can dictate explosive traps of his own with proximity and standard IEDs in hand. Tried and true methods of enemy disposal are equally as satisfying with intimate takedowns and the use of silenced weaponry. And each headshot sounds gratifyingly gross.
Though I may fret about how “un-hackerly” Watch Dogs is, using cameras to manipulate your enemies is the closest you’ll ever feel to being a hacker. You can remote detonate enemies’ grenades (why Blume Corp – the company behind ctOS – thought it was a good idea to connect grenades to the internet is beyond me), disrupt communications for a halting distraction, and activate objects in the environment to lure the attention wherever you see fit. Almost everything you can tinker with via cameras can be controlled by Aiden directly, but camera use lends the advantage of operating from a safe distance.
Watch Dogs can be as much of a sensory overload as Assassins Creed, feeding you heaps of notifications via the profiler and the HUD itself to give the illusion that there’s always something to do. But much like Assassins Creed, Watch Dogs’ mission structure boils down to generating off-shoots of a small handful quest types: chase, infiltration, getaway – and rarely offers anything truly imaginative and unique.
Unless you pick up on Digital Trips.
Ubisoft couldn’t get away with delaying Watch Dogs at such short notice without coughing up some sort of explanation. The best answer we got was the developer having to address the game’s “repetition”. And while it would be silly to expect a candid reason, I’m convinced that the complete self-determining and tonally inconsistent Digital Trips were Ubisoft’s answer to 2013 Watch Dogs’ repetitiveness.
Digital Trips are more than just world mini games that you’d come to expect in any open world title. They are, for the most part, self contained experiences that withhold their own level of progression (The creepy and weird Psychedelic is the only one of the four that is strictly a high score chaser). Madness and Spider Tank more align with your expectations as arcade experiences, though each have their own skill trees in which you build up. Alone, however, is a separate mini campaign within Watch Dogs in which Aiden must sneak his way throughout a sector of Chicago lighting beacons while avoiding patrolling cyborgs along the way. Of these meaty distractions, Alone is the most significant, and is perhaps Watch Dogs’ best demonstration of what stealth looks like in an open world capacity.
Run and hide.
Unfortunately, Alone contains Watch Dogs’ best open world design, as the city of Chicago is uncharacteristically uninspiring. To be fair, Chicago isn't as easily recognizable as New York and LA, as both are the most iconic cities in America. Having said that, being that I’ve never been to Chicago myself, nor am I able to point out the land marks of the Illinois city, Chicago looks like nothing more than a technically impressive Liberty City without the unmistakable attractions such as Time Square and the Brooklyn Bridge.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Watch Dogs will become a franchise no doubt. However it’s one of the few Ubisoft IPs that lacks distinction. While Assassins Creed feeds off of historical aesthetics, and Far Cry pits players against exotic elements, Watch Dogs isn’t so much impressive by the sum of its parts as it can be appreciated by where and when it does something really cool.
+ Excellent cover system
+ Great take on Ubisoft's infiltration mission design
+ Digital Trips
- Forgettable plot
- Uninspired open world