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I’ll say this for Watch_Dogs (which I’m going to call Watch Dogs for this rest of this review, because stylised names can go away): it came at an appropriate time for me. Protagonist Aiden Pearce’s most prominent character trait is that he’s a vengeful uncle looking for the people who inadvertently killed his niece while targeting him, and as an uncle to two girls, I can sort of understand that. I mean, I’m not quite sure I’d go full-on vigilante, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been hacking into files and getting myself targeted in the first place, but… well, the point stands. Uncle. Protective. Sort of understandable.
Of course, it also helps that Aiden is a borderline superman, capable of hacking into everything at the touch of a smartphone button and able to take on swarms of highly-trained mercenaries in gun battles. Despite years of what Fox News pundits might call videogame-based training, I’m pretty sure I’d wind up being killed in about thirty seconds if I got myself into that sort of situation. Fortunately, despite our similar statuses as “uncles with nieces”, I don’t think I’m liable to get into that sort of situation. Not unless a developer takes a bad review particularly hard, anyway.
For the first few hours, Watch Dogs feels like a bit of a revelation. Once the obligatory tutorial mission is out of the way and you’re thrust into the streets of hackable Chicago, you’ve got a wealth of activities, challenges, and opportunities available. You can simply wander around profiling people and seeing what makes them tick – this homeless guy lost his life savings on an invention. This girl donates to Jewish charities. This chap is a Scientologist.
You can go all Person of Interest and profile people for potential crimes about to happen, and then intervene as soon as things kick off. You can wander around draining the bank accounts of everyone you see to fund your vigilante crusade, whether or not they deserve it, without much in the way of repercussions. You can take down a gang hideout, or accept a contract to distract the police, or go for one of those story mission things.
And, initially, everything is interesting. I guarantee you will smile the first time you take out a group of guards by luring them near to electricity junctions that you then hack and overload, and piggybacking from camera to camera to mark targets and plan a safe route through a hostile zone is a joy. Aiden’s status as a vigilante is actually important; if you’re defending the populace and only dealing with cops by incapacitating them rather than killing them, then they’re not likely to call the police when they spot you. If you mow civilians down with a car or use them as mobile target practice, then they’ll be considerably less pleased to see you.
And everything in Watch Dogs works, too! It looks really rather nice, particularly at night and in the rain – which perhaps isn’t a surprise, considering the Ultra texture quality demands 3GB of video RAM – although the daytime world looks ever-so-slightly off. Driving feels just about right to me, with different vehicles handling in different ways, but then everything I know about cars can pretty much be sketched into one paragraph so I’m perhaps not the best judge. Cover and shooting both function perfectly. The spider-tank Digital Trip side-mission is hilariously entertaining. I played through Watch Dogs with a gamepad, but it’s largely fine on mouse and keyboard. All of this is great.
The way the online functionality works is equally pretty great. You can use Aiden’s phone to start an Online Contract – which means “search for a game mode, and then be teleported to the start point” – but Watch Dogs also takes a leaf out of Dark Souls‘ book by allowing other players to invade your game. In the sparse online environment that is pre-release this didn’t happen too much, but there were a couple of occasions when I was wandering towards a mission and then got a message that I’d been hacked, and had to find and profile the person before my data was stolen.
The online modes are a pretty mixed bag, but they’re at least reasonably original. Tailing has you perform one of the oh-so-loathsome open-world missions in which you have to follow someone without being spotted, only the person you’re following is another player, which immediately makes it much more entertaining. Hacking has you stay within a gradually shrinking area and attempt to avoid being profiled by the person you’re backdooring. Decryption is a madcap mode in which up to eight players compete to control a piece of data, stealing it from each other by wireless hacking when near or by gunning them down and picking it up. Races are races, only you can hack bollards and steam pipes to screw up your opponents. (Amusingly, players themselves are completely invulnerable in this mode, but that doesn’t stop you from using a grenade launcher to ragdoll them around when the race has finished.) A mobile mode has you racing through checkpoints while another player – using their real-world phone or tablet – controls the police and hacks everything nearby. There’s also a free-roaming mode, but this was sufficiently unpopulated that I never really managed to try it.
Few are spectacular and I doubt I’ll be playing the multiplayer in the weeks to come, but there’s certainly a good amount of variety to offer occasional distractions. Indeed, in terms of providing an open-world game with some unique twists (namely, the ability to hack things), Watch Dogs works about as well as you’d expect. I’m particularly impressed with the stealth; while you can go all-guns-blazing, it’s not as rewarding as distracting guards by hacking the environment and then sneaking past, or luring them together and then blowing up something nearby.
The problems start to come in after the first few hours. First and foremost is a bit of a personal one, which is that it’s not really a game about Aiden’s quest for revenge, hunting down the villains who killed his niece while making a stand against crime. Despite what Watch Dogs tries to make you think early on, it’s a story about Aiden being blackmailed by an arsehole, and then he suddenly discovers who’s responsible for the death of his niece. He also fights a gang that is peripherally related to said death. Which might be fine for you! I just like stories about revenge, redemption, and vigilantism, so I’d be lying if I said that this didn’t come as a bit of a disappointment. Nonetheless: I didn’t really care about most of the characters, nor did I really care about what twists and turns the story was going to take next. Not least because it didn’t really take many, at all.
Second is that… well, it’s very Assassin’s Creed in terms of how simple everything is, in that most everything is done with the push of a button. Let’s say you’re being chased by a police car, and you drive past some bollards that you can raise via hacking. Do you enable your slow-motion focus, turn your view around to see when the police car is approaching them, and then raise them at the last second? Nnnnno. You wait for “PRESS X TO NEUTRALISE” to appear on the screen, and then you press X, and then the police car is immediately taken down. It’s less frustrating, certainly, but these guaranteed takedowns and continual prompts take away any feeling of challenge or skill from hacking things at just the right time.
In fact, Assassin’s Creed is a pretty good touchstone for comparison, because a lot of Watch Dogs plays out like Assassin’s Creed: Chicago or Grand Theft Creed. There are cars and cover systems and guns, but you’ve also got press-button-to-takedown, a free-running toggle, and the majority of the gadgets and hacking have AssCree equivalents; you don’t have smoke bombs, for instance, but you can cause a blackout, and while you can’t pickpocket, you can just hack the bank accounts of those wandering around. You have traversal puzzles in which you’re trying to get to a tower to unlock the surrounding area. Taking down a gang involves performing a melee takedown on the target, while you’re free to murder absolutely everyone else in the vicinity.
The third problem is arguably Watch Dogs‘ biggest, and that’s that it’s eerily charmless. Okay, yes, profiling people is neat at first, and it offers a thin veil of personality to the city. The way the profiling links into dealing with guards is great, too, if incredibly brutal – spot a guard who’s listed as “victim of torture” and you can distract him by sending a text message that says “We miss playing with you. I don’t think you’ll survive round two, though.” And yes, that made me feel much worse than when I shot him in the face 15 seconds later.
And alright, a lot of the side investigations that have you hacking into residential security systems out of raw curiosity are amusing, like the one in which you can overhear a little girl trying to dress her daddy up like the prettiest princess. But a lot of the more interesting plot threads, like hacker collective DedSec and ctOS developers Blume, are left almost entirely untugged – presumably for DLC or sequels. With a few exceptions and one or two loathsome villains, the characters are staggeringly bland, and Aiden himself is dull, unlikable, and hypocritical – and this is something the story never even tries to address. The majority of the missions come down to “get into this secured area and hack this thing, probably by going from camera to camera and maybe killing some guys”, with a car chase thrown in for good measure (which you succeed at by driving fast and then pressing X a few times, obviously).
And this is a big problem, because open-world games tend to rely on a mix of charm and variety. The Grand Theft Auto games have larger-than-life caricatures and multiple plot missions available at once, in addition to all of their other distractions. Sleeping Dogs had fantastic characters and an unbelievable wealth of personality spread throughout pseudo-Hong Kong. Even other Ubi titles, like Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 4, gave you a ridiculous amount of genuinely rewarding extra stuff to focus on outside of the plot missions. But here… well, you hack into areas, and take some guys down, and maybe press X a few times to blow up cars. And if you want, you can do a side mission that focuses on either hacking into an area, or taking some guys down, or pressing X to blow up cars.
None of this is to say that Watch Dogs is bad at what it does, because it’s not. It’s generally an entertaining distraction. It’s just that there’s this continual nagging feeling that it should be so much more than an entertaining distraction.
I kind of want to say that this is, once again, the Curse of Ubisoft in action. The flawed Far Cry 2 led to the exquisite Far Cry 3; the proof-of-concept Rocksmith led to the full-fledged Rocksmith 2014; the disappointing Assassin’s Creed led to the phenomenal Assassin’s Creed 2. Watch Dogs is decent, but as the first entry into the series it’s still trying to find its niche and its style, and as a result it’s a little bland and all too repetitive. It successfully apes a lot of other games without ever really finding a way to stand out on its own, and the hacking isn’t really enough to push it past “me too” status. I’m damning it a little harder than I’d like to – because, for all its flaws, hacking through Chicago is still a reasonably entertaining experience – but Watch Dogs gets old fairly quickly and it’s bound to disappoint anyone who even remotely bought into the impossible hype.