It’s hard not to compare any city based open world game to Grand Theft Auto, if only because of the similarity in setting and approach to gameplay. Thankfully, or unfortunately in some opinions I’m sure, I’ve never played a single GTA title for a list of reasons too long and embarrassing to note here. With that in mind, I want to start by saying that I really enjoyed the Watch_Dogs campaign and I’m still enjoying the side missions and multiplayer. I’m limiting this review to the storyline and the strength of the mechanics/distractions available in the 20+ hours I’ve clocked. There will be an additional article covering the multiplayer and additional content components at a later time.
A story told in and around cyberspace
One thing I’ll commend Ubisoft on right up front, and again to anyone who asks later on, is how consistent they were in their incorporation of the “everything is connected” tagline for Watch_Dogs. Every major plot point, every twist, every enemy, can be essentially qualified by its footprint created into ctOS, the digital control scheme that links all of Chicago into a digital whole. From the routine camera jumping, privacy-invading, and bank account dredging to the interwoven stories of Aiden Pearce’s allies and enemies, everything and everyone is hooked into the system in some way.
Now don’t think that the human element is lacking in Watch_Dogs. That’s far from the truth. The story presented is deeply personal, and told with a deft and even hand. Aiden’s character, while a little bland – right down to the voice acting – is both believable and empathetic at times. You could pin your feelings for his situation on the plight of his relatives, and you wouldn’t be wrong in doing so, but there’s enough internal conflict to at least make his character interesting. His allies, on the other hand, are far more entertaining. From the quirky fixer Jordi, who channels Vaas from Far Cry 3 more than a little, to T-Bone and Clara, your hacking compatriots from totally different sides of the tracks, there will be no shortage of smiles and even laugh out loud moments to chose from. The villains too are many and varied, and the two main baddies act as both a comment on and sometimes chilling condemnation of modern technological society. Their reasons for their actions, good and bad guys alike, are human. That is to say, they are sometimes petty, self-serving and crass, at others sacrificial or out of concern and care for their fellow man. Aiden himself exists in something of a grey area, wanting to do right by his family but haunted at all turns by his dark and violent past. Faced with a constant need to commit violence to protect those he loves, he eventually comes accept that while few would consider him “good” in the common sense, he is imbued with a strong moral code that, when applied to those he cares about, never wavers.
The story of Watch_Dogs is similarly indebted to the “everything is connected” idea. From the opening cutscene onwards, it’s clear that nothing Aiden experiences or does will not, in some way, affect the world around him. As his enemies mount, the threads that bind them slowly become clear, the branching plots coming together and all accounts settled in the story’s climax. There’s satisfaction in how Aiden actually get’s his revenge as well, and on many occasions I found myself wanting to kill those assisting Aiden’s enemies because I had made them my own. Taken in a more literal sense, each NPC in Watch_Dogs, from the lowly grunt that you don’t think twice about killing to the major players in the conspiracy plot, could be considered packets of data or circuits on a board. Everything is traceable through a distinct and singular line of bytes that make up an incredibly complex system. I won’t go too far into it so as to avoid spoilers, but know that the answers to your questions are, for the most part, present and you will be rewarded for your efforts with the sweet taste of vengeance.
Dogs get the best toys
Let me say right now that as far as the weapon/vehicle/music selection goes, GTA V has Watch_Dogs beat in every sense of the word. The amount of such content on offer is very disappointing, espeically considering the seven additional months of development time the game received. As far as I can tell, there are are about 30 customization weapons, about 50 vehicles, and around 80 songs to choose from. Looking at those numbers out of context, there seems to be plenty to enjoy here, but in 20+ hours of gameplay, the same songs will play over and over, and you’ll be using the same guns and cars again and again. The lack of air vehicles and the dearth of watercraft do not help matters, especially when there is plenty of incentive built in to use them.
Taken as they are, however, the toys available in Watch_Dogs are a blast to use and experiment with. Whether you want the best stuff money can buy or the classics, both are easy enough to acquire and give their own enjoyment. Speeding down the straightaways in a supercharged motorbike, jumping off and grenading a parking lot of cars while the traffic lights behind you cause a massive pileup is just one way to create cinematic moments. Each of the weapons feels unique and while the driving mechanics leave a ton to be desired, if you can get a handle on them, tooling around Chicago in your 1930’s muscle car that you stole from a multimillionaire is a feeling that can’t be beat. Exploring Chicago just to jack cars off the side of the road or, better yet, from the hands of their drivers, is just as satisfying. The metagame of being a filthy rich hacking genius driving around in a taco truck is, for me at least, sometimes too much to take without laughing myself out of my chair.
Then, of course, there’s the Profiler system loaded on Aiden’s smartphone, the most powerful tool in your arsenal. I’ll likely dedicate an entire article to its use and wonders, but suffice it to say wandering Chicago would be far less interesting without it. Where Grand Theft Auto has to fill it’s world with physical distractions and copious amounts of stupid fun, you could spend countless hours just jogging the streets in Watch_Dogs, seeing who has what going for them and, if that’s your kind of thing, seeing who is need of punishment.
Sometimes you just can’t hack it
There’s a lot to like in Watch_Dogs, a lot of it I haven’t yet covered. Even thought the story’s good, the character’s interesting, the content fun to experience, the game is not without it’s flaws. To address, the two subjects already mentioned, let me say now that the plot of Watch_Dogs is fairly standard stuff. There are a few surprises waiting for you, but even a somewhat inattentive player will catch on quick to who’s going where, doing what, and who will eventually be someone you’ll have to kill. In a few cases it’s made pretty clear who’s going to backstab who, when, and where, how they’ll do it, and even how they’ll get their comeuppances. The ending, such as it is, really only exists to tie up the bigger loose ends and open up the world to you without the encumbrance of story missions.
I also danced around the topic of Aiden’s character. While I think that his violent nature is well represented, even when he confronts it or faced with how it affects his loved ones, he eventually disregards these sentiments in favor of rationalizations about “protection” and “necessity.” Even when he has no one left, he continues on his path with little regard to what’s come before. Even his eventual revenge effects no real change to his character, offers no time for reflection. Aiden even makes the claim that “he’s seen enough death” only for the game to continue for more killing to happen. In reality, it seems Aiden is far more concerned with his own perception of himself that other people’s, and while this might be the case, it makes him an exceptionally flat character. Compared to the likes of Jason Brody, who goes through several psychological shifts, or Ezio Auditore, who accepts his place as an assassin to honor his family and to carry on their mission, Aiden really has nothing going for him. I was, as I say, far more intrigued and entertained by his allies, especially Jordi and T-Bone, neither of whom I think get the attention they really deserve.
Then there’s the missions that make up the story itself. For the most part, I enjoyed the stealth elements, most so when it involved the Blackout, Lure, and Jam Comms abilities. However, a full half of the story missions involved a ton of driving, which is more than annoying. Those were perhaps the only times I legitimately raged at Watch_Dogs, if only becuase I felt like Ubisoft should have seen that shit in testing and not fucking kept it in.
Ahem. The rest of the story missions that aren’t stealth based involve hacking, and for the most part are good enough. However, the worst part is spending an entire hour and a half going through a hack only to be left with a lackluster, cover-based-shooting boss fight that ends too soon and gives no real gratification. You’ll know it when you get there. Then, of course, there are the escort quests that involve you escorting sub-par AI through a gauntlet of guns. Between the two, I prefer Watch_Dogs take on the issue, especially because it relies heavily on the hacking mechanics built in. But making me restart a long checkpoint just to advance the plot five minutes is not the best decision. Not when the story takes upwards of twenty hours to complete.
Finally there’s the story itself, which is, barring the interesting hacking and computer elements, fairly standard stuff. Man loses close family member, goes on revenge quest, finds difficulties where he didn’t expect them, add in a betrayal or two plus some scandalous information, revenge gotten, game ends. While I’m not saying that’s a bad formula, but like the ctOS towers that act like Synchronization points in Assassin’s Creed and the various side missions that also hail in form and function from AC2 onward, there isn’t much that’s truly new about the story and world of Watch_Dogs. That being said, it acts as an excellent stand in for GTA V on PC until that game releases (if it ever does), and may still be superior in certain ways. Without the proper context, however, I don’t have the means of accessing that information.