Launching a new game in a genre dominated by the 800-pound gorilla that is Grand Theft Auto takes nerves, brains and heart. Watch Dogs, Ubisoftís five-years-in-the-making open-world action epic, has tons of nerve and plenty of brains. What it falls a little short on is heart.
Watch Dogs puts you in the leather trenchcoat and dorky ball cap of Aiden Pearce, a talented hacker who can also hold his own with fists and a gun. When a digital robbery at a posh Chicago hotel goes bad and Aidenís niece is killed in a retaliatory attack, he vows to find the people responsible at all costs, using Chicagoís hyperconnected, hackable Ė and, for the time being at least, fictional Ė digital infrastructure, dubbed ctOS, as a tool and weapon.
When the subtle approach fails, and it often does, Aiden falls back on his combat training and wheelman skills, with this shooting-driving-hacking trinity bouncing players back and forth between all-out firefights, white-knuckle pursuits and slippery stealth missions.
In addition to a five-act story arc that drives Aiden deeper into Chicagoís corrupt web of power, thereís an almost overwhelming amount of secondary gameplay crammed into Watch Dogs. There are crimes in progress to thwart, cars to steal for fixers, augmented reality shooting games, landmarks to visit via a Foursquare-like app and Digital Trips, wholly self-contained mini-games that run the gamut from bouncing between giant psychedelic flowers to wreaking havoc in an eight-legged tank.
Combat is satisfying if not groundbreaking, each car has impressive physical weight and unique handling, and the game’s simple one-button hacking mechanic manages to provide its own challenges and rewards. When infiltrating foes’ high-tech lairs or the bunkers that house ctOS servers, for instance, it’s often possible to access a target computer without even entering the building, cannily sussing out of lines of sight between hackable security cameras.
It’s all super-slick and generally fun, even if it feels like Ubisoft has cherry-picked from its own catalogue – particularly Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell and Driver – instead of creating something unique. And although the game is eerily prescient in its setting and story, having been in the works long before Edward Snowden and Heartbleed were buzzwords, it lacks teeth in its commentary on the surveillance state.
Sure, it’s creepy to be able to call up personal details on literally any person on the street, or to hack into ctOS servers and discover officials have been monitoring citizens in their own homes via webcams, smartphones and even game consoles, but it leaves too much of the interpretation up to the player. Sometimes it’s OK to beat us over the head with a message. Gently.
There are a handful of other things holding Watch Dogs back from genre-defining greatness. Some are problems endemic to open-world games in general, friction points that no one has quite figured out how to sand down. And some fall squarely on Aiden himself.
The compressed, virtual Chicago of Watch Dogs is supremely detailed, from the soaring skyscrapers of the Mad Mile to the tranquil lakes of rural Pawnee. But just as the uncanny valley syndrome kicks in when digital characters start to look nearly-but-not-quite human, the inconsistencies in this meticulous digital Chicago become especially glaring.
Whether it’s pedestrians fleeing in abject terror because your wheels clipped a curb or a fire truck hilariously smashing its way through an intersection of burning cars en route to more pressing business, the more real the city seems at first glance, the harder we’re yanked out of the illusion when it does something strange.
And while it’s a lot of fun the first three or four times you ambush a criminal convoy or clear out a gang stronghold, it’s surprising how many of the game’s optional side mission categories wear thin in relatively short order.
Then there’s Aiden. He’s by no means the most generic hero we’ve seen in an action game, but not once did I connect to him as a person. He’s a template, somewhere between Batman and Sam Fisher, but not as cool as the former or as complex as the latter, and nearly every other character in the game is more interesting than Aiden himself. Any chance of a T-bone Grady spinoff title?
Part of this comes back to the nature of the open-world genre. Though Aiden is initially driven by revenge and later swept into a larger and more dangerous conspiracy, to an extent he has to be an empty vessel that we can pour ourselves into.
I played Aiden as a vigilante with a conscience, only killing people when there was no other option, as befitting a man who is avenging the death of an innocent. You might play him as an all-out psychopath, ignoring the story-based missions and wantonly murdering civilians. This one-size-fits-all vagueness about Aiden makes him regrettably forgettable.
The multiplayer side of Watch Dogs drew me in far deeper than I expected, though, from standard but surprisingly enjoyable vehicle races to a hilariously frantic team deathmatch/keep-away mode, during which I seemed to spend a lot of time hanging out the passenger window of cars and blazing away at pursuers with an assault rifle while my teammate tried to keep us from crashing into traffic.
The 1-on-1 hacking and tailing challenges are especially gripping, as you invade another person’s single-player game in the guise of a random Chicago citizen, trying to stay out of sight as you observe them or actively steal their data. Whether you’re the attacker or the target, it’s tense stuff: during one hacking mission, I ducked down behind the wheel of an unassuming ice cream truck parked on the side of the street and watched my opponent frantically scour an ever-narrowing area looking for the source of the data theft, obliviously running past my truck several times. With less just seconds left on the hack, he finally spotted me and opened fire. Pro tip: ice cream trucks make terrible getaway vehicles.
And while more and more games these days offer companion apps of dubious usefulness, Watch Dogs breaks new ground with its free ctOS Mobile app tied to a unique competitive play mode. As a console or PC player participates in timed checkpoint races, the app player tries to sabotage his progress with roadblocks, raised bridges, police cars and sniper fire from a helicopter, all controlled by a simple touchscreen interface on an iOS or Android tablet or smartphone. It’s quite brilliant, although it’s likely to end up more a cool diversion than something that players will invest hours in mastering.
The mere fact that a game with so many moving parts and interconnected systems can run so smoothly is an incredible feat, and Watch Dogs is a polished technical undertaking nearly as impressive as its own fictional ctOS. It’s engaging, enjoyable and offers massive bang for the buck, but has too little to say about our eroding digital privacy, and stars an anti-hero who you’re likely to forget as soon as the credits roll.
In the end, it will fray your nerves and test your mind. But won’t hack its way into your heart.