Watch Dogs review: Meet the new open world game, same as the old open world game (but with hacking)
At a Glance
I'm speeding through the streets of Chicago, coat billowing behind me in the wind, hat magically glued to my head even at these speeds. There are two police SUVs in pursuit that keep obnoxiously ramming into me whenever they get a chance.
Have you ever seen the classic (and I use that term lightly) 1995 film Hackers? Good. In that case, you won't be surprised when I say my next move is to hack the steam pipes below the streets of Chicago, causing the asphalt to explode and putting the two police cruisers out of commission.
And like that, I'm scot free. Aiden Pearce, the hero of Watch Dogs, is so gifted with computer code I literally use it like magic.
The promise, executed
I remember watching Ubisoft unveil Watch Dogs at E3 nearly two years ago now. It seems like so long ago—this promise of an incredible, next-gen open world experience, and one in which you could directly manipulate much of the environment by "hacking," no less.
After a lengthy wait and a subsequent delay, it's finally here. The shoes of Aiden Pearce, hacker-at-large and all-around vigilante, are ready to be filled. Unfortunately, the end result doesn't feel quite as groundbreaking as the years worth of previews would have us believe.
Prior to the delay, Watch Dogs was supposed to be most people's first real next-gen game. Ignore that it's coming to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3—Watch Dogs looked next-gen, and it still does. Find a dark, rainy night in Chicago on your super-powerful PC and just watch the lights reflect off the wet pavement. Does it look as good as target videos, et cetera et cetera? I'll admit, I don't really care. It looks good, and that's all that matters.
But as we enter into our third console generation with these massive open-world games, I think it's finally time to ask what we expect out of this genre. Watch Dogs looks pretty. Its lights reflect convincingly, and we've about reached the feasible limit of "recreating cities in 3D environments" without drastically changing up how developers create games.
Distill Watch Dogs down to its core concepts, however, and you've got Grand Theft Auto III. Again.
And no, I don't mean that insofar as you're playing through the tale of a criminal rising through the ranks of the underground. Aiden Pearce is—despite some questionable methods—an extremely righteous fellow. Too much so, if truth be told. (More on that later.)
The feedback loop on Watch Dogs is the same thing we've played for over a decade now, though: drive to a location, start mission, drive somewhere new, (probably) kill someone or just drop something off, drive away (sometimes with the police in pursuit). Every single mission, forever and ever.
Except in Watch Dogs, sometimes you kill people by "hacking" nearby dangerous objects, luring enemies near a forklift before overloading a nearby electrical box. Sometimes you cause the street to explode underneath a pursuing police car, putting it out of commission. Sometimes you play through interminably long sequences where your ghost is basically hopping from surveillance camera to surveillance camera, navigating enormous compounds from the safe all-seeing eye of a rotating appliance.
But at its core: Drive somewhere. Get mission. Drive somewhere else. Kill someone. Drive away. Repeat.
There is nothing next-gen about Watch Dogs outside of its graphics, and that's a damn shame. I can't help but wonder if we went wrong somewhere. Why are all our open-world games still so largely bereft of foot traffic? Why is there so little for me to spend my accumulated cash on? Why are the buildings just husks—pretty exteriors with few real interior environments?
Watch Dogs doesn't have answers. There is no innovation here, and nothing to make the feedback loop any more entertaining than it has been in the past.
If you're a fan of that now rote open-world feedback loop, congratulations—you are going to love Watch Dogs. It's a fun enough game, punctuated by some mind-blowing moments of hack-powered awesomeness, and it's full of distracting things to do in that now rote open-world way. Skill trees—hacking, combat, driving, and crafting items—help you tailor Aiden to better suit your chosen play style, a nice touch. But do not be tricked by pretty graphics into thinking you're receiving something more than what's actually in the box. Watch Dogs plays like a weird fusion of Grand Theft Auto and the worst Assassin's Creed game. (Which, just so we're clear, is Assassin's Creed III.)
Set yourself apart
With a few of these open-world games every year, games have survived by staking claims to specific niches. Grand Theft Auto has taken up the incredibly-serious, "It's like a movie you control!" segment of the market. Saints Row picked up the "We're wacky!" flag when Grand Theft Auto disposed of it. Assassin's Creed dominates the "We love history!" market.
If you're not going to innovate, you have to—have to—make your mark here, with story. I loved Assassin's Creed IV despite it having essentially the same feedback loop. I enjoyed Saints Row IV.
Watch Dogs stakes a claim to this near-future, reflection-of-our-own-tech-dependency, hack-everything world. A big, maybe-evil corporation created a network called ctOS that controls everything from the steam pipes (oh, so that's why they explode!) to your phone to the camera on your favorite game console. It's a not-so-subtle commentary on our own world and the question of privacy in a post-NSA era. As a hacker, Pearce can force his way into this system and use it for his own vigilante needs, or simply spy on people.
The hacking's an interesting twist the first few times you use it, but the shooting in Watch Dogs is just as subpar as I've come to expect from open-world games, and it's far more prevalent.
On a smaller scale, Watch Dogs takes up residence in Chicago. Commendations to those who recreated Chicago—I don't know the city as well as, say, Los Angeles, but Watch Dogs sells its incarnation of Chicago hard. One of my favorite features ended up being the in-game take on Foursquare; you can "check in" at landmarks and in the process receive a brief history lesson about the location. It's a more logical version of Assassin's Creed's locale data, which I've always enjoyed.
But the overarching story in Watch Dogs is just bland. Aiden Pearce, a hacker/criminal, is on a quest for vengeance after a job gone wrong left his niece dead. It's a tale that's been told and retold so many times you can see the footprints all across its face.
It's not that a tale retold is necessarily bad. Heck, it's video games. Most of our stories are middling at best—and it's here that Watch Dogs resides. Aiden Pearce and his self-righteous quest for revenge (tinged every once in a while with "Oh no, what have I done?") is the most boring story since Assassin's Creed III's tale of Connor, who was on a quest for vengeance after some other MacGuffin left his mother dead.
Along the way, relationships will be betrayed and secrets revealed and plot twists unveiled with all the hitting power of a foam baseball bat, as most "twists" are telegraphed hours ahead of time. Characters you're never given a reason to care about have things happen to them. Occasionally you'll forget a character's name. Sometimes bad things happen and the sad music starts playing.
I just don't even know what to say about Watch Dogs. The game is long to start with, feels somehow even longer, and at the end you're left with an utterly forgettable storyline and a handful of amazing "Remember when that street blew up?" moments.
The other differentiating factor with Watch Dogs is the online component. The most obvious of these is the "Hacking" sidequest.
Once in a while you'll trigger a bounty on your head, allowing other players to invade your game and try to steal your information. You, in return, are charged with killing them before they can escape. Invaders must blend with the crowd of computer-controlled characters, allowing them to meld into the crowd and evade notice. Of course, this also works in reverse; you can invade other players' games and do the same.
It's an interesting mechanic that I mostly found myself annoyed by—the missions always seemed to trigger right when I was in the middle of something important, like trying to unlock the next ctOS tower. Next thing I knew someone had invaded and I'd need to stop what I was doing, take care of the problem, and then try to resume my earlier actions.
That being said, it is a fascinating sort of multiplayer I'd like to see more often. Certainly it's more interesting than forcing me and a bunch of others into an instanced world for competition, or jamming the same handful of stupid gametypes (Team Deathmatch) into games that aren't built to support those.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that I had zero fun with Watch Dogs, which I understand would be an easy takeaway after this negative a review. The remarkable thing about the "Drive somewhere, kill someone, drive away," feedback loop is it holds remarkable sway over me. It's a more story-driven method of "filling up progress bars," and each new mission brings the same rush as unlocking that next gun in Call of Duty or whatever. But with a story this bland, there's nothing to show for it at the end.
None of the side missions make particularly interesting use of the hacking mechanic, and after the fifteenth time you see the ground explode in the same exact manner—well, the problem with gimmicks is that gimmicks quickly grow old.
Regardless, if you enjoy that sort of open-world game, you'll enjoy this one. There's nothing that makes Watch Dogs necessarily worse than, say, Grand Theft Auto V. But that's a shame, considering I've basically just said "This new open-world game is on par with what we did last generation." And the generation before that.
And therein lies the problem.