Considering Watch_Dogs managed to steal the show at E3 2012 with a single gameplay trailer, it does not give a very good first impression. Minutes after it hands over control of its protagonist, Aiden Pearce, to the player, it becomes clear that what’s to come will be as disappointing as its first impression would lead you to believe.
Watch_Dogs is an open-world Ubisoft game through and through; their specific school of design bleeds through everything — including the game’s hundreds of collectibles. As with any Assassin’s Creed game, you are given a big world –in this case a fictional rendition of Chicago– with a handful of intertwining systems that work in tandem to create an elaborate playground. The tools are there to create variation in between all of the game’s many systems.
The idea here is that your character can hack into different parts of the city. In a similar fashion to Starbreeze’s Syndicate, you can activate specific objects to set up chain reactions on the fly. The open world design means that those reactions create emergent situations based on how the AI works. Watch_Dogs is at its best when it capitalizes on how these systems play out together. A small gunfight on the streets can quickly escalate to complete chaos as you start shutting down the city’s traffic lights. When cars start crashing into each other, while thugs and policemen are having a firefight, and the city’s civilians frantically ram their cars back and forth trying to make an escape, you start to feel like you’re directing and an action scene – and it can be exhilarating.
The game does not seem to understand what it does best though. The mission design is generally restrictive, often tunnelling you through corridor shootouts, scripted hacking mini-games, or forced stealth sections. The main story missions rarely take place in the open world unless it involves —yet another— car chase. Things get worse as the game progresses. The harder the missions get, the less useful your hacking abilities seem to be, and suddenly Watch_Dogs becomes a typical shooter with inferior level design.
None of that is much helped by the story. The opening moments try to establish the game as a tale of revenge, but it lacks the sort of emotional depth needed to give the story a sense of gravitas. It is self-serious to an extreme, and lacks the subtlety needed to address its own moral quandaries. While Aidan is supposed to be the tortured type, he ends up acting like a nihilistic monster that is too hypocritical to realize how much damage he does to those around him. Side characters are mostly one offs, and none of them go further than their single character traits. There is a moral system in place, but it is too superficial to have any real impact — it should have been given more depth, or taken out entirely.
During side-quests, the ambient dialog is especially problematic. Upon dying, some enemies will shout a random racist or sexist joke that feels like the leftovers of a non-satire South Park script. A particular set of side-quests has you spying on random people in their home for no particular reason. In these, you will witness strangers having sex, a naked couple playing russian roulette, a guy failing to find the strength to shoot himself, etc… It tries so desperately to be edgy, but it just ends up feeling desperate, childish, and sleazy.
If Watch_Dogs gives one lasting impression it is that it tries really hard — and never succeeds. The story never wraps-up nicely, the tone never finds its footing, and the gameplay never focuses on its own strengths. Since its reveal in 2012, not much has evolved. It feels like a game stuck in its infancy. It succeeds at getting your attention but does not sustain interest, so much as just recklessly attempt to be the next big thing. Ultimately, it is forgettable.
- There is a playlist instead of a typical open world radio. I hope you like Vampire Weekend a lot!
- I killed about twenty civilians during my playthrough and still managed to be on the ‘good’ end of the moral compass. I felt like a politician.
- The PC optimization is pretty poor. The game is far from looking like something so resource intensive.
- Actually, the game looks kind of bland.
- I hope you like Uplay! No you don’t. Of course you don’t.
- Aidan seriously needs a fashion adviser.
- You can hack the steam pipes running under the streets to make them explode because “near-future”. Unless we are already there. Scary.
- I always thought that Ubisoft was heavily criticized because of the Prince of Persia: Warrior Within‘s protagonist but, weirdly enough, they seem to always go back to the “angry teenager” type for their main characters.