We know Jack, do you?
Several years ago, during the height of Grand Theft Auto IV’s power, it seemed like just about every publisher was releasing an open-world crime game. Scarface: The World is Yours, Mafia II, The Godfather 2, Saint’s Row, ect. Ubisoft’s purported Messiah, Watch Dogs, feels like a great release from that era: right down to its acceptable combat, okay driving, and hook put in the game for the express purpose of standing out amongst the pack. But that hook — the ability to hack certain objects in the world by pressing a single button — managed to resonate, keeping me glued to the couch as I caused yet another traffic collision.
The tale you are subjected to whilst playing Watch Dogs feels like the result of a videogame developer putting together a new Mad Libs book. There’s a generic angry white man, a lady sidekick, the damsel in distress, a wacky untrustworthy sidekick, dead women as revenge motivators, and a conspiracy. These tropes are the pinnacle of laziness; you’ll be hard-pressed to remember anything in particular once the credits have rolled.
For such a long game (it took me approximately 20 hours to finish the campaign), the supporting cast is surprisingly lean. Jordi, an unpredictable hacker stroke mercenary, is a lot of fun and the aforementioned lady sidekick, Clara, has a distinct character design. But the rest of the characters take refuge in broad archetypes; they’re little more than walking plot points or upcoming boss fights.
As I continued to play out the story of Aiden Pearce, Cyber Batman, I kept expecting more interesting twists and turns. For example, there’s a moment about midway through the story where Pearce gets his version of the Batcave. (If you think I’m leaning too heavily into the whole Batman thing, you haven’t played the game. Pearce does the Christian Bale voice when he’s in ‘Vigilante’ mode, no joke) You would expect the reveal of the Hacker-Cave to be accompanied by some grandiose music and a camera sweep or two. But no, a couple monitors flicker to life and that’s about it. Some flair wouldn’t have saved the story, but it would have been appreciated.
When the cutscenes stop rolling and the game lets you explore Chicago, Watch Dogs becomes something else: it becomes entertaining. The driving mechanics need some work — some cars feel incredibly back-heavy, whilst others can handle a corner no problem — and the shooting is just a smidge too easy. In scenarios where gunplay was mandatory, I had a foolproof system: slow down time by clicking the right stick, pop a guy in the head with my silenced pistol, and then rig the body with IEDs so when enemies would come to investigate, they’d get blown up. It was pretty fun at first, but you could hypothetically blow through a whole third of that game with this method.
The best Watch Dogs missions involve copious amounts of hacking. Since this is a Ubisoft game, there are stealth-heavy tailing missions. In, say, your Assassin’s Creeds, similar missions would force you to slowly follow a character and hope there’s cover nearby for when they turn their head. But in Watch Dogs, all you need to do is hack a camera and follow your target by hopping from camera to camera. So long as you didn’t perform the initial hack in a restricted area, you should be fine. It’s emblematic of Watch Dogs’ approach to standard big-budget mission design. Yeah, taking down enemy vehicles is not a new idea, but here’s this phone that lets you blow up the ground beneath your foes. It may take you a little while to adjust to this new toolset, but the slight learning curve is definitely worth it. This does not apply to car stealth missions, which are frustrating at best. Instant-fail car stealth is not fun, and has never been fun. I legitimately cannot imagine a scenario where playtesters responded positively to these missions, so I don’t know how they made it into the final game.
There are a welcome amount of combat scenarios that include optional completion methods. You can sneak into cover and use the hackable items in the area to eliminate the guards, all without firing a shot. Or, grab a grenade launcher and go to town. I found myself doing a little bit of both, I would be taking out guards with my silenced pistol and just triggering random hack prompts. There’s not necessarily a “wrong” way to play Watch Dogs, and I really dig that.
As a sandbox, Alternate Universe Chicago is better as a series of moving parts than a structured open-world. I never felt particularly inclined to spend time with any of the side missions beyond the random crimes, and even then I only bothered so I could offset my accidental hit-and-runs. (Did I mention the morality system? Because it exists and doesn’t particularly matter) I liked triggering hack prompts on my way to different objectives, especially the traffic lights.
You can also walk around with your phone out and profile every civilian in your path. Some citizens can be hacked to reveal text conversations or phone calls. I never saw a piece of flavor text, text conversation, or phone call more than once, which honestly feels more like a lucky roll of the random-number generator than anything else.
It’s not quite as seamless as promised, however. Every so often, my open-world Watch Dogs experience was close to those flashy E3 demos: I would evade cops with a series of blackouts and well-timed hacks, before pulling over and hiding out in my car. That emergent stuff works just about as well as promised for the most part, but when it doesn’t work, it’s a real hassle. This is perhaps the most worrisome in the game’s final mission, which has a whole army of policemen in addition to intentionally broken mission markers and zero available hacks.
The game comes with multiplayer, because of course it does. My PlayStation Plus membership ran out before I could really get into the online portion, but I didn’t feel like my experience with the game was incomplete without a team deathmatch. What I did see of the multiplayer wasn’t particularly exciting — it feels like a less compelling, one-on-one version of the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer — but I can see how somebody might have some fun with it.
Look, I managed to successfully dodge the Sandbox Glut of The Late 2000s and I feel like I’m just a little too young to be sick of big-budget games, so perhaps my appreciation for Watch Dogs comes from ignorance. The idea of playing a somewhat realistic open-world crime game with copious amounts of gun-based violence didn’t bore me, at least not quite yet. Now, this particular set of mechanics went a long way for me, but it might not be enough for everyone. If Watch Dogs 2 has a more compelling story, I might be hacking a different subroutine. But for the time being, this is a mainstream-ass open world videogame in a sea of less interesting copies. Maybe try Sleeping Dogs instead?