Aiden Pearce is not a hero. He is a criminal, a hacker, and a vigilante in the pejorative sense of the word. He is obsessed with revenge, blinded by it and trapped by it – unaware of the harm his ongoing obsession with the past does to those around him who are trying to move forward.
When Ubisoft revealed this open world thriller two years ago, it caught the imaginations of gamers everywhere with the promise of a city that could be controlled with the touch of a button. As it turns out, it’s the writing that provides the most compelling reason to pop Watch Dogs in the drive.
When a hack-for-hire job goes wrong, Pearce is marked for death by the powerful and shadowy forces that control Chicago’s underbelly, but the sloppy hit kills the wrong target: his six-year-old niece. It’s a year later, and Pearce is now on a vicious personal quest for revenge. It’s a script that explores themes of greed, alienation, isolation, and power. As much as it celebrates technology, Watch Dogs highlights its perils as well, and it lingers particularly on the destructive nature of obsession.
It’s also not shy of tackling difficult subject matter. Human trafficking is a scourge that we all understand to be far more morally reprehensible than the drug trade, and yet it gets much less attention.
Ubisoft should be congratulated for tackling the subject delicately in a medium known to legislators everywhere for its sleazy and often juvenile management of mature matters.
This particular subject stirs a deep sense of repugnance in the player whose first instinct, honed over years of playing games, is to shoot the villains and save the victims.
Ubisoft teases out that wish fulfillment expertly, and manages a further coup by demonstrating that Pearce is only interested in dismantling the ring insofar as it furthers his own personal goals.
Only once does the shadow of a heavy hand pass over this subject in the form of an audio log explaining that these aren’t just any girls, but American girls, and that’s somehow-so-much-worse-you-guys than if they were from say, Latvia, or Romania.
Almost all the supporting characters in the game are archetypal in some way. Fixer Jordi is the harebrained comic relief, hacker Clara is traced straight from the pages of a Stieg Larsson novel, and Deadmau5 no doubt has a lawsuit pending against helmeted hacker-DJ “Defalt”. Yet most also have peculiar traits, strengths and flaws that peg them as more than mere facsimiles of the characters they’re so clearly inspired by.
The other lead is of course the city of Chicago, and Ubisoft’s work here ranges from good to adequate. Some suburbs, including industrial areas and ghettos, are richly characterised, and perfectly capture the modern urban decay that has gripped so many American cities as manufacturing moves offshore. Special mention should also be made of the variety of shapes and sizes that pedestrians come in: America is in the midst of an obesity crisis, but it scrubs that fact from almost all forms of media.
It’s a small point, but it adds a touch of contemporary realism to Watch Dogs’ Chicago that is so often missing in other open worlds. But if Watch Dogs gets the variety right, it feels as if the volume is wrong, with Chicago sometimes feeling eerily bereft of foot traffic. The downtown area in particular seems to lack the kind of bustle that can be found in most metropolitan cities during the day and in the evening.
There are only so many NPCs a PlayStation 4 can manage, of course. Hardware limitations also account for graphics that, while indisputably impressive, simply aren’t as compelling on console as we’d once hoped they would be before the new-gen systems were specified.
In some ways, Watch Dogs is also a victim of its own success. For example, water effects are especially impressive and practically beg closer inspection, but upon doing so players may notice that puddles exist on slopes where they shouldn’t, or that Pearce can run through them without causing a splash.
Ubisoft is much more successful at creating a hackable city – albeit in a prescribed manner – and Pearce will need to use everything at his disposal to thwart both criminal syndicates and the Chicago police department. In the city itself, this usually means raising bollards, bridges, and spike traps, jamming communications, switching traffic lights, or overloading steam pipes and circuitry to crush, blast, and otherwise put a stop to pursuers.
Conveniently, a single button controls all of these possibilities, and an indicator lets the player know when to hack it for maximum cruiser-crumpling effectiveness. Any particularly Bay-splosion-esque accident nearby will result in a slow motion shot of the carnage. It adds a dash of Hollywood to proceedings, but it can also cause an unflattering accident for the player whose eyes have been taken off the road at precisely the wrong moment.
Given that hacking is boiled down to a single button, it also seems unnecessary to lock many of these abilities behind a progression tree. At the game plays out, it also turns out that some skills are also demonstrably more useful than others, leaving the player to guess when it’s the right time to invest in each, if at all.
Nonetheless, hacking in Watch Dogs is highly entertaining and challenging, and every bit as smoothly implemented as shooting, stealth, and driving.
Most campaign missions can be completed without ever setting physical foot in the restricted areas they take place within, and each area is itself a clever, dynamic puzzle for the player to attempt.
Building hacking into a viable gameplay pillar next to more traditional approaches is a real achievement.
The city is also littered with markers that indicate off-mission activities Pearce may indulge in to alleviate the deliberately oppressive tone of the campaign.
Predictably, Ubisoft throws everything and the kitchen sink at the player, including a kind of virtual-virtual reality conceit in the form of digital trips that turn Chicago from a setting into a sandbox.
It all comes together in a range of opt-in online integrated modes that invite other players into your game whenever you’re not on mission. These range from basic games of techno cat and mouse, wherein one player must find the other before their data is stolen, to more traditional online fare such as races and frag-fests. If Chicago’s NPCs feel spread a little too thin, the drop-in drop-out multiplayer universe of Watch Dogs well and truly makes up for it.
For a game of its kind, Watch Dogs spent an unusually long time in the public’s eye. It has elicited the full gamut of pre-release expectation from excitement to reservation, and back again. That’s a difficult rollercoaster for any game, but it’s doubly difficult when you’re also the poster child for a new generation of hardware.
Inevitably, two years of gamer fantasies must come up against those first hours of playing and in at least one or two regards, be found a little wanting. But Watch Dogs more than makes up for it with a range of unexpected pleasures, from its winning script and characterisation, to its real success in turning hacking into an engaging gameplay mechanic. A must-play for new-gen owners.