Posted on May 28, 2014, Phil Hornshaw Watch Dogs Review: Press Q to Hack Planet
Ubisoft seems perfectly willing to give players what they want, and what players want is apparently the same Assassin’s Creed open world foundation under every single game.
So it is with Watch Dogs, Ubisoft Montreal’s Chicago-based open world title. It has many of the Assassin’s Creed elements, like sneaking, assassinating, some light climbing, tons of collectibles, and towers from which you unlock map new information. Mix in the rest of the de facto rules for making open world titles in the new age — some mostly crappy driving and some cover-based shooter combat — and you have Watch Dogs: a fairly bog-standard title in the genre that has some good ideas, and some gimmicks, mixed in.
Well, they’re not all gimmicks, to be fair. Watch Dogs is all about “hacking” the network of surveillance gear that covers Chicago and using it to your advantage throughout the game. And when you’re really relying on the hacking system, by bouncing from camera to camera in order to scout an infiltration route or using city infrastructure to throw a tail three cars back, Watch Dogs feels like something special.
Those hacking systems just as often sit on the surface, however, adding only the illusion of something different to what is essentially the same old shooting and driving game.
Like most open world games, I certainly haven’t hated playing it as I worked through the campaign and picked up a few of the roughly one billion side quests and collectibles along the way. When Watch Dogs isn’t acting as just Another Open World Game™, taking pages from what feels like every other game in the genre, it can be pretty engaging. When it falls back on repetition and meaningless activities, though, it becomes a slog.
That thing that’s supposed to make Watch Dogs cool — your ability to take control of most of Chicago — actually does make it pretty fresh-feeling at times. You’re Aiden Pearce, an angry Internet thief with the know-how to break into ctOS, the computer system that runs the city. With the system in your hands, you can scan personal data from everyone, jack into cameras, steal from bank accounts and adjust things like traffic lights and moveable bridges.
The game’s premise starts with a hacking-and-stealing job going bad, resulting in a hit squad coming after Pearce. The hit gets botched, a car accident ensues, and Pearce’s niece dies in the crash. That means No More Mr. Nice Fixer Guy, apparently.
The lengthy campaign has Pearce working to find the folks who wanted to kill him, with wrenches regularly thrown in by his sister and her remaining kid, his ex-partner, other hackers and fixers, and random additional gangsters. Pearce is a pretty bland character, though — he waffles between unstoppable killing machine and sad favorite uncle, and he has no problem stripping money out of innocents’ bank accounts or jacking a car in order to go stop a crime. Watch Dogs wants us to think he’s some kind of techno-Batman, but Pearce the man is fairly dull and empty, driven by thoughts of revenge and little else.
The story winds up concerning conspiracies, secrets and information control as multiple players compete to blackmail everyone else. Some of the side characters are fun, such as Jordi, the criminal Aiden employs to help him, who is often pretty funny — and some are not, such as Pearce’s ex-partner Damien, who spends most of the game just a shade shy of a cackling Bond villain. When Pearce is finally starts to ponder whether it was such a great idea to leave a trail of thousands of bodies in his wake, it’s way too little and way too late. The best parts of Watch Dogs’ story show all the potential it might have unlocked but never quite reached.
Watch Dogs is also pretty bad about its depictions of race and class. All the hackers and computer types are white; the only black characters of note are thugs and gangbangers, and I’ve shot many more than my fair share of them in Watch Dogs. Meanwhile, Pearce’s hacker pal looks like she could have been an extra in certain scenes of 1995′s Hackers. Much about the writing of Watch Dogs seems to be plumbed from the Big Book of Stereotypes, and it’s tone-deaf as well as boring.