Watch Dogs Review: Identity crisis
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Watch Dogs on PS4 executes fresh gameplay ideas with aplomb, marking one of the first games of this new generation of consoles to innovate within its genre. It's a slower, smarter sandbox shooter with an astounding degree of content, but despite resonant themes of technological overbearance, its poorly handled story likely won't grip you.
- Hacking elevates moment-to-moment gameplay
- Deep skills and unlocks reward all playstyles
- Tons of stuff to do
- Broad, poorly served themes
- Underwhelming graphics
- Poor licensed soundtrack
Watch Dogs also feels like two games, because it bounces from serious sensibilities--of a narrative juggling everything from death and guilt to surveillance culture and human trafficking--to throwaway gags and mini-games ripped from the wacky Saints Row cloth. The latter are optional diversions, true, but reading that a random pedestrian cross-dresses in private or has a particular fetish is dissonant next to a single mom supporting two kids or a cancer patient (let alone why Aiden's profiler chooses those facts to show above all others). Meanwhile, the story struggles to support the weight of so many thematic ambitions. Aiden's guilt over the death of his niece (the catalyst for the vengeance quest that underlines the game), the datafication of society, the pros and cons of living under the watchful eye of corporations, and the many depicted criminal enterprises (from weapons smuggling to sex trafficking) all deserve exploration--their consequences, how technology affects them, how people and lives are changed by them. Only a couple motifs get their due representation--questions form a setting, but few answers are given. The same convenient technologies that enable Aiden to map out a combat situation and protect his remaining family members are spying on people in their homes and quietly removing the illusion of freedom. We can predict someone will commit a crime (and Aiden can stop them, as one of many side missions), but what's this security worth? Our secrets? Our humanity? The right to make mistakes and learn from them?
Aiden himself gets the most story exposure, with much pomp and circumstance given over to his personal redemption and his confusing quest to save and protect the people of Chicago. It's not clear where Aiden, a criminal through and through, gets this white-knight urge to save pedestrians from muggers and stop random crimes before they happen. Hacking the bank accounts of passerby is the only effective way to earn cash--you can be a thief or a Good Samaritan, but it's difficult to convincingly be both. Aiden is not convincing. He wantonly moves between opposing motivations with no character development to ease or explain the transition. The same guy who risks life and limb to save a sex slave will kill prison guards just for the chance to scare an inmate. Some lives are worth more than others. It's hard to believe that one man already has all the answers.
Out of cutscene, the Aiden you control is a different person, guided entirely by your choices. The game tracks your reputation as a good guy or thug along a linear meter, but there's no discernible consequence one way or the other. However, I actually liked the freedom to shape Aiden into a man I could understand: a criminal long-since reconciled with stealing, who doesn't pay much mind to the gangs of Chicago and the business of its citizens, who takes care to avoid killing unless his life or his family is seriously threatened. As such, I didn't get caught up in all the completionist hullabaloo. But if that's your thing, boy, is there a lot of it. Activities are plentiful and gracefully weaved into the regular action of running around Chicago; you can stumble across new missions by profiling citizens, stop at the icons as you drive by, or let the game alert you to new ones from time to time. The unlock system tied to this side content will grant you new weapons, vehicles, and abilities for completing a certain number of any activity, but weapons can also be purchased, or acquired naturally through the campaign as well. There's less depth with the game's fun-but-limited multiplayer modes. Hacker Contracts, where you hide from a player you've hacked (or try to find the one hacking you) are intense, imbuing the thrill of getting away with something. But alongside Tailing Contracts, it's one of the only modes that feels fitting for the clandestine nature of Aiden and fellow hackers. Furthermore, multiplayer's dedicated progression system, Notoriety, only awards a handful of unlocks over extended play.
At least in single-player the rewards come fast, no matter how you play. Gameplay-Aiden is highly customizable, too. Skill points earned through level-ups and completing missions can be applied toward dozens of upgrades and unlocks. It's a lot to keep track of in the game's early hours, but just as Watch Dogs' technological flair carves a unique space in the genre, its wealth of personalization made the experience feel very individual, all things materializing from the Aiden I wanted to be.
But for all the ways I think Watch Dogs re-energizes the sandbox shooter, it never matches the presentation standards required to stand among the greatest. Voice acting is inconsistent with no greater culprit than Aiden himself, who bounces between post-Christian Bale gravel and compassionate family man as the plot demands. The visuals underwhelm: low texture detail and spotty lighting can't match the immersive standard set by a high framerate and outstanding facial animation. The original soundtrack's dark, pulsing electronics fit the action of story missions perfectly, but the licensed tracks don't imbue feelings of Chicago, the future, or really anything at all. They're just boring--an obscure mix of tracks from genres that feel out-of-place in this world and its urgent narrative.
But Watch Dogs won't be remembered for its presentation woes. Far more important are its fresh take on open-world gameplay, the deep personalization involved, and how well these things are executed. Let the story and its inconsistencies take a backseat. Enjoy the spaces between cutscenes, where Watch Dogs is trying new things and nailing them. And take a moment to ponder on its themes, asking yourself what the conveniences of modern technology--and what's around the corner--are worth. It's a question worth posing, even if Watch Dogs doesn't do a particularly great job answering it.----
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