Watch Dogs wants to be an open-world shooter that tackles mature themes with narrative subtlety and gameplay depth. So far, it succeeds in this regard most of the time. In combat situations, when hacker-turned-vigilante Aiden Pearce is solving deadly problems with creative environmental solutions, and during car chases, when the city quickly and intuitively becomes a weapon, Watch Dogs is at its peak, delivering a truly next-gen experience that revels in its own imagination. But a wild imagination produces quite a bit of theoretical silliness in the experimental drive for a higher state of consciousness.
In Watch Dogs, that silliness manifests in tonal shifts that compromise the game's attempt at being a serious game about serious things. Aiden, a former career criminal, is driven to avenge the death of a close family member. Along the way, story scenes depict his guilt, increasingly tenuous relationships with still-alive family, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A middle-aged white guy with impossible aim and athletic prowess, Aiden isn't exactly breaking the mold as far as video game protagonists go. But his internal monologues paint a picture of a man deeper than his words and actions. Even his actions--the way he pushes himself to cleanse Chicago of people like him--are made more resonant as reactions to his inability to change the past. But the curtains fall and meaningful development is largely forgotten when Saints Row-esque mini-games and diversions rear their strange, nonsensical heads. A digital trip might send Aiden bouncing through the sky off trampoline flowers while the player keeps him aloft for points. Coin Runs place digital pick-ups and penalty items along self-aggrandizing routes made to show off the game's competent parkour movement. These and other side activities might be optional (though certainly not to anyone seeking 100 percent completion and the many associated rewards), but they still break me out of the sophisticated story Watch Dogs is trying to tell.
So too with jarring shifts in dialogue and atmosphere in and out of story cutscenes. Aiden's sister is inviting him over one moment and cursing his role in her life the next. Aiden awakes from a post-traumatic fever dream, walks outside, and profiles a woman who's struggling to support two kids. The man next to her writes vampire fan fiction.
Still, all these people support a story of datafication--how technology and networks are becoming absolutely essential to modern life. In this world, ctOS controls everything. Medical records, text messages, surveillance systems, and social network profiles alike are funneled through its network, so hacking it grants unprecedented information and control. Watch Dogs asks us to consider whether the conveniences of ctOS are worth the danger by elegantly weaving the dilemma into its very DNA. Aiden's profiler is an indispensable tool: pull out your smartphone, and you're one button away from emptying the bank accounts of nearby civilians, causing a traffic jam, stopping a police pursuit, or reading someone's SMS conversation. These aren't just conveniences to Aiden; they change the genre landscape for players. Suddenly, the fastest way to rack up virtual cash isn't side missions or traditional content--it's walking down the street and ripping off pedestrians without so much as looking up from your phone. You can evade the police, sure, but isn't it more fun to raise street blockers in their path, crushing the patrol in one fell swoop?
These wanton acts of technological power are made difficult for the personal information displayed about anyone the profiler targets. A name. Income. A defining characteristic, opinion, or problem in his or her life. I'm so accustomed to exploiting a game's tools for all they're worth. But ripping $2,000 off the umpteenth person, only to finish reading they'd recently been diagnosed with cancer, gave me pause. I started to take greater care avoiding pedestrians with my absurdly reckless driving. I started reading before hacking their bank accounts and peeping their private conversations. Watch Dogs' Chicago is starting to feel very real, and though I don't expect my gaming habits to change, the abundant information and possibilities of ctOS--the city's fictional digital infrastructure--are actually reminding me of the human faces behind this technology.
Remotely blowing up a fuse box to dispatch a gang member might feel morally strained because I know his name, face, and that he wants to have kids someday, but mechanically, combat is a pleasure. A cover-based shooter at its core, Watch Dogs practically begs you to hack cameras, environmental objects, and even enemy equipment like grenades to gain an edge before a shootout begins. If you're really good (patience through trial-and-error is key), you might avoid combat altogether. But Watch Dogs doesn't expect the same dexterous espionage as Deus Ex, so although Aiden sports much less health than most open-world protagonists, shooting is suitably intuitive and responsive. Still, the pre- and mid-combat opportunities for hacking are plentiful, and combined with precision targeting for moving between pieces of cover, Watch Dogs feels smarter than just about every open-world shooter I've played.
Intelligent design ties many of the game's systems together. You can activate multiplayer matchmaking yourself or let the game periodically offer these contracts for you. With the latter, there's no in-game loading; rival hackers are merged into your world, you're alerted to their presence and objective, and the battle begins. It's been difficult to wrap my head around the system's finer points--sometimes I'm given a choice to accept a player's challenge, while other times I'm simply alerted that I'm being hacked. But there's no denying the intensity of hacking a rival player and hiding from their wrath while the hack proceeds. Sometimes, this cat-and-mouse game erupts into a climactic car chase. More often, one player spots the other and swiftly guns them down. Regardless, online hacking and tailing missions are fun, quick diversions that feel balanced by skill, not unlocks. I have yet to try other multiplayer modes (availability of pre-launch players is one reason my full review isn't ready yet), but their smooth integration is a serious plus.
The same smartphone that starts multiplayer matches, sets waypoints to side missions, and spawns vehicles you've discovered (hello again, Saints Row) can track progression through the game's many, many activities. I love the way rewards are dispersed throughout dozens of categories. From vehicle delivery missions to clearing gang hideouts, from the aforementioned Coin Runs to multiplayer matches, everything will reward Aiden with a new weapon, vehicle, or ability for your first completion, with varied milestones--generally culminating in Trophies--stemming from that. Meanwhile, an impressively large skill tree personalizes the experience. With skill points earned from missions, multiplayer matches, and leveling up, Aiden earns new talents spread across multiple branches of four main categories: Hacking, Combat, Driving, and Crafted Items. Oh yeah, there's crafting. So far, its usefulness has been limited, but if an enterprising player wants to use components they've collected over time to create a communications jammer mid-battle, using it to stop a gang member from calling reinforcements, the opportunity exists.
Several hours into Watch Dogs, I'm finding smart design choices, inventive gameplay, and personalization that are distinguishing the game from its sandbox-shooter forebears and building a very unique, very compelling identity. Strange mini-games and tonal shifts in dialogue threaten to derail an otherwise impactful narrative, but while it's way too early for me to speak on how the story develops over time, it could certainly be presented with better writing and less canned animations out-of-scene. Visuals are, in general, a bit underwhelming--by my eye, Watch Dogs hasn't for a moment looked better than Assassin's Creed IV. The soundtrack hits and misses, too: "obscurity" is the theme of the day, with standout jams as mere exceptions to the rule.
And yet, I'm having a blast. Watch Dogs isn't rewriting the genre book on graphics and polish, nor even design. Instead, it layers strategic depth onto seamless gameplay systems that connect to make Chicago feel very alive. Its overabundance of technology is a societal curse but a blessing to players. To Watch Dogs' credit, both sides are apparent.
Our full review of Watch Dogs and its final review score are incoming. Stay tuned to PSU as we continue to give Watch Dogs the time required to offer a fair, exhaustive opinion of its quality, including detailed multiplayer impressions. Thank you for your patience.