Watch Dogs is a tale of two games, two protagonists, and too many ideas. As I stooped myself in Ubisoft’s impossibly hyped blockbuster–arguably the very first next-gen game announced–I started to notice these dualities and how they either compromise or stand as a testament to the game’s quality. What results from the interplay of gameplay styles, storytelling techniques, and philosophies is the most original game to yet arrive on PlayStation 4. By appearance, Watch Dogs treads familiar genre ground. But beneath the surface similarities to Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, and even Deus Ex, some fresh, surprising ideas elevate Watch Dogs to a place of significance among its forebears. This is the first genre advancement of the new generation.
Chief among these fresh ideas is the ubiquity of anti-hero Aiden Pearce’s smartphone. It humanizes NPCs by profiling them. It opens an astonishing wealth of environmental interaction that actually matters. It centralizes and streamlines access to all of the game’s content, an energizing mix of familiar open-world fare, new mission types, and intense multiplayer.
We’re told that, in Watch Dogs’ Chicago, everything is connected. From a gameplay standpoint, it’s absolutely true. My phone orders a motorcycle that instantly appears around the corner. It also charts my way to the next campaign mission. On the way, I hack the bank account of a pedestrian; from another, I learn about a potential crime about to occur. Before I can intervene, a fellow player out there in the PlayStation aether is merged with my game and attempts to hack money and information from my device. An intense cat-and-mouse chase ensues. I lose, and they escape, but I’m reinvigorated when I stumble across a City Hotspot. I "check in," snagging cash and ammo left as gifts by players before me.
Aiden’s smartphone is a communicative tool for much of this and more. From detecting enemy players and charting GPS routes to starting multiplayer and getting clues on hidden content from random NPCs, it’s a tool that went from feeling like an aesthetic touch to an indispensable extension of Aiden’s self the more I played. The menu is easy to navigate even while moving, and because the camera automatically swivels with Aiden while the menu is up, I never felt "trapped" in my phone like in Grand Theft Auto–the nervous urgency to get in and out was rarely there. But the phone’s most prolific uses aren’t in its menu at all. In your extensive ability to interact with the environment and understand its people, the crux of Watch Dogs–what separates and elevates it versus its contemporaries–becomes clear. Aiden can hack both local electronics–elevators, surveillance cameras, the grenades of gang members–and networked technologies governed by Chicago’s ctOS operating system. Traffic lights can be switched. Trains can be stopped and started. Transformers can be overloaded, causing blackouts at night. The city’s gas lines can be erupted, wrecking cars during chases and incapacitating guards. Objects that would be otherwise innocuous form a vast array of traps spread across the game world, creating pockets of highly strategic areas in the alleyways, rooftops, and plazas that house side missions and campaign scenarios. Holding the Square button for a second or two is all that’s required to activate a trap, but linking with overhead surveillance cameras is basically required for planning an intricate series of enemy-dispatching hacks, which you can execute from the camera’s view or back on the ground as Aiden.
To Ubisoft’s credit, a run-and-gun playstyle absolutely works. Aiden has less health than your average open-world protagonist, but a skilled player could make use of the game’s incredibly tight aiming and responsive snap-to-cover to mostly ignore the richness of hacking and the satisfaction of clearing an entire enemy force while perched out of sight. Here’s where the "two games" feeling comes into play: as fun as it can be to remote-detonate the grenade on a guard’s belt, drop a crate on his anxious friends, and blow up a transformer next to the backup flooding in, nailing headshots and stopping a fleeing enemy with a grenade launcher–not traffic lights–feels just as sweet. Both "games" are well-constructed. There’s a significant variety of hacks in enough layouts for the clandestine approach to stay interesting, though the general process–hack a camera, wait until guards move near traps, profit–starts to feel routine. Even car chases, a traditionally manic endeavor that would seem ill-suited to precise environmental interaction, work well. You’re given a second or two to activate things like road blockers even after passing them, and the game is very good at detecting your goal. If you’re chasing (or being chased by) goons, the hacking icon on a given object will flash blue at an opportune moment to use it–when hacking will (almost) assuredly accomplish your ends.
The shooting game feels great, as well. From the weapon wheel, you can instantly craft deployable items like comm jammers and sticky bombs. From an in-cover position, you can target exact points on nearby cover for Aiden to move to. And if enemies don’t see you move, they won’t know to shoot there. It’s a more methodical shooter that serves up careful execution and frantic desperation in equal measure, the latter’s owed to just how great the shooting and aiming themselves feel.
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.