As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review will assume that you’ve played the game, i.e. it will contain spoilers for Watch Dogs.
Let me tell you what it’s like to explore the world of Watch Dogs. Picture a vibrant, colourful city with lovingly detailed buildings and structures. Dozens of people are walking around, going about their daily business. Pause for a moment, and you might overhear a conversation about an overbearing boss or a first date gone awry. An assortment of cars and trucks populates the roads, and the pennants on streetlights flutter in the wind. Walk down to the lake, and you can see sunlight glinting off the surface of the water, illuminating the boats’ hulls. Watch Dogs’ version of Chicago is the kind of digital space you could get lost in for hours on end.
Now let me tell you what it’s like to play Watch Dogs. You play as Aiden Pearce, a gruff hacker dude with a trenchcoat and a baseball cap. After receiving an interminable phone call from one of your associates, you hop in a car to get to your destination. Unfortunately, even if you’re trying to follow the rules of the road, driving a vehicle is like trying push a thread through the eye of a sewing needle in a crowded nightclub. You inevitably end up hitting two or three innocent people on the way there, and bit of text that says “Civilian Injured” pops up in the top right-hand corner of your screen, along with a reputation meter that moves ever so slightly to the left. When you finally arrive, you’re told you have to infiltrate some sort of criminal operation. (Man, there are a lot of criminal operations in this city.) So you take out your trusty magic phone and attempt to hack a camera to get a better view of the the lay of the land. Instead, you accidentally move your mouse a millimetre and end up hacking the gate to the compound instead, revealing your position to the “bad guys.” No matter. You pull out your trusty assault rifle, hide behind a conveniently-placed crate, and shoot twenty black people. (You’re really good at shooting black people, since you’ve done it a half-dozen times already.) Once all the black people are dead, you get whatever you came for – a hard drive, video footage, a virus – it’s always a bunch of ones and zeroes in any case, and you hop back into your car to escape. But this time, you’re being chased by the bad guys, so the civilian body count skyrockets during your getaway. Eventually, after ten minutes of driving frantically and aimlessly, you manage to elude your pursuers by hacking traffic lights to cause a pile-up. (The gun with which you killed all those black people is of no use to you while you’re driving.) Then, your phone rings, and the cycle begins anew.
As you’ve probably gathered, Watch Dogs is not a good game. It isn’t a bad one either, really; it’s just a limp, disappointing experience that reeks of missed potential. What went wrong? I’ll offer a few perspectives after the jump.
Watch Dogs was revealed back at E3 2012, a conference that was widely derided by the gaming community at large for showing off nothing but boring, derivative games. With its captivating reveal, Watch Dogs took the crowd by surprise, and it was considered one of the expo’s lone bright spots. Here was the standard-bearer for the next generation of gaming, with stunning graphics and intriguing gameplay possibilities, wrapped up in a timely narrative about the American surveillance state. No wonder gamers got so excited.
In a way, I almost feel bad for Watch Dogs for being unable to live up to the hype. It’s not as if the developers could have predicted how dire the rest of E3 2012 would be and that gamers would pin all their next-gen hopes on the game. When it turned out be a bog-standard open-world title with some hacking thrown in, disappointment was to be expected. But let’s leave aside the hype for a moment. Would this game have been good, even with zero expectations?
Probably not. Watch Dogs might be a bog-standard open-world title, but it’s not a very good bog-standard open-world title. It’s got a sprawling open world with hundreds of things to do, but the gameplay is repetitive, and the mechanics are shoddy.
Take driving, for example. What should be a pleasant experience is more like playing Mario Kart with a drunk Luigi behind the wheel. Cars handle atrociously, spinning out of control at the merest tap of the A or D keys. They accelerate and brake quickly, but have low top speeds that are outmatched by computer-controlled vehicles, thereby turning chase sequences into interminable slogs. Motorbikes fare much better in the handling department, but they’re victims of the game’s goofy physics engine; hitting a sidewalk bench or a parked car at an awkward angle can launch a motorcycle thirty feet into the air. Overall, the driving feels like it belongs in a bargain-bin kart racer on Steam called Car Simulator rather than a serious open-world game.
The game’s traversal mechanics are similarly problematic. Most of the time they work fine, though it’s annoying when the game won’t let Aiden run in certain locations. However, when Aiden has to start climbing on structures, issues begin to pop up. Aiden has to be standing in exactly the right position next to a ledge to be able to climb on it. Otherwise, you can tap the spacebar key over and over again, and nothing will happen. Moreover, there are ledges that Aiden will simply refuse to climb on, because doing so would render the solution to a puzzle too easy.
With the driving and traversal feeling so unrealistic, the illusion that Watch Dogs’ Chicago is a living, breathing place starts to melt away. The hacking gimmick doesn’t help matters. At first, being able to gather information about NPCs by hacking their smartphones seems like a cool way to humanize them; every time you do it, you get a tidbit of information about them. After a while, though, the artificiality of these tidbits becomes apparent. Instead of being given as <occupation>/<biographical blurb>, they’re given as <interesting description>/<interesting blurb>. You’ll run into dozens of NPCs who are severely in debt or who frequently purchase hentai. When everything is “interesting,” nothing is actually interesting, and the NPCs become nothing but empty vessels that populate the world. I didn’t even feel guilty about swiping their bank account information to steal their money.
Missions fare a little better than just exploring the world. Most missions give players the freedom to use a combination of stealth, hacking, and combat to accomplish their objectives. It’s here that the game’s central hacking gimmick really comes into its own. Players can hack cameras to get a better view of the area, but they can also hack various objects, such as alarms to create distractions and transformer boxes to explode and kill enemies. There’s a kind of sadistic glee to be had in hacking an enemy’s own grenades to blow up in his hand, and it’s at times like these when the game’s über-hacker power fantasy is at its most potent.
The puzzle-based ctOS tower missions are among the game’s best. They involve hopping between hacked cameras to find the right perspective from which to unlock a door. They’re weird, disorienting, and surprisingly exhilarating. The game’s other type of puzzle, which involves reorienting wires to light paths on something resembling a virtual circuit board, is reminiscent of the light beam puzzles from Fract OSC, and it is also quite fun.
However, the game starts to falter a bit when it moves away from environmental puzzles. Gunplay is rote but serviceable, its sluggish aiming notwithstanding. Stealth is where things really fall apart. Watch Dogs simply doesn’t have enough stealth mechanics to make stealth a viable approach, and those that are in the game are unreliable. Aiden has no non-lethal weaponry, and there isn’t even a dedicated crouch button. Instead, the game has something of a “contextual crouch,” where the game makes Aiden crouch simply when it wants to. That means that if you’re spotted, the game might not let you crouch again, even if no other guards saw you. The game also has a simple cover system, where you can press a single key to swap between hiding spots. It’s elegant in theory, but in practice, it’s very finicky, and it’s hard to aim your mouse so that you’re pointing exactly where you want to go; I often ended up taking the wrong cover and being spotted by guards. Sometimes, the game forces infuriating stealth missions on players. Getting spotted on these missions results in an instant failure. These are some of the worst parts of the game, and they had me crying out obscenities in frustration.
Checkpointing on missions is weird. Usually, it’s reasonable, but sometimes, checkpoints are spaced too far apart, with failure causing too large of a loss in progress. Occasionally, though, failing causes players to reload farther ahead than they were before, which means it would have been easier to throw a grenade at the floor and commit suicide than to make an actual attempt to get to the next checkpoint. Another peculiar thing happens upon reload: guards’ loadouts change. Guards that were previously carrying grenades might now be carrying hidden cameras, for example. It seems as if a guard’s loadout is randomly assigned, meaning that players’ ability to exploit it changes from mission attempt to mission attempt, and the difference between success and failure is often the luck of the draw. Moreover, the randomness of the guards’ loadouts further ruins the illusion that Watch Dogs takes place in a living, breathing world and not a computer simulation.
On the whole, though, aside from the forced stealth sequences and some awkward checkpointing, Watch Dogs’ missions are well-structured. The problem is that the same basic mission structure – infiltrate, eliminate, obtain, escape – repeats over and over again throughout the game. Watch Dogs is padded to a ridiculous degree with repetitive content. After Aiden infiltrated his umpteenth abandoned building, I was ready for the game to end.
THE TECHNICAL ISSUES
We’ve established that Watch Dogs is at best decent in the gameplay department, when it works. Unfortunately, Watch Dogs doesn’t work often enough. It’s riddled with irritating bugs and technical issues. On the first few days after the game’s launch, Ubisoft’s Uplay service was down, so the game’s online components weren’t working. At first, I couldn’t get the game to stop booting into windowed mode, no matter how many times I changed it back to fullscreen manually. (The problem magically resolved itself later.) I also ran into a few audio issues. I couldn’t get the game’s sound to output out of both headphones; I could only get sound in one ear, thereby forcing me to use speakers. Furthermore, the in-game audio was ridiculously soft, forcing me to turn my speakers up to full blast.
But by far the most irritating bugs directly affected my gameplay. A few times, the mini-map stopped working properly with Aiden’s location and points of interest simply not showing up. When this happened, Aiden’s targeting reticle for his firearms wouldn’t show up either. Reloading a previous save was usually the only way to fix this. Another annoying issue was that Aiden would sometimes magically lose the ability to steal cars, which would occasionally cause me to fail missions through no fault of my own.
The game is also poorly optimized for PC, sometimes running at a butter-smooth 60 FPS, but then randomly dropping to 20 or even 15 FPS, even though there’s no appreciable difference in the amount of detail that the game has to render. It also has a tendency to start stuttering occasionally, which is really vexing when you’re in the middle of a car chase. Its control scheme doesn’t do it any favours either; trying to navigate the weapon wheel or the smartphone with a mouse is nearly impossible. Ubisoft has a history of half-assing the PC versions of its games, and Watch Dogs is no exception.
I’ve thus far avoided talking about Watch Dogs’ plot for two reasons: 1) It’s deeply troubling, and I’m going to need an entire section of this review to explain why. 2) Other than that, it’s utterly unremarkable. Let’s talk about that second point first.
You’ve seen this story a hundred times before: dude gets screwed over or suffers a huge loss; he tries to find the people that did it to him; and he ends up uncovering a vast conspiracy that he then takes on. Hitting well-worn story beats isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but hitting them in blunt, clichéd ways is. Almost every plot point is predictable, and the dialogue seems like it’s lifted from a bad ’90s action flick. Aiden’s emotional scenes with his family are surprisingly effective, but they’re undercut by the fact that he’s just going to go off and shoot twenty dudes with an assault rifle five minutes later. (More on that in a bit.)
None of the side characters receive much shading, and their characters’ motivations – especially those of the villains – are often unclear or overly simplistic. However, a couple of the side characters, namely Jordi and T-Bone add some welcome levity to the otherwise relentlessly dour proceedings.
The most problematic character is the player character, Aiden. For starters, he doesn’t have much of a personality aside from “cares about his family” and “is a vigilante.” It’s difficult to empathize with a cipher, especially since the game wants us to think of him as a hero. More importantly, though, Aiden isn’t much of a hero. He’s actually more of an antihero, but the game doesn’t have the guts to portray him as such. He does horribly unethical things on his quest to avenge his niece’s death, but he never faces any consequences for them. Even worse, the game contorts itself to justify them. When Aiden decides to kill Crispin and steal his identity, the game makes a point of how much of a horrible human being Crispin is, so that Aiden doesn’t have to feel guilty. (He’s not only a rapist; he’s also into… bondage! -gasp- Because normal humans could never be into BDSM, right?) The game works so hard to show that Aiden is a hero that it ends up cutting out its owns teeth in the process. If Watch Dogs had just committed to Aiden being an antihero, it would have been far more interesting.
Additionally, Aiden doesn’t seem to understand that what he’s doing is wrong. When he feels remorse after his nephew Jack sees him killing a bunch of guards during a rescue attempt, he feels bad not for killing all those guards, but because his nephew caught him in the act. Even worse, his remorse dissipates instantly, and he’s back to killing dudes without reservation in the next mission. It takes until the end of the game for Aiden to even brush up against the realization that maybe always playing the hero is a form of anti-heroism in and of itself (an idea brilliantly demonstrated by 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line). And even then, he just feels bad about the destruction left in his wake; he doesn’t attribute it to his own need to play the hero… and he goes right back to being a vigilante! -bangs head against desk-
If anything, Aiden is kind of a sociopath. After he kills Quinn by hacking the man’s pacemaker, he says, “This is the part where they say I’m supposed to feel empty, right? I feel awake… like I can finally breathe again.” This sounds like the kind of thing an antihero would say, but since Aiden is mostly portrayed as a hero, it comes off like the game is trying to push the idea that that’s a cool, badass thing to say.
The story’s problems go beyond its characters, though. The narrative just isn’t that profound, which is disappointing, given’s the game’s setting. The game’s central hacking gimmick and the hyper-connected ctOS that controls its version of Chicago provide excellent opportunities to comment on the surveillance state and life in the information age. But the narrative never seizes those opportunities, instead choosing to focus its energies on a dull, clichéd, confusing tale of personal revenge. This makes Watch Dogs seem like an oddly hollow, lightweight experience.
If Watch Dogs has anything to say about information and technology, it’s that they carry great power. For many people in the story, they’re assets, and in fact, they’re often blackmail material. But the story’s portrayal of information conflicts with how it comes across in gameplay. Watch Dogs’ cluttered UI throws ludicrous amounts of information in players’ faces. Just take a look at this screenshot:
On that screenshot alone, there’s a box telling me to use the profiler (which I already have open!), an indicator telling me how much battery life I have left on my smartphone, an indicator telling me what gadget I have equipped and how many I have left, a reticle to show where I’m pointing my profiler, an icon telling me to press Q to hack some guy’s smartphone, the text message conversation from a previous hacking (that accurately summarizes how I feel about a lot of modern gadgets), and a mini-map. And this is when Aiden is in the countryside! When he’s in Chicago proper, the information overload is a lot worse. The sheer volume of information being presented to players is overwhelming, even disempowering. But because the plot presents information as empowering, this creates a strong sense of ludonarrative dissonance that permeates the entire experience.
It also leads to some unintentionally hilarious moments. For example, immediately after the scene where Aiden and his sister Nicky grieve her daughter Lena’s death at a cemetery, a contextual icon popped up telling me to press the spacebar to vault over Lena’s gravestone. Never has there been a game more adept at undermining its own emotional moments.
If there’s a positive thing to be said about the story, it’s that the voice acting is mostly excellent. Noam Jenkins does a great job as Aiden, working hard to add nuance to a very boring script, and Aaron Douglas is a hoot as Jordi. The one weak link in the cast is Isabelle Blais as Clara, who often struggles to be expressive and delivers a lot of flat line readings.
It’s good that I was able to say one nice thing about Watch Dogs’ story, because now I’m about to rip it to shreds.
More so than the actual plot mechanics, what’s deeply troubling about Watch Dogs’ story is its implications. Now, you might be thinking, ‘So what? It’s just a video game.’ But video games are cultural objects, and as such, I think their messages – both intended and unintended – are worth examining, discussing, and dissecting. And hoo boy, does Watch Dogs have a lot of troubling unintended messages.
Aiden is a white man from the city. Presumably, he’s well-educated, since he has the expertise to be an ace hacker. He’s also quite well off, since he can use his hacking skills to steal money from other people. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this; there are plenty of well-made, not-incredibly-troubling games starring well-educated white male protagonists. What’s troubling is how other groups of people are portrayed in the game, especially in relation to Aiden.
One group that receives short shrift is women. There are six female characters of any note in the game (seven if you count the news anchor, but she’s hardly a character). Four them either need to be rescued by Aiden or end up dead because of their relationship with him. The fifth ends up dead by the mayor’s hand. The sixth exists mainly to harsh Aiden’s buzz and provide a convenient excuse for his nephew not to be involved in the action. Female characters in Watch Dogs don’t have any agency and exist only to serve the male characters’ stories.
The way this is framed is also worrisome. Aiden is always acting to protect women or shield them from harm, where “harm” is defined as loosely as merely coming to know of Aiden’s involvement in criminal activities. He’s constantly worried that Clara and Nicky won’t be able to handle that knowledge. (Maybe he thinks they’ll get the vapours.) His overprotective nature turns out not to be very effective anyway; Clara ends up dead by the game’s end. The implication here seems to be that women are delicate creatures who can’t handle the rough, dirty criminal underworld. What a load of sexist, patronizing bullshit.
Watch Dogs also fails women by using sex trafficking as a mere plot point. Aiden goes to a prostitute auction, rescues a woman named Poppy, and… that’s it. Yep, that’s how Watch Dogs chooses to tackle the issue. Sex trafficking is a complex issue that requires a careful, detailed treatment if it is to be used in a piece of popular entertainment. Instead, Watch Dogs exploits it to make the game seem edgier and to have an excuse for showing bare female breasts. There are actually a few flimsy side missions related to the sex trafficking ring, but they don’t even come close to examining the issue with any level of detail.
Women aren’t the only group to be poorly treated by Watch Dogs. The game also displays alarming undercurrents of urban elitism, classism, and white supremacy. Aiden spends a large number of missions fighting the Pawnee Militia, who have been hired by Blume as private security. They fit the uneducated, rural, white gun nut stereotype to a T. Hell, they even live in a fucking trailer park! They’re not even given any motivation for their actions, aside from the fact that they like using their weapons.
Aiden spends an even larger number of missions – about a third of the game – fighting the Viceroys, a gang of poor, black men. Let’s forget about individuality for a second. These people are mere cannon fodder; they don’t even have a collective motivation aside from following their leader, nicknamed Iraq. (More on him in a bit.) By the end of this series of missions, it seems as if Aiden has killed off every young black man in Chicago’s wards. Only one of the gang members, Bedbug, survives, and that’s because Aiden blackmails Bedbug into doing his dirty work for him. But do you know what the cherry on this shit sundae is? After basically blasting Rossi-Fremont to smithereens, Aiden gets a huge boost to his reputation meter. It’s as if the game is saying, “Thank you for killing all those black people!”
It would be more palatable if these two groups were the game’s main antagonists. But they’re not. The criminal organization that’s running the show is The Club, run by an old white dude named Lucky Quinn. The Viceroys and the Pawnee Militia are just pawns in an old, rich, white dude’s game. But the game has no sympathy for them; Aiden is portrayed as a hero for eliminating them. And just like pawns, the Viceroys and the Pawnee Militia are expendable. Like I mentioned earlier, the only one who survives is Bedbug, and that’s because he follows Aiden’s instructions. The underlying message seems to be: “Do what well-off white people tell you to do, or die!” Comparatively, Aiden spends very little time directly going after The Club, which makes it seem like poor people – both black and white – are somehow more deserving of being punished for their crimes than the well-off.
The sad thing is that Watch Dogs could have used this as an opportunity to provide commentary on the power disparities between elites and minorities. But it just doesn’t. For a while, it even seems like Iraq’s story arc is being used to make a point about how less well-off are exploited to fight “wars,” both literal and domestic, on behalf of the rich and powerful, and they receive little to no reward for doing so. (Given the recent scandals at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in the United States, this would have been especially timely.) Iraq even makes mocking comments about Aiden’s self-righteousness, implying that Aiden’s quest is not nearly as noble as he thinks. But the game wants us to side with Aiden. So, Iraq’s motivation for gathering blackmail material is revealed to be pure greed, and Aiden’s killing of Iraq is portrayed as the real righteous action.
That’s the most frustrating thing about Watch Dogs’ story. Over and over again, it brushes up against interesting, important social issues. And over and over again, it fails to seize the opportunities to explore them. It doesn’t want to talk about the surveillance state. It doesn’t want to talk about race or class. It doesn’t want to talk about the social factors that drive crime. Instead, it does the lazy, cowardly thing and ignores those ideas almost entirely. Watch Dogs sets itself in Chicago, but it doesn’t want to talk about any of the issues facing that city. Then why set the game in Chicago at all? If the game makes no attempt to weave its way through the city’s social fabric, then all the players get out of Watch Dogs’ Chicago setting is a sense of “Hey, I recognize that building!”
I’m not going to mince words: Watch Dogs is a gigantic fucking mess. Is it terrible? No, but any open-world game made with a basic level of competence will be able to engender some enjoyment in me. That being said, even leaving aside its mediocre mechanics, annoying bugs, and abysmal story, Watch Dogs still comes across as a Frankenstein’s monster of a game, stitched together from dozens of drafts. Let’s take a look at that E3 reveal trailer again:
Almost none of the plot hinted at in that gameplay walkthrough appears in the final game. Instead, in the version of the Dot Connexion mission we got in the final game, Joseph DeMarco is a tertiary character who doesn’t end up dead, Jordi is nowhere to be found, and Defalt has hacked the entire club. This leads me to believe that Watch Dogs’ script went through several rewrites during the development process. How else to explain why Jordi disappears for half the game and then reappears out of nowhere at the end? Or why the sex trafficking ring is introduced as a highly important plot point before being discarded in favour of killing more black people? Or why Defalt is introduced out of nowhere, receives zero character development, and is killed unceremoniously by Aiden? Watch Dogs has a number of highly-developed plot threads, but they’re strung together with inchoate ones in an incoherent manner.
THE FULL PACKAGE
Watch Dogs isn’t only a gigantic fucking mess from a plot perspective, though. It’s also a gigantic fucking mess as a game. There are hours upon hours of extra content in the game, most of it not worthwhile. Some of it, like clearing out gang hideouts or stopping crimes in progress, makes sense in the context of the game. The rest of it, like the digital trips and the chess puzzles, doesn’t really have a reason to be in the game. Heck, the digital trips and the chess puzzles seemed like they were ripped out of a much better, more fun game! (-cough- Saints Row -cough-). Sure it’s lot of fun to run around in a spider tank or use gigantic flowers as a trampoline, but what the hell does have to do with the rest of the game?
There’s zero sense of artistic coherence to Watch Dogs. It’s odd that a game whose central gimmick is hacking is so rarely about hacking. Instead, it’s about a man’s quest for revenge, which is a tale that doesn’t at all benefit from the game’s mildly cyberpunk leanings. Moreover, the game really needed an editor to trim all the fat. The main story doesn’t need to be as long as it is; it’s too padded and repetitive. A lot of the side content doesn’t feel like it belongs in the game either. It seems as if Watch Dogs has mounds of useless or incongruous extra content simply to justify its $60 price tag. But what game publishers need to realize is that quality is the main thing that justifies a game’s asking price, not quantity. Who cares about all that extra crap if it’s not worthwhile?
Apparently, gaming executives do, in order to justify their salaries to shareholders. These people don’t really understand the artistic aspects of game development. They need clear metrics to assess a game’s commercial viability. 50 hours of side content is something they can measure, so it ends up in the game. They also see the superficial aspects of popular games and think that those features can be applied to other games. “People like games with guns? Throw an entire arsenal in there! Complex sociopolitical issues? Gamers will get confused; make it a revenge tale instead. Gamers love those.”
Watch Dogs is a game that reeks of executive meddling, as if the developers’ original vision was watered down into a game-like paste. It plays like what a clueless person might think a popular modern video game should be like: a power fantasy for young white men where they can be reassured that they always have the moral high ground, full of guns, explosions, boobs, and car chases, and stuffed to bursting with optional content. It tries to cram in too much stuff, and ends up doing nothing very well as a result. It’s Video Games: The Video Game, more product than actual game. It’s more interested in being perceived as “cool” than in actually being entertaining, and it’s built on the assumption that gamers won’t be able to see through this ruse.
So I have message for Ubisoft: I see what you’re doing, and I don’t think it’s cool. Terrible driving mechanics are not cool. Awkward controls are not cool. Repetitive gameplay is not cool. Lazy PC ports are not cool. Sexism, racism, and classism are not cool. Being too cowardly to confront real social issues is not cool. And no matter what you think, wearing a trenchcoat, a scarf, and a baseball cap is not, never has been, and never will be cool.