Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: Action-Adventure Open World
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, XB1, PS4, Wii U
Reason to cop: The game is a gorgeously ambitious open world title.
Reason to not cop: You're religiously opposed to fun.
Bottom Line: Some of the characters come off as clichéd and hokey, but the gameplay, Chicago, and hacking are undeniably enjoyable.
Edward Snowden recently revealed that his morality was influenced by video games. In Glenn Grenwald's upcoming book about Snowden, No Place to Hide, Greenwald clarifies just how Edward Snowden's world view was shaped by video games.
"In Hong Kong, Snowden told me that at the heart of most video games is an ordinary individual who sees some serious injustice, right? Like some person who's been kidnapped and you've got to rescue them, or some evil force that has obtained this weapon and you've got to deactivate it or kill them or whatever. And it's all about figuring out ways to empower yourself as an ordinary person, to take on powerful forces in a way that allows you to undermine them in pursuit of some public good. Even if it's really risky or dangerous."
"That moral narrative at the heart of video games was part of his preadolescence and formed part of his moral understanding of the world and one's obligation as an individual."
In our current climate of security leaks, data breaches, folk hero-whistle blowers, and NSA monitoring the American public, Watch Dogs couldn't have come along at a more accordant moment in time. After being delayed six months, Ubisoft has finally released Watch Dogs to the public and the big question of: 'Was it worth the wait?' Has finally been answered.
In short: Fuck yes, it was.
Comparisons to Grand Theft Auto V are going to be unavoidable, but to dismiss Watch Dogs as 'GTA V in Chicago with hacking' would be a criminal over simplification of Ubisoft's surprisingly subversive commentary on the national police state of the not-so-distant future. You play as Aiden Pearce, a hired gun who, for the right price, will steal money, personal data, and anything else by manipulating the ever-connected infrastructure of Chicago's computer network.
While attempting to cast a digital data dragnet over rich and powerful guests in the sort of hotel you and I will never be able to afford, Aiden sees something he's not supposed to. It's the sort of thing denizens of the new gilded age are willing to kill to keep secret. Aiden's niece, Lena, is murdered as an example of just how easily the wealthy and powerful can reach down from Olympus and effortlessly destroy your life.
Pearce begins Watch Dogs as a criminal-for-hire with the very tangible goal of merely getting himself paid; the murder of his niece replaces compensation with revenge. Aiden is dragged into a vast conspiracy helmed by the Blume corporation and their city-wide management and surveillance system, ctOS. It's also at this point that Pearce transitions from what is ostensibly a hacker/mercenary into a far darker and contemporary character: a terrorist.
It's at this moment that Ubisoft missed a massive opportunity in shaping Aiden's character. As opposed to creating a truly morally ambiguous character with actions that would get anyone sent to the closest CIA black site, Pearce wallows in gravelly-throated monologues about vengeance. His anger and grief are flatly two dimensional and are never really fleshed out beyond exposition that moves the plot from one chapter to the next. Ubisoft has created what any law enforcement agency would classify as a terrorist. And instead of doing anything truly interesting with him, they leave us with a bargain-bin caricature of Batman. It's not a detrimental detail, but Aiden just seemed like he had the chance to be so much more interesting than what came out of the oven.
Ubisoft's Chicago may lack the polish and scope of Grand Theft Auto V's Los Santos, but the city is a loyal and realistic model of the Windy City. Any time spent on foot shopping for clothes or behind the wheel exploring Chicago's highways and suburbs, players will be impressed with the level of detail and realism. Navigating Chicago is one of the most well executed and enjoyable components in all of Watch Dogs.
Ubisoft has never missed an opportunity to tout how Aiden will have the ability to hack into any of the city's connected networks, and this is the core mechanic of how Watch Dogs handles.
The game's hacking system is all routed through Aiden's smartphone and the Profiler toolkit. While we've all seen Aiden's ability to change traffic lights and manipulate Chicago's municipal systems, it's the Profiler's ability to give chillingly-detailed profiles of the random citizens of Chicago that truly impresses. Bank statements, arrest records, medical histories are all on display for Aiden to manipulate and exploit. Hacking the city is merely one component of the equation of Watch Dogs, hacking the random humans of Chicago is where modern paranoia of NSA spying becomes truly crystallized.
Hacking these random citizens is how most of the side-missions in Watch Dogs are activated. Finding someone with a lengthy arrest record as an ex-felon can easily lead players into a crime-in-progress side mission that will influence how both the police and the average citizen view Aiden. The Profilier is also Aiden's key to activating doors, manipulating security cameras, and breaching ctOS servers that will further expand Aiden's abilities and skill sets. Once successfully hacked, these ctOS server databases will provide Aiden with skillpoints that will allow for an even more robust arsenal of abilities. Raising and lowering drawbridges, detonating power transformers, and remotely operating construction equipment are just a few examples.
The supporting cast in Watch Dogs leans heavily on established video game tropes. T-bone, the demolition expert/hacker, stands out as a notably horrid piece of character work. This hacker collective is part of a city-wide resistance movement opposing the ctOS's attempt to completely place Chicago under a permanent surveillance blanket. Aiden's interaction with these characters will further the plot, but the characters themselves are largely forgettable.
Like Spider-Man 3, Ubisoft makes the mistake of a bloated roster of villains who, again, largely come off as forgettable afterthoughts. Watch Dogs introduces one of the most ambitious mechanics via the Profiler, but the game struggles to innovate beyond that. It's a noir title that truly does take advantage of an open sand-box world, unfortunately predecessors have done it just a hair better.
Watch Dogs is an enjoyable next-gen title and does look gorgeous on the PS4 (which we reviewed it on), but Ubisoft has created a third-person cyber-noir title that teeters awfully close to predictability. The game's supporting characters and Aiden Pearce himself are two of the biggest factors holding Watch Dogs back from being something truly great. Overlooking that, Watch Dogs is still worth the price of admission, even if it manages to pose some actually interesting questions about our security state without satisfyingly answering them.
Bottom line: cop.