Watch Dogs promised to be the definitive title for the internet age, the first triple-A game to focus its attention on cyber crime and state surveillance. Its protagonist’s primary weapon isn’t a gun or sword but the connected world of traffic-lights and smartphones.
You play as Aiden Pearce, a hacker trying to avenge the death of his niece, who was killed when he got too deep into some murky hacker business. He roams around a sand-box Chicago, elbowing his way into cars and joy riding wherever he pleases, finding missions everywhere he goes like a psychotic Littlest Hobo. His world borrows heavily (a little too heavily, in fact) from the Grand Theft Auto series, with strong echoes of Ubisoft stablemate Assassins Creed (especially the familiar map and tower-scaling mechanism).
The “original” element comes in the form of Aiden’s smartphone, which allows him to “hack” – done by pressing “x” – anything from ventilation ducts to bridges: useful when you’re being chased by the cops, as you often are. It’s a great conceit, let down by shoddy writing and sloppy design decisions.
The problems start with the player-character. Pearce is ridiculous, a hacker, free-runner and black ops specialist who speaks like Batman with a cold. Also like Batman, he has decided to go around beating up criminals to assuage his conscience, despite the fact he spends a lot of time raiding the bank accounts of innocent passers-by. He wears a trench coat that only a teenage boy would think was cool.
His journey through this dystopian Chicago presents a chance to address all kinds of contemporaneous issues, not least government surveillance, but the ramifications are left largely unexplored in favour of a rather hackneyed revenge narrative.
It’s a shame, because there are glimpses of the revolutionary game this could have been. “Hacking” can yield some spectacular results; switching the traffic lights to green and watching the resulting carnage never ceases to bring a smile to your face. Likewise eliminating enemies by taking advantage of nearby environmental weaknesses (blowing up routers, for instance), while not the hugely original trick we were promised, adds another dimension to the “crouch and shoot” combat dynamics.
Much has been made of the graphics being downgraded in the weeks before its release, but it still looks pretty remarkable, especially close-up detail like faces. The online element is also nicely integrated – other hackers can challenge you to cat-and-mouse style side-quests, in which one player must tail the other to remotely steal information while his opponent tries to spot his and eliminate him (read: bludgeon him to death).
At its best, Watch Dogs is throw-away fun. It takes an intriguing concept and ends up with something playable but essentially mundane. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel makes good on the promises of the original.
First published in City A.M.