This impression piece on Watch Dogs is written with my save at 60.3% completion, having done most of the games side content and dabbled in the online features, but only midway through the 2nd act of the game’s 5 act story, so my opinion will not take into account parts of the game I have yet to experience. I will also be talking about some scenarios the storyline throws you into, so if you would prefer not to be spoiled on aspects of the game’s story, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
I have spent countless hours in the streets of near-future Chicago performing a variety of activities from hacking into people’s homes and eavesdropping on them to infiltrating guarded compounds without entering them through daisy-chaining security cameras. I’ve also participated in the gunning down of countless less-than-savory individuals and stupidly reckless driving. I look at the time I have put into this game and see where the parts I’ve most enjoyed and least enjoyed fall into which category and I cam to a realization: the time I like Watch Dogs best are the parts where I could be anyone other than Aiden Pearce.
While ludo-narrative dissonance gets thrown around left and right when talking about games, I have not played a game that has as bad a case of it as Watch Dogs. Aiden Pearce’s motivation is revenge for the death of his niece, and that is used by him and the game as a whole to excuse an any-means-necessary approach to solving problems in his way. I went into the game with the mindset of trying to be as non-lethal as possible, killing only if ultimately necessary. I found out however, the game was definitely not designed with that in mind. The only non-lethal way of dealing with enemies is with the melee take down in the game, while the lethal options are incredibly verbose, with Aiden capable of carrying on his person a literal arsenal of guns. The mission design of the story and side missions also practically demands lethal force early on, with three segments early on in the story and fairly close together, the story mission convoy attack, inside the prison, and the ambush on your motel room, pretty much impossible to complete without murdering people in the game. There are many possibilities for non lethal weapons that wouldn’t be hard to implement in the game, from tazers to beanbag rounds, tranquilizer rounds and rubber bullets offered as ammunition options to flash bang, smoke, or sleep gas grenades as options aside from standard grenades. While this may seem a bit too personal of a problem with the game, with its setting in modern Chicago and its serious tone, it just feels strange to me to have a one man vigilante army gunning down people in the middle of the streets. This normally isn’t a problem in Ubisoft Montreal’s games of the same ilk, but the setting and feel of the world in Watch Dogs makes wanton murder stand out REALLY conspicuously as opposed to the guards and templars of Assassin’s Creed and mercenaries of Far Cry. Those games also had little to no non-lethal options in their game play, but the context of the world and your enemies makes the murder more palatable to me, while Watch Dogs takes place in more or less modern day Chicago where the enemies are hackers and organized crime. While not good people, the context of the world in this game made me feel very strange that the game encouraged me to use murder as the solution to all of my enemy problems. Watch Dogs’s hacking aesthetics do little to hide that its game play is clearly trying to ape the open world over the top action of Grand Theft Auto with gun play and driving at the focus of player driven interaction in the world, which jars with the grounded feeling of the world. This jarring conflict of game play and game world are at their most apparent, ironically, in story missions, as it seems they wrote Aiden’s character with the game play in mind, which consequently makes him one of the largest hypocrites in recent memory. He tries to make himself out to be the good guy vigilante as he steals from regular people’s bank accounts and puts their lives in danger staging horribly planned public shootouts and ultimately doesn’t think of any more creative ways of dealing with obstacles than with bullets and explosives, never really seeming like the super hacker that the game or promotional material make him out to be.
Aiden’s character is so focused on revenge that the hacking aspect of his character feels almost like an afterthought even though it’s clearly not. It’s just so poorly ingrained in his character that they could have moved it entirely into his hacker associate Clara Lille with him being her hired muscle and it would literally change nothing. In fact, it would actually make the player’s interactions with the game make more sense.
Coming into the game from seeing the promotional material and earlier gameplay footage, I was looking forward to a long Ubisoft game loop game (take a tower to unlock the district which unlocks side missions which are clearly marked on your map and listed neatly in a “_% complete” game checklist, a la Far Cry 3 and every Assassin’s Creed since Brotherhood) for the summer where I played as a hacker hacking things in Chicago. While there is plenty of hacking to be done in Chicago, it’s really surprising how little this game made me feel like a hacker and much more like a thug with a magic cell phone, which is the other irksome feeling I have when playing the game. Being a hacker with an entire city’s infrastructure and all of it’s inhabitants’ information at your fingertips is such a cool concept that I hate seeing so squandered and marginalized in this game to a side mechanic to the gun play. When hacking from one camera to another and using that to infiltrate a network without even entering the area, the game is giving me the feeling I was looking forward to on the concept of being a hacker. The sad thing to me is that, besides the overall privacy invasion, it’s about the deepest the game gets into making the player feel like a hacker through game play choices and depth rather than just repeatedly telling them that Aiden is a hacker.
There are so many cool concepts you could do with hacking personal information as a game play mechanic that Ubisoft Montreal and the other studios merely touched upon in Watch Dogs. Looking specifically at the Gang Hideouts or the game play concept of taking out a lieutenant in a guarded area, without firing a bullet, there are multiple possibilities to use hacking to take them down. One of the easiest ideas could be using the cameras to observe illegal activities and call the police to the scene with your phone(which isn’t possible to do with your phone in the current game despite it being a phone). The more interesting possibilities, however, can be found in using the information that pops up when targeting someone in Watch Dogs as more than just flavor text. You could use birthdays or personal contact information to figure out passwords to their bank accounts and steal all of their money or freeze their accounts, or take or implant incrimination evidence on their phone for the police to arrest them with. You could plant lurid texts on their phone and get them in trouble with their spouses or leak their gang’s shipment details to competitors to get them in trouble with their superiors. That all sound incredibly complex, but it could be boiled down to contextual actions for specific targets focusing on exploiting their written weaknesses, to which I look towards the game Dishonored’s non-lethal options of eliminating targets as an exceptional example of this. They made the player character a hacker and gave them the impression that Aiden is clever. The mini games they put in-the shell game, poker, freaking chess- are all about reading and outsmarting your opponent. Why not let the player themselves feel like they are outsmarting their opponents in combat in other methods than stealthily choking them out or putting a bullet in their brain? While it’s not entirely fair to compare the two games, I also look at Grand Theft Auto IV and V offering the ability to access a fictional internet and call numbers on the fictional phone in their games, and I see two tools that could have brought a depth and complexity to the hacking in Watch Dogs not used, effectively making Aiden’s super phone also super neutered as far as phones go. I realize that the implementation of the concepts I just talked about would take a long time to implement and would require a lot of time and balancing to get right, which would definitely have led to less content, but that would have been a good thing. The side mission bloat of the game and the lengthy campaign could be paired down to focus on deeper and better designed scenarios that could bring hacking back into a game supposedly about hacking.
Now despite this lengthy tirade on what I don’t like about Watch Dogs, I still am enjoying my time with the game. The mechanics are solid and once I gave up my non lethal crusade, I found the gun play well done and fun. I came in expecting a Ubisoft game loop game and I definitely got what I expected, as that loop is very effective at keeping the player engaged with their game. I have sunk quite a few hours into to this game already and I easily foresee myself sinking in quite a few more, but in the back of my head I will still fell a twinge of sadness at how cool this concept could have been.