Watch Dogs
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Release Date: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Ubisoft ESRB Rating: M
Platforms: PS4 MSRP: US$59.99

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There’s a point around the middle of Watch Dogs where protagonist Aidan Pierce has a moment contemplation. “I just killed all of those people. That’s not who I am. . . Is it?” he asks, as unsure of himself as his creators, the talented and resourceful Ubisoft Montreal, seemingly are.

Watch Dogs is, all at once, in no particular order, a high-octane racer, a situational stealth exercise, a gunslinging shoot-em-up, a smartphone simulator, a series of inanities, a technological thriller, a pretty decent radio, and an oft-original, yet oft-not family drama. All of this, yes, then wrapped up in a marvel of intuitive video game design. Playing Watch_Dogs is like having all eight nights of Hanukkah happen at once.

I believe most of you call that Christmas.

•••

One of the first unlocked abilities of Watch Dogs is the feature to order any car on demand, via one trusty little thing in Pierce’s pants: his cell phone. The cell phone is the crux of Watch Dogs’ gameplay—more on that in a bit, I promise—but is used, more often than not, primarily to order vehicles.

It sounds unimpressive. And to avid players of other open-world city games (think Sleeping Dogs, Saints Row, and… I feel like there’s one more famous one maybe?), it might be; after all, the whole point of an open-world game is immersion and the random events that traditionally accompany the term. Other games in the genre have similar systems, but none are as immediate as Watch_Dogs‘; in Saints Row, for example, you have to store the car somewhere prior. So, in Watch Dogs, ordering a Lamborghini at the push of a button kinda marginalizes any feeling of spontaneity.

But I’m not an avid player of open-world city games, so I think it’s freaking awesome! Which, to be fair, might be the reason why I think the rest of the game is worth your time, too.

•••

When you’re not using Pierce’s vaguely Android-interfaced phone to do awesome stuff—just be patient, I’ll get there—you’re utilizing two of gaming’s favorite mechanics: sneaking and shooting. And, look, I’m just gonna take a shot in the dark here and presume you play video games and have read a game review or two before (check out www.the-games-blog.com for the best in the biz!) so I won’t waste too much of your time on this part.

Third-person. Cover-based. Snap-to-it. Smooth and responsive. Parkour. There’s a nightstick. You hit people with it. Also a four-slot weapon wheel. Pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, big guns (snipers rifles, mostly, but also explosive weaponry). Easy to grasp. Difficult to perfect. Rewarding to master. You’ve done all of this before.

What you haven’t done before, though, is do all of it in such a polarizing manner. See, Watch_Dogs takes the sneaking and the shooting really, really seriously. One mission, you’ll be outmaneuvering a helicopter while mercilessly pumping dozens of “fixers”—the game’s term for faceless bad guys—full of lead. Next mission, you’ll be stalking your way through a compound, using a drilling silenced 9mm rounds into unassuming fixers’ skulls. Yup. Lots of murder in Watch_Dogs.

At least there’s one thing the game is committed to.

•••

So my review’s a bit late. Almost two months after the release date, in fact. Sorry. But, to be honest, I haven’t been able to make up my mind about the game. I’m almost as indecisive about Watch Dogs as its developers are (rimshot)!

In seriousness, though, I need a good story to be sold on a game. We have a marvel of a medium at our hands, one that has the potential to bridge the gap between viewer and creator, to give the audience a chance at being the storyteller. And this is 2014: the video game business is not a fledgling industry anymore, and it cannot expect to grow with shoddy plots and flimsy characters leading the charge.

Watch Dogs’ sales, thus far, have proven it to be an industry leader . Due to that, I’m holding the bar high—Halo high, Bioshock Infinite high, the freaking Last of Us high. Compared to those gems, Watch Dogs falls flat on its stupid, poorly developed face.

So, yeah, log-line time, which means I owe you a second apology. Don’t worry, I’ll do this one fast, too.

Chicago. Unspecified near-future. Rahm Emanuel isn’t mayor anymore (President, maybe???) so it’s, at earliest, 2015. Aidan Pierce is thirty-nine. He’s a pretty good hacker. He uses his phone—chill out, dude, I’ll get there—as his instrument of choice. Him and some friend try to steal some money from some hotel. They get counter-hacked. Pierce escapes.

A bit down the line, Pierce is driving with his niece. She gets shot in the face by some dude named Maurice. Pierce gets all mad. Turns out he’s a pretty good fighter, too. And a pretty good driver. And a pretty good shot. And a damn good athlete. Dude can run forever! Pretty good for thirty-nine, if I may say.

That’s the introduction. From there, it’s deep voices, horrid one-liners, predictable “twists,” and a handful of characters whose names I’ve already forgotten in the two seconds it took me to switch from Watch Dogs’ Wiki to this Word doc. You’ve got the badass tattooed French girl; the prototypical Chicago mob boss; the violent ex-Marine mercenary; the drunk hacking legend who actually—surprise!—exists; and the loving, caring family member.

This last one is materialized in the role of Pierce’s sister, bringing the only shred of originality to Watch Dogs’ plot. See, like every other icon of gruff masculinity in big-budget media, Pierce is after revenge and little else. That said, revenge of this sort is usually reserved for the Liam Neesons and Harrison Fords—those whose wives and daughters are harmed or threatened.

In this case, however, it’s a niece. I’ve never seen any fictional character have such devotion to a niece. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure nieces are great. This is simply an unexpected level of care… Which leads me to believe in something more, perhaps a Cersei–Jaime thing?

At the very least, the writers for scenes between Pierce and his sister—and her useless character of a son—seemingly tried to go for subtlety. I, for one, got the feeling that Pierce was a father figure to these kids. That said, Watch Dogs doesn’t even approach subtlety anywhere else, so I might be giving too much credit. Who knows. Who cares.

The only other notable part of Watch Dogs’ story is Jordi Chin. Chin steals the show. Even when he’s coming in through Pierce’s cellphone—just hold tight a little bit longer, okay?—he flat out owns the screen. Chin is essentially Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris in How I Met Your Mother), were Stinson a ninja hit-man. Suits, catchphrases, high-functioning sociopathy. The whole shebang. The two even have some of the same lines. It’s uncanny, really.

•••

Almost every review I’ve read—and every person I’ve talked to, not that that matters—has something negative to say about driving in Watch Dogs. It’s too slippery, too imprecise, all over the place, too “drifty,” whatever the hell that means. I don’t see it.

So, after you put the phone—patience, Padawan, will bring you peace—to good use and order a car, you’re free to drive willy-nilly through the streets of Chicago. And the sidewalks. And stairwells. And all two of the city’s green fields. You can drive pretty much everywhere except for the water, and that’s okay because there are boats for that.

The driving in Watch Dogs harks back to days when racing games were over-the-top to an unnecessary degree. Drive into a telephone pole? No matter. It won’t even slow you down. Crash into a metal fence? Same. (Though I should note that one fence doesn’t break; it’s the only bug I’ve found in nearly forty hours with the game.)

In addition to the entertaining vehicular controls, Ubisoft implemented a stealth driving mechanic. Like the action sequences, the driving, too, is polarized. But there’s a fluidity between the two. You’ll fly through around an alleyway, destroy a bus-stop, round a corner, then park. Pierce literally shuts the car off, in what can only be called the most realistic bit of sound design on Ubisoft Montreal’s resume.

So that’s cool, but there’s more! Pierce has this ability called Focus at his disposal. See, in addition to being a pretty good hacker and a pretty good fighter and a pretty good driver and a pretty good shot and a damn good athlete, he’s also a pretty good dude-who-can-slow-down-time. By going into Focus—clever name, right?—time slows down, allowing you to make turns on a dime, or execute effortless, back-to-back-to-back headshots. It’s useful in every situation, guns or cars, action or stealth.

Just not the radio. It really screws that up.

•••

So Pierce’s phone. You ready for this!? Well, sit tight just a little bit longer. It’s the selling point of the game’s gameplay, so I have to be sure to save the best for last.

Pierce’s phone is also the menu, of sorts. From it, you can order cars, but you can also use it to plot missions, track your progress, turn on the in-game radio, and play mini-games. People knock the radio for being a bland series of licensed songs. It is, to a certain degree.

But it’s also the soundtrack that puts Matt Ulery next to Smashing Pumpkins, and Wu Tang next to EchoDroides. Either Ubisoft asked forty wannabe Pitchfork writers what their favorite songs are and turned that into a playlist, or they typed random letters into the iTunes store and hoped nothing too expensive popped up. No matter what, it’s an eclectic, diverse grouping of music and Ubisoft shouldn’t be slammed for trying to cater to all tastes.

The mini-games, on the other hand, should be slammed. They’re so awesome! If Ubisoft spent more time turning each of them into full-fledged games, I would be overjoyed.

There’s one where you drive a car around a Chicago that’s been overtaken by demonic creatures. You have to run them over in groups while dodging intermittent volcanic eruptions.

There’s one where a bunch of flowers have grown throughout the city. They’re all enormous and psychedelic, like a Phish album cover or something. You bounce from flower to flower to flower, and Aidan just screams in drugged-out joy the entire time.

There’s one where a bunch of robots take over Chicago and did away with all the light. You have to sneak into their territories and restore the light. It’s really challenging, as Aidan only has a stun gun and a shitty assault rifle with him, and if you get caught, you die.

Then there’s Spider Tank. Just. Dude. Just watch.

To quote a friend, “This should’ve been the game.”

•••

Despite all of this—a Hanukkah of features—Watch Dogs is truly about hacking. That’s what it was marketed on. That’s the selling point. That’s the thing that makes Watch_Dogs the game it is, and not just a shitty Sleeping Dogs or Saints Row or… Grand Theft Auto! (Knew I’d remember eventually.)

Aidan can hack, like, everything in the city. Usually you hold the square button to make him do it. Sometimes you just press it. Then things blow up.

Pretty underwhelming, right?

Well, it’s certainly no Christmas.

Graphics: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Story: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Gameplay: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Audio: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Balance/Difficulty: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Intangibles: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Overall: ★★★★★★★½☆☆

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