If you told me that Watch_Dogs would be a game worth playing after the controversy surrounding the game’s visuals and the supposed bribing of journalists with brand new smartphones at Ubisoft’s review event, I would have probably dismissed it even more than I already had at that point. I, like so many others, have been feeling more and more out of touch with Ubisoft’s approach to open-world gameplay, and on the surface Watch_Dogs did basically all the things Assassin’s Creed (albeit with a main character that supposedly has none of the charisma or wit of the assassins you play) has been doing for years, so I didn’t really see much of a point in playing Watch_Dogs when I was already playing Assassin’s Creed. It wasn’t until last month that a friend sent me the game and I decided to play it. Now that the controversy surrounding that game has been dead and buried for a while, I think it’s time to take a look at what Watch_Dogs does right.
If you’re unfamiliar with what the game is, I’ll sum it up for you. You play Aiden Pearce, an ex-bank robber who after a gig gone wrong decides to bring his sister and her two kids to safety under the guise of a camping trip. While on the way to the hideout they come under attack by 2 hitmen which crashes the car and puts his niece in a coma, dying some time after. Pearce goes on a quest to find out who did it and takes up the mantle of a masked vigilante in Chicago, armed only with his cellphone and his skills as a hacker. What follows is a wild ride through the seedy, high-tech underbelly of the windy city where morality is many shades of gray and the stakes get raised ever higher.
Ubisoft has been doing their open-world format for years now. Sprawling cities and landscapes filled to the brim with (mostly pointless) activities and collectibles are their modus operandi, and this game is no different in that respect. What it does differently is the phenomenal cyberpunk aesthetic that, even though it’s highly fictionalized in its implementation, manages to feel very realistic due to the game being set in a near-future version of Chicago.
True to dystopian cyberpunk fiction, Chicago is under heavy surveillance by the Blume company, a company that developed a city-wide surveillance system called ctOS. Every camera, every phone, every computer in the city is seemingly linked up to the network and your phone acts as a sort of master key. It’s an interesting concept to be sure, and the way you can use the ctOS system to your advantage can lead to some very interesting emergent gameplay opportunities.
A great example would be the car chases you’ll inevitably find yourself in. Due to your phone’s access to the mainframe, it’s possible to turn all traffic lines on an intersection to green just as you drive past it, causing cars from all directions to crash into each other, creating a roadblock for your pursuers and allowing you to escape. You can also make gas pipes under the road explode (because these are connected to the net for some reason. Don’t think about it too much), causing other cars to get launched up in the air in a pile of smoke and debris. It might not be the most elegant of solutions to a problem, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel right.
The hacking mechanic also makes it possible to scout ahead, allowing you to mark patrolling enemies or distract them with scary text messages so you can slip by them unseen. It’s a completely different approach to stealth that forces you to consider things carefully before you execute them. It’s extremely gratifying to sneak into a base, grab all the things you need, and slip out again without anyone noticing you were there until it’s too late.
When you take over a ctOS server farm you’re able to hack into direct feeds from people’s houses, giving you a peek into people’s private lives. Aiden is quick to note that the people have no idea that they are under surveillance, and that they would be raising some well-deserved hell if they did know. This feature, which serves no purpose other than to contextualize and flesh out the world, plays on our biggest fear that everything we do is under scrutiny by the government. But it also raises an interesting question about how much surveillance is justified. At some point, one of the feeds shows you a whistling psychopath who is happily chopping off the fingers of a severed arm. Aiden is, interestingly enough, silent when he watches this. He, and by extension you, knows that people like that are the reason why the system is implemented, and it’s cases like this why the screens around the city boast a 28% reduction in crime since the ctOS implementation.
And then there’s the city itself. Ubisoft have always been pretty good at making cities feel grand and alive (with the exception of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which felt a bit lackluster in that department), and Chicago is no exception. The business district is grandiose and modern, with broad streets and huge buildings made of glass. The ghetto looks unkempt and washed out, with rusted car wrecks lying between tiles overgrown with moss. There’s a stark contrast between poor, middle-class, and high-income areas and the way these areas flow into each other makes the city feel pretty real. There are a lot of reused buildings and textures (which you can’t really get around in open-world games of this size), but none of them repeat enough to be very noticeable unless you’re specifically looking for it. Walking down one of the city’s many streets is an auditory treat as well, with you being able to hear little shards of conversations. Sometimes these conversations give you clues as to where a crime might be going to take place, but more often than not these overheard conversations do nothing but give the city and its denizens some context and backstory. I found myself sometimes just ditching my car in favor of just walking (or joggin) around the place to take in the scenery. I haven’t gotten tired of that yet, to be honest.
Another thing that I found compelling is Watch_Dogs’ approach to multiplayer. Other people can break into your game to steal data off you, and once that happens you’re given a small amount of time and a general idea of where the culprit is. This prompts a sort of cat-and-mouse game where you’re trying to shut down the invading fixer before the data transfer is complete. The fact that other players will look like an NPC gives it an extra layer of difficulty, and the constantly ticking upload counter can put you on edge when the bar is at 90% and you haven’t found the invader yet. The other available modes like tailing (everyone’s favorite pastime) and racing are less fun, but easily ignored if you so desire. It’s also possible to team up with a friend to decrypt and steal secure files off another team in 2v2 battles. It’s pretty hard to get games like these due to not a lot of people actively playing the game (at least on PS4 I haven’t been able to find a group), in which case the mode turns into a free-for-all ordeal.
I feel like game’s supposed flaws have been exaggerated by the general public, and I even think that this version of the Ubisoft Open World Game has done more than enough to make itself feel different from the other games they release. The side-activities are numerous, but not legion. Aiden Pearce isn’t a shining example of how to deal with people, but he isn’t gruff for the sake of being gruff, at least not from a tonal perspective. He’s got a reason to be this way. He’s got a reason to be short with people and unwilling to form personal connections. He, more than most, knows the value of being an enigma, of being anonymous. It’s important to what he’s trying to accomplish and it’s because of this I think that he’s the right main protagonist for this game.
Is this the best game you’ll ever play? Hardly. Is it the best open world? Not by a long shot. But what it is, is a compelling and modern revenge story that takes the very real fear of losing one’s privacy for the greater good and applies it to a world that feels believable. If you’re looking for a cyberpunk game grounded in what feels like a real world and the graphics downgrade doesn’t bother you, then this might be a game to pick up on the cheap. Who knows, you may even love it.