Hacking Into My Heart

Watch Dogs Review Screenshot

HIGH Remote-triggering a guard's grenade and watching him accidentally throw it at another guard.

LOW The game's story is a total afterthought.

WTF Was this really the best licensed soundtrack Ubisoft could throw together?

Watch Dogs is a game that made me giggle, often and loudly. The first came shortly after I unlocked the ability to raise and lower drawbridges at will.

The concept behind Watch Dogs is that it's set in a near-future Chicago in which everything is controlled by a ubiquitous operating system called ctOS, and any hacker (like protagonist Aiden Pearce) skilled enough to break in can puppeteer the city. This proved useful the first time I was being chased by the police. I raised an oncoming bridge and ramped off of it, losing my pursuers and landing a massive motorcycle jump in the process.

The second laugh came during my first infiltration mission. There's rarely anything stopping players from storming levels with guns blazing, but I took a more creative route by hacking into the security system to see how many guards I could distract or incapacitate from a distance. After toying with environmental objects, I instructed a crane to drop its cargo on two enemies who were blissfully unaware that they were about to be crushed to death.

Soon afterward, I noticed that any explosives on a guard's body can be remotely triggered, since those are connected to ctOS, too. Why? I don't know, but I laughed when they went boom, and that's all that mattered. That was around the point when I lost track of every instance in this game that made me giggle, but there were plenty more thanks to the wealth of options.

During car chases, players can raise blockades, open garage doors and tinker with traffic lights with well-timed button presses. On foot, players are able to monitor areas through security cameras, fiddle with enemy gadgetry and set off electronic devices without engaging directly. Again, I ran into very few situations in which I couldn't take a conventional approach (cover-based shooting is a thing in Watch Dogs), but the fact that I was actively seeking out more creative means of overcoming obstacles speaks to the strength and versatility of this mechanic.

One of my favorite features of Watch Dogs, however, is one that hasn't been getting a lot of attention, and that's the multiplayer.

The game's PvP modes are integrated directly into the single-player, and the star of the show is an invasion mechanic that's weirdly reminiscent of Dark Souls. In it, the invader must steal the other player's data by avoiding detection within a constantly-shrinking radius. The player who's actually being attacked must smoke the hacker out and is allowed to use lethal force. It's a uniquely intense dynamic on either side, and the fact that it can happen at any time only punctuates that. This mode works well and was so distracting that I had to force myself not to indulge unless the game specifically prompted me to.

If a game can make me laugh out loud and keep me entertained this much—not even through humor, but through the chaotic glee of its design—there must be something to it, and in truth, I actually had trouble completing the campaign because I kept getting absorbed by its many distractions. From someone on a tight gaming schedule like myself, the fact that I willingly lost myself to it is high praise.

What I can't praise is the narrative. Although it's got some solid moments, it's pretty lousy after the first couple of acts. Though stylishly told and well-acted, Ubisoft consistently struggles to make Aiden Pearce a sympathetic protagonist despite his revenge tale driven by personal tragedy; it falls into the usual trap of assuming that "antihero" status means malicious actions don't need to be justified. That the world itself is so awash with ugly racial and gender stereotyping doesn't help. For instance, there's an early mission against a group of black gang members, and some of the dialog overheard between them made me cringe.

The other issue that I feel obligated to mention is Watch Dogs's noticeable visual downgrade from the original footage showcased at E3. The wealth of side-by-side comparisons available paint a picture of a product that couldn't live up to what was advertised, and that has (understandably) left some people dissatisfied. I think the finished game still looks absolutely fine, but it's worth noting. That it seems to suffer performance issues on every platform (particularly on PC, where I played it) only makes the problem even more frustrating.

Still, nothing could have realistically lived up to the immense level of hype that Ubisoft stirred up for this game, and while I value strong narratives and envelope-pushing technological advancements, I place just as much importance in the ability to enjoy the gameplay that's being offered to me. Watch Dogs is one of the more exciting sandbox games of the last few years, and if this is to become Ubisoft's next big franchise, I'm excited to see where they take it. Rating: 8.0 out of 10

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 30 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. The multiplayer modes are integrated directly into the campaign, and a considerable amount of time was spent with them.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content and use of drugs and alcohol. That's pretty much a laundry list of inappropriate content, and it's accurate. Lots of violence, lots of profanity, and lots of crude sexual content and dialog. This one earns its "M" rating on pretty much every conceivable level.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All major dialogue is subtitled, though there can often be quite a bit happening at any given time (particularly in the city, during chases and such) and not having explicit aural awareness of your surroundings could make it a bit frustrating in spots.

Mike Suskie
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9 years ago

“That the world itself is so awash with ugly racial and gender stereotyping doesn’t help. For instance, there’s an early mission against a group of black gang members, and some of the dialog overheard between them made me cringe.”

Ever watch Thug Life on YouTube? Now there’s dialogue that makes me cringe.

The story was just boring. It could have used more stereotyping to liven it up.

9 years ago

I’m fully convinced that Ubisoft has hired some of the worst writers in the world.

I can’t even bring myself to finish this game thanks to the unbearable story.