HIGH "Tailing" a target by jumping from camera to camera.
LOW The pointless sideplot with Defalt.
WTF Why did we even have that bit with Jordi in the finale?
Never let anyone use the term "Grand Theft Auto clone" as a criticism. Though I'm no great lover of the GTA series itself, some of my favorite games are its clones. What unites the great ones is that they each hold tight to a specific take on the formula. Saints Row embraces the absurdity of the core mechanics. Red Faction: Guerilla treats destruction seriously. The Saboteur deploys an opposing system that deserves all the punishment the player can deal out.
These GTA clones are superior to the formula they're aping. Watch Dogs is not.
At some point Watch Dogs had the chops to contend. The bones of that design are still visible, like fossils half-buried in the muck of action-game tropes, and they surface in the hacking sequences Mike loved so much. They're especially obvious in how "hero" Aiden Pearce can use the environment, rather than his weapons, to overwhelm opponents. They're apparent in the stealth when manipulating phones and objects to distract observers or draw them out of the way. They're evident in the hide-in-car mechanic, an idea that embraces the possibility of evading the police by means other than outrunning them.
All of this speaks to a time when Watch Dogs re-conceived the third-person sandbox game as one in which the goal was to succeed through intelligence rather than force, and at some point there must have been a vision where Aiden triumphed by outsmarting his enemies. Of course, it's possible that design wouldn't have been entertaining, but at least it would have been an interesting one, quite unlike the product we received after those elements were forced to fit the Rockstar template.
The Watch Dogs that resulted is an incoherent mess. How else can one describe a game where firing a silenced pistol in a park brings down the wrath of the police department, while detonating a half-dozen cars with a grenade launcher summons not a one? The characteristics that make the fiction of a Rockstar game remotely workable—police apathy and incompetence, human limitations—don't fit a game built around a citywide panopticon. It should be no surprise, then, that the resulting world makes no sense.
Consider police chases. When Aiden does something that should attract the attention of law enforcement, a passerby will often call for emergency assistance. Aiden can knock that phone out of the caller's hand, but if the message goes through, the computer that watches over the city starts sweeping the area to find him. Aiden can dodge or hack these sweeps, but if caught, the cops will be summoned. A relatively standard chase will ensue, with some added flavor from Aiden's ability to turn the city against his pursuers. Bizarrely, the chase ends when he drives far enough away from the cops that are chasing him… in a city that found him through remote surveillance in the first place! The end of the chase doesn't remember the beginning. That's not just inconsistency between the world and the gameplay, that's the gameplay completely forgetting itself.
The shift towards Rockstar-ization also has consequences for the story. As a grim thirty-something white dude with short brown hair and no personality, Aiden Pearce was never going to be a memorable protagonist, but as a character with limitations, he might have been an interesting one. Granted an immense arsenal of assault rifles and sports cars plus the inexplicable ability to enter bullet time a la Max Payne or Red Dead Redemption, he becomes completely laughable, and a puerile fantasy of absurd proportions. The relegation of women to roles of damsel in distress and fridging victims completes the impression that he and his whole arc were written by a preteen. If that were literally true, it would at least excuse lines like "Everything reeks of conclusion."
That's not to say that Watch Dogs has no redeeming features. In its better moments, when it lets Aiden succeed by hacking, ducking the system, or hiding in plain sight, it can be exciting to play. The story, dumb as it is, at least feels like it's connected to the setting, and although its treatment of minorities is not exemplary, it at least acknowledges how Chicago has mistreated and abandoned them. Unlike Second Son, Aiden feels connected to Chicago, though perhaps not quite strongly enough to convince anyone that he actually lives there.
Unfortunately, what little the game gets right is drowned out by the me-too GTA-clone action that fundamentally misunderstands the problem—its weakness is that so much of it is the same old stuff we've done before. Watch Dogs can't be more than mediocre because it takes a fascinating premise and then actively chooses to push it to the side, in favor of being the most boring thing it possibly can.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on a home-built Windows 7 PC equipped with an Intel i7 processor, 8 GB RAM, and a single Radeon 6800 HD-series graphics card. Approximately 40 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and use of drugs and alcohol. Basically do not let your kids near this until they are old enough to drive. Maybe not even then.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Subtitles are available for all important dialogue. There are sound cues that can be very helpful in some of the stealth and vehicle chase situations. Everything has a visual counterpart but they can be difficult to see unless you know (from the sound) to look for them.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
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