The life of a hacker is not one of glory or fame. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. After all, in Watch_Dogs, the infamy of the protagonist is quickly turned against him. Everyone secretly wishes they could hack into their environments to do crazy things, but is this a suitable replacement?
Watch_Dogs is an open-world action game that follows Aiden Pearce: the worst hacker ever.
Now, I don’t mean he’s a “bad” hacker. He can cut into strangers’ bank accounts, computers, and phones with complete ease. The “bad” comes in when Aiden tries to do pretty much anything right. You’re made out rather quickly to be some sort of prodigal hacker, getting into the roots of the city-wide, all-inclusive computer operating system, ctOS. Without fear for recompense, you can wander the streets listening in on phone calls, reading text conversations, and siphoning money from bank accounts, that sort of thing.
But Aiden is a terrible character, caught in a bad story. The game tries its best to make this about the people involved—to make them flawed humans beings with their own motivations—and instead creates the world’s most internally conflicted self-narrating protagonist. In the midst of a planned heist of money in a hotel, Aiden and his partner are targeted by another hacker, and a hit is called on them both. When the hit is attempted, Aiden survives, but his six year-old niece perishes, sending him on a long trip for revenge.
So he’s made to be some sort of reformed man of morals—he blames himself for his niece’s death, and seeks to “make things right” by any means necessary. At the same time, Aiden is constantly rampaging around the city, averting crimes, clearing out gang hideouts, and garnering a reputation as a street vigilante (because of course his hacking skills are accompanied by ridiculous physical fitness, martial arts expertise, and the ability to handle guns).
The game started to lose me here. Here’s this guy clearly involved in illicit activities and whose various missions and objectives would benefit greatly from anonymity going around beating up criminals in the streets. Aiden is dead-set on protecting people who have their wallets stolen, yet has no qualms with emptying the bank account of every citizen he sees.
In the end, the narrative comes up terribly short. There’s a moment or two that provide satisfaction, and perhaps a twinge of sadness, but the story on the whole is completely forgettable. It’s so stupid that Aiden has to explain it to himself through most of the game.
Thus we would hope that the gameplay would make up for these shortcomings. To some degree, this is the case, but not by nearly enough. I could spend time describing its various aspects and how they fit together, or I could save a lot of time and space and just say that this game is Grand Theft Auto V with more computers. You steal cars from people constantly to drive around a miniature recreation of a real city (Chicago, in this case) and stop at various minigame distractions, side quests, and collectible locations to unlock stuff.
The game’s pillars are gunplay, stealth, hacking, and taking down vehicles/escaping other vehicles. Gunplay is immensely traditional and generic. You carry a two-ton arsenal of guns with you at any given moment, along with a batch of modest craftable items that serve as your game-changers—things like frag grenades, IEDs (basically sticky bombs that you hack to detonate), ctOS scanners that reveal the locations and qualities of nearby enemies so they are easily tracked (or shot), or blackouts that kill all the lights, allowing for easier sneaking or fleeing.
The system functions well enough, most bullets go generally where I’m pointing and things die when I shoot them enough times, but it feels like not a lot of thought went into the execution. I started the game on the “Realistic” difficulty, which gives you immensely low health. This was easily circumvented by developing a simple cycle of actions that would minimize my risk. ctOS scan the area to reveal all enemy positions, maneuver to reasonable location, equip silenced weapon, pop out of cover, engage focus (your generic slo-mo mechanic), shoot as many people in the face as possible, drop back into cover, pop a focus booster to refill meter, reposition, repeat. It didn’t work perfectly, of course, but I never once felt challenged in combat situations.
And I kept engaging these situations, even when stealth was an option. I love stealthing through games, it provides a real challenge, both from a twitchy perspective, and from proper planning and the like. The game gives plenty of tools to help you engage in this sense: by profiling guards you might find a personality trait that can be exploited by hacking their phones to slip by unnoticed (my favorite was a guard that was “Curious about yiffing”, so I sent him fake texts posing as a furry. Then I murdered him).
When out in the open, a small meter fills when you’re in visual range, but generally gives you ample time to get covered. The problem is that there is no tangible benefit to stealth. You don’t get an experience bonus for moving through an area unnoticed (but you do get one for killing guys), and distractions are often short-lived and can only be exploited once. Most stealth sections were cleared for me by the above mentioned shoot-everyone-in-the-face-using-focus method, since once all enemies are down, you no longer need to sneak around.
The hacking took center stage here, but similarly feels lackluster. There’s no risk to hacking most citizens, and no process. Simply identify someone using their phone, and hold a button to access the goods. Maybe you’ll hack someone that works fora security company and they’ll call the cops, resulting in you either using a jam comms device to interrupt the call (and they won’t try again, for some reason), or a quick rush to dodge ctOS scans to try to keep the cops away. Certain situations require you to solve a sort of laser/mirror puzzle to get past “firewalls”, involving the rotation of various pieces to get a blue line to travel to an access point, but these are rarely, if ever, challenging, only serving to sink time and make things seem more secure.
The coolest thing you can do is hack various portions of the city as you move through it. By unlocking skills that relate to these, you can expand your options to make city traversal more interesting, and various car chases more engaging. At first you can tweak traffic lights to cause accidents, and open the occasional gate, but by the end of things, you’re raising vehicle blockers, raising bridges to alter routes, popping tire spikes, or blowing up underground steam pipes to put your pursuers out of commission or to reach your target.
I do have one silly rant, though, and that is that whoever designed the ctOS system really should be shot. You can ask literally any IT professional ever and they’ll tell you that a unified system that controls almost every aspect of a city is an awful idea, specifically for the reasons displayed by Aiden and the other hackers in the game. I understand, I suppose, that the game is acting as a cautionary tale of the growing interconnectedness of our devices and ourselves to the world, and the Big-Brother-esque society we’re drifting toward, but this is only speculation formed by the existence of ctOS, and not something well-explored by the narrative, which got too focused on being an action game than something that mattered.
I played the PlayStation 3 version, so I cannot speak to the next-generation copies of the game, but the presentation was a real mixed bag. The lion’s share of the characters and cutscenes looked surprisingly good, in that sense I was impressed. The city felt fairly alive, with people all over the streets, in a convincing facsimile of living in a world where they’re all on their phones. There was enough diversity that you could generally tell what end of town you were on without referencing your map.
As an aside, this game has the best minimap I’ve seen in ages, it’s tilted ever-so-slightly and modeled in 3d, so tracking objective height and building layout is surprisingly easy. Lots of textures had trouble popping in in a timely manner, however, and vehicles have to undergo ungodly amounts of punishment before showing even so much as a mark. I believe I launched a car off a raised bridge at a hundred miles an hour into the side of a building, and my headlights still worked. Realism.
At least the game features some cool multiplayer modes to distract from the general dearth of interesting stuff going on in the main game, and they actually are fun to take part in. The game features a Dark Souls–like system that allows players to invade other games that are connected as “fixers”, people hired for various jobs. There are basic street races, sure, but the others really take the cake. In online hacking, you, as the fixer, must locate the player whose world you invade and profile them. Then, you attempt to install a back door on their phone to steal data. So you locate your target, get close enough to identify them, and start the download. The player is informed that their data is being stolen, and must profile you in order to stop the hack, then kill you, if possible. Your target is given a small radius in which you might reside, which grows smaller over time. You can either find an out-of-the-way or difficult-to-reach location to settle into, or try to blend with the crowd to get away.
Online tailing tasks you with locating your target, then just observing them for a period of time, mostly meant as a test of stealth skills. You’ll rush through alleys to cut people off, walk nonchalantly through groups of other pedestrians and otherwise do your best to keep your target in view. The closer you are, the faster the observation is completed, so there’s an added layer of risk.
Perhaps one of the most interesting modes is the ctOS Mobile challenge. The game comes with a companion app for Android or iOS and allows you to take control of the ctOS across the city and try to take down a player in the console version of the game. It’s really interesting to see someone with all the abilities that you usually use to evade capture use them against you, watching the city light up all around is truly an exciting experience.
If I could summarize the game in a word, it’s “disappointing”. The game promised a huge showing at E3 last year, and the hype clearly got too large for it to handle. I appreciate a lot of the mechanics, but only for their potential, not their execution. This was a game that really could have been more on so many fronts, be it from a narrative standpoint, a gameplay one, even technologically (at least on the previous-gen version), it could have been improved. If the story wouldn’t bother you and you’re a big fan of games like GTA, though, it’s at least got some big-budget values behind it, and has a few compelling aspects, especially if you like invading other players.
You can get Watch_Dogs on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC for $59.99.