Here is a simple fact about hacking: it’s not fun to watch. Movies and video games world over would like to convince you that this isn’t true, but the tedium prevails. Any writer on earth can make a character type something furiously into a keyboard and have something unexpected happen on the other end — but that’s not really the allure of hacking, is it?
The thing that attracts me to a game tackling actual hacking mechanics is the promise of infrastructure. The premise behind Ubisoft’s flagship current generation action game Watch Dogs would seem to agree with me. This is an open-world empowerment fantasy where you, as “hacktivist”/vigilante Aiden Pearce, bend the mechanics of the game to your will. Need to escape the cops? Hack a traffic light. Need to locate a suspect? Profile them with your smartphone. Need to case a guarded building? Hack the security cameras. Et cetera.
Here’s the unfortunate thing: there is no “et cetera.” Most of your time in Watch Dogs will be spent interfacing with the same five or six hackable devices, making the whole thing feel like you have glorified, weirdly specific superpowers. A game like this would thrive on a living world, filled with constructs and dependency chains for you to fuck with. These hacking mechanics run skin deep, and that’s exactly why Watch Dogs self-destructs.
Aiden Pearce is next in a long line of white guys motivated by the death and kidnapping of women. After a botched hacking job, some unknown assailant puts a hit out on him, killing his 6-year-old niece in the process. His story is ostensibly one of revenge, but Watch Dogs obfuscates that thread to the point of irrelevance. It’s one of the most supremely unsatisfying story arcs in recent memory, and that’s considered without the game’s tonal schizophrenia. About halfway through, I’d entirely lost the thread on why I was doing what I was doing, and how it connected back to the original revenge tale.
Watch Dogs also can’t make up its mind about anything — not the characters, or their opinions; not the world, or its rules. After finishing all 30+ story missions, I failed to wring any clear moral or message out of what was presented. Various interludes suggest that the surveillance state is a net negative, while others hint at it being a necessary intrusion. What you can and can’t hack, and when, is wildly inconsistent (that inconsistency is most pronounced in the nonsensical final mission). One scene started with Aiden’s sister delighted at his presence, and transformed not two minutes later into a lecture about how “whenever he gets involved, he just makes things worse.”
This sort of dissonance is common for an ambitious open-world game, but Watch Dogs is clumsy in a specific way I’ve never seen before. Other games might struggle between player agency and static character work — would John Marston really shoot up this town for the hell of it, like I made him? Here’s the difference: you could play Watch Dogs like a relative saint and it still wouldn’t make any goddamned sense. Presented as a series of non-interactive cutscenes, this game somehow achieves ludonarrative dissonance. That is a unique and staggering honor.
Design-wise, Watch Dogs isn’t much better. It certainly feels richer and more developed than other recently underwhelming open-world titles (like Saints Row IV, or Assassin’s Creed IV), with fewer mechanical loose ends. There’s a wealth of side activities, and none of them feel especially flimsy. It also looks pretty good. Not mind-blowing, but definitely sharper than anything you’d see last generation.
The biggest issue is one that plagues all of Ubisoft Montreal’s recent efforts — mission design. There are no great missions in Watch Dogs, but there are many bad and mediocre ones. Those mediocre missions usually boil down to a basic but inoffensive gameplay loop: you infiltrate a restricted area, killing/stealthing your way through enemies, and then chase down a higher profile target who bolts at the end. Combat is basically trivial thanks to the starting silenced pistol, which can giddily abuse already dim AI. If the target gets into a car and drives away, it’s just a matter of catching up to them and “neutralizing” them by hacking one of three or four common objects (traffic lights, blockers, steam pipes).
The most fun that can be had in Watch Dogs is found in these moments of repetition. It’s thin, but the shooting feels good, and that silenced pistol, while utterly broken, is pretty empowering to get a handle on. I actually found that I enjoyed the game a lot more after completing the story, where I could just roam around grinding out side activities and paying very little attention. It’s when Watch Dogs tries something different, or brings its story to the forefront, that things get really dire.
The game’s essentially pointless and logy second act is riddled with tiresome tailing missions, and it seeps throughout the rest of the game. You’ll be frequently asked to go interact with three different objects, or defend an access point while you hack it. These sections are a testament to the stagnation of open-world mission design — a depressing contrast to the game’s ambitions. You’ll also have to guide other characters through corridors of enemies by hacking into cameras and pointing at cover, like an escort mission with a “get spotted and lose” stealth-based fail state. These are especially dreadful, as are most of the puzzles involving jumping from security camera to security camera. It’s a neat idea the first time you see it. It’s an abomination around the twentieth.
There’s a disconnection here between the open-world and the missions, and a lot of it has to do with your hacking options in both. Missions feel almost like linear Splinter Cell levels, where you need to get deeper into a building or base to kill someone, or interact with something. Here’s where you hack transformers to make them explode, cameras to spot enemies, and forklifts to rise and fall. In the open-world your hacking options are all tuned to be activated while you’re speeding past in a vehicle. It made me wonder if an open-world action game was really the right setting for these mechanics at all. Killing cops by changing the light at an intersection just became a chore after a while, especially when you’re driving around in circles waiting for your phone’s battery to recharge.
It’s easy to picture exactly what Watch Dogs wants to be, which is ultimately what makes all of its faults so glaring. The hacking mechanics are undercooked and feel like they’d be better suited to a more focused genre. The driving mechanics are sluggish. Like most open-world games, the economy is worthless and broken. The tone is all over the place. The story is meandering and unsatisfying. Aiden Pearce is a wholly unlikable protagonist. Women and minorities are fiercely underrepresented, and when they aren’t, they’re all victims or criminals, existing only to push the plot forward in the most cynical of ways. But, hey, at least it’s trying.
Watch Dogs, at its very best, goes down smooth and stupid. At its worst, it’s a thunderously clunky slog through half-finished ideas and wasted promise. One can only hope that lessons will be learned from this game’s failure, but the biggest problem might just be how similar it is to all of its peers. If Watch Dogs is the future of this genre, then it’s going nowhere, and fast.
Second Opinion by Clint Prentice
The profiling system is neat the first couple of times you use it, but sooner or later it becomes a hassle as you begin to only look for a blue box around a person so you can get their money or item. I don’t care that John Smith has leukemia. He’s just another blip-bloop I hack to get some cash with absolutely no repercussions. Even the tiniest hints of morality get washed aside when vigilante Aiden Pearce goes on a rampage killing hundreds of guys just to get revenge for his niece’s death. Hacking is seen as the game’s catch-all for all unnecessary plot holes and inconsistencies; at a certain point the word means absolutely nothing but press a button and watch a thing go. It’s boring and simple-minded. The game operates like every other third person shooter but with a twist(!) that allows you to use more things other than red barrels to blow up your enemies. The story is laughably awful, thoroughly convenient, and lacks any drama. There was something there, a nugget of a cool idea, but Watch Dogs does nothing with it besides the same tiresome antics we’ve seen time and again. And that’s just not good enough anymore.