There’s the node I’m looking for. Swivel. The smartphone-controlled security camera sights my target across the industrial yard, but can’t quite home in. That target — a hackable security access panel — lies behind corrugated steel sprayed in graffiti, obstructing my view by inches. I’m stuck. But then I notice a security guard with a portable camera patrolling nearby. Lucky!
I aim, tap a button and leap through space, soaring over rusted containers, witchgrass, hunks of concrete, wood-slat pallets, through thrumming rain, nesting at last in the guard’s camera and pivoting to my new vantage — his vantage. He turns and walks a few steps in the direction I need him to. There we go. Swivel. The panel’s now an arm’s length away. Jackpot.
That’s Watch Dogs when it’s in the zone, when I was in the zone playing it, and where Ubisoft’s action-stealth game — starring you as the sort of MacGyver-ish antihero you’d get if you merged Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson’s characters in Person of Interest — starts to feel like it’s firing on balletic cyber-cylinders, delivering on its promise to make me the World’s Coolest Hacker. It does that for maybe two-thirds of its five-act story. And as the song goes, two out of three ain’t bad.
But then it heads in the other direction, the one you see overambitious games sometimes go, backpedaling on its promises and permutations, under-delivering on a story that sparks and fizzles toward its sequel-ready ending, and worse, sacrificing all those tactical gains to the gods of gameplay clichés. Hoo-boy, that ending. If you’re observant, you’ll see it coming a mile away, and I mean that both figuratively and literally.
I don’t want to sound too glum a note, because some of the online stuff’s a hoot, and Ubisoft’s world-building is second to none at a time when the bar’s been set pretty high. So let’s talk about the world-building.
Network-connected cameras glass every inch of this paranoid, scrupulously designed rendition of Chicago: the flat, skyscraper-lined lakeshore metropolis you know, as well as the one you don’t — the one surrounded by forests, cliffs, waterfalls and antigovernment militias. Ubisoft’s imaginary Chicago is the Windy City by way of Portland or Seattle, all its flat suburban sprawl swapped for hilly timberland perimeter — less simulation than homage, and the studio’s way of ensuring its playground’s full of stuff to look at or do, whether you’re rubbernecking the Willis Tower or screwing around miles from downtown.
That includes the city’s cybernetic thoroughfares, every byway, building and mobile device slaved to a single operating system you can hack and manipulate in real time as your skills grow. Sure, the notion’s more the wishful thinking of a Franken-CEO built from the egos of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. But Watch Dogs isn’t concerned with being politically insightful, and the rare moments it tries feel more like anvils dropped on your head. We get that nothing’s impregnable, don’t we? That whatever we put in the cloud isn’t really secure? Turning control of your city’s infrastructure over to a monolithic operating system would be suicidal…or a necessary gameplay conceit, if you want to give players godlike powers without the pointy hat and staff.
Not that any of those powers resemble actual hacking. Whatever’s been made of Ubisoft working with security outfit Kaspersky to ensure the game’s story was plausible, hacking’s smoke and metaphor here. That’s not criticism. Real-world hacking — the sort companies like Sony, Facebook, Microsoft and most recently eBay have been subject to — is tedious and complex. It has no business being in an open-world action game. Hacks in Watch Dogs are like crossing the finish line without having to run the marathon. They’re just spells from a spell book.
Take hacking cameras, which you do by aiming and tapping a button. That’s all there is to it, which is so you can focus on what Watch Dogs is really about: sneaking around and spooking the bad guys. Cameras are insertion points for tactical tableaus, the contrivance being that you have to be able to see what you want to hack.
You’ll thus spend much of the game disembodied, hopping around the battlefield camera to camera like a cyber-poltergeist, triggering hazards or distractions — like cranking the volume in a guard’s headset to ear-splitting levels or pulling the virtual pin on someone’s belted grenade. It’s combat through a laboratory lens.
You can clear a battlefield without firing a shot, for instance, or prep a battlefield before initiating gunplay, or ignore the battlefield outright in some instances. What happens if you disrupt that guard? Distract another? Can you get two or three to walk under that droppable shipping container? Send the lot off to one side of the field so you can sneak down the other side? And failure’s never a penalty. It’s a reward, an opportunity to poke the beehive with a different stick. Battles — the ones that take place as walled-off tactical vignettes, anyway — are the best parts of Watch Dogs.
The hackable city-scape makes less of an impression. The idea here’s that you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, racing cars, trucks and motorbikes around the city, usually to get away from the cops or enemy fixers (the game’s slang for hackers), only you’re able to hack canal bridges, traffic lights, security gates, helicopters in pursuit, steam pipes, spike strips and “blockers” that erupt from the street like jail bars. It’s cool the first two or three times you confound a scrum of pursuers, but enemies in the game are dogged enough that hacks only slow them down a bit — even at lower notoriety levels, they’re incredibly hard to shake. And once you realize the A.I. can’t swim or do much over water, every chase becomes a beeline to the lake (someone forgot to give the police speedboats).
The rest feels pretty much like any other Ubisoft game, the world filled with optional activities — most of which you’ve seen before — when you’re not working through the story. The obligatory augmented reality and QR code games put in an appearance, the latter one of the Riddler’s line-of-sight matching puzzles lifted from the Batman Arkham series. There’s Assassin’s Creed‘s city tour mini-game as well as the same old towers you’ll have to breach to unlock regional content. You can follow side-investigations down their little rabbit holes, intercept convoys, thwart random crimes, infiltrate gang hideouts, play chess, and of course buy clothes and weapons and crafting supplies that’ll let you jury rig IEDs and grenades or scramble police scans.
But even there, the stuff that sounds cool is just technospeak for old school gameplay shenanigans. Take blackouts, which cut the power to parts of the city and give you a chance to get away from your opponents. Entire skyscrapers go dark when you do this, flickering to blackness for half a minute, which looks cool, but in the end it’s a getaway gimmick. You might as well be tossing a smoke pellet.
That leaves the game’s hybrid online modes, which let you invade other players’ game sessions and try to tail them for a period of time unobserved, or race against them, or play a timed game of hide-and-seek, or compete on teams to find a hidden object. You’ve seen most of that in games before, too, but it’s done unusually well and white-knuckled here, the game wisely forcing you to risk all or nothing: You either have online mode enabled, slowly accruing (or losing) notoriety points that unlock new skills while remaining vulnerable to invasion at any time, or you have it off, which zeroes out your notoriety point tally.
It’s just a shame that so much about Watch Dogs feels like Ubisoft playing catchup to Rockstar — like a cover band with one or two originals. City homage games might as well be their own genre now, but they’ll need more than car chases and gunplay and clothing stores and weapon shops and all their little lookalike diversions if we don’t want “open-world” to become another pejorative term we use to express our boredom with a genre, like “first-person shooter.”
3 out of 5