Reload: Watch Dogs
A Look Back at Watch Dogs
Reload is a new series of articles in which I look back at recent games typically from the current or last generation and reappraise them after the dust has settled. First up is Watch Dogs.
In many ways playing the original Watch Dogs reminds me of the current state of Ubisoft as a publisher which is: unfulfilling. The game features many of the kind of activities you’d expect from an Assassin’s Creed game and issues from that series have found their way into this franchise too. The game deals with different themes though including hacking, privacy and control over information. In Watch Dogs you play as Aiden Pearce, a hacker who has a streak of vengeance after his niece is killed during an attempt on his life. The story of the game is dedicated almost exclusively to Aiden finding out who was responsible for his family’s tragedy.
Much of the criticism leveled at Watch Dogs after its release from a story perspective was that Aiden isn’t a likeable or sympathetic character. Many of the choices he makes puts his remaining family directly in the firing line and his personality is almost akin to Batman’s when it comes to his seriousness. Coupled with this outlook is the setting of Chicago which is an interesting setting, and a measure of good will should go to Ubisoft for setting their game somewhere different from the usual locales. The city has a long history of criminal organizations and as a history student it was interesting to find city hotspots, one of the collectibles in the game which tell you a little bit more history about the city. This is absolutely not going to interest everyone but it was a nice touch nonetheless. The issue with the setting is that it encompasses Aiden’s outlook, the game’s colour palette is very grey and gives Watch Dogs a moody tone. As a result, its clear to see why Ubisoft moved the sequel to the more colourful San Francisco and gave the new protagonist more of a positive vibe.
One issue that players have had with Watch Dogs 2 is that Marcus is a hacktivist at heart and cares about justice and making sure the system isn’t screwing people over. Nevertheless, if you choose to play the game in a certain way you can gun people down mercilessly like any other modern open-world game which feels at odds with Marcus’s beliefs. A similar disconnect exists in the first game; criminal convoys can mistakenly result in civilian deaths while online races seem strange to partake in when Aiden’s car crash is what started him down this dark path in the first place. While civilian NPC deaths are all a result of your own actions in the game it would be nigh impossible to avoid running down at least one pedestrian when racing or hacking through the streets of Chicago. Much of this is the result of story and tone coming in the way of player freedom and there isn’t really an easy solution.
The focus of the gameplay is the CTOS, an operating system that has become embedded in Chicago at every possible juncture. Whether it’s cameras, profiling or making sure the trains run, it all feeds back into the CTOS which is what allows Aiden and other hackers to manipulate their environment. Activities include hacking towers to reveal collectibles on the map, clearing gang hideouts, chasing down criminals and other smaller activities like a drinking mini-game and poker. Although your hacking tools are useful and sometimes necessary in these missions, it didn’t escape me that I could just as easily shoot through gang hideouts or crash into an enemy car. None of the missions are particularly fun and there are quite a lot of them to achieve 100% progression. There are some interesting things in there though, such as being able to hack people’s bank accounts presents a moral conundrum. You probably won’t think twice about hacking a rich bank account but should I really be stealing from this person who’s been recently made unemployed?
The online component of Watch Dogs tries some more creative things. Players can invade and hack you meaning you have to drop what you’re doing and find them. This can lead to some interesting cat-and-mouse moments but most players will just turn this feature off to avoid being interrupted. The other online sessions can be fun such as races that allow you to disrupt your opponents by hacking traffic or steam vents or CTF-like decryption sessions. It’s very much a continuation of Assassin’s Creed style multiplayer where remaining hidden in plain sight is key to many of the sessions.
The biggest issues with the game is the unsympathetic character of Aiden and what Ubisoft has chosen for you to do in Chicago. The dislike of Aiden is highlighted by the fact that many of the supporting cast are much more interesting. Clara is a Dedsec hacker who is much more grounded and cautious when it comes to openly waging war against criminals with more power and resources and is a reluctant accomplice of Aiden (as are many of the side characters) meanwhile Jordi has some amusing moments as the professional killer who’s along for the ride.
Nearly every major character you come across in the game is both better thought out and better written than Aiden and that’s disappointing. Aiden’s quest for revenge is kind of nonsensical and the game doesn’t neatly explain why he feels the need to go kill people rather than look after his sister and nephew. The problem with a lot of what you’re doing in Watch Dogs is that it’s just not that fun and is symptomatic of what some would call Ubisoft’s copy-and-paste approach to game design.
There’s fun to be had in Watch Dogs but chances are you’ll have more fun in a different world less intent on the revenge of a misguided vigilante.
For more on Ubisoft check out my analysis of the frustrating inconsistency of the publisher.