It's really not fair for a game to get the kind of hype that Watch Dogs has received over the last two years. Its publisher, Ubisoft, would never admit it, but the initial reception the game got back at E3 2012 was ridiculous. It immediately set unrealistic expectations for something that was so far away from being released, with so few people actually getting their hands on trying it.
It was one of those lightning in a bottle moments. There was an instant buzz reverberating through the show floor in Los Angeles -- and no one had a firm grasp on what the the game was really about. Interestingly enough, for a title that was able to generate such an organic groundswell for what appeared to be a fresh idea, Watch Dogs lifts influence from countless facets of modern culture, well beyond the obvious hat tip to Grand Theft Auto.
So how on Earth could anything live up to the emotional and monetary investment so many gamers have already pledged? I'm not entirely sure. Because while Watch Dogs has its moments of nirvana, there's some stuff that falls flat, and whole bunch of mediocrity jammed in the middle. In the end, the experience as a whole isn't regrettable, it's just more contrived than you might be willing to accept.
I think Watch Dogs' debut made such an insurmountable splash because people's imaginations ran wild with suggestions of what might be possible in the game. Those expectations can doom a title out of the gate. Watch Dogs doesn't feel as "open-world" as a game like Grand Theft Auto V, mostly because it fails to blur the boundaries of what's possible in the game. Once I was able to wrap my head around the rule set of the Watch Dogs world, everything suddenly felt small and unimportant.
Hacking, the very mechanic Watch Dogs is built upon, doesn't feel strong enough to carry an entire game.
You play as Aiden Pearce, an antihero who has inexplicable hacking abilities that he shares with an underground network of quasi-acquaintances. A few months back his nefarious actions cost him the loss of a loved one. Since that night, guilt has been eating away at him and it's chewed through his relationship with his family. Now it's time for Pearce to get to the bottom of a corrupt world of surveillance and control in order to make sense of who is responsible for his pain.
The game takes place in an alternate present-day Chicago where the entire city is accessible through an all-seeing, interconnected network known as CenTral Operating System, or ctOS. It's the intravenous lifeline of the city, with its tentacles dipped in every aspect of everyday urban life.
Pearce can jack into all of these utilities through his smartphone. He can piggyback into security cameras, trigger traffic lights to switch, cause drawbridges to rise, control trains, and more.
In close-quarters situations Pearce can force electrical boxes to explode, steam pipes to burst, activate forklifts, open gates and unlock doors. These assets form an diabolical sense of playing boobytrap puppetmaster, especially when you're conducting the chaos hidden behind a corner.
Aiden can enter a "profiling mode" at any time that sniffs out top-level information about anyone in the city. It's a neat trick, but it only allows you to steal their bank account balance, unlock a type of car, or eavesdrop on a random call or text. Occasionally they'll lead to a side-mission, but it's overlap that you can access other ways, sometimes contextually within a campaign mission.
Not every area is immediately available to Aiden's smartphone. A district's ctOS mainframe must first be exploited before he has unrestricted access. Think of these as the "viewpoint" locations from the Assassin's Creed series.
The lifeline of the game is centered around security cameras though, as they allow you to chain hacks together as you sort of "Spider-man" from viewpoint to viewpoint. Anything you can see through the lens of a camera is vulnerable.
Players are presented with an deceptively overwhelming amount to do from the start. You can dive right into the campaign to chase down the narrative of Aiden's shattered past and present, or you can spend some time looking for hidden items, compete in races or intercept convoys, among other objectives.
The campaign takes a few hours to gain some momentum, but it's not without the constant bombardment of HUD items distracting you from the game's other features. Some of the extra items are fun to investigate, but others aren't worth more than a first try. There's also a handful of activities that you're bound to have seen before. Can anyone really stomach another round of Texas Hold 'em? A lot of the extras in the game aren't worth the time spent completing them. After a while, earning more cash turns stale and collecting XP feels fruitless. Beyond completionists, most players will get tired of them quickly.
Watch Dogs doesn't do a great job of explaining the circumstances that I, playing as Aiden Pearce, found myself in. At first I thought I'd be maneuvering through the game mostly as a stealthy hacker, secretly infiltrating highly classified areas -- you know, controlling the show from behind the curtain. I was able to piece together that I've assumed the role of a vigilante of some sort, but overall I found my role conflicting. Eventually I was told I need to buy a gun, and all of a sudden I realized, "I need to start killing these people."
Fortunately, you don't always need to go out guns blazing. Pearce can craft hacking tools using parts found in the world. He can jam enemy communications which stall ctOS getting a lock on his location, or he can create a decoy that will distract guards. My personal favorite, the blackout, kills all power in an area so Pearce can make a ninja-esque escape.