Watch Dogs, an open-world game from Ubisoft Montreal, takes place in a near-future Chicago where an electronic network connects and observes every resident of the city. Most members of the public have only a vague, incomplete understanding of how deeply this system—called ctOS—extends into their daily lives. But Aiden Pearce, your hero, seeks the truth and has undertaken a personal mission to expose the establishment. Pearce can exploit all of ctOS’ backdoors, and he uses this talent not only to screw with city infrastructure (rigging a traffic light to cause instant chaos, for instance) but also to peruse his fellow citizens’ text messages, phone conversations, and living-room webcams. He may not be Big Brother, but he’s Big Brother’s little brother.
An all-seeing Internet is a potent specter because it threatens to enforce normality. Risk, weirdness, lawbreaking—all the mutations that fitfully evolve society’s DNA—are more dangerous in a world where every choice you make is watched and therefore has the potential to define you. Yet the residents of the ctOS-blanketed Chicago don’t care. Most of the time, when you eavesdrop on someone, you find them breaking the law, or engaging in some low-level sexual perversion, or mistreating a woman somehow. (Once again, developers fill in the cracks with misogyny, the game industry’s storytelling spackle.) The people you observe also say “fuck” and “shit” a lot; the latter profanity seems to have replaced the comma in the English parlance of Watch Dogs’s future. In essence, the Chicagoans of the game embody a 12-year-old boy’s idea of what people do behind closed doors. They don’t behave like the subjects of an ominous technological overseer.
But Watch Dogs itself does behave that way. The game is repressed—bland and familiar, taking few chances, as if it were made under the oppressive conditions that it depicts. It’s not a bad game at all, and that’s regrettable in a way, because at least a bad game might be a thought-provoking failure. Instead, Watch Dogs is a slightly above-average open-world quest whose defining trait is its utter normality.
It’s not totally blah. There are elements to get excited about. The game’s outstanding graphic design mixes the fashionable, clean lines of the “flat design” movement with the utilitarian shagginess of online video compression and raw data streams. The resulting look has an elegant unity, and it has the same energy and thoughtfulness that Ubisoft Montreal’s artists brought to the Assassin’s Creed II series. Watch Dogs needs that verve.
The city-hacking conceit is another success. With Pearce’s future-phone, you command pieces of the electrical and communications grids to do your bidding. It’s great fun to make Chicago your puppet: In the midst of a high-speed chase, you can point your magic iPhone at a row of steel bollards and have them block off the road the instant you’re safely past, causing the enemies trailing you to pile up in a confused mess.
The hacking gets even better when security cameras are involved. You can view the feed from any camera in the city, but you have to be able to see the camera itself before you can hack it. From this simple rule, an engrossing game of surveillance hopscotch ensues: You hack one camera, turn it to point at another camera, hack that camera, and so on, in the hope that you finally end up looking at what you want to see. Sometimes hidden cameras are mounted on the bodies of security personnel, such that when you hack them, you’re essentially looking through that person’s eyes. It’s a fantastic, weird effect. The game would benefit from more of such disorienting creepiness, but credit the development team for this brilliant stroke—and for making players use it in strategically novel ways.
The delight of these rare intellectual challenges is matched by the slow, dispiriting realization that Watch Dogs is strapping you in for the same ride that countless games in this genre have offered before. The hero is another stubbly, white-skinned guy with another hot chick coaching him in his earpiece. Tiresome cutscenes play out another “they killed my woman!” plot driven by a dude’s thirst for revenge. The missions? Even with the hacking bits, they’re largely limited to the same vocabulary that Grand Theft Auto and Splinter Cell standardized long ago: Go here, shoot this, sneak past that. Again and again, when the makers of Watch Dogs could have made a creative choice, they instead settled for the default option.
The familiarity of its template makes the game’s lack of polish more evident. After all, when you’ve seen so many of these concepts before, it’s easy to spot the unfinished edges. There’s no glaring sloppiness in Watch Dogs, but so many details are just a little off. The artificial intelligence of your trigger-happy foes is inept by modern standards, for instance, and the faces of people you see on the street look puffy and misshapen. The hero himself often looks like an overgrown child if you catch him from the wrong angle.
Worst of all is the writing, which is fanatically devoted to cliché. Pearce and the supporting characters don’t just parrot the usual tough-guy patter; they add their own exquisite clumsiness. At the beginning of one mission to find and rough up a gang leader, Pearce sneers the standard line, “I think I’ll pay this guy a little visit.” Then he adds, in case you didn’t catch his drift, “I don’t think he’ll like my visit, but it’ll give him something to think about in the hospital.” Later, in the midst of a shootout, a thug cries, “This can only end one way, shitface!” Then he helpfully explains: “And it’s not a happy ending for ya! Okay?!”
This is how a computer would interpret the English language, with no perception of subtext. Indeed, the overall game often feels as if every entry in the open-world genre was dumped into a sophisticated supercomputer like ctOS, and the machine was asked to produce another one of the programs it was fed. A superficially true-to-life yet inauthentic simulation is what resulted.
We use the word “develop” to describe the creation of a game, but works like Watch Dogs lend that term a touch of irony. Ubisoft Montreal began five years ago with the idea of a city being subsumed by the grid—a premise that pulses with complexity and relevance—and it’s hard to say that the final product represents a development of that idea. No, this game is the product of a devolution, an industry process that shrinks and contorts a concept until it fits into one of a few pre-fab genres.
If the major game studios aspire to become the cutting-edge thought leaders that they claim to be in their marketing materials, they need to stop treating nuanced issues as mere flavors to be applied to an assembly-line product. The encroachment of information technology into our private lives is a rich topic that couldn’t be a better fit for this art form—or a worse fit for today’s studio system. Content to be normal, Watch Dogs speaks more potently to the intellectual chill within its industry than it does to any oppression without.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal et al.
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One; (Announced for Wii U)
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4