The following contains mild story spoilers.
The development of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs was more scrutinised than a murder crime scene. At the 2012 E3 Expo, it stood tall as one of the very few games that surprised everyone. Nobody saw its unique mix of mind-bendingly impressive visuals and hacking-based gameplay coming. So when it hit, it hit hard. Since then, people would comb through every drip of news afterwards. It reached fever pitch weeks before its release this year as people were still inspecting every corner of resolution to see if it matched the hopes and dreams of that first look two years prior. Was the lighting as impressive? Look at the reflections on the roof of that sedan. The pavement isn’t quite as wet as it could be. I even saw disappointment at the way the main character’s coat flapped in the breeze when riding a motorcycle. The top half that clung to his back moved in an unrealistic fashion, they said.
When the game was finally released it came as a relief. This supposed spearhead of the new generation of consoles was finally here. But it came at a price. The reviews were mixed. Some people viewed it as a vapid, hollow attempt to capture the magic of Grand Theft Auto. Others wanted to return their copy; enraged that the bill of goods they were sold didn’t precisely mirror what was promised at Ubisoft’s E3 press conference. A visual ‘downgrade’ had betrayed them.
If you can divorce yourself from all of this pre-release scrutiny – from every screenshot, trailer and debate about resolution, then the finished product does indeed look mostly incredible (I played the PS4 version). Sunlight shines off street puddles, skyscrapers light up the darkness and grimy bars feel lived in. (Especially The Unicorn & Dragon Bar in The Wards) Without all the debate, it would be viewed through a very different lens. One free of disappointment or hyperbole. Walking through alleyways in Watch Dogs’ version of Chicago is visually arresting, especially when coupled with a rainstorm and a purpose in your actions. The city itself shines. The streets, broken down buildings, bars, train stations and pawn shops all add to what is perhaps the most ‘alive’ open-world city I’ve ever experienced in a game. When in the outskirts of Pawnee, the Chicago skyline is a striking sight. It is here, gazing over the skyscrapers, that Watch Dogs presents itself as perhaps not the as-yet-unseen groundbreaking technical achievement that everybody wanted in a futuristic year like 2014 but something else entirely.
Admittedly, the game and its concepts are not without flaws. Aiden Pearce is our hero but a significantly inoffensive one. His voice gravelly, his emotions in check. When the game begins, he is simply yet another cookie cutter protagonist that fell from the video game conveyor belt. Whether you argue the merits of implanting yourself into a soulless avatar when playing a game or being told a story alongside a fully-realised character, Pearce is one step away from Mr Generic Video Game Man. An occasional moment of outward feelings would have solved this problem in a heartbeat.
The other characters also present their share of problems. There are two main women in the story and they are both by far the weakest characters. Every male character goes through an arc of emotion and redemption whereas the women feel like they were slapped together as an afterthought. One is Aiden’s sister, the other, a hacker named Clara. Aiden’s sister is helpless for the most part and simply exists to react to her brother’s actions. Not quite a damsel in distress but probably her cousin. Which in turn, makes her quite dull. Clara is different yet just as familiar when you consider the mountain of cliches that could have been avoided. She acts as the sex appeal, cleavage constantly exposed below the enticingly extreme tattoos and piercings. While she tries to present herself as an independent and strong hacker, she ends up needing and ultimately requiring Aiden’s approval. Her story ends with betrayal and an almost laughably expected end result when she must be punished for her actions. She is a treasonous woman and like all betrayers, she can’t get off scott-free, right? Meanwhile, at least one other male character engages in much more direct and aggressive activity but by the end of the story, you’re still kind of best buddies. All’s fair in love and war except when it comes women.
Both female characters become predictable and boring. Not only due to the way they are written, but due the simple fact they are female. If the exact same characters were male, it would have been exceedingly more interesting. A sexified male hacker who pays for his transgressions and a brother of Aiden who looks to his sibling for rescue are fresh ideas. But place women in these roles and unfortunately it becomes same old, same old.
Aiden’s void of personality and the lack of three-dimensional women are probably Watch Dogs’ most egregious errors. The remainder of the issues one might have with the game comes down to personal preference. As with a lot of modern Ubisoft games, there are side-missions separate to the main plot and they are legion. Car races, hacking mini-games, drinking mini-games, foot races, poker, chess, gang hideouts, crime prevention, investigations, online races, online hacking, online decryption and bizarre fantasy drug trips involving spider tanks and colossal flower-based obstacle courses. While it makes sense to populate your world with activities, the majority of them feel unnecessary and an antithesis to the seedy cyber-underworld of the main storyline. But this is a gripe with most modern open-world games these days and as I said, probably comes down to personal preference.
In summary, Watch Dogs didn’t hold its apparent promise of ushering video games into a new dawn of technological wonder, several main characters are an unfortunate misstep and a lot of the world is mostly disposable.
Wait a minute.
So with all this in mind, how on earth can it be one of the most flat-out fun and compelling games I played in 2014 so far?
Days after finishing the game, I’m still thinking about it. That rarely happens anymore. But something about Watch Dogs’ surprising mix of dark storytelling and dynamic gameplay grabbed hold and slowly held fast. It takes its time. Adding layer upon layer of plot, character and gameplay until three quarters of the way through the game, I was utterly hooked to find out what happened next. Any preconceptions I may have had about that E3 2012 demo had fallen away and in its place, a sense of satisfaction and purpose remained.
The storyline enters some very unsavoury areas. Ruthless mob bosses and human trafficking pepper Aiden’s quest to discover why his niece died. Walking into a human auction is creepy as hell – made more so by everyone in attendance acting in such a casual manner. Watch Dogs doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with obvious evil. It is more insidious and routine. One of the few satisfying side-plots involves tracking down everyday citizens who have dipped their toe in these horrific trafficking waters and the feeling of street justice that I inflicted was palpable and unique. But it all came in a package that wasn’t forced down my throat. I didn’t even have to do these optional quests. So when I did, I was pleasantly surprised how dangerously exciting they were.
Nearly all of the story missions hit these same high notes. Infiltrating grimy crackhouses and suburban trailer parks. Making shaky alliances with gang members for information. Hacking high-class establishments for even higher rewards. Defending the only family Aiden has left. For the most part, the main missions in open-world games are hit and miss. Watch Dogs somehow subverts this trend and raises the bar. The drama and tension isn’t immediately apparent but as it builds, I wanted nothing more than to see how it all came together or in some cases, fell apart. I discarded any side-quests or exploring in favour of delving straight back into another story mission. There was a drive there that kept pushing me forward. And to my shock, all story elements weaved together successfully and delivered an impactful of tale of sadness, inevitability and inherent violence. The villianous citizens of Chicago that feature in the plot are abhorrent human beings, but I never felt like they were cliches. They were fully realised characters. Which in turn, heightened the drama of the story and every action I took.
The glue that held my story together was equally as strong. Police chases in these games can be an annoyance and begin to hinder any enjoyment. Not in Chicago. With the hacking abilities in place, car chases become a lot more unpredictable and dynamic. Escaping the police or gang members is perpetually thrilling. I was always finding new fun ways to to avoid a helicopter or cause traffic chaos. Also, if you haven’t tried blowing a steam pipe next to a single person yet, I recommend it. The blast is devastating.
By the end, the whole experience was equal parts enjoyable and bizarre. My expectations for what this game should be changed immensely. Watch Dogs’ initial marketing was different from the end product. But underneath, I found something else. The most fascinating and significant open-world game I have played in years. It isn’t quite a revolution but perhaps the ripples of one. Was that visual titan that Ubisoft unveiled in 2012 going to be the same game? Who knows? But what I do know is graphics aren’t everything. And something Watch Dogs taught me is that expectations aren’t either.