“Watch Dogs” is an imperfect game that you simply must play. It is an ambitious, epic crime saga a la “Grand Theft Auto” but with a modern, tech bent for gamers who know what the NSA does and believe in Edward Snowden. It is ultra-violent, ridiculous, and over-the-top in ways that can both thrill and frustrate in the exact same moment. Brilliantly redesigning Chicago in much the same way that Christopher Nolan did in “The Dark Knight”—one block will be meticulously accurate to the real city and the next totally reorganized/fictional—it features the most fascinating and well-constructed environment yet created for the PS4. You NEED to see this game. However, seeing it and even enjoying its addictive, deep variety of gameplay can’t fix the storytelling problems or the sense that this is a title that’s more cluttered than refined. According to Ubisoft, the game is already a massive hit, selling more copies in its first day than any title in the company’s history (and, so you know, they make the “Assassin’s Creed” and “Far Cry” games so it’s quite a feat). So simply to be a part of the gaming world, you need to know what "Watch Dogs" is all about.
You’re Aiden Pearce, an anti-hero with a dark past who operates on the edge of society, hacking into everything he can make eye contact with while he holds his cell phone. Throughout “Watch Dogs,” you will constantly be scanning the environment for things to hack with the simple press of the square button. It could be as simple as starting up a kid’s horsey ride or something as nefarious as hacking someone’s bank account through their cell phone. NPCs around the city of Chicago are your constant target, as the interface brings up personal information about them and often gives you a chance to steal something through your tech skills after learning a bit of remarkably variable personal information.
Of course, the ability to hack is also a major part of the action of the game. Many of the missions in “Watch Dogs” feature a driving component, whether it’s chasing down an enemy or trying to escape a rather diligent and well-equipped police force. As you’re speeding down Michigan Avenue, prompts will come up allowing you to use the city to neutralize your enemy, whether it’s switching a traffic light to go green on all sides and cause a pile-up or cueing a blocker to rise in the middle of the road, leading to slo-mo vehicular chaos. Specific ways to use your environment to your advantage become more complex and story-driven as the game goes along. Hacking becomes a weapon. Why shoot your enemy when you can hack the explosive in his pocket and blow him up? You’ll also do a lot of camera hacking, both to better plan your assaults by tagging your enemies and to find the target you need to reach.
When “Watch Dogs” works, it REALLY works. Some of the missions are as gorgeously and perfectly executed as “Grand Theft Auto V.” Others are a little flatter, the product I think of a development team with SO many tools to play with that they went a little “bull in a china shop” on the game. The game also suffers a bit from missions that really just send you from one side of the massive map to the other. Go here, get this, come back. And the narrative is disappointingly thin. By the second act, I was skipping cut scenes just to get as much of the game in as possible before writing this review but also because I really didn’t care much about what was happening.
The story missions are the meat of “Watch Dogs” but the game is LOADED (arguably over-loaded) with bells and whistles in the form of side missions and online gameplay. “Watch Dogs” is one of those games that you can play in an always-online state, running into friends in this world or even being hacked yourself by an enemy online player. I have to admit when I realized I was being hacked by a complete stranger—who you then have to try and find and stop before his hacking gets to 100%--I was pissed. I wanted to find him and take him down. And I did. Shooting him as he drove away.
Which gets us to a slightly sensitive subject re: Watch Dogs—it’s one of the most bizarrely amoral games ever made. The “Grand Theft Auto” games are notorious for their lack of common decency but they portray it all as larger-than-life satire. Ditto “Saint’s Row.” “Watch Dogs” tries to be about a decent guy who can get away with mass murder and steal the checking accounts of cancer patients if he wants to. I don’t need a large amount of realism in a game like “Watch Dogs” nor am I overly concerned about moral codes in a fictional world but there needs to be some kind of balance. There’s a meter that can be adjusted as you accidentally (or intentionally because they’re calling 911) kill innocent bystanders but it doesn’t have enough of an impact. And the ease with which you can escape the police once you get the hang of it makes you a public terrorist. Kill a dozen innocent people on a chase and make it out of the little gray circle on your map and all is forgiven. That's just silly for a game that's often so smart. A “Watch Dogs” sequel needs to be clearer in its portrayal of heroism and villainy to really register.
And that’s the best thing about “Watch Dogs” and its massive success—the sequel will almost certainly rock. Now that the developers have finetuned some truly remarkable gameplay, created a gorgeous world through their graphics, and delivered a commercial and critical success, they can refine what works about this game and trim the fat as to what does not. I enjoy “Watch Dogs.” I can’t WAIT for “Watch Dogs 2.”
“Watch Dogs” is available for the PS4, PS3, PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Wii U. A review copy was provided by the publisher.