Watch Dogs takes players to an alternative version of Chicago where the city's infrastructure is controlled by a massive computer system. Security cameras, traffic lights and drawbridges are all connected, providing security and efficiency to the city at the cost of privacy and autonomy.
As expert hacker Aiden Pearce, gamers are given access to the underside of this abusable interconnected system. Pearce confronts crime bosses and rival hackers on his journey of revenge, all while using his magic smartphone as a tool to activate party tricks up and down Chicago. Being chased by hit men in cars? Cause a traffic snarl by turning all the stoplights green. Trying to sneak into a guarded facility? Hack into a sentry's phone and make him receive a distracting phone call. This is the chewy center of Watch Dogs, using the technology all around you to sneak and plot your way to your goal.
If only that promise could hold. Watch Dogs simply does not have enough tricks in its bag, so the game continually falls back on a typical video game solution: just shoot up the place. Watch Dogs needs more clever, creative hacking options and less reliance on gunplay. You can see the game's better half in fun environmental puzzles that involve jumping from security camera viewpoint to viewpoint to unlock a hidden door or locate a hidden item, but there's just not enough of that.
With hacking reduced to a cute gimmick, the ever-present violence creates an immersion-breaking conflict for the player. Pearce's entire purpose is to avenge the death of his young niece, who was killed in a car accident during a mob hit on Pearce. Although understandably distraught, Pearce spends the entire game causing car accidents by messing with traffic lights and road barriers.
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Pearce's phone lets you snoop personal information for every character. Turn on the Profiler and point toward a person, and you'll instantly get his or her name, salary and a brief "secret." These secrets can be trivial ("plays mobile games") or heartbreaking ("has stage 2 cancer") or played for laughs ("attended furries convention"). You're encouraged to steal their money and spy inside their homes, free from any consequence. In a rush to replicate the wonderful diversity of humankind, Watch Dogs paints everything with the same invasive brush.
Watch Dogs, if you branch away from the glaring social issues, certainly does not fail in being a video game's video game. There's plenty to see and do, with side missions and extra challenges, and bizarre, augmented reality games-within-a-game.
We're right to expect more from a game like Watch Dogs, as it ought to be challenging how we think about privacy, violence and identify theft. It wants to, but Watch Dogs was not confident enough to stick with it, and the game suffers as a result. There's a great virtual Chicago in there, plus the seed for a fun SuperCity hacker game, but Watch Dogs takes the mediocre way out.