Spectacular yet ugly, pulse pounding yet hum-drum, modern yet embarrassingly outdated, but most of all and without duality, Watch Dogs is a deeply cynical game. As I type these words I already feel the tone my writing is taking on. I feel bad to judge quite so harshly. Ubisoft's latest is by no means terrible and could certainly be recognised for it's technical accomplishments alone. But ultimately I’d like to think we play games to be inspired. The trouble is that not only does Watch Dogs lack original inspiration but it actually doubles down on the hollow pleasures of familiar satisfaction, all the while drowning the experience in a sickly sauce of bankrupt ideas and ugly sentiment. Yup, this review ain’t gonna be pretty either!
Much has been written of Watchdogs chauvinistic attitudes to its characters and general worldview so one really shouldn't dwell. But, well, how could I resist! Picture this: It’s just another average day on the job for Aiden Pearce - Chicago’s answer (We never asked for) to the fever dreams of late 90’s ‘hacker’ paranoia. The day starts with some banter over the phone with sis. She’s a bit pissed with you for getting her kidnapped by way of your shady associations and morally dubious past but hey, ultimately she’s the damsel and you’re the hero so her conversation comes off as mildly stressed, yet very much grateful for the unquestioned, masculine heroism of her obvious rescuer.
First stop is the local shady-rich-persons club where you decide to flex your hero muscles by rescuing a sex slave worker. The crazy lady is all over the place so Aiden’s rescue turns out to be more of a kind of traumatic struggle as you wrestle her into submission (She naked, you fully clothed of course). Dropping that plot thread with a renegade abandon you hastily move on to attend a mysterious hacker meet up only to discover it’s actually a surprise cameo by the girl with the dragon tattoo! After sexually intimidating her to which she bafflingly responds positively to, you team up (Read: sidekick).
Later when you kill an innocent man to steal his identity (Don’t worry the game goes to great lengths to paint him as kind-of an asshole) Dragon Tattoo tries to make you feel better by arguing that ‘1 murder + 1 rescue = clean conscience’ arithmetic might add up. You quickly put her back in her place though, patronisingly rebuking her for trying to weigh the cost of one life against another despite having talked her into it in the first place. But now it’s getting late and there’s only so much murderous moralising one broody hero can dish out in a single day… or is there? Because thanks to the decades old inherited arcade mechanics of GTA, you can carry on doing this all night! So let’s jack another car and go for a joyride!
Ok, (*Breathes*) so if you can ignore all that, what you are left with is a fairly well engineered GTA clone with some semi-original hacker gimmicks thrown in to keep the mix lukewarm. No, that’s a little harsh – let’s say Watchdogs is a solid run and gun action blockbuster set in a vaguely intriguing near future Chicago… God, now I sound like Ubisoft PR! To be honest the most fun I had was when I just decided to go for a walk. No silly story, no ludicrous driving, just a simple stroll through the city (Ok more of a jog, this ain’t the kind of game I wanna be playing all day). Chicago may not be interesting but it is stunningly realised. The rich urban sprawl has been artfully evoked in all its colours, caught between seasons in a climate that can be both sun kissed and crisp. Really – no other game in recent memory has made me stop to appreciate the subtle beauty of weather quite like this. If this were a moody Chicago walking simulator with all the rest of that fluff removed, I’d be sold. Trouble is – it’s not.
Inspiration - You can try deconstructing it into a formula of art, mechanics and design (As big game studios all too often do) but what it really boils down to is fresh experience. The alternative may masquerade as simple ‘What’s-the-harm?’ entertainment but don’t be fooled.
As I shoot up some goons and blow up some more cars a glimmer of familiar enjoyment momentarily tempers my mood. Then a cutscene is triggered and once more I stare into the empty gaze of our gruff white male protagonist droning exposition in a self-serious tone. The mask cracks and I remember what a boring thing I am playing, how empty a context my actions exit within, how little I care.