It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is the age of the smartphone. Everywhere you look, people are hunched over their screens, booking cabs or movie tickets, hitting up Wikipedia to get an edge in an argument, all the while giving chiropractors everywhere a reason to rub their hands in glee.
Ubisoft’s latest sandbox game, Watch Dogs, plays up that angle and gives protagonist Aiden Pearce the keys to Chicago via his squawk box, the super hacker phone. If you think your phone is the bomb, think again. This guy’s handheld is the holy grail of mobile mayhem, capable of hacking pretty much any system in proximity — anything that makes for a usable game mechanic, that is. Traffic lights can be changed at will, blockers raised, bank accounts hacked, CCTV cameras commandeered and most importantly, waist high obstacles can be raised on command. How else are you going to find cover with just the right dimensions to protect your hide when you’re in the middle of a firefight?
Watch Dogs first exploded in the public eye during E3 2012, where the trailer wowed the audience, mostly with its fancy visuals. The hacking was sort of interesting, but if we’re being honest, the graphics were what sold the experience to a lot of people.
Fast forward two years and a few delays later, and the final game doesn’t really live up to the visual fidelity that we saw in that first trailer. It’s not bait-and-switch on the level of the disastrous Aliens: Colonial Marines, but if you bought the game primarily in expectation of eye candy, you might be just a little aggrieved. What this outcome highlights is that E3 and all the other gaming hypefests are largely fluff pieces, meant to dazzle and awe, and not to worry too much about whether they can live up to those promises later. You have to wonder about other visually impressive upcoming games from Ubi, like The Division. Is that really in-game footage they’ve been showing for the previews, or are we just getting a truckload of lemons down the line? We live in uncertain times.
That’s not the only piece of drama that surfaced during the game’s launch. Turns out that one of the pirated versions of the game floating around online covertly installed a malicious application known as a BitCoin miner. It basically uses your system resources to generate virtual currency for the user who originally packaged the pirated copy of the game. I have to admit, it’d be pretty funny if downloading a game about ‘hacking’ was what led to your system’s security being compromised. I’d like to think that was the meta game for Watch Dogs, but that might be giving Ubisoft a bit too much credit.
As for the game itself, it’s a mixed bag. Obviously, if you’re making a sandbox game, the benchmark to reach for (and beyond) would have to be the GTA series, and few other developers can match the scale that Rockstar put into their flagship products. The only viable option is to come in hard from another direction, like the recent Saint’s Row games or Just Cause 2, and hope to stand apart. Watch Dogs doesn’t quite manage that; the hacking makes for a novel mechanic, and it does open up options for a stealthier play style than your typical sandbox game, but after spending a while with it, it’s easy to see that it’s just one more layer over a familiar structure — running, gunning, climbing, driving – all natural staples of the genre. It’s unfortunate how the open-world genre, which is supposed to champion freedom and player agency, usually has to resort to rehashed mechanics for goal completion.
I must admit though, accessing personal details of any NPC in the game world scratches my itch for voyeurism, and lends extra weight to any standoffs or skirmishes. The multiplayer is also a neat touch, combining the Invasion system of Demon Souls with the crowd blending of Assassin’s Creed, which adds up to a neat game of cat and mouse.
If you’re in the mood for another open-world game and have either had your fill of GTA V, or don’t want to wait till later this year when it gets released for the ‘next-gen’ consoles and the PC, Watch Dogs could provide you a pleasant stay in the windy city.