There’s a stark contrast between the Watch Dogs that was pitched to gamers two years ago and the one that’s on store shelves now. The former promised an ominous cyber-terrorist mystery, where God’s-honest detective work, hoarding secrets, and privacy invasion were the core of everything you did, and escaping the cops was a last resort. What we got, instead, was another in a long line of open-world Grand Theft Auto clones, zeroing in on creating shady ties between the wonderful world of white-collar crime and cybercrime with a sensory-overload approach to user interface. The ambitious, forward-thinking ideas, pertaining to totalitarian “Big Brother” governments and Anonymous-style rebel factions going all Infowars on each other, with Chicago as a battlefield, is all background detail to a rather threadbare tale of superhacker Aiden Pearce gathering similarly-minded criminal allies to help get the big fat revenge kill and expose a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, just like they all do. So, yes, those first, clunky chapters of Watch Dogs are disappointing as you realize that what was meant to be the first true next-level escalation of open-world games settles for being much less—a disappointment that thankfully gives way to good, old-fashioned chaos a third of the way through.
Settling for less, in the game’s case, means settling for the usual open-world bag of tricks—running, climbing, shooting, driving, and just plain blowing things up—polished to a high shine, with a downright gluttonous variety of activities to do them in. The twist to it all comes in the much-ballyhooed hacking, which is used for everything from unlocking doors, to creating massive explosive equipment overloads, to causing blackouts for several city blocks, allowing you to sneak your way into or out of dangerous places. The most fun mechanic is the ability to hack the city’s legion of security cameras, which allows you to either tamper with distant electronic components using Aiden’s smartphone, or simply hack cameras from cameras, allowing the player to jump perspectives from one vantage point to the next to spy on folks who might be 50 feet, sometimes a mile, away. It’s all in favor of glorified “go here, follow the lights, collect this” puzzle-solving, but it’s extremely fun, well-utilized, unique puzzle-solving. Watch Dogs also brings multiplayer to the table, and while it’s not as deep as GTA Online, where most of the city might be populated with shiny trigger-happy people, it’s also integrated better into the main campaign.
The profiling system isn’t as deep as expected, but still offers remarkably strong and subtly creepy world-building away from the main plot. Having it on at all times reveals an ominous level of detail from passersby, but taking advantage of any opportunity to delve deeper into someone’s private life reveals the seedy underbelly of Chicago, and it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to be more horrified that the data is being collected or what the data actually is. One of the sidequests you can pursue is hacking data terminals and surveillance nodes around the city, and getting not just XP, but a brief peek into someone’s life, which can range from someone’s grandmother using the Internet for the first time, to a web camera focusing on a man who’s collapsed and died of cancer while a voicemail from his estranged son plays, to a cannibal preparing to make himself a literal hand sandwich.
This sort of material is the game’s secret strength, and possibly its weakness, in light of its lack of ambition elsewhere. Watch Dogs presents a government whose eyes are constantly watching, constantly collecting, and we’re meant to witness how its absolute power corrupts. The God’s-eye view of society granted here is meant to unnerve and disturb the player, and it often does. But seconds later, you’re using it to set off Home Alone-style traps for your enemies, right before you lead cops and criminals alike on merry, frantic, city-destroying chases, and the game feels unsure if it’s supposed to be having fun with all this freedom or not. If Watch Dogs had been that more ambitious game sold to us two years ago, that handwringing might have been justified. In its current state, where the best thing about it is the morality-free mayhem you can cause, the point is irreversibly muddled, if not entirely lost. Where Saints Row as a series came to embrace its brand of insanity, and Grand Theft Auto at least came to terms with its own, Watch Dogs feels unnecessarily guilty for it.