But who watches the watchdogs?
For an uncanny meta-description, Watch Dogs should have been called Ubisoft: The Game. Bits and pieces of the lead publisher's other high-profile franchises—Far Cry, Assassin's Creed, Driver San Francisco, Splinter Cell—can be found inserted throughout the hacking paradise of fictional modern-day Chicago, the world of Watch Dogs controlled by one central operating system called the ctOS. It's certainly a point of convenience, but I can tell you as someone with a computer science degree that this isn't exactly the best idea. For a professional hacker like Aiden Pearce, it's a golden ticket.
Though the story doesn't delve deeply into Aiden's mysterious and violent past, he's been shaped by one pivotal moment: the loss of his sister's daughter, Lena Pearce. After a botched heist at the Hotel Merlaut with his former partner, Damien Brinks, Aiden doesn't realize that a powerful figure has ordered a fixer named Maurice to eliminate him, so as Aiden drives through a tunnel with Lena in the backseat… I think you know what happens. The resultant family tragedy leads Aiden down the path of The Vigilante, operating with other fringe hackers and mercenaries for hire, stopping at nothing to quench his vengeance and killing anyone in his path. (I worry about his all-liquid diet, though.)
While the writing and dialogue likely won't win any awards, they're strong enough to drive the tension between characters while moving the action forward. Aiden moves from one plot point to the next trying to tie up loose ends and murdering security forces, goons, and gangsters because it's his only option. However, the relationships between Aiden and the rest of the cast tend to be one-dimensional, not going much further than him hurting bad guys because they're bad guys. Several points in the story, he starts questioning his "heroic" actions after already committing homicide hundreds of times. There are also several bits that involve illegal sex trafficking, but they feel too brief and unresolved for such a deplorable topic.
Fortunately, the emphasis on the gameplay and the open world is exactly where Watch Dogs shines. In addition to the gorgeous, extremely detailed recreation of Chicago, Ubisoft fans will recognize the game's general framework a la Assassin's Creed, with the metropolis split into different boroughs, each of which has a various ctOS center and towers that Aiden must hack to establish a connection to the network. Along the way, he must force his way through numerous grunts by highlighting enemies with mounted cameras similar to Far Cry's tagging system, navigating through the narrow urban roads like in Driver San Francisco, and stealthily moving from cover to cover like Sam Fisher does in Splinter Cell (well, at least Aiden tries to be like him).
As a hacker with access to the ctOS network, Aiden has criminal-stopping, police-halting powers that would make even Batman jealous. With a touch of his phone, he has control of the streets, with the ability to turn traffic lights green at intersections, raise blockers and bridges, open doors remotely, and force steam pipes to burst underneath the road. The police in Chicago would give the cops in GTAIV's Los Angeles a run for their money, so Aiden needs every advantage he can muster. After filling the experience bar a few times, he can pour points into multiple trees of skills to improve his combat, hacking, and driving prowess.
While roaming the streets and back alleyways on foot, Aiden can use the profiler to scan every NPC for personal details including income and occupation. Most of the information don't amount to much apart from a few humorous texts and intercepted audio, but sometimes he can siphon bank accounts for cash, locations for crimes and hidden briefcases, and system keys that can be crafted into useful tools. It doesn't paint a pretty picture of Chicago, though, when about fifteen percent of its citizens seem to be a part of a shady deal and when groups of so-called friends huddle together and have nothing better to do than talk on their phones. What, are they live-Tweeting their non-existent conversations?
Since Aiden isn't as swift or melee-trained as a descendant of an Assassin, he needs to be smart. By combining various compounds and components, he can craft an array of useful tools. These range from simpler frag grenades and jam comms that disable citizen phones and police scans, to remote-detonated IEDs and medicinal focus boosts. Like a shot of adrenaline, focus allows Aiden to slow time and deal bonus damage, and as one final last-ditch effort, he can activate a blackout throughout the area and watch as the wave of lights switching off immobilizes enemies. Then he can bob and weave in the darkness, taking down unsuspecting fools with his expendable baton or a point-blank shot to the neck.
Where Watch Dogs misfires is in the execution of the combat, which isn't as fully featured as you might expect. Aiden can't crouch or enter stealth mode while running, and he can't do a stationary jump unless he's climbing a ledge so running jumps are impossible. While in cover Aiden can't blind-fire, and he can't switch shoulder cameras on the spot. Swapping through tools and weapons through the UI wheel can be cumbersome as well while he's caught under fire. On occasion, the square button (or X button) activates one too many things on screen and Aiden might switch something on by accident.
While the open world offers Aiden plenty of options, the lack of customization is surprising. Neither the arsenal of guns nor the slew of cars available through the on-demand phone app can be improved with extra attachments or upgrades. Clothing stores don't sell any other outfits for Aiden aside from different clothing colors. This supposedly stealthy character wears the same clothes no matter what, when a disguise would be far more beneficial.
But one aspect of the open world that cannot be understated is the nigh-overwhelming abundance of side objectives. All of the things, indeed. One look at the progression wheel and it becomes clear that the five-act, 20-hour campaign is only a one-sixth slice of the pie. I could sit here and list everything Aiden can do in his spare time, but this review would extend far too long. Instead, let's just focus on the best of the bunch.
Out of the core side missions, Gang Hideouts are among the most challenging as they require taking out the ring leader non-lethally, but they at least earn Aiden a full extra skill point. The four different Fixer contracts and Criminal Convoys test aggressive and stealthy driving skills in avoiding the police and gang members. From among the host of betting games, the high-stakes poker tables are worth more than the chess and shell mini-games, though money is not an issue (I've still got $300,000 left over in my playthrough). At any time on his phone, Aiden can also access one of four digital trips, the greatest ones being the demolition Spider Tank and the flower-bouncing Psychedelic with a soundtrack that's like the Charleston on acid.
Online competition is activated at the very start of the game, and once Aiden gets through some of the beginning quests, he'll have the chance to accept and join all of the online modes, including races, invasions, and team-based decryption, the last of which is the most exciting of the lot. In this mode, two teams attempt to maintain possession of a key and jostle to be the team when the decryption fully completes. Since other players can invade Aiden at any time, it's worth turning off online invasions at the beginning before turning it back on once he's earned enough skills to compete on equal footing.
Though gang warfare slightly overtakes the more pertinent theme of personal security and government surveillance, Watch Dogs is a superlative technical achievement. Its interpretation of Chicago is painstakingly detailed and sets a new bar for open worlds, with only a spare few hiccups in frame-rate. Watch Dogs converges the best of what Ubisoft has to offer as a game developer and serves as one of the strongest debuts for a new franchise this year.