Who's it for: Gamers looking for a fun, if flawed, alternative to "Grand Theft Auto"
Console: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC
The thought of an open-world action game focusing on the seemingly endless flow of technology in today's world sounds like a lot of fun. And in many ways, "Watch Dogs" fills many of my expectations.
However, the game ends up being much more of a mixed bag than I would have expected for a game coming from a prominent studio with a stellar reputation (Ubisoft Montreal), particularly after a six-month release delay to polish things up.
Set in Chicago, "Watch Dogs" examines the impact of technology on society. In a world where everything is connected, a skillful hacker can control and wreak havoc with the right tool.
Anti-hero Aiden Pearce happens to have such a tool: an advanced smartphone the game quaintly refers to as a PDA (the 1990s live again!). Pearce's PDA can interact with nearly every electronic item in the game, from ATMs and traffic lights, to security cameras and even some explosives.
Even more frightening, Pearce can scan people and discover intimate details about them, including hobbies, family, health and how much they have in their bank account. Then you can hit an ATM and claim that cash as your own.
It takes a lot of money to be the modern Robin Hood.
The game itself falls into the "Grand Theft Auto" formula of driving and shooting to get through various missions. Some fall into the main story, while others are side missions you can tackle at your leisure.
The hacking does add another layer to the game, but unfortunately it isn't as dynamic as one would hope.
Usually it takes only a single button press to hack most objects, such as ATMs and streetlights, which is gameplay that's fast but boring. A few objects do require a simple mini-game to hack, but this is infrequent and still fairly basic.
It would have been nice to see a variety of hacking puzzles with varying degrees of difficulty. It would have added some nice texture to a game that frequently falls into the same old drive-and-shoot gameplay as average third-person shooters.
The developers did include one interesting feature of the hacking — the ability to hack a security camera and use its line of sight to hack other cameras. This leads to some fun puzzles where you must jump from one camera to another to find the ultimate object of the hack.
The rest of the game — you know, the driving and shooting parts — are well constructed. Thanks to the game's amazing rendition of Chicago, the city feels alive. Though not an exact replica, it invokes the Second City well enough that I was drawn back to the days when I lived there.
Though the "Watch Dogs'" version of Chicago rocks, the missions themselves are somewhat uneven.
Oftentimes the missions revolve around a slick but unforgiving stealth mechanic. It's easy to jump between hiding places, but getting detected means a "mission failed" message and starting over.
In an open-world game such as this, there should be multiple ways to tackle any given mission, and being detected should merely mean you have to find another way out of the situation, as is done in the "Batman: Arkham" and "Metal Gear" games.
Being hamstrung in this way gives the game an unnecessary one-dimensionality. Perhaps they will expand on these possibilities in the inevitable sequel.
And speaking of one-dimensionality, the lead character seems to have misplaced his personality somewhere. Yes, I understand this was done intentionally to give the players a reason to inject themselves into the role, but it was misguided.
For players to care, a character needs depth and personality, as was done with most of the supporting characters here. I want to like Pearce, but I just don't know enough about him to give a darn about him.
Overall, "Watch Dogs" is a good first effort, with a lot of things to like. If Ubisoft listens to players and makes a few changes, this could become another powerhouse franchise.