Watch Dogs is okay. It’s set in Chicago, represented as an open-world dystopic Ameritropolis. Watch Dogs’ Chicago is boring compared to Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos, but it feels accurately boring, its banality an actual choice. The GTA games are all atmosphere – what the marketing team would term “attitude”– and so every street corner of every GTA feels like the infrastructural analogue of a poster you put on your wall freshman year. Watch Dogs is the plain white wall behind that poster: Muted colors, murky characters, a vigilante known only as “The Vigilante.” The central plot is an incoherence: You’re a hacker activist anarchist superhero fighting the mob and the government and the big corporation and all criminals everywhere.
But the game’s vanilla aesthetic has a point. It’s a blank canvas: Ubisoft wants you to fill it in. The notion of “customizing” your videogame experience has been a central idea in videogames for over a decade now: Creating your own character, giving them their own unique set of clothes, selectively adjusting their skill sets, choosing your own adventure.
But in 2012, Ubisoft released Far Cry 3, a game that perfected a certain kind of customizable gameplay. The most recurrent scene from Far Cry 3 had you staring at a fortress filled with bad guys. You could take them down several different ways: Approaching from the water or from the mountain, sniping from afar or stabbing up close, setting down bombs or setting the captured bear free. Call it Tactical Self-Expression. This strikes me as Ubisoft’s central ambition: The ability to personalize your gameplay experience not with clothes or voices or story elements, but rather, to personalize your gameplay experience with gameplay.
So Watch Dogs lets you do everything your own way. As aforementioned hacker-superhero Aiden Pearce, you engage in several activities that will be familiar to anyone who played any Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed (or Grand Theft Auto, for that matter). You attack fortresses filled with gang members, and you chase criminals in cars, and you have to get away from the cops. The interesting twist is that Aiden’s most powerful weapon is his smartphone. Hacked into the Chicago network, he can change traffic lights or raise bridges or set off the grenades on a bad guy’s belt.
One of the best pieces of videogame “acting” I’ve ever seen is the subtle, practiced way that Aiden pulls out his smartphone and stares at it. Yes, Watch Dogs is a videogame about a man staring into a tiny computer screen – a fact which feels helplessly meta, and which foregrounds all the big ideas Watch Dogs thinks it has. There is a better, more interesting version of this game where the smartphone is the only weapon Aiden has. But Watch Dogs is disappointingly unambitious in this regard: I picked up my first grenade launcher about two hours into the game, and after five hours I had six different shotguns and three different sniper rifles. (Yes, this is another game where your character can enter Slow-Motion Gun Vision.)
The word on Watch Dogs has been building for two years. The game has a couple of next-generation affectations that serve as ideal talking points for what videogames might become. It’s a single-player campaign, but players can “invade” each other, or you can frequently join a multiplayer match. The “invasion” game is simple and fun: You have to stay in close proximity to another player without letting them see you, which means that Watch Dogs is a videogame that wants you to pretend to be a random bystander in a videogame. In other multiplayer matches, you race people or you shoot people. There are better race-people games and better shoot-people games, but if you’re looking for all that stuff in one place, then Watch Dogs is it.
But the multiplayer stuff isn’t quite there yet. What is here, ultimately, is a pretty good shooter. Make that really pretty good. One of the most fun minigames in Watch Dogs is “Criminal Convoy,” where you have to take down some Bad-Guy cars. You have the full route that the Bad Guys are going to take, so you can scout out an ideal attack point – a bridge, a busy intersection – and set a trap. Or you can just ram straight into the Bad Guys and start firing. Either way, the most boring corner of Watch Dogs’ boring Chicago can become a Gears of War-level firefight in the span of two seconds.
Do people want another pretty good shooter? Watch Dogs comes gilded with so much next-big-thing buzz – of which, guilty – that it can’t help but seem like a bit of a disappointment. But it also feels like a decent first try: A style that can be perfected, if the game sells, if people can overlook the flaws, if console videogames remain a thing. There’s a great little mechanic where, when you take out your smartphone, you can point it at anyone – a criminal, a bystander, a friend, yourself – and you get a mini-biography, complete with an annual salary. This has nothing to do with the gameplay, but it is absolutely captivating. You go to a high-class den of iniquity, look towards a sad-looking half-naked woman, and you see that she is a “Runaway.” You stare down at a bad guy you just killed, and see that he was “Abused as a Child.” You pass a man on the street – just another digital dude, like any other – and your phone informs you that he writes fanfiction.
Watch Dogs is the game that Ubisoft has been working toward for the last half-decade. To the extent that a massive videogame studio can be considered a single authorial voice, Watch Dogs feels like Ubisoft’s The Grand Budapest Hotel: A project that combines everything about your other projects into one impressive, unwieldy, invigorating, and occasionally just goofy singularity. Come for the shooting, stay for the smartphone, ignore everything about the story, and wait patiently for Watch Dogs 2. B+