WATCH_DOGS is a 2014 video game. Usually I list the year to give context to what games were contemporary and sometimes to point out how certain things made sense at the time even if they haven’t aged well. For example, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s aping of the style of BBC’s Sherlock made a lot of sense in 2015.

But for WATCH_DOGS, “2014” is the sub-genre and premise. Not that it strictly takes place in 2014 (although I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be set, like most media with a modern setting, more or less in its year of release), but that it is so heavily informed by the culture and anxieties of that year to the point where it becomes a useful view of what the world was like (or at least, what contemporary mainstream culture thought it was like) in the Obama era. All the Obama era concerns about the surveillance state and electronic warfare had reached their most advanced forms, and yet remained totally detached from the alt-right Nazi militias and peer-to-peer cyber and propaganda warfare that have become the dominant conversation. These days, concerns about the surveillance state are a side note to discussions of the FBI tracking down January 6th insurrectionists and what 2022 sanctions limiting the activity of Russian psyops did to the audience of this or that online community or the comments section for whatever political news site or YouTube channel. In WATCH_DOGS, it’s firmly the other way around, with the vaguely right-wing militia being bit players included, as far as I can tell, mostly just to give rural the small town section of the map some criminal baddies for protagonist Aiden Pearce to mow down.

DEDSEC, the off-brand Anonymous that the game presents mostly heroically (Aiden doesn’t want to help them at the end, but it’s not really clear why), doesn’t have any QAnon imitators or splinter factions. Corporations and government act as a unified whole, “the Man,” rather than being deadlocked by bitter partisan political warfare, but the police are still considered good guys despite being government enforcers. Aiden Pearce uses binaural beats for “digital trips” which, modulo some exaggeration for gameplay, evoke the idea that such beats’ effects on the psyche could possibly replicate or even approach the effects of psychedelic substances, a common myth from the era which has quietly fallen by the wayside as more and more people have tried it and had no effect, making it clear that the exceptions are some combination of placebo and attention-seekers fabricating counterculture tech so that they can claim to be on the bleeding edge. Good background music does help with focus, but that genre is dominated not by any alleged binaural beat, but by lo-fi hip-hop beats to relax/study to.

The game’s morality is also 1) focused on with a reputation mechanic that rewards you for completing missions that help the city or rescuing civilians from firefights and penalizes you for killing civilians and police, and 2) an absolute mess. Firstly, the game takes place in Chicago, yet it still posits killing the cops as a bad thing. All cops were not broadly considered bastards back in 2014, but the fucking Chicago police have always had a reputation as authoritarian stormtroopers, plus, vigilante justice is nearly impossible to justify if the police are doing their jobs. The protagonist’s hacker powers come from slicing into a city-wide network that the police already have access to, so if the police aren’t either totally incompetent or totally corrupt (or both), what can Aiden possibly do that the ten thousand strong Chicago Police Department can’t?

And a lot of mechanics that clearly put the public in danger have no impact on reputation at all. You can hack stoplights to cause a car crash at an intersection right after you pass through, for example, thus catching pursuers in the wreck while you speed away. Apparently the injury and potential death of the civilians caught in the crash aren’t important. You can also wander around town hacking random people’s phones to siphon funds out of their bank accounts with no impact on reputation.

The reputation system is, of course, reputation, not something that claims to be judging your actions objectively, so maybe the idea is that your theft and causing wrecks can’t be traced back to you and thus doesn’t affect the public’s opinion. If that’s the case, though, you’d expect the narrative to notice that, high reputaiton or low, the protagonist is an unrepentant villain who freely harms innocent people in pursuit of his goals with, at best, a Homelander-like willingness to save people whenever it benefits his public image, or that they’d be more willing to use police as footsoldiers of resident evil corporation Blume.

The game’s themes in general are a dog’s breakfast. It’s doing that corporate storytelling thing where it brings up something (at the time) topical and controversial, but then refuses to say anything about it. Aiden Pearce uses the city-wide ctOS surveillance system to track down criminals and evade police, but the game never takes any position on whether this is a good thing, or if it’s a bad thing, or if it’s bad that ctOS exists but Aiden is making the best of it by using it for justice, or if it’s good that ctOS exists but criminal hackers and corporate corruption are perverting its potential. The game runs in the room, shouts “city-wide surveillance network!” and runs away. You can decide to use or not use ctOS in various ways, but the game doesn’t notice if you do. The first and only time your choices impact the story or game world is in a mid-credits scene where you can decide to kill the hitman who killed Aiden’s niece (accidentally, while trying to kill Aiden) or not, so the story neither makes its own point about its own themes nor does it give you any meaningful way to provide your own answer.

The plot treats Aiden’s estrangement from his sister Nicky and nephew Jackson as a much bigger deal than makes any sense. Like, you miss your nephew’s birthday party, but while it makes sense that an uncle who lives in the same city might make an appearance at his nephew’s birthday party, it isn’t really a big deal if he has to cancel. I’ve heard it posited that probably the game’s original outline gave the protagonist a wife and son, rather than a sister and nephew, and it was changed either because it was thought the target demographic wouldn’t relate as much to a protagonist who was married with kids (huge misstep if so, the Last of Us inaugurated the era of the Sad Dad in 2013) or else hoping to be more original than the bog standard “they murdered my wife and kiiiiiiiids” plot. But then they didn’t really change the main story beats at all. The protagonist and his sister’s dialogue and animations definitely reflect a brother and sister relationship (sometimes – some of their discussions of Jackson talk about how he takes after Nicky in some ways and Aiden in others in a way that makes way more sense as two kids’ parents rather than a mother and uncle), so this change can’t have been made too close to the end, but the plot beat of “family is sad that you missed child’s birthday” is much weirder if the child is your nephew instead of your son. I haven’t been to any of my nephews’ birthdays, and while that is mostly because of the distance involved, nobody acts like our family has been riven in twain by tragic circumstances beyond our control. If my nephews lived in the same city as me, I’d probably show up to drop off a present and catch up with their parents for a bit, but if something came up and I wasn’t able to make it, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

It’s not a very good example of the Ubisoft Open World Game, either. You have a bunch of ctOS towers you can hack to give yourself access to the city’s surveillance network, but unlike in most Ubisoft games, this doesn’t put little badges for side quests on the map. It reveals collectibles. Side quests are found by hacking random civilian phones. This means the towers go from important to finding side quests for extra resources and/or because you really like X or Y side quest and want to do more of it, to being useful only to collectible completionists.

Fair enough, but then the replacement method for finding side quests is annoying. I don’t much like fixer contracts that involve racing around the city, but I like criminal convoys and gang hideouts that involve assaulting a bunch of baddies (either on the move or in a specific location) to take out a specific guy, usually non-lethally, which makes no sense becuase you just killed all his guards but which makes the side quests more mechanically interesting. You can’t just find the target by hacking cameras and then huck a grenade at him from maximum distance, you have to clear out the guards and chase the target down for a melee takedown. But I can’t find specifically those side quests, I have to trawl through civilian phones finding random side quests, and since there’s more total fixer missions than criminal convoy and gang hideouts combined, I’m much more likely to get fixer missions I don’t particularly want instead of convoy/hideout missions I do. I can, at least, still decide not to finish the fixer missions, but it’s still frustrating to go wandering around the city hacking random phones hoping to get a mission I want to proc and when one finally does, it’s a fixer mission.

Similarly, if I want to build up my reputation by completing some side missions where I protect citizens from random criminal attacks, I have to sift through a bunch of convoy, hideout, and fixer missions, none of which are any good for me because they’re all just a chance to accidentally kill civilians or less accidentally kill police and make my reputation even worse instead of improving it. Main missions often increase your reputation, but they also tend to be much more involved, which is a lot of hassle when I all I want to do is top off my reputation so I can kill fifteen police officers escaping a parking garage where I just beat up some mobster and then plow through pedestrians on a sidewalk while driving away and still have a “vigilante” reputation rank and the attendant bonuses to how long it takes members of the public to call the cops on me when I start spraying bullets all over a residential neighborhood because a bank robber was driving through it.

On the positive side, I think cover shooting works really well in an open world in a way it doesn’t as much in more linear games. Mass Effect had a problem where you could tell a gunfight was about to happen because chest high walls would suddenly be abundant, but in WATCH_DOGS the entire game world is designed to hopefully offer at least some cover (it helps that you can use cars for cover, so anywhere close to a road should have some), and the exceptions are something the player can use the open world to plan around. An area with no cover is frustrating and unpleasant to fight in – so pick the fight somewhere else, instead. WATCH_DOGS transitions easily between cover shooting and open world movement, which makes the gunfights feel like they’re happening spontaneously in real places, not in pre-determine set piece arenas. It reminds me of the climactic gun battle in Heat, where sound design and fight choreography gave a sense of incredible realism despite how bonkers the idea of bank robbers having an Okay Corral shootout with the police is.

That’s not to say WATCH_DOGS is the Heat of video games or anything, or even that their gun battles feel like an interactive version of the gun battle at the end of Heat (which is amazing even when out of context, so a video game replicating just that would be a major accomplishment regardless of how the story compares), but it does get closer to evoking that feeling than any other game I’ve played. And it does that without replicating Heat’s audio effects, which created gunshots that sound real even though microphones can’t record what gunshots actually sound like. WATCH_DOGS’ gunshot audio is pretty good, but if it sounded like Heat, the game would get fatiguing very quickly. The Heat gun battle is five minutes long, WATCH_DOGS lasts for like twenty hours.

The way hacking integrates with car chases is really satisfying, even if the opportunities to use your hacking tricks during a car chase aren’t frequent enough. There aren’t enough bridges and retractable bollards and so forth for you to trigger with your hacking skillz for it to come up in anything but an extended car chase, which is too bad, because it feels great when you trigger bollards behind you and the cops/gangsters/whoever slam into them and the game cuts away in super slo-mo so you can see the wreck before snapping you back to third-person perspective as you speed away.

Some people accused the game of being a Minority Report-style “arrest people for crimes your system predicts they will commit in the future” thing, that the game was totally oblivious to how the point of Minority Report is that this system is bad. I don’t think that holds up. The game has a system where the city-wide surveillance network you’re hacked into will sometimes alert you to a probable crime and you can show up to chase down the criminal, but you fail the side quest if you get too close to the suspect before they start actually committing a crime and you lose reputation for attacking a civilian like normal if you beat the shit out of someone (or kill them) who hasn’t done a crime yet. Sometimes you have to sit and watch someone pointing a gun at the back of someone else’s head for about a full second before the “crime probability” indicator finally ticks over to the red and you get credit for intervening.

Every potential crime does always turn out to be an actual crime, which is probably because it would not be very fun to go to all the trouble of going to the location, finding the potential criminal, and then it turns out the system was wrong and there’s nothing to do. This seriously harms the portrayal of the system, and it fails to depict a lot of very valid concerns people have about this kind of Minority Report-adjacent crime prediction tech. Plus, you only get credit for completing the side mission if you intervene in a crime in progress, not for scaring the criminal off by your presence alone before anything happens. Aiden will even talk to himself about how he has to keep enough of a distance to avoid spooking the criminal until they’re actually doing a crime. The window between the crime starting and the point when the unlucky victim dies (and the random crimes are always a murder, at least if you let them go on long enough) is pretty small, so the strategy the game incentivizes (and which is therefore implicitly Aiden’s canonical MO) is to gamble with the lives of innocent civilians to maximize the number of criminals caught and viciously beaten with your extendable billy club thing. Surely the best thing to do in this situation is to scare the criminal off just by being close enough to witness an attack, then use ctOS’ facial recognition system to keep track of both them and the victim, investigating the reason behind the crime and establishing proof of guilt/intent that way. This is a way more involved mission, so you wouldn’t actually want to implement that, but that just means you should come at the problem from a different direction: Change the setup so that “protect civilian from this bad guy” is a reasonable course of action. Like, have the crime be in progress when you show up, so just walking close enough to scare the criminal off is not an option.

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