The next generation is here - but turns out that, so far, it's not too different to the last generation. Finding itself the vanguard of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hype a couple of years ago, hacking-themed open world action game Watch_Dogs perhaps set impossible expectations. As it's the closest we're likely to get to GTA on next-gen for a little while, it's at least a welcome arrival even if it is a deflating one too.
Set in near-future Chicago, the game stars the surly, amoral charisma vacuum that is hacker/super-criminal/people's vigilante Aiden Pearce. He's on a quest for vengeance after a job gone wrong took a family member's life, and inevitably it all becomes embroiled in a wider conspiracy involving the sinister corporate forces who silently control the city and its ubiquitous surveillance systems.
It's extremely hard to like Aiden, while any concept of him being heroic is destroyed by his reprehensible behaviour between the game's 20-odd hours of storyline missions. Like the psychopaths in any GTA game, he mows down civilians by car or by gun in their hundreds, but his near-magical hacking abilities means he also gets to remotely empty their bank accounts, listen in on their phone conversations and get at-at-glance summaries of their health issues, relationship woes and sexual peccadilloes both silly and sinister.
Other than cash and occasional leads to criminal hideouts, there's no purpose to this and even no commentary on the fact he does it - he just can, and given he spends half the game complaining about state surveillance and others' dark control of information, he's a massive hypocrite in a dorky baseball cap.
The hacking has a more active role in various quests, missions and getaway. At the touch of a button, cheerless Aiden can switch traffic lights from red to green in the hope of losing his pursuers in the resulting car pile-up, cause fuse boxes to explode and take out guards without revealing his presence, make bollards and tire spikes pop up from the road to neutralise a high-speed chase...
This stuff might be a million light years away from real-life hacking, but it's the best aspect of the game by far as it turns the city into one giant, playful trap. You can simply play it like GTA instead, and try to lose or ram your pursuers during car chases, but the options to do things differently are there, and refreshing.
This is doubly true of the missions (and scattered, optional gang hideout sidequests) which involve trying to sneak through an area and reach a particular objective or target without falling into an open firefight. There are some basic stealth controls - one of many ways in which Watch_Dogs being from the same stable as Assassin's Creed shows itself - but what works best is hacking into security cameras to get a bird's eye view of who's wear and then have various options to take them down without engaging directly.
An enemy's own grenade can be detonated on his belt, a steam pipe can explode in his face, triggering a nearby car alarm can snatch his attention for long enough to you slip by behind him... There's a great flexibility and freedom here, and if things do go to pot then you - and the game - can fallback onto reasonably robust shooting and car-jacking.
This is familiar, tried and tested (or ‘borrowed’, to be less generous) stuff, which anyone who’s played a GTA game will feel instantly familiar with. Clearly there’s excitement to having an open world city to go nuts in with the improved graphics of next-gen (and high-end PCs), but Watch_Dogs does wind up feeling assembled from parts of other games and left struggling for an identity of its own. The hacking’s entertaining, but ultimately a sideshow to car chases and shoot outs, and certainly failing to live up to the inventive promise of the game’s early trailers.
More damningly, while the PS4/Xbone/PC version of the game offers high resolutions and plenty of visual detail, the city and its population feels cold and robotic, lacking the colourful and satirical life of a GTA or even Saints Row game. Aside from a very small handful of gonzo side-missions, this is a game which takes itself far too seriously and seems to have put a disproportionate amount of effort into cramming its map with icons denoting bitty, repetitive minigames over injecting some much-needed personality.
The nuts and bolts of Watch_Dogs - fast cars, chaotic action, the catharsis of total amorality - do the job, because those things have always done the job and they’ve been recreated with sufficient technical proficiency. Sadly they don’t do much more than that- this isn’t a game to inspire wild anecdotes or scouring every inch of the city for oddball secrets and gags.
As was the case with the original Assassin's Creed, Watch_Dogs feels like a prototype for itself, setting up the technical foundations for an inevitable sequel which will make the hacking aspect into more than one-button gimmickery, which will introduce a protagonist to inspire something more than slight boredom, and which will make ‘Watch_Dogs’ mean something much more than ‘a mopey GTA with knobs on.’