What are the limits of originality? Surely a work of art does not have to break every convention in order to be labelled “original." Many beloved movies, for example, are defined as original when all they’ve done is twist one element in an otherwise by-the-book genre exercise. But there's a limit to that leeway.
Ubisoft Montreal’s huge new IP Watch_Dogs (XBO, X360, PS4, PS3, PC, eventually WiiU) positions itself squarely in the hitbox for accusations of unoriginality, and mostly fails to stand up to them. Grand Theft Auto is the obvious touchstone, but while the free-range city-roaming, driving and shooting that form the depressing bulk of the gameplay are near-identical to that series, the games whose prior existences render Watch_Dogs as boring* as it is are fellow Ubisoft franchises Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed. Mechanics from those games are dropped in seemingly because that’s what Ubisoft does these days,** rather than for any compelling story or gameplay reason. Likewise, filling out the numerous, exhaustive upgrade trees feels like work, not fun. There’s no compulsion to do most of this stuff, and the constant reminders to stop nearby crimes or go on races are as annoying and stupid as the underscore in the game’s title.
It’s a shame, too, because there’s the potential for Watch Underscore Dogs to tell a story of today with gameplay that sets it apart. Like Grand Theft Auto, it’s a view of the United States from a foreign land (well, Montreal) - but unlike GTA, it takes a serious look at the omniscient new American surveillance state rather than poking fun at pop culture. Or at least, it tries to. There’s such a temptation to wreak havoc - so unmotivating is the story - that its point gets lost in the crossfire. There are timely and politically relevant questions about privacy, government overreach and our plugged-in society, but they’re constantly backgrounded by its open-ass sandbox and boring-ass story.
The story might even be okay if it happened to a more interesting character, but Aidan Pierce is the whitest, malest white male in all of Christendom (and there are a ton of white males in Christendom). Pearce, a sprightly hacker with capacious pockets, is on a rambling rummage-round of revenge, driven by the betrayal of his former colleagues and haunted by the murder of his niece. That it’s Aiden’s niece who died admittedly sets it apart from other dead-family revenge stories, but makes Aiden’s psychopathic bloodshed, and intrusion into his sister’s life, seem a little creepy. He's the fuckup uncle your mom wishes would stop slaughtering gang members and leave well enough alone. We've all got one. The whole thing is played so seriously it often plays as unintentional comedy, its "cool" protagonist goofy and weirdly dated.
Luckily, there are inspired touches in Watch_Dogs. Your mobile phone, hacked into the increasingly nonfictional ctOS facial-recognition network, displays information about every person you encounter - how much money they make, their job, and even snippets of information about their personal lives. Window dressing, maybe, but it influenced my gameplay. I’d be less likely to hack the bank account of someone struggling to achieve their dreams as a musician, for example, than someone who frequently Googles “rape.” The randomly-generated characteristics also present amusing, emergent micro-stories: why is that MMO enthusiast gunning down an organ donor? But amusement aside, there's a point to it all. That some less-savoury players have apparently taken to hunting down minorities is confirmation enough that the privacy issues touched on in Watch_Dogs are real.
More than just privacy violation, the intended focus here is hacking, and its manifestation is reminiscent of the first Assassin’s Creed: there’s something good here, but it’s not fully-formed yet. The game is at its best when you’re standing nonchalantly on a sidewalk while zipping between security cameras, reconning the area and manipulating guards to your whims as part of a live-action puzzle game. Taking hold of electronics in this way feels genuinely new; in stealth sequences it can be nailbiting and in car chases it can be spectacular. There’s just not enough depth to sustain the titanic length of the game, which is where the driving, shooting and countless minigames come in.
While some of the diversions (notably the more off-the-wall material like spider-tank demolition and psychedelic flower-bouncing) are fun, many are fully-formed games within Watch_Dogs - that aren’t Watch_Dogs. Why are they there? Aborted former pet projects of Ubisoft staff? Everything works reasonably well, of course. The open world of Chicago is exquisitely detailed, and though I can’t confirm its authenticity, having never visited its real-life equivalent, it feels genuine, with all the grime, glamour, and weird scrubby bits between freeways that make up real cities. Plus, you can listen to the Smashing Pumpkins in your virtual car. They’re from Chicago! I haven’t found Billy Corgan's shining pate in the city anywhere yet, although I have discovered Aisha Tyler. Aisha’s pate, however, shone not, concealed as it was beneath a beautiful mop of digital hair.
Multiplayer in Watch_Dogs takes the form of a Dark Souls-y PvP system wherein players invade other single-player games to steal their data before being caught. When you’re consciously taking part, it’s a lot of fun frantically searching for your hacker, and the chases that ensue can become gloriously ridiculous. But unlike in Dark Souls, where PvP invasion feels like a natural extension of the series' punishing gameplay, invasion in Watch_Dogs is annoying, striking all too often when you’re pottering around exploring or getting from point A to point B. In-game Detroit may not be as expansive as San Andreas, but it’s big enough that a lengthy player chase can add frustrating minutes to your commute.
There’s nothing wrong with games that fit inside an established genre, or even that directly imitates others. Saints Row did that too, but soon cemented its own unique place in the open-world pantheon; maybe Watch_Dogs will do the same (we can lump LA Noire followup Whore of the Orient in this fingers-crossed camp too). This first instalment sags under the mammoth weight of its own competence. It’s a seabird grounded by a slick of middle-of-the-road crude. Hopefully in the inevitable sequel*** Ubisoft will let Watch_Dogs be Watch_Dogs, instead of trying to be every other game as well.
Make the next one smaller, Ubisoft, not bigger. This I beg of you.
* It feels utterly bizarre describing a game as action-packed as Watch_Dogs "boring," but yet, bored is what I am. There are only so many ways you can dress up a bog-standard tailing mission.
** Not just Ubisoft, either: as I've written previously, other big tentpoles like the Arkham series and the upcoming Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor join a growing cavalcade of games glomming every conceivable form of gameplay into one-size-fits-most action-adventure bloat. Why can't developers just pick a mechanic and nail it?
*** Four million units and counting tells me I should shut up and eat my sand.