The promise of Watch Dogs was simple, and explained much of the anticipation leading up to the wantonly hyped prestige video game's May release: Finally—finally! (finally?)—someone was going to make hacking cool. In this case, it was the developer Ubisoft, whose ambition to make coding as engrossing as urban warfare—nay, to make them one and the same—was on par with spelunking the world's deepest caves and comprehending the existence of KimYe: Many had tried, and many had failed.
This could be its own Jeopardy! category: Botched Attempts at Fictional Computing. I'm sure I don't need to mention any examples, but it's so fun, I can't resist: The Net, Hackers (roller blading!), Swordfish, and most recently that Johnny Depp movie where he plays Max Headroom. The only movie (besides WarGames) that ever managed to make computer science compelling was The Matrix, which succeeded by reducing programming to a mere percussive act—tap + click + tap + click = guns!— rather than the laborious, sexless activity we know it to be.
So anyway, Watch Dogs. The buildup here was insane, and said as much about the dispiriting state of console gaming in 2014 (it's available on most of the major ones) as it did about the game itself. As one of the thousands of suckers who purchased a Day One Edition of the Xbox One, I've waited for more than eight months now for a title that lives up to the next-gen console's supposed potential, and so far nada. It's a testament to how terrible the lineup has been so far that I actually completed the entire Dead Rising 3 campaign, which was lame as fuck, but at least kept me engaged by letting me make guns out of dildos. I'm guessing a lot of gamers were feeling similarly (about the dearth of good games, if not the dildos): Please, God, give me a game I can get lost in and play endlessly for the rest of the year.
Sigh. Watch Dogs is not that game. Certainly it's not a total failure, but it's not endlessly or even moderately engrossing enough to justify all the clamor. Its biggest crime is not that it rips off Grand Theft Auto's anything-goes cityscape structure—plenty of games have—but that it does so so brazenly and clumsily, with tweaks to the formula that feel like cheap tricks, and a weak story (Hacker Seeks Revenge) that fails to yank you through the game world.
This game in fact steals so liberally from GTA that it almost feels like a cover band, just barely managing its own spin on the classic originals. There's the open world itself, in Watch Dogs's case a very gorgeously rendered Chicago. There's the usual arsenal of guns, but none feel special: The machine guns all shoot like machine guns, no matter how expensive or exotic they get. (Like guns? Have we got a game for you!) As with GTA, you can run over pedestrians and launch grenades wherever you feel like it, but inciting wholesale mayhem isn't nearly as much fun as it is in Los Santos. Likewise, the game world isn't as cleverly interactive as GTA's: Instead of soliciting hookers and launching off construction ramps, you can steal someone's pin code and spy on them chatting up their mom. Hoo-ray.
You play as Aiden Pearce, a hacker-vigilante hellbent on avenging the death of his niece. Like the rest of Watch Dogs, Aiden is melodramatic and self-serious. He wears trench coats and combat boots, and is voiced by Noam Jenkins, who delivers every line as if he's impersonating Dirty Harry. Such supporting characters as Jordi (an Asian gangster straight out of central casting) and Clara (the requisite tatted-up cyber-chick accomplice) are equally flimsy.
The designers here are counting on the hacking mechanic to make up for all of this. In this version of Chicago, the entire city runs on a centralized, Big Brother-like operating system, a network of ubiquitous surveillance cameras and city infrastructure (traffic lights, sewer pipes, etc.), all of it hackable with the touch of a few buttons on Aiden's cell phone (which is not remotely believable, but w/e). In addition to hacking the city, you can also hack everyone in it, from making their phones ring to emptying their bank accounts to, somewhat inexplicably, blowing them up if they're wearing an explosive, which for some reason some people are. The hacking mechanic is novel and initially sort of fun: You can lose a pursuing cop car by sabotaging sewer pipes, or turn a drawbridge into a ramp for a Hooper-esque escape. As a sizable chunk of the missions and side-missions here revolve around driving, and the driving mechanic itself is sub-par (not especially tactile, the cars mostly drive the same, etc.), the mid-chase hacking dynamic livens things up somewhat.
Similarly, hacking adds zazz to the game's other central construct: infiltration missions. If you're not driving, you're attempting to infiltrate something: a computer facility, a gang hideout, a shipyard, etc. You have the standard options of going in hot and heavy, or using the environment to stealth your way to your goal, and the latter is almost always preferable. In, say, a parking garage where your mission is to knock out a gang member, you have an array of surveillance cameras, car alarms, electrical boxes, forklifts, and so forth with which to distract and/or maim bad guys. Such tactics bare little resemblance to hacking (they're more akin to Batman's kit of widgets and doodads in the Arkham series), but the result is still novel enough: Using a car alarm to lure three henchmen to an IED is perfectly satisfying.
Trouble is, the really enjoyable infiltration missions are few and far between, forcing Watch Dogs to cram in a ton of other shit just to distract you. You can drive around checking into locations a la Foursquare, gamble, play drinking games, or grab a coffee (?); if you're still desperate for kooky diversions, try one of the game's Digital Trips, which are psychedelic mini-games (also boring). There's also a leveling system whereby you can learn new skills and hacks, but the missions themselves don't keep pace: You can puzzle through most of them without ever using the new tricks up your sleeve. Exemplifying all this superfluousness is that fact that there is zero purpose to visiting one of Aiden's many safe houses aside from changing out of a grey trench coat and into an identical white one. Oh, and you can nap there. That's one thing I always like to do in a video game: take a fucking nap.
It's all just one big bummer. Watch Dogs was supposed to be great, a tentpole release that wasn't a sequel for a change, hopefully the beginning of a whole new franchise. I keep returning to it hoping something will click for me, and I'll get lost in it, but for every neat gang hideout I infiltrate, there's a facile bit of dialogue or mind-numbing story mission to slog through. Even worse are the game's "Online Contracts," which allow other online players to warp into your game, challenging you to what amount to bouts of hacker thumb-wrestling. This means I can be cruising through Chicago, and all the sudden I've got Youkilis420 chasing me around trying to drain my bank account. Contrary to what Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller would have us believe, the only thing more boring than hacking itself is being hacked by a hacker while you're in the process of hacking. Move over, The Net, it's time to make room for one more.
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