Playing Watch Dogs or even seeing any bit of the onslaught of marketing behind the game invites a quick and easy comparison to Grand Theft Auto V. Even with nary a hint of video game savvy, the similarities are striking. Massive open worlds, stealing and driving cars, shooting dudes and cars alike, and acceptable digital analogs for real world locales. You’d be a fool to not see it.
Quite frankly, it makes you wonder what would have happened if Watch Dogs had come out anywhere close to its original release date of November 19th of last year. In the most obvious and superficial comparison (albeit such surface level differences add up to be a big deal), the first of Ubisoft’s next great hopeful franchise pales when placed next to the enormously successful and enviable Rockstar opus.
It’s blindingly apparent that Watch Dogs could never compete on such a level, at least not in this iteration. Rockstar has been working its way up to GTAV, refining its open world craft and saving up enough clout and scratch to finally dump five years and $265 million into one game. Watch Dogs is the first of what is likely to be Ubisoft’s next flagship franchise, bundling up four years, $68 million, and a bunch of exploratory development and design.
It never had a chance in that regard. But that’s fairly unremarkable. A new game doesn’t have as big of a budget as the latest one in a historic, massive franchise. What’s more interesting is the contrasting and confusingly inverted alignment of intended design and resulting effect with both games.
Consider that GTAV is almost entirely structured as an interactive satire. It aims to skewer and lampoon the worldly perspective of what American life is like, which, as it turns out, is not all that far from the truth. Rockstar has hewn its stick to the finest point it’s ever had.
And much like its past GTA games, this one also aimed to be funny. It was to have the levity of parody with the bite of a Swift-ian satire. Strangely enough, though, it was perhaps the most serious of them all. The torture scene was egregiously dark, going past shady and so-fucked-it’s-funny and back around to straight up disagreeable, not to mention it coincides with the cold presentation of racial profiling and assassination.
Satire makes its turn when it shames some facet of its genesis. This scene wholly lacks that turn and instead is disturbing all the way through. For much of the game, in fact, your time in Los Santos is spent living a downtrodden and dark life while the satire is filtered and distributed out into the world around you rather than the character you play. It leaves the game more serious than funny, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a contrast to its intended effect.
Watch Dogs, on the other hand, has the inverse of that problem. It certainly does aim for much in the way of either satire or parody and instead merely uses a pop social concern as its central conceit and mechanic. In a world where people fear needless and intrusive surveillance, what if the power was back in the citizen’s hands to take control of the overlord once more? It certainly speaks to current concerns, but it hardly makes commentary. Instead it’s an observation.
This lends a very dry, grave air to the game’s proceedings. It feels like a serious spy thriller, mixing subterfuge and action like the hardboiled films of old. A quiet, gravelly-voiced fellow seeking justice in a world that refuses to dole it out as it should. People die, voices are raised, and no one necessarily is having a good time but my god will it be interesting.
While whether or not it actually is engaging is for another time, this opens up the idea that Watch Dogs suffers a similar, inverse fate. It tries to be serious for much of its 20-hour runtime but often—and unintentionally, it seems—comes across as funny.
Avoiding any spoilers in this case can be tricky, though it can be said that the narrative impetus for Aiden doing what he does is moderately unique and thus generally interesting by virtue of being fresh. But there are instances where the grave nature of the tale surrounding his need for vengeance and justice is laughably cheesy. Like, cable television movie cheesy.
It largely centers around his niece, with lingering shots of ostensibly emotion-inducing pieces of memorabilia. And then it starts to involve his sister in the course of Aiden seeking out the truth of what happened, which is a neat twist on the general concept of a lone warrior fighting for his wife and/or child, but it forgets to capitalize on that and instead continues to showcase an inability to distinguish between purposeful and unintentional comedy.
None of that renders Watch Dogs a terrible game by any means, but it certainly is noteworthy. On its own, it’s a strange twist that draws out the sensation of ironic production along the lines of a classic B-grade movie. But then, when placed next to the similar but inverse situation of GTAV, it’s a funny string of games unable to reconcile intentions and results.