Who Watches The Watchers?
Imagine Grand Theft Auto played back inside of Edward Snowden's worst nightmare. You now have a good grasp of Watch Dogs' premise. The game is set in Chicago, in a not-too-distant future where the entire city is run by a single operating system that knows everything about everyone all of the time. It's not the stereotypical dystopian vision of a heavy-handed big brother scenario; the Chicago operating system isn't sentient, nor is it malevolent. For the most part, it's a tool that provides a lot of convenience for its citizens. Lights at intersections are intelligently controlled so traffic jams are a thing of the past. People synchronize their schedules with smart software that actually makes their lives better. Understandably, criminals have a difficult time conducting business in a city that's aware of the location of all of its citizens. On the surface, such an existence sounds like it might be compelling, right?
Of course, the price everyone pays for this convenience is privacy. And no matter how altruistic the intentions of its visionary creators, the operating system offers incalculable potential for abuse. There's an obvious allegory to what's currently happening in our modern world.
The player explores this universe through the eyes of Aiden Pierce, a cyber-thief whose mentor hacks the wrong network during a heist and draws the unwanted attention of bad guys behind the curtain. Of course, the protagonist is targeted. His niece is tragically killed in an attack meant to scare him, and Aiden subsequently becomes a vigilante.
He puts his talents to work by coding software that uses the Chicago operating system to predict violent crime based on the location and attitude of its citizens (leading us to ask the obvious question, why doesn't the game's police department do this?). Aiden has to wait until crime is actually perpetrated before stepping in. Otherwise, the criminal is scared off before doing anything wrong. Minority Report, anyone?
But enough about the plot. How is the gameplay? It's a sandbox-style title obviously influenced by the GTA series, but with a few Deus-Ex-style twists. Aiden's smartphone is his key to controlling the Chicago OS. Among other things, it can change traffic lights, stop trains, hack other phones, control security cameras, raise bridges, engage barricades, and simply blow things up. It's definitely a cool dynamic.
In addition, the profiler app is always searching for potential crimes, and it'll direct you to different locations. There are many side missions, including a feature similar to Far Cry 3's radio towers. If you're a fan of sandbox games, I can almost guarantee you'll find something you like.
My favorite character is Chicago itself. The metropolis' digital incarnation has a great flavor, and the city-themed songs on the game's radio channels make for welcome background noise. For automotive enthusiasts like myself, you'll spot many vehicles that pay blatant homage to specific models. For instance, there's a car with an 80s Pontiac Firebird body and 70s Firebird front-end. From modern Dodge Chargers, Cadillacs, and Lamborghinis to the Volkswagen Rabbit and Honda Civic, a seemingly infinite number of different vehicles in the game were plucked from reality and given subtle changes. I haven't seen better adaptations of real-world cars since Burnout Paradise, so clearly the developer chose to create its own designs rather than pay royalties to an automaker.
What didn't I like? Well, for a vigilante fighting on behalf of the people, Aiden has surprisingly little conscience when it comes to stealing the common man's property. I suppose you could make a case that the character is complicated, but it doesn't feel plausible that a guy who cares enough about human beings to put his life at risk and save them from gun-toting thugs is also totally cool with absconding with their savings or partnering up with killers to achieve his goals. The game also makes it a challenge to engage in a heated car chase without mowing down innocent pedestrians. You'd think Aiden would be emotionally crippled by hitting a mother at a bus stop, given his original motivations. In that context, I would have appreciated if bystanders were harder to mow down. Maybe I'm just a terrible driver, but if you can finish the game without the blood of innocents on your hands, you have my respect.
I didn't play through as much of the story as I wanted, since my primary purpose was finding a taxing and consistent benchmark run. In the end, I chose a pre-planned path through the outskirts of the city, driving for 90 seconds per test. Thus, the results are quite repeatable, despite the many variables this game introduces.
We'll get to the performance results in a couple of pages. First, let's look at the game engine and its settings.