A few months ago I realized that I owned Watch_Dogs, despite never having played the game before. I’m not sure if it was a Playstation Plus title at some point, or if maybe I just bought it on a deep discount and then never booted it up, but I found it right as I was craving some sort of an open-world game. I need something to tool around with to take my mind off of being cooped up in the house all day.
Looking for an escape, I fired it up and dove into a world of nefarious hackers, stealthy take-downs, lots of murder, and a completely broken morality system.
Hacking through Chicago
I’m a huge fan of open-world games, especially ones that make getting from place to place fun. Marvel’s Spider-Man, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Ultimate Spider-Man are the pinnacles of this. What? I like Spidey. Get off my back!
I delight in just existing in a big virtual world I can wander around in. I’ll play through the story, sure, but only when I don’t get distracted going from place to place.
Moving through Watch_Dogs version of Chicago feels pretty much exactly like driving around San Andreas in Grand Theft Auto V. You can summon cars to your location or steal any vehicle you find driving or parked in the world, then go speeding like a maniac up the wrong side of the freeway or over sidewalks. It feels good, and things only get better when you start employing the games hacking system to blow up sewer pipes, raise bridges as you cross them, or cause all the traffic lights to go green at once to cause chaos in the streets and evade pesky police pursuits.
A Story of Revenge
Even though the mobility was slick, I wasn’t engaged with any of the map activities I typically love in open-world games. That left only the main story as a draw for me, which was a tale about a hacker whose niece was killed over a job gone wrong and was out for revenge. It felt pretty generic, and I put the game down for months before hearing about Legion convinced me to pick the original game back up to mainline the campaign.
The main character, Aiden, is out for revenge after a job gone wrong led to the death of his niece. You work your way through several different organized crime rings throughout Chicago.
In most missions you are tasked with getting into some sort of compound by hacking and shooting your way past the guards. These missions were all theoretically stealth based, and I usually opted for quietly dispatching hapless corporate security guards with a silenced pistol when I could, but they started to feel pretty samey by the end of things.
The biggest downside was that the stealth mechanics and variety of weapons gave you a lot of options on how you approached each Arkham Asylum arena-full-of-goons, but in most cases there weren't any options on how you completed the mission. Aiden is a computer hacker who constantly, through story necessity, kills people. Lots of missions require you to kill tons of random guards, and almost every named character who shows up in the campaign is dead by the time the game ends.
Vigilante or… Even Worse Vigilante
During the course of the story you build up either fame or notoriety as a mysterious vigilante in Chicago. Your reputation is represented by a “reputation bar” on your HUD. I never gained notoriety for killing security guards who were doing their job trying to secure perfectly legal business from criminals like, well, like me.
Instead, it seemed like completing missions (including those where I slaughtered waves of individual people) always gave me marks on the paragon side of Watch_Dogs’s moral slider. On the other hand, I lost reputation whenever I got into out-of-mission conflicts with the police or hit civilians while driving wildly.
In the end, Aiden kills the biggest and baddest mob boss by hacking his pacemaker (which presumably gives you positive reputation points since it’s a required story objective), and then credits roll.
The only impact of the morality meter in the end is how the news reports talk about Aiden’s reputation over the end credits; If you avoided killing civilians you’re a Robin Hood-like folk hero. Otherwise you’re a dangerous criminal.
But Wait…There's More!
Then, out of nowhere, there’s an after credits scene. The mob boss you killed was responsible, sure, but he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger to fire the bullet that killed Aiden’s niece. After a time-jump in the credits, that man has been found and is staring at the business end of Aiden’s gun. Instead of a preset cutscene, the player is given a choice: you can shoot him or you can walk away.
Now, this has been a whole big game about vengeance and revenge, with a protagonist that has killed, at least in my playthrough, hundreds of people throughout the course of the game. On top of that, the game rewards the player by giving them ticks in a morality slider that tell them they are doing a good job by killing all of those folks.
The game gave out so much positive reputation for completing the campaign missions that Aiden could run over however many pedestrians ended up in his path and the city still thought of him as a hero. Then, all of a sudden, they put me into a scene where it seemed like I was supposed to go, “Oh no, Aiden wouldn’t kill this guy! He’s turning his life around and going to be good now!”
Forget that, Aiden shot him dead!
Sometimes It’s Okay to be the Bad Guy
Now listen, I’m not saying that shooting that guy was the right thing to do, or the just thing to do, or anything like that. What I’m saying is that Watch_Dogs is a game that never, ever should have had a morality system to begin with.
It never should have pretended that it was telling some interesting, introspective story about the nature of vengeance, or that it was some deep meditation on the idea of “a life for a life”. It can’t do those things well because it’s a game where you wantonly kill so many people!
Aiden Pearce is a mass-murdering domestic terrorist, and neither a slider that only punishes you for running over randos on the sidewalk, nor a single afterthought of a scene where maybe he turns things around can ever change that.
It is a game where the character you are playing as is categorically a bad dude. But you know what? It was still pretty fun.