Can I Pitch You Something? Rethinking Watch Dogs

Watch Dogs is a 2014 open world action adventure title that, despite strong sales, largely failed to meet fan expectations. Hype for the game reached a fever pitch following a series of trailers that indicated a very different experience than the one the game eventually delivered. With its sequel, Watch Dogs 2, releasing tomorrow, we thought we’d go back to the original and see if we couldn’t think of ways to address its problems.

The whole point of this new column is not to hang shit on the original Watch Dogs, which was a serviceable-if-underwhelming open world shooter. It’s to provide me with an outlet for the many hot takes that float into my head on a daily basis. Hopefully, these takes won’t be too shit.

In my head, the key to making Watch Dogs a much more enjoyable game is simple: ditch the guns and focus squarely on the hacking. I know, I know, what the fuck, an open world action game without any guns? David, you’re advocating in-game gun control and you still, somehow, sound like a crazy person.

The reason for ditching the guns is two-fold — first, it would cause a total rethink of how the game builds its missions and encounters (which were, at best, gun heavy affairs where hacking really only came in handy for jacking the data you needed to complete the mission). Second, it takes the game out of the Action genre and puts it firmly in Tactical Espionage territory, which is where it feels like it should have been in the first place. In this theoretical version of the game, Aiden wouldn’t have access to a GTA-esque arsenal. Instead he would keep only one weapon on his person at any time: a 9mm pistol, with a single, preloaded 15-round magazine. He can’t reload it, he can’t pick up extra ammo for it, it makes an insane amount of noise if fired and people will call the cops on him if they see him walking around with it.

Seriously, just remove all of the guns from the game, bar one. You can absolutely do this and still have Watch Dogs be an open world game — Metal Gear Solid V proved you could have an open world tactical espionage game in which, if you’e smart and patient, you never have to fire a single bullet. As a hacker, Aiden should be both of those things by default. On a mission-to-mission level, I’m looking this year’s Hitman as an example of what to do. A complex, layered puzzle box that can be solved a number of different ways, but always through creative thinking.

Aiden is a grey hat hacker. The whole point of his character was that he was a kind of digital-age Robin Hood. He steals information from the powerful to help the poor. It’s the sort of thing that would make Sassy Social Memes very happy indeed — dismantle the bourgeoisie, hand power back to the proletariat. This means, to my mind at least, that he would have no interest in ending lives, only improving them. Thus it should be communicated, in word and deed, that actually shooting someone would be Aiden’s last resort. Instead, the pistol has two very specific uses — intimidation and distraction. If you need to force your way into  a secure area and you can’t simply hack your way in, find the person who can get you in, point your pistol at them and scare the bejeezus out of them. Gotten too brazen with your hacks and the feds are closing in on you? Get yourself into a public space, take the gun out and fire wildly into the air. This will create a stampede, allowing you to melt into the fleeing, panicked crowd Aiden is a hacker, not a one-man army. Conflict is as bad for business as it is for his health. Have the game and the character reflect that.

Alright, enough about the damned guns. Lets talk about the things you could be doing with that hacking mechanic. Watch Dogs 2 has a lot of great ideas and those should definitely be included, but I think we can go even further. Let’s start with the idea that a hacker deals in information. Why can’t Aiden use some of that information to his own immediate advantage? Introduce a Planning Stage at your HQ which will allow you to digitally case any joint before going in — breaking into a corporation’s servers and downloading a floor plan, guard rosters and where they’re stationed throughout the building, possible points of entry, possible points of interest, what the security is like. Hackers and programmers are all about having a plan, knowing the details and having a contingency. This will allow you to plot your exact movements and execute them with precision. Why?

Because your smartphone has a battery life. It’s the most important weapon in your arsenal, but you only have a certain amount of charge, and your hacking software drains it like mad. This might seem like a frustrating addition, but there’s a reason for it: your phonee is the most powerful weapon you have, and making it finite only increases its value. It pushes you to make every hack count. Hacking runs should be treated like guerilla warfare — you get in, you get what you came for and you get out again in minutes. Combine the battery drain with a hyper-secure network designed to impede and identify intruders, and you have a two-fold countdown to manage.

You can recharge your phone at your home base, while driving a car, or at certain recharge stations around the city. The phone could also be a burner phone. If you find you’re attracting too much attention from the feds, or you think you’re being tracked, hit the Burn button in the menu, drop it and disappear into the crowd as your phone makes like a Galaxy Note 7, overheats and melts, destroying the hard drive beyond repair. Pick up another one the next time you swing by your HQ or at a dead drop nearby. As you gain influence and start hacking your way into bigger companies, the payout from your exploits will allow you to upgrade to better phones with longer battery life, as well as portable battery packs that will allow you to stay mobile for longer, or even the ability to carry multiple phones.

The upgrade tree would become the Code Bank. Aiden is using software of his own design and, as he encounters more things that require hacking into, he adds the functionality to do so to his program.

In addition to the ground-level hacks that Watch Dogs and Watch Dogs 2 lay out — city manipulation like traffic light changes, bridge controls, cranes, lifts, big screen billboards and electric road signs — lets go further. The cars would all be smart vehicles, capable of being locked remotely after being reported stolen. If you’re not careful about getting out of the car before the lockdown kicks in, you’ll find yourself stuck in the car and automatically driven into the waiting arms of the police. You can unlock a perk in the Code Bank to do away with this hassle, automatically hacking a vehicle’s smart functionality at the same time as you disable its alarm system. Maybe you can hijack the same autopilot system to kidnap a person of interest. You should feel like this is a world designed to keep you out because it is. Getting into some new system or network should feel like a victory in its own way.

Watch Dogs 2 adds the ability to use a drone and a small rolling hacker-bot to help achieve your goals. Lets add more to that! The drone can not only show you the Botnet overlay, it can also show you heat signatures (great for when you absolutely have to know where that server mainframe is located), infrared (look for any security lasers), and maybe a band that can show you the origin point of wifi hotspots or network hubs. The little wheelie robot can be held by the drone and deployed from the air, perfect for dropping in undetected on the roof or through a skylight.

As you can probably tell from this flaming hot take on a two-year-old game, I’ve had a bit of time to think about this. Watch Dogs could be one of the most interesting and inventive franchises in video games but for it to become something truly revolutionary, it needs let go of the stuff everyone else has done before and experiment wildly with the form.

Check back tonight for our full review of Watch Dogs 2 and see if it measures up!


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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.