I dearly wish that Ubisoft had set Watch Dogs in London.
My blatant British patriotism notwithstanding, the decision to locate Watch Dogs' sandbox shenanigans in Chicago irked me when I first heard about it in 2012, and my time with the finished product has made my mind firmly up. Though The Windy City provides a fair few highlights and a few interesting opportunities, I can't help but feel that a different setting -- London or any number of European cities -- might have made a lot more sense on a thematic and gameplay level.
Though I'm seriously enjoying Watch Dogs in preparation for our full review (Pro Tip: don't play it like GTA, play it like Swordfish by way of Blues Brothers), a change in locale might have made for a better game... or at least a superior sequel. Allow me to explain.
Let's start slow with a facile point: surveillance. The UK has more CCTV cameras per head than almost any other society, most of which are centred around London's streets and tube network that bristles with over a million electronic eyes. Every step you take is monitored, practically every corner is covered, yet the police continually comes under fire for not being able to use the technology effectively. As a commentary on runaway surveillance culture, Watch Dogs would have been a great fit for the city, not least due to the expanded gameplay opportunities so many cameras would afford Aiden on a minute-by-minute basis.
We also need to talk personality. I've never been to Chicago (unless you count watching Blues Brothers several dozen times) and I'm sure that it's a lovely place to visit, but Watch Dogs' version of it lacks the exciting architecture that draws us to so many sandbox games. It's pretty yet nondescript. The L-Train is iconic, but it's no St. Paul's Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Shard or Gherkin. London's streets are a wonderful jumble of ancient, Elizabethan, Victorian, 60s and hyper-modern buildings, all of which would have provided any number of memorable landmarks and interesting things to look at.
Okay, yes, I freely admit that I'm romanticizing like a mad rose-tinted fool! Like any city, London has more than its fair share of drab, depressing and seamy streets - not to mention the concrete monstrosities from the fifties and sixties. But we're talking about videogames here. Heightening reality is what they do.
Speaking of reality, I must also concede that driving would be an utter nightmare. Chicago's wide multi-levelled roads are a far cry from London's grim warren of insane one-way systems, Boris Bikes and traffic jams. I also wouldn't be able to re-enact my favourite car chases from Blues Brothers... okay, so at the very least The Windy City pulls it back there. I hate Illinois Nazis.
But all that was just the warmup before the biggest point in London's favour: gun control.
For the benefit of overseas readers, the UK enforces incredibly strict restrictions on firearms. It's a criminal offence for private citizens to own a gun with very rare and specific exceptions, meaning that firearms are usually only found in the hands of armed police (even then, only specific branches such as SCO19 and the Diplomatic Protection Group) or hardened criminals. And shotgun-toting farmers, but that's besides the point. As such, London might be a fairly hopeless setting for a conventional shooter, but it's a fantastic place to set a game about hacking.
A game, dare I say, like Watch Dogs - which offers an awesome range of hacking abilities (well, 'holding X abilities,' same difference). A limited supply of reliable guns and ammunition would have forced us to use hacking, stealth and distraction even more creatively to complete our objectives, something Watch Dogs already does well. Meanwhile getting hold of rare black market, reactivated or even military firearms would have provided exciting new missions in their own right, and given us optional quests that make sense in canon. Not just driving a car from A to B in a ridiculous time limit for... reasons.
But guns are so common in Chicago that you'll end up with a grenade launcher in less than an hour. Sure, you can leap between cameras like a digital ghost, distract guards or detonate their explosives and sneak past them ninja-style... but when you've got a grenade launcher, it's easier to just launch a grenade. Or use one of the several dozen guns you can freely pick up or buy at a moment's notice. Rather than being a powerful yet deadly game-changer, guns are just far too common for Watch Dogs' own good - and arguably Ubisoft Montreal gave us too much choice rather than letting an imaginative setting do the hard work for them.
At the risk of ruining a perfectly good opinion piece with real journalism -- shock horror! -- I actually posed this question to Watch Dogs designer Danny Belanger last year. Why not London or any city with gun control?
"The real reason is because [guns] exist in the world, you know, the world we live in today", he replied. "In the US, it's a reality. They're weapons, they're just tools that players can use to solve problems. We thought about that, to be honest, [having] no guns. But when cops arrive and they drop a weapon when you take them down, some players will say “I want to pick up the gun.” It feels wrong for us to not allow something like that to happen; it's just a natural thing.
That being said, in action-adventure games, shooting is a fun part of it; a good part of it. So we didn't want to lose that aspect. It just made a lot more sense to have it."
And yet the finished product is actually worse off for how prolific they are. It doesn't make sense given that "hacking is our weapon" -- and even though I'm having a lot of fun blasting away my foes, every shot I fire robs Watch Dogs of just a little more of its unique personality and beckons more GTA comparisons. Roll on Watch Dogs 2: Crewkerne Rising.
Oh, hang on, what about Tokyo? That crazy city is on the cutting edge of technology, has a totally wild personality and packs even more authoritarian gun control laws than we do!
Bugger. No time for a re-write now - I've got a review to crack on with.