Ubisoft’s gritty new hacker thriller Watch Dogs delivers just about everything you could hope for from an open-world adventure. It’s not often a new game franchise comes into the world so fully realized and without major shortcomings, which is why this is such an impressive achievement. Not only is it more polished, expansive, alive and fun to play than many predecessors in its genre, it’s also the best example yet of next-generation gameplay. Set in a recognizable near-future Chicago where everything is connected, Watch Dogs is a game that perfectly captures its era, both in terms of the themes it covers and the technology it uses to get there. Perhaps more so than any title in recent memory, it’s a game that is very right now.
Watch Dogs wastes no time in thrusting you into its shadowy underworld of hacker thugs, embodied by the trenchcoat-clad Aiden Pearce. Originally making his name as a street tough,Pearce has since graduated to cyber-crime and opens the story in the middle of a job to bilk some unsuspecting schlubs of their riches. This is a video game, so the plan goes sideways and he’s soon on the run (luckily, escape is easy when he can switch traffic lights and slip away in the ensuing mass carnage).
Every street light, gadget, vending machine, camera and even sewer vent in this game version of Chicago is connected to and controlled by ctOS, a “smart city” central operating system designed to make inhabitants’ lives easier and more convenient.
Of course, there is also the flip-side to this technological promise: whoever controls ctOS can use it for their own nefarious purposes. Privacy, safety and even fundamental freedoms can be imperilled with the swipe of touchscreen by the powers that be, or by individuals who can figure out how to manipulate the system. Enter Pearce and his trusty smartphone.
Whether it’s simply “profiling” passersby and funnelling their bank accounts into his own, spying on people in their apartments or taking control of trains and bridges, Pearce proves to be an enormously powerful individual.
The fact that Watch Dogs has been in development since 2008 – well before the Edward Snowden revelations were ever known – makes the games features that much more eerie – and timely. This may be the first big-budget game to reflect our era, where real-world security agencies are routinely spying on the “metadata” of innocent civilians.
Fortunately, players are forced to walk a straighter line in this story after some old colleagues visit violence on Pearce’s family. While he’s still a self-interested opportunist who’s unafraid to steal from innocents, he has no choice but to become a classic anti-hero in his quest for justice.
Chicago itself is expansive and varied, with the gleaming downtown skyscrapers contrasted with the dilapidated ghettos of the southern Wards district and the decidedly rural hamlet of Pawnee in the north. Regardless of where Pearce ventures, there’s evidence of living, breathing life everywhere. Ordinary civilians have cellphone conversations as they walk by, would-be rappers practice their rhymes on street corners, panhandlers beg for change.
Adding to this is Watch Dogs’ most ingenious innovation: Pearce’s “Profiler” app. Whipping out your smartphone and aiming it someone, anyone, delivers a few nuggets of information about them: their occupation, income and interesting trivia, such as the fact that they’re addicted to pornography, give lots of money to charity or are recently immigrated from Canada.
These are small, superficial tidbits, but they do much to bring the game’s denizens to life. I found myself projecting my own stories and judgments onto them, deciding for example, that a stranger who has repeatedly cheated on his wife is a much better candidate for identity theft than a single mother with three children.
There is also a wealth of things to do outside the game’s lengthy main storyline. There are “fixer contracts,” which include street races and breaking up enemy convoys; gang hideouts to infiltrate; QR puzzles to solve and hidden cellphones to find. Pearce can also practice his parkour skills with Pac-Man like “money runs” through back alleys and over rooftops. There’s also a nifty drinking game at the local bar to play when you’re not shopping for new trenchcoats, and even “digital trips”; humourous psychedelic side games that involve driving tanks or running over flaming-headed demons.