Expectations for Ubisoft Montreal's new video game Watch Dogs, released today, have reached a fever pitch that few games have enjoyed (or suffered) in quite some time. Billed a flagship release for the new Xbox One and PlayStation 4, it left gamers salivating in anticipation of a title that uses the consoles’ increased processing power for a generational leap forward in visuals and introduce something truly new in gaming.
The first entry of a brand-new franchise, Watch Dogs is a fresh start from a publisher known for iterating year after year its well-worn and acclaimed series, including Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. The creators also promised a new take on the Grand Theft Auto, run-and-gun, open-world style of video game with its introduction of a timely lens: hackers, online security and the surveillance state.
By any measure, Watch Dogs is a gargantuan game. The main storyline — in which protagonist Aiden Pearce finds himself stuck in a morass of double-dealers and extortionists in Chicago’s hacking and information technology scene — spans roughly 30 hours. Dozens of other side missions, investigations and mini-games easily add up to more than twice that length, for those who absolutely need to plumb Watch Dogs’ depths. Rest assured: you’ll get your money’s worth as far as raw content goes.
A strong cast and script
Playing through Watch Dogs feels somewhat like binging on several seasons of fast-paced TV shows such as 24 or Homeland. Pearce is an expert hacker whose adventures in pilfering millions from the bank accounts of unsuspecting victims earned him a place on an assassin's hit list — but resulted in the death of his six-year-old niece instead.
'[The game's] straight-talking approach is refreshingly different from the juvenile, reality-show satire that characterized 2013’s Grand Theft Auto 5'
Wracked with guilt, we first meet him while he’s on the trail of his would-be hitman. Of course, things don’t go as planned and he finds himself dragged into conspiracies involving inter-gang warfare, shady security firms and old friends-turned-enemies. We've seen this before in crime thriller stories, for instance movies like Ransom or the Jason Bourne novels and films.
The tone of Watch Dogs, however, is a change from the open-world games of the past — especially those set in the near-present. Yes, the storyline hits expected hallmarks of the thriller genre (you’ve got your chase scenes, blackmail and last-minute, near-impossible tasks to accomplish), but the game’s straight-talking approach is refreshingly different from the juvenile, reality-show satire that characterized 2013’s Grand Theft Auto 5.
Pearce isn’t a particularly likeable protagonist: though he cares for his family, he’s also a stone-cold killer and as capable at blackmail and extortion as his adversaries. However, he’s still a step up from the psychopathic Mafiosi and jive-talking gang members of the GTA series.
His family and the rest of the game’s supporting characters are believable, rather than intentionally offensive stereotypes stretched thin over the course of 30 hours of gaming. It’s a shame we don’t see more of them. A few missions in the shoes of Clara, an enigmatic hacker with a thick Québécois accent, or the charismatic sometimes-ally Jordi Chin ("That is a terrible plan. I love it.") would have been welcome.
Hacking the public
Pearce’s hacking know-how shines through best when players are not actually embroiled in a specific mission or advancing the main storyline at all.
With a press of a button on his cell phone, the character’s Profiler scans his surroundings, thanks to an always-on connection with the city’s digital operating system, CtOS. This allows him to zero in on details about any of the dozens of pedestrians around him, just minding their business in Chicago (which is, incidentally, gorgeously rendered on the next-generation consoles or a beefy home PC).
The scan reveals their names, occupation and salary as well as a short line of flavour text that shares something about that person. He or she could be listed as divorced, a known anti-government protester or undergoing long-term cancer treatment.
Some phones are open to hacking, meaning you can steal money from the owner’s bank accounts, read text messages or listen in on phone conversations. Others will give you a tip about a possible crime, leading to an in-game mission. But many are simply there for you to crack into and glimpse these people’s private lives. Depending on how voyeuristic a player chooses to be, one could spend hours simply prying into these digitally connected citizens.
'Are you, as [main character] Aiden Pearce, exposing ... invasion of privacy? Or do you just enjoying being a voyeur?
Pearce isn’t the only one monitoring the unsuspecting populace, of course. As the game progresses, you’ll often hack the internal servers of Blume Security, the company behind CtOS. Despite a sparkling clean public image, it turns out the firm has been secretly recording people and capturing private moments through security cameras, smartphones and webcams in their homes.
These videos and clips, dubbed "CtZN OS," are leaked by the hacker community and players can browse through them — scenes ranging from an illicit affair taking place in an office boardroom to a mother caring for her newborn (recorded through a camera in a crib mobile).
Are you, as Pearce, exposing Blume for a National Security Agency-like invasion of privacy? Or do you just enjoying being a voyeur? Watch Dogs opens up these current conversations (although many of the game’s glimpses into people’s lives are raunchy, rather than profound).
Still, Watch Dogs hasn’t quite escaped the format of its open-world predecessors. It doesn’t share Grand Theft Auto's setting, but the game does share a basic design. You’ll still be driving to and from Pearce’s missions, shooting dozens of enemies while hiding behind chest-high walls and getting into many, many car chases.
Most of the hacks you employ during the game are clever, though you’ve probably seen something similar in other titles.
Standing across the street from a base crawling with guards, for instance, you can hack into a security camera, scope out the surroundings and remotely mess with the scene. You’ll be able to overload a guard’s earpiece or a power circuit to cause sparks to fly. Or you might remotely detonate grenade sitting inside an enemy’s vest.
You can even do all of these things in the thick of combat. Hey, the idea of being able to instantly hack your surroundings while in the middle of a firefight may not be realistic, but it sure is exciting.
None of these features will be entirely new if you’ve been playing AAA games for the last few years. You have Splinter Cell’s stealth, the tailing missions of Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham City’s glee for tormenting your enemies from afar and, of course, the driving and shooting from Grand Theft Auto.
Watch Dogs won’t teach you how to become a hacker nor will it redefine gaming’s genre staples for the current crop of new consoles. However, Ubisoft has managed to craft a solid open-world game that hits familiar notes from recent blockbusters (especially Grand Theft Auto), puts an engaging spin on a tried-and-true formula with its smart script and mostly likeable cast, and still raises relevant questions about living in an era of widespread online surveillance.