The tagline for “Watch Dogs” is “Hacking is your weapon.” It’s not. Your main weapon is your silenced pistol.
“Watch Dogs” wants to build itself around the modern surveillance state and a world where we are constantly watched through our webcams, cellphone cameras and every other device with a camera. Playing as a professional hacker, information such as personal identities, building layouts and traffic systems are available at your fingertips during the entire game. Yet with this framework, “Watch Dogs” becomes a derivative open-world third-person shooter, emphasizing shooting and violence over its original hook of hacking and surveillance. Although the game is competently built, the game fails to bring anything to the table other than “fun.”
In “Watch Dogs,” developed and published by Ubisoft and released for current and next-gen consoles, you play as Aiden Pearce (Noam Jenkins), a hacker-turned-vigilante who is on a quest to avenge his murdered niece. Pearce is basically Batman equipped with guns and modern-day hacking gadgets, except with even less personality. Set in a modern-day Chicago, the city has implemented a surveillance system called ctOS, which enables police — and hackers like Pearce — to control traffic, recognize criminals through facial recognition and use any camera connected to the network to facilitate their work. This system has horrific implications in itself, but ctOS becomes a playground for Pearce to chase and kill bad guys, which might be even more horrific implication that “Watch Dogs” embraces this surveillance.
“Watch Dogs” would like for its players to think that hacking and surveillance are used for gathering information, but in reality, you use your hacking abilities to cause mayhem and facilitate your killing skills. The game is broken up into two modes of play: driving and on foot. While driving, you use your hacking abilities to blow up steam pipes, open gates and reset traffic lights to stop your pursuers. On foot, you can hack cameras to tag enemy locations, hack electrical breakers to cause small explosions or even cause a short electrical blackout to confuse your enemies. You’ll still be crashing into cars and murdering labyrinths of gangsters similar to other open-world action games such as “Grand Theft Auto.”
Ultimately, the main problem with “Watch Dogs” is that for every idea and theme, the game attempts to provide in its plot and commentary on the surveillance state, it will immediately contradict itself, usually for the sake of having “fun.” In the cut scenes, Pearce is portrayed as a man with a high moral conscious who avoids killing and hurting innocents, but 10 hours into the game, he was murdering gangsters, running over pedestrians in high-speed chases and hacking into innocent people’s bank accounts to fund my extensive weapon collection.
Even the game’s central theme is bipolar. The ctOS system is portrayed as an evil invasion of privacy, yet as a reward for hacking into ctOS stations, you can view people singing in their homes, watching T.V. or having people sex in voyeuristic videos stored on the ctOS server. “Watch Dogs” wants to be serious, but it also wants to be funny and fun, and the conjunction of these two tones is jarring.
Still, the content that surrounds the plot-driven single-player experience is well made, even if it never fits the tone of the rest of the game. The activities and mini-games scattered around the city are extensive, and the multiplayer is varied, better than the multiplayer options included in “Grand Theft Auto V.”
“Watch Dogs” is representative of the failure of multimillion-dollar budget games to provide an experience that isn’t centered around shooting people. It wants to tell a story about something other than a man who can kill many, many people, but the only thing it succeeds in is providing a fun framework to shoot people and crash cars.
Art Siriwatt covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].