‘Watch Dogs’ review: Ubisoft techno thriller compels until guns drawn

May 31, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.
In the game "Watch Dogs," Aiden Pearce uses his cellphone to hack into Chicago's network, allowing players to explore the city.

In the game “Watch Dogs,” Aiden Pearce uses his cellphone to hack into Chicago’s network, allowing players to explore the city. (Ubisoft)

Central to the narrative of “Watch Dogs” is a character by the name of Aiden Pearce, a baseball-cap-wearing vigilante whose greatest weapon is a cellphone.

As Aiden walks the streets with his head buried in his phone, the emails, text messages, bank accounts, salaries and police records of strangers within his proximity are made available to his hacking delight.

When he uses his phone to sneak into the network of the city — in this case, modern-day Chicago — he has more power than former Windy City Mayor Richard M. Daley ever had during his 22 years in office.

Though the theme of spying is certainly topical, work on the new Ubisoft game “Watch Dogs” began five years ago, long before most of us were concerned with what the letters NSA actually stood for.

But the real world has caught up to the game’s premise, one that capitalizes on the anxieties produced by our heavily surveilled, always online world. In “Watch Dog’s” version of Chicago, which isn’t too far off from the real-world version of Chicago, privacy seems near impossible under the eyes of 1,000-plus security cameras installed around the crime-ridden city.

With its sci-fi, cyber-crime-focused backdrop, “Watch Dogs” is one of the most anticipated video games of 2014. For publisher Ubisoft, it’s no doubt the start of a new blockbuster franchise, one that already has its own fashion line and a film in the works from Sony Pictures and New Regency.

“Watch Dogs” is ambitious, and it succeeds in turning hacking into high action and big tension, so much so that the ability to spy via rabidly traversing Chicago’s computer networks often results in a gaming experience that’s rewarding. It’s in the game’s grander aspirations — its desire to break game stereotypes when it comes to story, character and social commentary — where “Watch Dogs” ultimately comes up short.

Part of the problem is Aiden himself. If you’ve played a mass-market video game in the past 10 years, you’re probably familiar with Aiden. He’s a white guy, he has a gun, he talks like Christian Bale as Batman and he’s out for revenge, setting off to avenge the death of his niece after his own criminal path led to her death. Despite that uncomfortable fact, he seems to view his sister with contempt, and says things to her like, “You are not in danger because I protect you.”

Aiden Pearce is the protagonist in the game "Watch Dogs."

Aiden Pearce is the protagonist in the game “Watch Dogs.” (Ubisoft)

When “Watch Dogs” works, it taps into a decidedly modern paranoia, one in which potential victims are stalked based upon their status updates to social networks. Aiden even encounters a woman on the street who dismisses the notion from a friend that she’s sharing too much online, offering as evidence that an Internet bookseller isn’t intelligent enough to recommend to her a title she wants to read. She says this as her account is being drained.

But Aiden’s phone can do more than intrude. The device essentially allows players to explore the city and its skyscrapers while standing still, resulting in surprisingly thrilling action sequences. Aiden can hack a security camera, then a cellphone camera, and then jump back and forth and up and down, moving through Chicago essentially as a ghost. Traffic lights can be flipped, construction equipment can be set into motion, bridges can be raised and Chicago’s El train can be manipulated.

Early on, “Watch Dogs” teases us, encouraging players to buy Aiden a gun that he ultimately doesn’t need to use — at least not for the first few missions. When he has to hack into a computer system, it’s sometimes best to find a cellphone resting idly in the palm of a security guard. Now with a hip-level point of view, Aiden can activate an electronically controlled door that was initially out of sight, thus inspiring the guard to turn around. Away we go again.

It turns action scenes into gun-free puzzles, so much so that it becomes a momentum jolt whenever “Watch Dogs” backs away from its hacking innovations. When Aiden was asked to flee from police at one moment and came across drawn bridges, I killed a good hour trying to plot out why Aiden suddenly couldn’t hack the overpasses, believing it too simple, too out of character and too boring for a cyber-thriller to ask me to just make like Elwood of “The Blues Brothers” and jump them.

Yet as the game progresses, “Watch Dogs” too often encourages big, guns-drawn action and reckless car chases, the latter of which will result in street lamps conducting cartoonish back flips high into the air when struck. While so-called “open world” games sell players on the ability to go anywhere and use any weapon, here it feels disingenuous. The selling point of “Watch Dogs” is the idea that hacking is a weapon, and that it so easily resorts to guns implies someone wasn’t entirely confident in the concept behind the game.

While hacking is a focus in "Watch Dogs," the game also falls back on gun-drawn action.

While hacking is the focus in “Watch Dogs,” the game also falls back on gun-drawn action. (Ubisoft)

And here’s the dirty secret about “Watch Dogs”: For all its pretense about how technology has eroded our privacy, it’s often not very smart. As a homesick Chicagoan, I did love riding a virtual El around the Loop, but I also could skip the cheap jokes, such as the one about the in-game baseball team actually being successful.

Nor did I find it particularly illuminating when I stumbled across a sculpture purporting to be Chicago’s famed “Cloud Gate” (“The Bean”) in Millennium Park. In “Watch Dogs,” it’s described as a “giant, pretentious sculpture” because public art is … lame?

It’s emblematic of “Watch Dog’s” tonal incongruity — in which a should-be complex plot about corporate and government surveillance dissolves into a series of double crossings and shootouts, where by the end of the game’s first 10 hours Aiden’s magical phone can turn every city cable box into a bomb. The hundred-plus hours of side quests start to raise more uncomfortable questions, such as why this selfish hero has such a distaste for “gangbangers,” who are often depicted as minorities in the game.

It’s never quite clear whether Aiden even wants to be a vigilante. Throughout the game he gets alerted to crimes in progress, and while I directed Aiden to run down his fair share of pickpockets, I also witnessed a scene of domestic violence when a man slapped a woman across the face and sent her stumbling away in fear and tears. No crime alert went off, calling into question the editorial decision to even include this act of horror among peripheral characters.

Ultimately, “Watch Dogs” feels like a beginning, a look toward hopefully better and most certainly bigger things to come.

It offers a topic that’s ripe for further exploration. We’re not all super hackers, but who among us can’t relate when a character chides Aiden for spending too much time on his phone? What’s more, the idea that the person standing next to us, someone we think is checking email or swiping through Tinder, is in actuality stealing our data is a chilling one.

But more unsettling than anything “Watch Dogs” tries to say about our lack of privacy is what it says about its audience. How we share information and who controls that data is a compelling question for a techno thriller, and “Watch Dogs” raises them. Then it quickly pulls away and twists Aiden’s cellphone into a device that triggers bombs rather than reveals secrets.

What we want, “Watch Dogs” is telling us, is not a thoughtful narrative set in a major American city struggling with crime, at least not while that city can be exploded from a really neat smartphone app.

– Todd Martens| @toddmartens | @LATHeroComplex

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