Wouldn't you like to be the wizard?
Swap out the fantasy robes for a slick trench coat and you've got Aiden Pearce, an armed vigilante who sees the world through the window of his smartphone. The player sees it as an on-screen overlay, with a subtle burst of lines connecting to nearby devices, drawing them into a web with the almighty phone at its center. Just hold the hacking button to make traffic lights go green, car doors pop open and transformers explode in a concussive blast.
Aiden walks the streets of a futuristic, freely explorable Chicago with a hand in his pocket, clutching this source of power like a concealed gun – ready to be pointed at the unknown perpetrators of a hit that struck too close to family. He's convinced himself that barriers of privacy and security are trivial in revenge, as long as he's the lesser evil. He's a huge jerk, basically.
Watch Dogs reduces computer hacking to a magical verb that instantly influences just about anything (even forklifts?), but the lack of granular fiddling is ultimately for the better. As Hollywood's hacks have proven, sexed-up programming scenes are a good way of getting even more details wrong. No, Watch Dogs is not about the act of hacking, so much as the influence it has on a society too dependent on software – software that controls, monitors and predicts the move of every citizen. Put a big action-movie spin on it and you get the enormous playground of Watch Dogs, presided over by the Blume Corporation and its pervasive ctOS security system. "Playground" is an important word, because the game isn't about Chicago either.
We've established that Aiden can make things explode real good when he hijacks Blume's dominion, but he can also steal money, peek into someone's home through a laptop camera, read private exchanges, and see who's an activist, an adulterer, a karaoke enthusiast, or a fraudulent psychic. The world is obsessively detailed, expanding deep into Chicago's suburbs and beneath its daunting skyline, but the people and their secrets bring it to life.
To the game's credit, the temptation to peek exists without formal judgement, and there are no good or evil points to earn in your approach. Your reputation as a terrorist determines how likely it is for someone to call the cops on you, especially if you've been driving on the sidewalk, but the game is happy to let you spy, stalk, or brutally intervene when criminal activity appears in a dank alley. Putting the phone away means losing access to all the tantalizing information floating around you, and eventually it becomes routine to take a break, stroll through the vivid rain and do some hardcore people watching. You start plucking online profiles out of the air because you can, because you have access. It's a contemporary fear you can explore here, albeit superficially, without being policed.
Aiden's route through conspiracy makes him collide with other (more interesting) hackers, some of whom, like Clara, lose their punkish attitude and become increasingly trapped by the information they're not meant to have. For Aiden, however, there are clear benefits to controlling the system, just like there are for the player controlling elements of the game's city simulation. There are also dark pleasures, such as hacking an underground pipe system and watching the traffic pile up behind a geyser of steam in the road. People grow impatient, honk their horns, and then the pedestrians start complaining about all the noise. They do the same when you change the coffee shop's music to some horrible dubstep thing.
Many of the game's primary objectives involve infiltrating guarded locations, which can be done with stealth in mind or a grenade launcher in hand. There's no judgement for killing either, but you might hesitate when your phone tells you, for instance, that a potential target is just 18 years old. You can surprise foes with Aiden's collapsible baton instead of killing them, or lure them away with car alarms, seemingly possessed doors and other wizardly tricks and traps.
Hijacking security cameras gives you an out-of-body experience, even while you crouch behind a crate, and from there you can hack anything within line of sight, or jump into other cameras like they're dots to be connected. Camera circuits form the basis of a few puzzles in Watch Dogs, but in combat they're a way to plot a path for yourself, trigger explosives or open scalding pipes near enemies.
Much like Ubisoft's Far Cry series, there's a lot of pleasure in planning on a micro scale and initiating combat with surprise in your favor. You can also opt for demolition inside or on the roads, provided you craft explosives from looted parts first, or trigger one of Aiden's most powerful maneuvers: temporarily blacking out an entire block. The rumble of every light shutting down is so well presented it's chilling, and the total darkness provides opportunity and tension in equal measure. You don't want to be caught with your pants down when the lights come back on.
Again, the hacks and their battery life cost don't really make sense when considered, but the line-of-sight requirement makes the mechanism clean and easy to read. In fact, the one-button hack process is remarkably refined, reliable and precise, even with multiple devices in view. The low cost of access to your powers makes Watch Dogs a better action game, and it made me far more eager to experiment with different strategies. What's truly baffling, though, is that Watch Dogs does throw in a few hacking redirection mini-games for the important installations. Not only is this pipe-turning contrary to the game's outcome-focused philosophy, but it detracts from the suspension of disbelief we've already agreed to. What need has a wizard of such things?
Meanwhile, the methodical gunplay in Watch Dogs turns out to be integral to the game's pulse, offering bursts of excitement and noise in what is otherwise a surprisingly quiet blockbuster game. The cover system is effective and the weapons are punchy and plentiful, but shootouts truly come to life when they come at the end of a high-speed car chase. With enemy reinforcements arriving – and Aiden being one of the more physically fragile heroes of recent years – you're pressed to immobilize passing vehicles for additional cover. The battles feel completely dynamic, and the resulting destruction is spectacular. Not spectacular enough, oddly, to consistently draw the attention of the police, who are otherwise annoying in their persistence at times.
Though Watch Dogs has a few classic flaws to deal with – such as the occasional insta-fail stealth mission – it's also the victim of a more modern affliction. It's more bloated than Windows Vista, complete with mini-games that have their own skill trees and progression systems, independent of those that govern Aiden himself. I'm not knocking the crazy wealth of content here, just that some of it is either too disruptive to the game's pacing, or shouldn't have made it through the "Is this relevant to our game?" filter.
Finally, Watch Dogs wouldn't be complete or "next-gen" without a seamless (but optional) multiplayer component. While online racing and other objective-based modes will wither quickly, I imagine, there's something exciting about being unexpectedly invaded by another player. They appear in your game as a regular civilian and begin downloading your data from afar, obscured in a crowd or lying low in a car. There's a sudden panic when you're alerted to the process, followed by a ruthless hunt as you attempt to profile the hidden hacker with your phone before they escape with a full download.
These online invasions are arguably the smartest realization of what Watch Dogs is about: the fear of being violated, and the principle of identity protection. Even when it skews toward bigger actions and questionable bouts of busywork, though, Watch Dogs is a more fluid and modern power fantasy than we're used to. Somewhere, in its vague, fantastical version of hacking, there's a lesson about the power and the naughty temptations that lurk in our networked, selfie-loving world.
And I think that lesson is ... the lesson is ... that it's good to be a wizard!
This review is based on a retail copy of the PS4 version of Watch Dogs, provided by Ubisoft. Images: Ubisoft.
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