Watch Dogs Review: I must use these powers, to annoy
There is one absolute when making a movie or writing a series that involves hackers, they are almost never charitable, they are just rule-breakers, thieves or social-outcasts. With the exception of ‘Sneakers’ (my personal favorite movie about hackers that has ever graced the silver-screen and starring Robert Redford) most hackers never do anything to help the society they are in, only exact revenge or stop someone else (maybe they stop an international weapons dealer from setting off a nuke, but I don’t know how often regular hackers have that chance).
I am not a hacker and I don’t claim to be one, I’m not well-versed in all the technology that is required to hack-into security buildings or Chicago’s utility infrastructure, but I am quite positive that the hacking in Watch Dogs borders on the mythical. From the early 90’s to even some modern-day television series, almost all accounts of Hackers show them as anti-establishment, lone-wolves that only enter into the sunlight to escape capture, or pull-off the crime of the century. Not too much has been changed in that recipe when creating Watch Dogs.
In real-life hacking computers, accounts and companies isn’t glamorous, but the point that almost every medium tries to bring across is that we are vulnerable, and Watch Dogs does a good job at driving that point home to the player. Software is present in almost every stage of our daily-routine, and where there is software there is a chance for that software to be corrupted. Maybe not to the extent that Ubisoft portrays in the game, but the implication is clear.
Hacking in movies, and games in particular, show breaching security with a ‘CSI Mentality,’ where everything is instant, comes with easy to read custom-made UI interfaces, and is easy to understand and capable of being done with or to, any device or system.
This is pushed to the extreme in Watch Dogs, and while I’m all for the wonderful ‘suspension of reality’ that games offer, when Ubisoft promoted the game as a real-life social-commentary at E3 when it was announced, I expected it to be a little more grounded and inspirational since the game is for a demographic that often times is incredibly talented at software and hardware modifications.
The game itself talks about surveillance, privacy issues, Government control and data-breaches, these are real things, and they exist in our actual world and many people that the game is marketed towards, are angry about it.
Players take on the role of Aiden Pearce, armed with a smartphone that is capable of wondrous and magical hacking capabilities. While moving about Chicago’s busy streets, buildings and parks, you will have the power to interact with almost every electronic device that you come across. Just by walking across the street, a connection can be made to the nearest traffic-light, which you can change and cause a massive pileup at an intersection, you can do this if you need a distraction to further your mission or are just bored.
Pearce isn’t a hero, he has convinced himself that his goals are more important than the means it takes to accomplish them. The privacy-side of the social-commentary is found when you use in-home cameras, laptops and phones to steal money or personal info from Chicago’s many citizens to help you along the way. You can check on people’s emails, see who’s cheating on their spouses, find crimes or read social profiles all in a few clicks of your smartphone.
This brings me to the same point I began with, what hackers are, because the game opens a few paths that you can take, but all of them have been done before. Ubisoft gave Pearce amazing powers with his hacking smartphone, it lets you basically play the role of the NSA that it is commenting on, showing you the benefits and the excessive privacy data it can obtain, and it shows you the typical hacker-mentality found in films, where they just want to cause trouble or get even.
With a power that can basically steal enough money to feed every homeless-person that you come across, you instead can change the coffee-shop music to dubstep and make people annoyed. You can explode transformers, cause major accidents, hurt others and just…annoy people. All of it can be fun, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to be a wet-blanket. I’m just curious why more people aren’t trying to motivate individuals that can actually do these things, to do them for better reasons.
You can have the mini-games (and these are probably the best mini-games found in an open-world title in the last few years) and you can have the funny moment in the coffee-shop and the lady cheating on her husband in her apartment, It’s fun and it broke up the gameplay. I’m asking that you also open people’s minds to the idea that hacking-itself isn’t helping enough people. Ubisoft missed a giant opportunity to comment on the idea that while the NSA hides behind the idea that it is for the good of our society; did the players that received this power in the game, instinctively try to help others, or was it for selfish gains?
It’s easy to say that people are misusing power, but when a game just gave you control of almost an entire city, did you use it just to make cars run into each other? Or was your first instinct to make the city better than it ever was? The game doesn’t have to change Pearce, I just wish it offered a little more insight to our behavior when given magical powers.
I stated that Aiden isn’t a hero, and the game doesn’t make you act like one, you do have choices. You don’t have to kill others, you have stealth, batons, stuns and other options to get through security. You also have the standard pistol and grenade launcher for those that would rather take that route. The most outrageous of the hacking tricks comes with security cameras, which can hack other cameras that they can see. This causes you to “leap” from camera to camera to hack other items to open doors or surprise enemies.
With all of the ‘bent reality’ aside, hacking is fun and it is very well done in the game. It’s easy to use and the buttons, and the UI offers a seamless experience for the user. Gunplay is standard, there is a cover-based third-person shooting aspect that jumps from GTA to Far Cry depending on your playstyle and your interaction with police offer quick bursts of explosions and narrow-escapes.
The gunplay offered the most excitement, but the stealth offered the most suspense during my time with the game. Causing an entire block to go dark just so I could infiltrate a small lair of evil-doers was a timed exercise. I knew that at any moment the hack would dissolve and I would be in a room filled with assault-rifle carrying brutes, and I would be found in a now brightly lit hallway with a baton and a smartphone to defend myself.
The multiplayer is actually probably one of the most entertaining forms of hacking that the game has to offer and I think this boils down to what really makes hacking popular in the first place. It’s a challenge, it’s you against other forces, or in this case other players and it involves strategy, stealth and keeping yourself anonymous.
While the added-on multiplayer in some open-world games is mostly just a filler, I think this one should be experimented with by everyone. I think it is a pretty creative move from Ubisoft, and offers a more intricate form of the stealth gameplay that is found in the multiplayer version of Assassin’s
We have gigantic hacker-collectives in our society, that sometimes uses their powers for good reasons. I’ve read articles where they have identified sexual-predators, worked with our Government to stop cyber-crimes, shut-down bigotry websites, and I’ve read the horrible as well. I’ve seen people targeted for their beliefs (even if I don’t believe in them) with their families threatened and their children stalked. I’ve read about money stolen from private individuals, and I’ve read about the blackmarket that all of this happens on, it’s always scary and is very real. When America hated the corporate banks that tanked our economy, no one was erasing the debt like in ‘Fight Club,’ no one was transferring millions into research that they agreed with like in ‘Sneakers,’ it was just stopping, halting, or selling. When the Playstation Network went down, $20 gift-cards weren’t sent to every player to stick it to Sony, instead no one got to play.
In a game that was meant to be a social-commentary on our society, I’m not sure who was the intended bad-guy, and while that could be A point that a game could make, I don’t think that was the actual point that Ubisoft was going for. The game does do an amazing job at pointing out how vulnerable we are, and just how connected we have become, and that is most present in the multiplayer I think.
The game offers more tricks and tactics than any other open-world title, and the graphics (I played the PC version, but have tried the game on both PS4 and Xbox One) are stellar to say the least. I think it shows how wonderful Ubisoft is becoming at offering more in their open-world games than just shooting or driving, and I think Watch Dogs (like Assassin’s Creed) will become even better and more robust in the next installment.