As a genre, science fiction is interesting to follow in that it constantly holds up a mirror to society. Whatever we’re worried about, as a culture, will quickly be reflected in the sci-fi stories we tell ourselves.
You can see this play out most often in films, but sometimes video games get into the action as well. Case in point: “Watch Dogs” ($59.99; rated M), the open-world adventure from Ubisoft that directly addresses our fears about privacy and surveillance in the digital age.
In “Watch Dogs,” you play the character of Aiden Pearce, a computer hacker and vigilante out for revenge after rival criminals kill his niece. Aiden is a pretty cool customer, casually wandering a near-future city of Chicago and using his smartphone to hack whatever is in range.
Anyone is fair game in the world of “Watch Dogs.” Activate your “profiler” app and you can instantly hack into the phones of passersby, stealing their ATM codes and other secrets. The pop-up profiles can be both funny and creepy, as Aiden instantly accesses online info to determine whether the target has any vulnerabilities – a gambling problem, maybe, or a secret political affiliation.
Aiden can also use his hacking skills to tap into the city’s central operating system (ctOS). This comes in handy when you need to access buildings or scout locations. By hijacking various municipal data systems, Aiden can opens doors and gates, or gain control of remote surveillance cameras.
Then there are the more extreme options. If you find yourself in a tight spot, you can overload steam pipes or electric system transformers to trigger massive explosions. When driving, you can hack the traffic grid to change intersection lights or activate drawbridges. Jam the city communication systems and you can redirect police response units or even take down helicopters.
These creative hacking tools are really the heart of the game, and they represent a real innovation in the action-adventure genre. Other games have incorporated computer hacking in the form of in-game puzzles or challenges, but “Watch Dogs” makes hacking part of the minute-to-minute gameplay. When the cops are on your tail in a high-speed chase, for instance, you can hack the city’s utility system to trigger a manhole eruption at just the right time. It’s a lot of fun.
The rest of the game stays in the general vicinity of open-world third-person games, with an emphasis on stealth. When you do get into combat, “Watch Dogs” uses a cover-based combat system with various auto-aim options. You can also spend focus points to slow down time in critical situations.
Not for younger kids
As you progress through the main storyline, you’re awarded experience points that you can cash in to improve your skills. The skills tree system has different progression areas for combat, driving, hacking and crafting. (Aiden’s a science geek, evidently, and can improvise explosive devices with alarming speed.) If you want to get more powerful quickly, stick with the hacking skills.
Befitting its themes, “Watch Dogs” also includes some interesting multi-player elements designed to let players essentially stalk and hack one another. The multi-player features are optional, but incorporated into the main storyline if you choose. When an online opponent tries to hack and disrupt your own plans, it adds another layer to the game’s air of constant tension and paranoia.
“Watch Dogs” is definitely not for younger kids, though. The future noir story includes heavy violence, sexual content, drug use and plenty of strong language. It’s too much, really. The story doesn’t need this level of “Grand Theft Auto” excess, and it’s a shame that the designers don’t have more faith in the inherent appeal of the game system.
Still, “Watch Dogs” is one of the best games of the year so far, and an interesting piece of pop-culture commentary on our brave new digital world.
“Watch Dogs” is now available on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
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