Watch Dogs, out today from the French Canadian giant Ubisoft Montreal, may be the first mainstream videogame to sell itself as much as a news story as a game. Though Ubisoft wouldn't say it (instead, they'd design a viral Facebook app), the game is, as they say, ripped from the headlines. Which headlines? You tell me: Taking place in a near-future in which omnipresent networked computers unceasingly surveil the digital lives of clueless Americans, Watch Dogs puts you in the role of a white loner hacker with the gumption and the know-how to fight back, or at least damn well try. Yes, the biggest game of the season takes place in the Snowdenverse or, as we're coming to see it, reality.
Being aggressively 'of the moment' has been part of the Watch Dogs pitch ever since it was announced two years ago. Initially, this meant introducing the themes of the game via ominous promotional videos depicting future things like skyscrapers, electricity grids, cameras, data clusters, and the Earth, and asking frightening questions about future stuff. More recently, Ubi has switched to a series of the aforementioned zeitgeisty interactives, some of which have gotten the internet chattering in the desired way. Because Watch Dogs was meant to be a launch game for the new consoles (it was delayed six months), and because it is so very serious about its thematic ambitions, and, let's face it, because of turbografix, it has received a lot of amorphous hype as a game of the future.
So what, exactly, does a game of the future, a game about computer hacking, look like? Watch Dogs, as it turns out, looks almost identical to Grand Theft Auto, in that it is a huge game set in a busy urban environment in which the driving of stolen cars and the firing of hoarded guns play primary roles. Unlike the most recent GTA, which was suffused with manic joie de vivre, Watch Dogs is a dour conspiracy noir in which the corporation behind the game's fictional surveillance tech is nefarious and secretive and to reveal any more risks boring you something sinful.
In practice, the main way Watch Dogs differs from GTA is that there is a "hack" button. On PlayStation 4 the hack button is the square button. I don't think I'm oversimplifying when I say that all of the hacking and computer tomfoolery that you get up to in the game involves pressing square at certain times. If you're on foot, this means taking over security cameras, opening up gates, blowing up cellphones, and, for some reason, raising forklifts. There are a lot forklifts. If you're in your car, this means raising and lowering bridges, messing with traffic lights, and disrupting the electrical grid, all in the interest of escaping from goons. This is fun, for a while, but also not fun enough to make you not want to just deal with goons the way goons have been being dealt with since time immemorial, or, since guns.
Our hero is named Aiden Pearce, and in making our hero a hacker, Ubi has set themselves a tough task. People who tell stories—real and made up—have known for awhile now that hacking and things that happen on computers in general are really hard to dramatize. First: there's very little physical action. To make a game about a hacker that has physical action, Ubisoft has made Pearce a gun-expert supersoldier, which is ridiculous, not least because the guns are not 3-D printed. More to the point here, people who spend all of their time on computers trying to mess with other people's lives are not particularly sympathetic. A big problem with Watch Dogs is that the main character is just sort of a creep. He wears a baseball cap and a billowing trenchcoat at all times, even when he's alone with his family, and his default gesture when you leave the controller alone for five seconds is to drive his hands suspiciously deep into his pockets. He lives in a motel room with a laptop placed masturbatorily on his bed. He talks in the Christian Bale Batman voice, all the time, even when he's alone with his family.
And, of course, he spends much of the game walking in weird circles around random people so he can spy on them. Your main tool in the game is something called a "profiler". In "profiler" mode, every time you turn Pearce towards a person, you immediately see that person's name, their job, how much money is in their bank account, and one fun fact about them. I think this is intended to make the player feel the terrifying omnipotence of computer masters. Instead, I felt like a lonely pervert. Also, when I say "fun fact" I don't mean, like "grew up in Guam" or "is a triplet". Instead, nearly everyone in Chicago seems to have a secret addiction to gambling, drugs, or weird sex. I lived in Chicago in college and while I will say that Midwesterners can be a little repressed, I never once suspected the extent of their hidden depravity. The still water of Lake Michigan runs deep.
(While I'm on the subject of Chicago, there is a serious point that has to be made. First, setting a highly violent game featuring constant gun battles in the city that is synonymous with American gun violence is, at the very least, tone-deaf. Second, man oh man, one of the game's recurrent side missions involves taking down gangs. They're video-game gangs, so they're multiracial and wear what appears to be head to toe G-Star, but nonetheless, inserting the player, a roving white vigilante, into Chicagoland gang violence is probably not the kind of topicality that Ubisoft was striving for. It's really stupid and it should have been caught.)
Anyways, the first thing I did when I got control of Pierce was to drive to the clothing store so I could make him wear something that didn't make him look like a flasher. My options: dozens of other trenchcoats. What kind of clothing store sells only trenchcoats? Am I a bad person if I fear this future more than being watched by the government? Yes. I know the answer is yes.
Look, you're going to be stuck wearing a trenchcoat as you play this game, which I'm sorry to say is dull and repetitive, especially compared to the exuberant and creative Grand Theft Auto V. Nothing mechanical or aesthetic about Watch Dogs is particularly bad (except for the music, which feels like it was curated by an aging Chicago punk intent on giving consumers the worst possible opinion of popular music, and then slipping in a little Naked Raygun), and actually most of it is really pretty competent. If you're like me, you talk while you play videogames, even if you're alone, and I will say that Watch Dogs gets you to say some pretty amusing things. My friend wrote down the things I said during a five-minute chase mission, and they included the phrases "I love hacking," "I just trolled myself," and "It's so hard to get this data!"
And yet the themes Ubisoft bit off with this game and the discussion they've leveraged to sell it deserve a better, more compelling, more thoughtful product. At a press event for Watch Dogs last year, I asked a few of the game's producers if they had considered making this game without guns and cars—basically, if they had considered making a game that was not GTA with a hack button. They told me that they had, but that, basically, no one would play it. That's fair enough. But the game suffers because of it. The Watch Dogs on shelves today is a good topic in search of the right game.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
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