‘Watch Dogs’ is fun but misses a chance to be great


Ubisoft will release its hacker-themed video game "Watch Dogs" on May 27. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / Getty Images

Playing Ubisoft's "Watch Dogs," arguably the most-hyped game of the year, give players an incredible sense of power as they step into the role of Aiden Pearce, a professional hacker seeking revenge after a job leads to the death of a close family member. Originally slated to release alongside the new Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to catch holiday season sales, Ubisoft made the risky decision to push the game's release date back to Tuesday -- only raising the bar that it had to hit.

It delivers on its promise to provide players with a hacker's playground -- an endless buffet of data and smaller quests to keep you occupied for hours, even without touching the main storyline of techno-vengeance.

Which, sadly, is a good thing. Because while "Watch Dogs" is very fun to play, it hardly tugs at the heartstrings or gets your brain clicking in quite the way that many people wanted it to. Set in a version of Chicago that's been enabled with a smart grid -- networked cameras with facial recognition among other things. In light of the leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, as well as growing calls for companies to reveal just how much data they collect from their customers, the sort of nonchalant hacking that players engage in as Pearce should be ripe for better commentary. Ubisoft had all the components to make something more than a fun game and continue the elevation of the video game as a narrative device. Certainly, at the very least, for a pointed sidequest or two about morality. Instead, there's only, at best, a cursory discussion of what a wired society gains and loses by being so plugged in.

"Watch Dogs" does come with a moral compass score of some kind -- reputation -- but it doesn't rely on what you do with information that comes your way. Instead, your reputation can be improved by injuring cops rather than killing them, or deciding not to mow down pedestrians with your car, "Grand Theft Auto" style. A good reputation convinces the people of Chicago that you're doing things for the greater good; a bad one will likely get the cops on your tail. And sure, you can build in your own ideas of data morality -- I, for example, decided against hacking the bank account of a person that the game told me was a) making $28,000 per year and b) was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. (I know. I should expect a medal for that.) But the game doesn't really address any of that.

The weaker story is a shame, because the game itself is really fun; fun enough, even, to balance a somewhat anemic narrative. Players can run around as they wish in the connected Chicago, wielding an all-powerful smartphone instead of a gun -- though you can wield that, too -- in order to reach their objectives. That makes it all the more disappointing that the story game skims over a chance to really examine the ethics behind what it means to be the triggerman behind a hacking attack.

And, man, can you ever attack. Your magic phone lets you tap into the smart grid of cameras and traffic lights, explode underground pipes and short out transformers, all by getting them within your line of sight. Sure, it makes you feel a little over-powered. But it's sure fun to be able to manipulate your surroundings so easily, especially when you're just starting in the game. There's no learning curve here, really, just a superphone that immediately lets you knock out the power at a major city landmark with very little effort. From there, you only get more powerful, getting the opportunity to specialize Pearce's skill set to make him better at getting into combat or at making MacGyver-like aid devices to help you sneak past your enemies instead.

There's also quite a bit of driving in the game, which frankly makes you happy that Ubisoft opted to make all that hacking so easy to do. The best parts of the game are when you get into a good rhythm of driving, hacking and occasionally shooting your way through a mission that makes you feel like you've earned all the skill that you wield. Multitasking also gives the game the opportunity to show off its next-gen credentials. On both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 copies provided by Ubisoft to The Post, the game looks good, though admittedly not quite as good as it looked in its initial Electronic Entertainment Expo demo in 2012.

"Watch Dogs" does deliver on its next-gen potential, however, with its multiplayer missions -- something I'll have to test out more thoroughly now that the game is open to more people -- to let you collaborate on attacks, go head-to-head, play a sort of digital capture the flag, hold drag races or free roam with friends to wreak some merry havoc.

All that balances out the fact that you're not really thinking about the morality of anything you're doing, in character. In fact, you pretty much have to create your own drama. Even Pearce's storyline, which should be ripe for wringing out drama, isn't all that well-crafted. Pearce himself is too neutral a protagonist -- so distant that he becomes hard to relate to even when you're controlling him. He wrestles with some weighty issues through the game, but I never felt all that invested in his moral dilemmas because they never really aligned with the ones I was feeling as a player.

That missed opportunity bruises an otherwise strong game that's launching to high expectations.  But, overall, "Watch Dogs" is a strong game, and certainly one worth picking up if you have a PlayStation 4 or 3, Xbox One or 360, or want to grab it on PC. Just don't expect it to spark too many philosophical discussions.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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