Review: Ubisoft cracks the code with ‘Watch Dogs’

06/01/2014 12:00 AM

05/31/2014 1:39 PM

Since it was dramatically unveiled at the Electronic Entertainment Expo two years ago, the hacking thriller “Watch Dogs” (Ubisoft, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, $59.99) has been called many things: a game for the Edward Snowden era, “Grand Theft Auto” meets “Hackers,” overhyped and revolutionary. In reality, it’s a little of each.

The open-world adventure casts players as Aiden Pearce, a tech-savvy vigilante whose most powerful weapon is a smartphone that can tap into the infrastructure of a well-connected, near-future Chicago. After the murder of his young niece, he embarks on one of those cliched action-movie quests for vengeance that involves lots of shooting and car chases.

Pearce has a distinct advantage. With a tap of his superphone, he can peep at nearby citizens’ texts, phone calls and living-room webcams. He can create chaos on the streets by taking control of traffic lights, gates and power grids. His doodad can even detect crimes before they’re committed.

The developers have also cleverly bestowed Pearce’s gizmo with the ability to scan Chicagoans’ faces to quickly glean random background information, like whether they need a liver transplant, watch too many reality shows or subscribe to adult sites.

Unlike the guilt-free insanity of mowing down pedestrians in a “Grand Theft Auto” romp, “Watch Dogs” players might actually think twice when they see their fodder is a 43-year-old father who volunteers at a soup kitchen on the weekends.

Despite artfully constructing an interactive laboratory where issues about surveillance and morality can be examined, the creators of “Watch Dogs” end up doing little to confront such inquiries. That’s an injustice to not only the game but also to the medium as a whole because “Watch Dogs” is otherwise a really compelling creation.

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