Before Edward Snowden became a household name and launched the NSA surveillance controversy, there was a glimpse of our future called "Watch Dogs." Ubisoft revealed it in 2012, and it immediately captured gamers' imaginations.
It envisioned a Chicago run and monitored by a program called the ctOS. The operating system controls every streetlight. It tracks everyone's movements. And all of this is done in the name of security. Amid this world, there's a hacker named Aiden Pierce, a vigilante who has found a way to manipulate the system for his own vendettas.
He can use ctOS resources to spot and track his marks; once he eliminates them, he can escape by activating roadblocks and turning Chicago's resources on his pursuers. For players, it's a world full of gameplay promise, but for those up on current events, it's eerily prescient and brings up worrisome issues.
For almost anyone, "Watch Dogs" will touch some kind of nerve.
The title plays like an open-world "Splinter Cell." For all his computer prowess, Aiden is still vulnerable to bullets. This is a game where players must adopt a slow and methodical approach, rather than rushing in. It's focused on hacking to scout the environment and thin out the enemy ranks before disposing of the rest of your adversaries through stealthy attacks.
The mission design mixes this premise up occasionally, sometimes letting players direct allies away from manhunts or tailing persons of interest on a motorcycle before infiltrating their base. The developers expertly crafted these scenarios so that they work within the framework of the narrative and don't feel too redundant. Every encounter is a joy, as players experiment with the exploits, weapons, gadgets and a focus ability that slows time so that Aiden can aim weapons easily.
Adding a twist to the single-player campaign is a multiplayer mode that's integrated seamlessly. Players can invade random strangers' campaigns as a bad guy, and the target will have to fend them off in a hide-and-seek-like minigame. If that's not their thing, players can compete in races, team-based matches and other activities. There's even a mode that pits a player against a rival using an Android tablet or iPad.
What's smart is that Ubisoft Montreal incorporated the multiplayer and side missions into the player progression system, so there's incentive to do all the gang missions or tackle the investigations.
The foundation for "Watch Dogs" is great, but where it stumbles is in the pacing and characters. It starts off uneven and gets bogged down in the second act, but it quickly recovers and clears up the convoluted beginning. Although the world Ubisoft creates is fascinating, Aiden is less so. The family history surrounding him, his sister and nephew are boring compared to the dirty politics, crime and business deals that are mentioned behind the scenes.
That's where the intrigue lies, and "Watch Dogs" missed a golden opportunity in an otherwise stellar entry to explore these elements more deeply.
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC,
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360