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A screenshot from <em>Watch Dogs</em>.
Ben Cogan
A screenshot from Watch Dogs.

Latest blockbuster video game questions our techno-dependence

Technology | Watch Dogs offers a startling look at technological over-reach but suffers from unoriginal gameplay and very mature content

Technology has become a vital organ of modern society, pumping digital information throughout our day-to-day lives. The recent government spying scandals have revealed that our digital footprints are tracked and in some cases even collected. So it’s no surprise that a hacking storyline eventually made its way to the gaming world.

In Ubisoft’s latest blockbuster game, Watch Dogs, players assume the role of vigilante hacker Aiden Peirce on his quest to avenge his niece’s death. Watch Dogs is set in a hyper-connected version of Chicago, where virtually everyone and everything is plugged in to the city’s operating system. Watch Dogs asks the questions: “Who is in control of this power and just how safe is it to place our lives in digital hands?” The game has an intriguing premise in its portrayal of technological eyes always watching. It’s depiction of how a person’s meta-data can strip away their humanity and replace it with a simple digital profile is a disturbing view of what the future may hold. But Watch Dogs falls short of offering an engaging experience. It also suffers from a saturation of mature content and a plot that loses steam towards its conclusion.

The Watch Dogs story begins with Aiden and his partner committing a digital heist in a luxury hotel. The stakes escalate when the two stumble across some secret information that puts them in the sights of some very dangerous and powerful people. Aiden survives an attempt on his life but his 6-year-old niece dies in the attack. This tragic loss drives Aiden to become a masked vigilante with a digital suite of hacking powers at his disposal. Aiden is so single-minded in his goal for vengeance that his character becomes two-dimensional. In his quest, Aiden gets help from some more colorful characters who are better fleshed out, including Jong, hit man for hire, and Clara, a young hacker affiliated with the mysterious group Deadsec. The game progresses as Aiden follows leads and tracks down criminals. 

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On the surface, Watch Dogs introduces some unique game-play ideas. Aiden can tap into the city’s operating system and use it to profile people on the street with facial recognition. He can hack bank accounts and the profiles help a player justify who Aiden can target or save from being the victim of a crime. But the game’s morality system is so insignificant it’s easy to miss. Players who hit a civilian with a vehicle, either injuring or killing them, lose status. But players who successfully stop a crime without killing the criminal get a positive boost.

Watch Dogs is rated mature for blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and use of drugs and alcohol. A more in-depth description can be found here, but by far the violence and strong language are the most common problems. Watch Dogs is easy to compare to some of the more recent entries in the Grand Theft Auto series, which seems to be on a quest to push mature content to its limits.

Watch Dogs, available on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, and PC, received a lot of hype and anticipation when it was previewed. But the developers were apparently unsure about whether they wanted the game to be unique or just a Grand Theft Auto clone with a technological hacking flare.

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