In today's Internet-connected world, it's the hacker who fancies himself to be king of the digital hill. And it's fair to say that we all fear, on one level or another, that anonymous computer wizard out there who's sitting in his mother's basement with dark eyes and even darker intentions. He's a keyboard-tapper who could someday center us in his crosshairs and hit us with a world of online hurt—from revealing cleverly dug up tidbits about some poor choice we'd rather forget, to outright stealing our money and identity, to bringing our societal infrastructure crashing to the ground.
So it makes sense that those firewall infiltrators would eventually get a video game tale all their own.
Action-stealth-shooter Watch Dogs is the result.
It introduces us to Aiden Pearce, a trench coat and baseball cap-clad Chicago guy who's short on personality but long on techy tenacity. He's the modern equivalent of an inside man. He's a crook who can slip into a company's lobby, hack into its security system, infiltrate its computer network and strip the place clean, all with the push of a button on his cellphone. In fact, that's exactly the scenario that gets this movie-like video game adventure rolling.
Aiden and his offsite partner are working on draining the virtual pockets of a big Chicago hotel when another online entity pops up in their web of connections like an encroaching spider. Aiden tries to quickly disengage, but before he can back out, he and his partner are traced by a slick superhacker who finds out everything about them in a heartbeat. In a blink the guys are on the run, pursued by paid "fixers" who are ready to break any kneecap or shoot up any car to drive home their employer's turf-protecting point. And, sadly, that "point making" ultimately leads to the death of Aiden's 6-year-old niece.
It's 11 months later and Aiden has been dusting off some old fixer skills of his own. He's fully in the beatdown hunt for a killer and the person (or people) who hired him. There's a high-powered hacker group called DedSec in the mix, along with an old mob boss, a new-tech security organization, a local drug dealer and his gang of thugs, scores of paid fixers and, of course, the Chicago Police Department.
Aiden must slip in and out of all their corrupt ranks until he can find the answers he seeks.
It's All About the Tech …
There's a gritty Grand Theft Auto-like feel to this game—right down to the ability to steal any car you see and ram your way through the dark city streets. But Watch Dogs takes more of a techno-thriller slant than most action/adventure titles, continually pushing the point that it's the power of connected information that's the real advantage and weapon in this world.
As Aiden moves, he can scan any passerby, instantly revealing info such as age, occupation and income. He also stirs up social media facts about his marks that might end up being useful. That fellow over there just had recent reconstructive surgery, so he won't be chasing anybody, for example. That cop has a reputation for being dirty. That woman on the park bench is an advocate for legalized prostitution.
Aiden can also make his way past mechanical and human obstacles by hacking into security systems and changing his point of view to any camera in the area. He can unlock electric bolts and overload switchboxes to create environmental traps. So during over 20 hours of play, gamers must be constantly plugged in to ferret out clues in the game's wide-open world, stay connected with a number of hacker/fixer helpers and do whatever it takes to keep Aiden's sister and her son safe from all the baddies on the prowl.
… Except When It's All About Revenge (And Lust and Lewdness)
Do I even need to tell you that this isn't just a game about slipping in and out of the physical and digital shadows to unearth clues and do heroic good? Aiden isn't really all that "heroic" or "good" a fellow at all, it turns out. We pretty quickly learn that he's consumed with the idea of revenge. And even though he's very adept at all that digital destruction, he follows the lead of the game's baddies and thugs, taking every opportunity to "hack" in other ways as well.
In blood-spraying and -smearing scenes, men and women are viciously beaten and pummeled, stabbed in the jugular and choked to death. Battles with pistols, rifles, shotguns and grenade launchers show us sprawling victims and erupting vehicles. One guy is shot pointblank in the face, and we see the gaping wound where his eye used to be. Another is tortured to death when his pacemaker gets hacked.
This is also a foul metropolis of hard language, hard drugs and even harder sexuality. F- and s-words are a constant, along with many uses of "a‑‑hole," "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n" and various mistreatments of God's name. Aiden can steal and use a variety of drugs. Drinking and drug trip minigames involve blurred sight and psychedelic visions.
And once Aiden makes his way to a pair of sex club and sex auction destinations, players hear conversations involving straight and lesbian porn, and randy, twisted, sometimes violent fetishes. They also see explicit representations of various sex acts. Female characters are paraded around topless.
For all of its cyberspace-manipulating twists, then, Watch Dogs ends up lapping up some pretty familiar M-rated vomit. "This is the point where I'm supposed to say I feel empty, right?" Aiden exclaims after reaching a brutally vindictive goal. "But I finally feel awake … like I can breathe again."
So what does this digitally dangerous video game want us to be thinking about when we finally reach its growling end? Is it about controlling your online footprint or the risks of big brother-type surveillance? No. It's about the "joy" of a sweet and bloody revenge.