June 16 2014 06:02 PM

Ubisoft's game of hackers has some problems

In Watch Dogs, your hacker learns a lot of things he didn’t really want to know.

It's here! It's here! It's here! And, like the X-ray specs you'd order from the back pages of a magazine, it's not as phenomenal as I was expecting.

Maybe I should back up and tell you what I'm talking about. 

Last summer, at San Diego Comic-Con, I was exposed to the preview of a video game called Watch Dogs, an open-world adventure where you play a gray-hat hacker with Chicago's entire technological infrastructure literally at his fingertips. I was so enamored that I pre-ordered the Playstation 4 and the game, only to have my enthusiasm crushed a few months later when the game company, Ubisoft, announced it was postponing the release to this summer. I didn't cancel the pre-order, opting instead for another Ubisoft launch title, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, which, by the way, is one of the best pirate adventures in the history of pirate media.

A few weeks ago, Watch Dogs finally shipped. Now, to be totally fair, I'm only a few hours into a game that its creative director, Jonathan Morin, estimates is between 35 and 100 hours of play, depending on your level of savvy and focus. I haven't revealed most of the features or storyline, and Ubisoft ignored all my pleas for a preview copy. Jerks. 

In Watch Dogs, you play from the point of view of a character named Aidan, who has the ability to hack almost everyone and everything in his surroundings. When you make him open a smartphone app called "The Profiler," it connects beams of twinkling data to all the security vulnerabilities in his immediate vicinity—other people's smartphones, forklifts, streetlights, surveillance cameras. With the touch of a button, you can make electrical transformers and sewer pipes explode and spy on people in their living rooms and loot their bank accounts. At this point, I'm not really sure what the point of the game is, but like the Grand Theft Auto series, there are a lot of car-jacking and high-caliber firearms. All of that is pretty cool, but there are a few elements that make me cringe. Allow me to enumerate: 

1. Aidan is the bro-iest hacker in infosec. He wears a stupid fitted baseball cap and a stupid trench coat; I was so embarrassed by the character that as soon as I stole enough from undeserving Chicagoans, I went to the store and bought new outfits. That's right—I didn't buy new assault rifles or explosives or faster motorcycles. I bought clothing. In the real world, I put off trips to Ross until my clothes are threadbare. 

Also, Aidan is an uncharismatic, humorless dick who's even less appealing after playing as Ubisoft's swashbuckling Black Flag Welshman, Capt. Kenway. If Ubisoft had asked me, I'd have told them to ditch the d-bag and model the character after a true badass of the hacker world. Off the top of my head: Morgan Marquis-Boire, the dreadlocked, tattooed infosec expert from New Zealand who tracks down tyrannical government  spyware and was recently appointed director of security for Glenn Greenwald's new enterprise, First Look Media. Morgan's like a beefed up Lister from Red Dwarf, and if sounds like I have a tech-crush on him, it's because I think basically everyone in Silicon Valley does. The one thing Morgan does have in common with Aidan is they both have a love of bandit-style bandanas.

2. I have no idea what's going on. Unlike other open-world titles I've fallen in love with—Black Flag, Infamous Second Son—there's very little at the beginning to help you understand how to play. You're basically dropped into a botched heist, then forced to shoot a helpless, unarmed dude while he's lying on the ground. It was totally, unnecessarily dark. Now, there is a benefit to finding your own way through the game: It allows you to develop your own mode of play and all that, but it also means I can't actually tell you what the object of the game is. 

3. In order to play the game, you need to use that "Profiler" function, which makes Aidan get out his phone, hold it at his waist and walk around staring at it. While I know I'm guiltiest of the guilty with this behavior in my daily life, it's just really, really obnoxious to have a character glued to his device and not watching where he's going. The people of Chicago seem to dislike it, too.

Now for the good stuff:

Watch Dogs' Chicago is a beautifully rich and detailed city, filled with secret alleys and shops. As you pass people, your phone recognizes their faces and provides personal information gleaned from a cloud database. It's fun to steal cars (and even boats) and race through the city, often slamming into other vehicles and smashing into innocent bystanders. The more I play the game, the more secret missions it unveils, including psychedelic trips where you get to bounce around the skyscrapers on giant hippy flowers. Also, there's something creepily rewarding about spying on people in their homes and learning the sordid details of their home lives.

Of course, since my day job is in the tech policy sector, I feel especially drawn to the debate over privacy. At a time when the NSA is collecting data on millions of Americans, it couldn't be more relevant.

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @Maassive.


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