E3: 'Watch Dogs' Criticizes a Hyperconnected Society
'Watch Dogs' makes a smartphone into a powerful weapon.
The recent hubbub surrounding the government's PRISM surveillance program made Ubisoft's "Watch Dogs" a particularly salient game at this year's E3. The title follows Aiden Pearce, an expert hacker in a near-future Chicago, who can control an entire city from his smartphone with the information that its citizens freely provide.
Since Ubisoft provided a look at how the story missions in 'Watch Dogs' play out at the Sony press conference, it followed up by exploring the game's side missions during the E3 convention. The demo begins in the slummy Wards District of Chicago where Aiden has to get his hands dirty before freely hacking into the districts' smartphones and computers.
Each district of the city has a command center for "CityOS," the software that controls the flow of gas, electricity and money through Chicago, as well as its security cameras. Because of the conveniences that CityOS provides for the residents of Chicago, they have no problem turning over their personal information to a piece of software.
Although Aiden is primarily a hacker, he can also sneak and fight, if need be. Since CityOS command centers cannot be hacked while hostile forces are in the area, Aiden first has to dispatch its heavily armed guards. By monitoring a security camera feed, Aiden finds a hole in the guard rotation and uses it to isolate one guard, knock him out, and steal his weapon.
At this point, the game becomes a standard third-person shooter. Aiden dispatches the guards, one after another, in a heated firefight that requires both precision and careful use of cover. At last, the command center is unguarded, and Aiden has control of the Wards district.
From here, the Ubisoft representatives demonstrated how Aiden can use his newfound access to technology for either good or evil. By examining citizens' phones, he can determine which ones were at risk for criminal attacks. After finding a high-risk prospect, Aiden follows her until she is accosted by a jealous ex-boyfriend in a back alley.
The situation deteriorates rapidly once Aiden pulls a gun to threaten the attacker. Aiden chases the man on foot through a series of backyards, and then the two hijack cars to continue the pursuit. Eventually, Aiden solves the problem non-lethally through hacking into and activating a security blockade across a narrow driveway. The attacker crashes his car, and the Aiden's reputation among the people of Chicago grows a little for stopping a criminal without bloodshed. [See also: 10 Ways the Government Watches You]
One of the most intriguing features of 'Watch Dogs' is the leeway it gives players in completing missions however they see fit. The game functions just fine as a stealth game, where Aiden dispatches his foes through hacking and sneaking. Players can also treat it as a third-person shooter, with a variety of different guns and weapon upgrades.
Chicago residents will learn to either respect or fear him based on his actions, but Ubisoft assures players that the game does not espouse a simple black-and-white morality system. There are only actions and consequences.
Although Aiden can use his hacking prowess for good, one of the game's central messages appears to be that a hyperconnected society is a dangerous place to live. Assuming that citywide software will always act with residents' best interests in mind is not true. Likewise, Aiden can just as easily use hacking to threaten and steal from law-abiding citizens.
Ubisoft demonstrated how Aiden can hack into personal webcams and steal financial information from unsecured smartphones. This is not science-fiction: This very moment, malevolent hackers are employing exactly the same techniques.
Whether the game ultimately lives up to its lofty premise, gamers will have to wait until its release in late 2013 to find out. One thing is certain: with surveillance software everywhere and information more accessible than it's ever been, the world needs a game like "Watch Dogs."