Let's play word association.
Ready? Here goes:
Wow, that was fast. "Hacking," you say?
Makes sense. Ubisoft has marketed its latest blockbuster as an urban playground at your utmost command. You can flicker traffic lights to tangle pursuers in four-way crashes. Reprogram highway advisory signs into memes like "What is this I don't even." Spy amusing scenes of men with mannequin fetishes and women with vaccination denial through the cameras in their offices or computers.
We can relate — sort of. We certainly can relate to making ourselves powerful through technology. We can even relate to riding fiber into front-row seats for tableaux of strangers at their most alone and vulnerable. Sure, only a select few can relate to actually being the one doing that — and those people should rot in hell — but most of us can at least relate to having such things done to us. And if you haven't experienced revenge porn or identity theft or a hijacked Twitter account, you probably know someone who has.
Still, there's an even more striking theme to protagonist Aiden Pierce's reign of inner-city cyber terror in "Watch Dogs." That's because he appears to do almost all of it with just a smartphone.
That's what we can all really relate to: The power of the Almighty Connected Device. Having in our pockets an easy portal to infinite knowledge — and power. The latter is more explicit in Aiden's case, especially when he unlocks the infrastructure of whole city boroughs by swiping his finger across the screen as calmly as someone surfing Tinder.
In fact, Aiden's phone penetrates so far, so easily, that simply turning it on makes him privy to the basic details of everyone in Chicago: Their name, their job, their income, whether they like BDSM or competitive fighting games. So between that and the popped overcoat lapels, Aiden is, weirdly, a bit of a Sherlock. (More on that later.)
The game's smartphone profiling is glib at first, and remains so as descriptors like "transgender" somehow receive the same billing as "frequent online purchase: hentai." But the brilliance of this wrinkle in the open world of "Watch Dogs" surfaces in the dilemmas that you'll inevitably face. Do you siphon the bank account of the woman who attempted suicide? Does the man who trolls political threads deserve to have his car stolen?
Open-world games, from "Grand Theft Auto" and "Saints Row" to "Assassin's Creed" and "Skyrim," are populated by nameless playthings to ignore until they stand innocently in your way, at which point you remove them — and, usually, their vital functions. That still happens in "Watch Dogs," but there are also times when just one pitiful detail of a person's life keeps you from hurting them or lingering too long on their video feed.
For games of this scale, that's something. Indeed, smaller and nichier titles like "Papers, Please" have tread similar ground already. But to humanize the big-budget sandbox, however superficially? That's maybe the biggest, most surprising triumph of "Watch Dogs." I say "surprising" because the game provokes this empathy through the same technology widely blamed for eroding it.
Still, "Watch Dogs" is beholden to the shoot-bang status quo — and profiling and hacking also figure prominently into that.
On foot, Aiden can hack into surveillance cameras and, from their vantage points, blow up transformers and the grenades on enemies' belts to file down his opposition without breaking a sweat. The ability to hop from camera to camera, distracting guards with grim texts from doctors or drawing them to triggered car alarms, turns infiltration into a delightfully fresh kind of puzzle. Solve it, and you can stroll right on through to your destination.
The maps' openness to multiple sight lines for patrolling enemies and their generally sharp AI make you happy to have the hacker's advantage. Also, Aiden's quickness to die and unsteady reticle make you even happier to keep your gun holstered — though a time-slowing focus ability can help you hit those shots if things get loud.
On the road, hacking is even more crucial. Lifting bridges and detonating steam pipes at prompted moments is usually the only way to shake gangs or police on your tail. Until you realize that, you'll drive from one corner of Chicago to the other, ripping benches, newspaper dispensers and bus stop shelters into confetti with stupid ease, your pursuers no farther back in your rear-view mirror.
Like most simulated driving, "Watch Dogs" has its own idiosyncrasies of steering and collision, and they took me no more time to master than any other game's. What remained a problem to the end, though, was its car camera, which comes oddly unhinged during turns. Between that and the stylized 180-degree pan that lets you savor your vehicular takedowns, my eyes were often taken off the obstacles in front of me at 90 mph.
The stealth and shooting, on the other hand, are upheld by sturdy design that suggests the stunted maneuvering and deaf-blind enemies of "Assassin's Creed" came from another publisher entirely. You'd truly think so if it weren't for "Watch Dogs" being structured as a signature Ubisoft "collect-a-thon," its Chicago streets scarcely visible under icons signifying QR code perspective puzzles, augmented-reality shmups, poker, chess and more.
Then there are the street crimes and other missions you unlock by profiling people having comically ham-fisted text conversations with the perps. Two types of these are worth your while: gang hideouts and criminal convoys, both of which require nonlethal takedowns of heavily guarded targets — read: actual strategy — to complete.
The PVP multiplayer sometimes does, as well. Along with capture-the-flag and races, there's a hide-and-seek mode where you "invade" campaigning players, a la "Dark Souls," and try to hack them before they spot you. Though fun, it's rather one-note — and too prone to rage-quitting.
Spending some time with "Watch Dogs'" side missions also lets you see more angles of Ubisoft's impeccably sculpted Chicago. Their Second City is missing something, though. Specifically, the unremarkable surfaces on its remarkable skyline made me realize how much Rockstar relies on brands to enliven its sandboxes. Really, those stupid names and slogans are what we remember most, be they McDonald's in our lives or Burger Shot in Niko Bellic's. The only recurring name that does stick in "Watch Dogs" is ctOS, the all-encompassing network Aiden hacks. The message of this combined allusion to Apple, Google, Verizon, etc.? Monopolies sure are boring.
Oh, and remember when I compared Aiden to Sherlock Holmes?
Well, the coat and the instant reading of strangers is where the similarities end. As charisma goes, they're complete opposites. Aiden's dead eyes and eerie resemblance to every AAA game protagonist ever make him a total suck on "Watch Dogs'" narrative proceedings, and those supply no weight of their own. A Lisbeth Salander lookalike here, token fridge woman there, and you have one overlong and wholly unmemorable story of revenge and ransom tying together 40 hours of otherwise good game play and great reflection on smartphone society.