It’s important to recognize what kind of story Watch Underscore Dogs is before you go into it. This is a hacking game where the “hacking” involves “data streams”, where you can burst steam pipes with a smartphone, where you for some reason need to be looking at something before you can hack it. Its depiction of super-rad underground hacker vigilantes (because in this game hackers are either super-rad underground criminals or super-rad underground vigilantes) is firmly rooted in the mid-90s mentality that hackers wear trenchcoats and put on sunglasses before they do awesome hacks. That’s the kind of story Watch Underscore Dogs wants to tell- vapid, mindless and shallow. And that’s before we even get to its protagonist or its massive incompetence at writing women.
Our setting is a near-future/ alternate present Chicago, which has been transformed by a monolithic security company into a “smart city” where EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED and hackers are an abundant natural resource. Our hero is Aiden Pearce, a super-rad underground criminal who does awesome hacks in a hotel to steal some money but brushes shoulders with another hacker connected to a HACK CONSPIRACY, which results in an unsuccessful assassination attempt that kills his six year old niece. Six months later, Aiden is now a super-rad underground vigilante (called “the vigilante”) who runs around doing hacks on things with a magic smartphone given to him by a group of other super-rad underground vigilantes so he can beat up criminals and try to avenge his niece’s death. He’s assisted by other, more better hackers but even though Aiden isn’t the best at doing hacks he’s still a cool dude since he can shoot people while doing hacks. Eventually he gets a huge underground bunker to do hacks from and tracks down some leads on the HACK CONSPIRACY. Cue explosions.
At the start of Watch Underscore Dogs I briefly thought it might be trying to do something clever, in that Aiden at first comes across like a skewering of the prototypical brooding antihero. He’s so consumed with impotence at his inability to avenge his niece’s death that he turns into a kind of mopy social-network powered version of Batman, violently beating the shit out of muggers and other petty criminals in his spare time. His attempts to comfort his PTSD-stricken nephew are unsuccessful. His sister appears to have moved on from her daughter’s death and doesn’t appreciate Aiden’s inability to just let the whole thing go. It’s this last point in particular that made me sit up and take notice- throughout the game Aiden’s one-man crusade achieves inconclusive and ambiguous results at best, and most of the time just fucks everything up more. It very much seems that the lesson the character is going to learn throughout the game is to make peace with his mistakes, let go of the past and drop the superhero act before he destroys himself or hurts more innocent bystanders.
Then the game ends with Aiden spouting off a string of inane catch phrases. EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED! He’s going to act when he sees a problem even though that’s exactly what caused all of his troubles in the first place! He’s the hacker Chicago deserves, not the one it needs, or whatever the flying fuck! I guess this is supposed to be the capstone to the game’s barely-hinted at theme of security, and cameras, and security cameras, and whether there are too many security cameras watching people so we better have watch dogs watching the security cameras watching people. For much of the game it’s not even entirely clear what’s supposed to be so bad about Blume Security and their omnipresent CToS System. If you snoop around in server rooms during plot-critical hacking missions it’s implied they’ve got hidden cameras all over the city but we never really find out why, and the HACK CONSPIRACY is being driven by organized crime groups subverting the system rather than the system itself. And yet, Blume is so evil that you can murder hundreds of their security guards with no karma penalty. The game tries to handwave this by saying that they’re all criminal mercenaries with personal bios like “convicted of animal cruelty”, which means they’re doubly deserving of being shot in the face by a psychopath with a raging savior complex.
All of this just ties into the game’s extremely fuzzy treatment of its themes and its sense of morality. Halfway through the game you end up having to recruit a HACK VIGILANTE who, in the game’s alternate 2000s, did such an awesome protest-hack against the burgeoning CToS system that it accidentally killed eleven people. This would seem to present an obvious point of discussion on whether or not a corrupt social system is better than no social system at all, but the game just never really addresses the issue. At the climax of the story you do the awesome hack again, only this time even more awesome because now the whole city is so wired to CToS that you can control water pressure by messing with it, which presumably means that Aiden just murdered a whole bunch of people in order to find the location of one guy he wants to kill.
Aiden Pearce himself is a lump of wet Plasticine in a baseball cap and most of the rest of the cast are just as bland. Where this moves from bad writing into “what the fuck” territory is the female characters. Aiden’s niece has absolutely no presence in the story and exists solely to die in order to motivate his man-quest for HACK VENGEANCE. His sister very quickly follows in her footsteps, getting kidnapped so Aiden can have an excuse to follow the HACK CONSPIRACY without coming off like a delusional asshole. The enslaved human trafficking victims you come across? Basically only there to be victims. Early on Aiden picks up a super-rad underground vigilante ally who seems like she’s going to buck the trend, but of course you end up having to rescue her so Aiden can have something else to snarl about during the showdown with the final boss. It’s like Ubisoft watched this video and thought it was a challenge.
And then there are the race issues. Aiden and his entourage of hack-buddies are all white. The one Asian guy in the game is a shady criminal. There’s a black human trafficking victim you get to man-rescue. And then a whole bunch of black drug dealers, because of course. At one point you do hacks on their gangbanger cyber-fortress, peeking through cameras at crumbling apartment blocks where people have sex and shoot up on heroin in the hallways. “These people,” Aiden gasps. “It’s like they’re living in a warzone!”
Yes, “these people” is supposed to refer in context to the members of the violent hacker drug gang, but when they’re also damn near the only black characters in the game it’s kind of hard to avoid reading more into that phrase.
So okay, the story is awful. But what about the gameplay? Well, Watch Underscore Dogs manages to pull off some decent hack-enabled stealth in an open world setting, which is fun. I also liked the few bits where you have to use car-stealth like in the movie Drive. Other than that more or less every complaint I had about GTA V also applies here, except the missions aren’t quite as restrictive and the car chases are even more frustrating.
Very frequently throughout Watch Underscore Dogs you’ll be in the middle of a mission when a bunch of dudes with guns will drive up out of nowhere and try to kill you. I have no idea who the fuck these people are or why they’re doing that. Apparently hacker-Chicago is absolutely swarming with violent hired thugs willing to shoot up busy streets for cash, which sounds like it would make for a better game premise than the muddled, confused nonsense Ubisoft have served up here.