Ubisoft Montreal’s cross-gen video game Watch Dogs often feels unsure and tepid. Sometimes downright schizophrenic. Its gravel-voiced anti-hero, Aiden Pearce, is on a revenge quest against the people who caused his niece’s death, only to step on the toes of the Chicago mob, a slum lord, hacker collectives, a former partner and a conglomerate whose crypto-surveillance software has crept into the city’s very infrastructure. With an array of baseball caps and trenchcoats, Pearce is an anachronism amongst the hacker underworld which populates Watch Dogs (others are coded in terms of music scenes–punk, rockabilly, gangster rap, etc.). Often, he reads as amoral and systematic, button prompts encouraging players to steal the private data of civilians, including bank accounts; sometimes on the fly, through puzzles at others. Yet, the devs pad out their sandbox by saddling Pearce with a superhero gimmick, using computer powers to stop or investigate crimes like a cyberpunk Batman. He even gets his own Batcave and a Joker who kidnaps his sister (every woman in this game gets similar treatment).
This wonky structure confuses any noir sensibilities. The shadowy search for truth at the heart of Aiden’s story disappears amidst gun battles and chase sequences which (on foot or in vehicles) lack the finesse and physicality of the developer’s earlier Assassin’s Creed titles. Hacking itself becomes less a method than a magic wand for blockbuster mayhem. Adding insult is the way players are only rewarded for deploying these tricks when the game says it’s okay to do so (flashing blue to indicate when to set off city systems when pursued by police). Experimentation is rarely satisfying–there’s only so many ways to blow up enemies with wi-fi booby traps–individuality crushed under franchise pretense and macho growling. Cyberpunk for posers.