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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Since it was dramatically unveiled at the Electronic Entertainment Expo two years ago, the hacking thriller “Watch Dogs” (Ubisoft, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, $59.99) has been called many things: a game for the Edward Snowden era, “Grand Theft Auto” meets “Hackers,” overhyped and revolutionary. In reality, it’s a little of each.
The open-world adventure casts players as Aiden Pearce, a tech-savvy vigilante whose most powerful weapon is a smartphone that can tap into the infrastructure of a well-connected, near-future Chicago. After the murder of his young niece, he embarks on one of those cliched action-movie quests for vengeance that involves lots of shooting and car chases.
Pearce has a distinct advantage. With a tap of his superphone, he can peep at nearby citizens’ texts, phone calls and living-room webcams. He can create chaos on the streets by taking control of traffic lights, gates and power grids. His doodad can even detect crimes before they’re committed. Yes, “Watch Dogs” is basically “Person of Interest: The Game.”
The developers have also cleverly bestowed Pearce’s gizmo with the ability to scan Chicagoans’ faces to quickly glean random background information, like whether they need a liver transplant, watch too many reality shows or subscribe to adult sites. By giving every character some backstory, they’ve imbued the game with fresh psychological consequences.
Unlike the guilt-free insanity of mowing down pedestrians in a “Grand Theft Auto” romp, “Watch Dogs” players might actually think twice when they see their fodder is a 43-year-old father who volunteers at a soup kitchenon the weekends. There’s a reputation system that charts nefarious actions, but it’s not very deep and doesn’t really affect the game’s narrative.
Surprisingly, the least interesting person in “Watch Dogs” is Pearce himself. With a Tom Cruise scowl and Christian Bale growl, his personality and motivations — the ones outside players’ control, anyway — remain mostly unclear throughout the roughly 20-hour campaign. It’s a shame that random guys on the sidewalk are often more remarkable than the protagonist.
Besides revenge, Pearce has loads of side pursuits — car races, odd jobs, sightseeing, etc. — to undertake in a sleek rendition of the Windy City, a bustling metropolis that stands up to any virtual town out there, especially within the unique multiplayer mode where players can thrillingly “hack” into each other’s games and play various forms of cyber hide-and-seek.
Despite artfully constructing an interactive laboratory where issues about surveillance and morality can be examined, the creators of “Watch Dogs” end up doing little to confront such inquiries. That’s an injustice to not only the game but also to the medium as a whole because “Watch Dogs” is otherwise a really compelling creation. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.