May 10, 2013 at 10:40 AM ET
Given the intense debates over privacy and security of our "networked age," it was only a matter of time before someone made a video game that has players wielding smartphones as their most powerful weapon. That's exactly what Ubisoft is doing with "Watch_dogs," an ambitious new game NBC News got to check out this week.
At first glance, "Watch_dogs" has a lot in common with Ubisoft's tried-and-true "Assassin's Creed" franchise. Both center around shady characters sleuthing around immaculately realized virtual cities. They're both also open-world games — meaning there is a main storyline and set of scripted missions, but most players will likely wander off to cause mayhem or mete out vigilante justice. But instead of the ninja-like hidden blades that the assassins wield, Aiden Pearce, the protagonist of "Watch_dogs," has a hacker-friendly mobile device.
Oh, and it's set in a mildly terrifying near future version of Chicago where questions of personal privacy and digital security have become a moot point. Think "Super Sad True Love Story" meets "Grand Theft Auto," only without the sarcastic humor of either.
The slice of gameplay the developers showed off had Pearce patrolling the dystopian Windy City like the protagonists of "Minority Report" or "Unbreakable." As he passed by unwitting civilians, their digital profiles would pop up above their heads with labels like "hoarder," "illegally downloads movies" and "meditates regularly." Occasionally these would turn into a ticker calculating how likely this person was to commit a crime — a standing invitation for Pearce to prevent a crime or risk attracting police attention, depending on how you look at it.
What sets the hero apart from the rest of the digital natives in "Watch_dogs" is his ability to hack into any network, allowing him to bend almost the entire city to his will. "Watch_dog's" senior producer Dominic Guay showed Pearce hacking into everything from security cameras to traffic lights, road blocks, and bridges to better evade the cops.
The one thing that Pearce can't seem to control in this brave new world, however, is his own social media reputation. As he committed more wanton acts of violence, this profile quickly escalated from a viral Twitter-like sensation into a full-blown manhunt.
"This is definitely not going to be good for his reputation," Guay joked as Pearce shot several cops in the kneecaps to disable them.
Despite the futurist dilemmas that "Watch_dogs" raises, the developers continually emphasized that they are trying to avoid heavy-handed moralism.
"We didn't want to make a game about a big brother society," Colin Graham, "Watch_dogs" animation director, told NBC News.
Kevin Shortt, the lead story designer, said that the game is meant to invite this sort of ethical exploration on the player's own terms. All of the violent and unseemly moments that unfolded during the preview, he pointed out, could have turned out differently or be avoided entirely.
"It only alerts you to a potential crime," Shortt said of the game's "Unbreakable"-like pop-ups. "If you intervene too early, you might be creating your own problem."
Whether or not players will appreciate this sort of ethical ambivalence, it's hard to ignore the peculiar timing of the game's development. While Ubisoft said "Watch_dogs" has been in production for nearly four and half years, its release corresponds with a sea-change in the very industry and technology that powers such a game. The new PlayStation 4 system it will debut on is coming with controversial social networking features of its own, after all, and the next Xbox has been lambasted for a prospective "always-online" requirement. Players will even be able to use a Shazam-like app on the in-game smartphone to identify a song and then purchase it with real world money, an emerging type of monetization that has already landed no less a tech giant than Apple in hot water.
Given how unsettling most people in the real world find cybersecurity issues, one would think that spending almost half a decade trying to turn them into a video game would leave someone with a jaded perspective on the near-future of technology. Maybe it was just the excitement of finally being so close to the game's release, but "Watch_dog's" developers didn't seem all that worried. Video games are still meant to be fun, after all.
"I've become hyper-aware of how connected I am," Shortt said. "But that's not a bad thing. I mean, I still really like all of this technology!"
"Watch_dogs" will officially enter our networked age on November 19. Check out some of its gameplay footage below while you wonder what to do with all that compromised data of your own.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.