Price: £34.99-£44.99 Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: Ubisoft Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4, X360, PS3 Version Reviewed: PC
Take any open-city game of the last five years that has driving, cover shooting, a central storyline and abundant side missions. Stir in the ability to control the traffic lights, trains and bridges, raise and lower electronic bollards and tyre-spikes, blow up electrical equipment such as transformers and plunge the city into darkness (provided it's night-time, otherwise doing this is as pointless as it is underwhelming). Sprinkle in a story that is ostensibly against NSA style snooping and yet abuses this power to astonishing degrees, and you have the recipe for what Watch Dogs believes to be a hacking game.
But Watch Dogs is not a hacking game. It really wants to be a hacking game, in the same way I really want to be a professional author. It's got some great ideas and clearly has the talent behind it to achieve this goal if only it didn't spend its evenings staring at Twitter and watching episodes of House on Netflix. But we all must face reality at some point. I am not an author, and Watch Dogs is not a hacking game. Instead, it's a sometimes brilliant but mostly average open-world game about a man with a magic phone.
This man is Aiden Pearce, Chicago's notorious vigilante. You know this because everybody he passes on the street points to him and shouts "Hey, it's that vigilante!" in a way no human has ever done. Then they don't take out their smartphones and don't snap a picture of him and don't upload it to social networks so that the police don't immediately come and arrest him for all the trouble he's been causing. This is one of many contradictory aspects that run through the game like prune juice through a digestive system.
For example, the reason behind Aiden's vigilantism, and the driving force behind the game's story, is his desire to find the person ultimately responsible for the death of his niece. He believes this individual is related to a company named CtOS, who run Chicago's networking services. In the process he discovers CtOS are harvesting personal data and spying on the entire populace of Chicago, and this is only the beginning of the conspiracy. He damns their snooping, then hacks their systems so he can monitor all of Chicago's populace as well, while also hacking their bank accounts for his personal gain and performing snooping side-missions of his own where he peers into people's homes like a big cyber-pervert.
Alongside being hypocritical, contradictory and generally a messy thing, Watch Dogs' story likes to have its cake and eat it. In one mission you uncover a human-trafficking ring where young women are sold semi-naked at auction to various species of rich scumbag. "THIS IS BAD!" the game shouts. "LOOK AT HOW BAD IT IS! LOOK AT ALL THESE WOMEN BEING TREATED LIKE CATTLE! LOOK AT THEIR BREASTS AND THINK ABOUT HOW BAD THESE PEOPLE ARE!" It would help if the game had any female characters worth giving a damn about, women who didn't fall under the categories of sex object, victim or perfunctory sidekick who doesn't really do anything.
This is all made weirder by the fact that line-by-line the writing quality is pretty good. Dialogue is tight and witty, while certain characters, such as your cheery yet utterly psychopathic gangster-buddy Jordi, are very strong indeed. It's as if the writers typed out the script with their noses pressed right against the screen, and never sat back to see that, as a whole, none of it makes a lick of sense.
Regarding the player's role in Watch Dogs, the majority of the story missions involve sneaking or shooting your way into prisons, security installations, gang territory and other restricted areas, before "hacking" something by playing a boring minigame, and then either sneaking or shooting your way back out. Stealth involves evading enemy lines of sight while moving from cover to cover and using Aiden's magic phone to control electronic equipment. Cameras can be jumped between to get an overview of the area, tag enemies and hack other devices beyond Aiden's immediate reach. Moreover, patrolling enemies can be distracted by sending them text messages that play on some personal problem, or by hacking their comms unit which essentially stuns them. If you prefer a louder approach, certain objects can be hacked so hard they explode to kill passing enemies, or you could just pull out one of Aiden's many guns and start blasting away.
At first these missions are fairly entertaining, but the format never really evolves. Occasionally there's a car chase or a base defence, but these are usually side-dishes to complement the main course of infiltration. Furthermore, the story starts to drag like a stubborn dog once you reach the second act, massively convoluting the narrative and throwing in a horde of new characters simply to pad out the plot.