It wouldn't be unfair to call Watch Dogs one of Ubisoft's most hyped games ever. And though its an enjoyable, solid gaming experience, it doesn't quite live up to those expectations, with all of its best ideas and potential lost beneath the weight of its own ambition and a series of conflicting mechanics and systems.
As Aiden Pearce, you are a one man Anonymous, able to infiltrate any computerised system and bend it to your will. With the modern Chicago setting, such skills with technology are akin to superpowers. Sadly, Pearce is a flat out supervillain and a thoroughly unlikeable human being. And while the game is at pains to make you care for his plight from the tragically killed niece to the fractured family dynamics surrounding him it never does anything to make the player genuinely root for our antihero. This morally conflicted, shades-of-grey anti-hero types penchant for hacking innocents or causing mass destruction in the city makes him even less sympathetic than the outright criminals of, for instance, Grand Theft Auto.
Yet even GTA has a wry, knowing sense of humour about its own absurdity. Watch Dogs' biggest quick if you can call it that is its ceaseless strain of po-faced seriousness. The script is functional and, despite the futuristic veneer of being able to dominate a city, the game feels derivative of action movies you know and love. There is, at times, an oddly dated feeling. Then factor in all those systems hacking, crafting, resource gathering, driving (which isn't as fluid as some of its peers), a reputation system, customisations, and more and it starts to feel overwhelming, coming across as confused about exactly what experience it's actually trying to offer the player.
However, there is still a tonne of material in the game that is deserving of praise. It looks utterly fantastic, particularly on next gen consoles or high end PCs. The range of abilities unlocked as you progress are truly innovative, adding a fresh approach to open world gaming. The mix of hacking skills, stealth options, driving boosts and such all help cultivate a sense of dominion over your surroundings. Combat, for the most part, is also smooth and enjoyable, with Aiden's bullet time-style Focus ability allowing you to pull off some incredibly satisfying moves. There is also tremendous freedom in how you approach some missions for example, choosing to shoot your way through enemies, set tactical traps or find a way to avoid attention all together. Even the more familiar aspects of the game offer a nice twist or two, such as finding ways to activate the towers governing Chicago's information infrastructure. They serve the same purpose as climbing the map towers in FarCry, activating features in specific city grids, but thanks to Watch Dogs' neat trick of letting you piggy back from one security camera feed to another the process feels almost seditious.
Impressively, there are even a suite of mini games crammed in, accessed through Pearce's smartphone, each full featured enough to have counted as their own game not too many years ago. The spider tank and the Carmageddon style destruction driving games are easily the most addictive. Conversely, their inclusion is the perfect example of Watch Dogs's own ferocious ambition, layering content in almost for the sake of it.
Perhaps, much like the Assassin's Creed series, later entries will manage to capitalise on the good ideas that are present in this first game. As it is, with its perfunctory script and unlikeable 'hero', Watch Dogs is a very encouraging but undeniably flawed experience.