'Watch Dogs' is out on all major formats (except the Wii U) from 27 May 2014.
- 20 hours-ish single player campaign
- Open-world gameplay
- Innovative online 'invasion' mode
- Fun mini-games played 'in-world'
The disappointing thing about 'Watch Dogs' is not that it isn't a fun, engaging video game. It isn't that it has bad graphics, is overly buggy or is bad value for money. None of those things are true. It isn't even that it's less exhilarating or drop-dead gorgeous than the previews and trailers made it appear -- that is true, but it's hardly unexpected.
The disappointment is simply that while this is a great game, it's quite specifically a genre game. And while you could label that genre 'open world city action' if you wanted to, the real name for the genre is… Grand Theft Auto. And that puts it in tougher company than it can really cope with.
Here you play as Aiden Pearce, a prosaic, uncharismatic gruffly-voiced male, and hacker, who uses his phone to access a chokingly dystopian network of government surveillance systems woven throughout the city of Chicago, while also wreaking havoc with the more traditional tools of guns, cars and general carnage.
As ever the story is largely at odds with how you'll play it: Aiden is ostensibly a sort of revenge-driven high-tech Robin Hood, out to avenge the death of his niece after a mission-gone-wrong. But most of the time he acts like a deranged mass killer, happy to run over pedestrians and shoot thousands of people to make his way through the story, for no very good reason.
At least this time those people you kill have a name - as well as a salary, occupation and probably a fetish of some kind. This is down to the game's key concept of 'hacking', by which Aiden is able to use his phone to control traffic lights, deploy spikes and bollards, raise and lower bridges and explode transformers to bend the city to his will and irritate/maim your enemies, while also learning oddities and details about your fellow citizens at a glance, listening in to their conversations and even stealing their money.
It's a fantastic idea, and in practice really does make the game feel fresh and inventive, especially when you're attacking an enemy HQ by stealth, using security cameras to deploy tricks to take goons down from a distance, or escaping from the police by finding paths they just can't follow. The problem is that after an hour or two, the concept reveals itself to be far thinner than it seems at first. The 'hacking' mechanic is usually simplified down to a button hold at most, and might as well just be a super-power.
Worst of all, it's just rarely as effective in a pinch as using a gun. And that's a big problem, because at that point, when you're just carrying out the same run-shoot-escape pattern as you have a million times before in GTA, it's hard not to compare the two directly. And the fact is that Watch Dogs... it's just not as fun.
Yes, 'Watch Dogs' does come out ahead on some scores. Graphically it's brilliant on the next-gen consoles, and its range of online play is also far better integrated into the main game than GTA's silo-ed single/multiplayer experience. Here other players can hack into your game at will, forcing you to play a version of high-tech cat and mouse to root them out, or tempting you to do the same to them with constant pop-ups. That helps it feel 'next gen' in a way that even fancy water effects can't managed.
But on so many other levels, this game is clearly nowhere near as polished or memorable as Rockstar's masterpiece. Watch Dog's Chicago is varied, but it can't compare to GTA V's massive open world. The driving and shooting is decent enough too, but GTA's is meatier, and more playable. Most of all, Watch Dogs is hamstrung by a limp central story and a paper-thin background, whereas GTA has three strong tales at its heart, and one of the richest satirical worlds ever created as their setting.
The result in Watch Dog's case is a game that is nothing less than an enjoyable, open-world adventure filled with content, some neat ideas and great graphics - but nothing more either. It lacks depth and character, and in the end we just stopped caring. Hacking beneath the surface of the GTA genre sounded like a great idea - it's just that there isn't much underneath.