Watch Dogs is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand we have a game that very much wants you to think about the consquences of technology and connectivity becoming much more of a part of our lives. On the other it is a massive playground of amorality where you can be as good or as bad as you want.
Technically it is a masterpiece. The combination of visuals, AI and interactivity is unparalleled even by the mighty GTA V. The game's hero, Aiden Pearce has the entire city of Chicago at his fingertips courtesy of his Profiler smartphone and it has all kinds of entertaining opportunities by hacking the ctOS system that controls all of Chicago's computer-conrolled services.
Once you unlock the local ctOS secure data centres you can see information on every single NPC in the city. At a glance you will see their names, jobs, how much they earn and a prominent piece of information about their life from admirable qualities like "Took in a homeless person" to the ugly "Suspected of hate crimes" to the downright disturbing "Experimented with cannibalism".
Some will have weaknesses that you can hack to unlock a whole range or bonuses from extra cash or useful data keys to unlocking new cars and music. When they seem to be texting or on a call you can even hack in a read or hear the conversation. Sometimes it's just funny; other times it yields information on the myriad of side missions that Watch Dogs has to offer or even an online challenge.
It's all intensely voyeuristic and there's even the opportunity to spy on folks while hacking ctOS centres by watching clips recorded by the system which again range from the silly and mundane to the utterly terrifying.
The Profiler's best use though is during missions especially when Aiden needs to break in somewhere or tail someone. Just turn on the Profiler using the X button and (360 controller) you have access to hack the environment from security cameras to bursting steam pipes, activating forklifts and cranes and blowing up electrical junction boxes. Enemies also show their weaknesses in the Profiler and you can distract them, hack a camera they ar carrying or even detonate any explosives they have on them.
This all combines with a superb cover mechanic to provide an entertaining stealth experience. Just press A to snap to cover and then point your reticule at the next cover you want to move to and press A again to make the switch.
There's an impressive array of side-quests and online play options. Online is always-on by default and you are prompted whenever there's an opportinuty to drop in to a race, hacking challenge or answer a bounty. Bounties happen when you hack a Blume (the creators of ctOS) affiliate's phone and can't prevent them from calling it in.
Players can invade your game when a bounty is on your head and you need to catch them before they before they hack your phone and then kill them before they have a chance to escape. It's fun but it can interrupt you carrying out non-instanced side quests like hacking ctOS towers which is infuriating.
Side-quest-wise, there's gang hideouts to clear and criminal convoys to take out. There's also crimes to stop and Watch Dogs does go a long way to encouraging you to be a heroic vigilante.
This is where Watch Dogs gets a bit muddy. You're encouraged to be a good guy and the entire story is a cautionary tale on the misuse of technology. The problem is that Aiden is a character that exists in a moral vacuum. While he does have some good instincts he has no problem in doing the wrong thing to get the right results.
Aiden Pearce is essentially a bad guy and the story revolves around him hunting down the men responsible for the death of his six-year-old niece Lena. His sister is under the impression that Lena died in a car accident but it was no accident. It was some extremely bad guys trying to kill Aiden because he and his then-partner Damien (also a very bad guy) got caught trying to rob the wrong bank digitally.
Pearce lets his sister believe that her daughter's death was an accident while lying in his promise to stop chasing the men responsible. He's also willing to risk other people's lives to get to the truth and get revenge and this all feels at odds with the game's encouraged vigiliante morality.
It also feels particularly jarring when you're presented with the opportunity to hack the bank of a single mother on a low income, which is supposed to give you pause but it's ridiculously easy to just press X and take her cash.
Your vigilante status plays a part in this as it punishes you only for doing things that are visibly bad. Plowing into pedestrians while you're chasing a bad guy will negatively impact on your image but stealing from that skint single mum has no effect whatsoever.
Watch Dogs is in no way a bad game and it seems like I'm splitting hairs by complaining about the game's confilicting morality when Ubisoft Montreal has created such a vast a beautifully detailed world. However, Watch Dog's story is tied very closely to the game's identity and it makes the game a bit of a jarring experience, especially for the many folks like myself who play games for a compelling storyline.
There's one other disappointment in Watch Dogs. Part of the game region is take up by the lovely little town of Pawnee which many of you will recognise from Parks And Recreation. The problem is, I am yet to find Ron "F**king" Swanson. What's that all about Ubisoft?
Watch Dogs is out now on PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One and Xbox 360. The Wii U version is due out later on this year.