For the first few moments of Watch Dogs, I found myself watching a beautifully rendered cut scene set in a posh hotel lobby. The camera focused in on an elegant black woman, wearing a hat, poncho and crazy eyeshadow staring intently at her smartphone. I felt a stab of excitement. "Ooh!" I thought. "That's obviously the hacker main character. Cool! I get to play as a black woman in this game." Then the camera followed her around the room and then stopped and refocused on a man in a baseball cap. Oh. Nope, silly me, of course not. I get to play as a white man. Again. Ha ha ha! They almost had me there! Good one, Ubisoft!
The second thing we learn about our protagonist hero, Aiden Pearce, is that he's angry. Very angry. He's a skilled computer hacker, one of the absolute elite in the world, and it seems that he's come to the attention of some bad people. They hired some even worse people who were meant to scare him a bit, enough to take him out of the game, but instead they ended up accidentally killing his niece. Aiden's pretty mad about that, and he's currently taking his anger out on the hired killer who actioned the hit. After being told absolutely nothing useful whatsoever, you'll then need to use your unique set of skills to get out of the building without being detected by the police.
Once you're out, the game's open world literally opens up to you almost immediately. Looking at Aiden's outfit, I decided that the first port of call was going to have to be a clothes shop to buy him something that didn't make him look like a dodgy flasher pervert. The long mac, baseball cap and bandana pulled up to cover his mouth HAVE to go, as this get up is bound to make him stand out in the crowd, and frankly, I don't want to look at it for the rest of the game.
He needs to get decked out in something more 'normal', like a T-shirt and jeans. Unfortunately, however, my long trip across town to the tailor is a waste of time, as it seems no matter how much money I spend I can only basically change the colours of his togs, not the actual outfit. He's stuck looking like a weirdo, so I wonder what the point of having the clothes shops at all is? Ubisoft has hinted that new outfits might be available via DLC, so perhaps it's just something that didn't quite make it into the actual game. Or perhaps the DLC will just add SOME MORE COLOURS. Ooh!
Swallowing my disappointment and moving on, I start to explore my surroundings and take on some side missions. To start hacking a new area, you will first need to hack the local ctOS tower, which will then open up a whole range of other options. Hacking the towers is fun – you'll need to find and hack certain objects virtually to facilitate your physical entrance to the place so you can hack the base of the tower itself.
Once you've successfully hacked the ctOS tower, a new hideout location will become available to you where you can rest and save and you'll be able to have all kinds of other fun. Your mobile phone allows you to scan people that walk by and give you their name, job, salary and an interesting titbit of information about them. That can be anything from 'frequently visits prostitutes' to 'has an online gambling habit.' This is something someone nosy like me wishes she had for real, because it would be so fascinating – I mean, it's a chilling look at what could soon happen in our high tech, surveillance society.
However, there's not all that much of a thrill in doing it in a game, when you know that the lines and characters are all probably completely randomised. In real life, if I found out that, say, a young woman was an online troll, I'd be fascinated and want to know her story and her reasons why. But, how interesting can discovering someone's 'secret' be when it's not real? As well as finding out everyone's secrets, you can hack certain people's bank accounts to gather cash, while you can eavesdrop on others' phone conversations, access their cars or add songs from their MP3 players to your own. It makes wandering around interesting, as you can get goodies just by looking around as you move around.
Sometimes on your meanderings, you'll see crimes being committed and have the option to go after the perpetrator and take them down to increase your reputation. The higher your reputation, the less likely civilians are to call the cops when they spot you. You can choose to be a bad guy, too, by doing things like killing police officers when they chase you. Doing things like that will mean that people will take a disliking to you and be more likely to want to see you safely behind bars. As you would expect in an open world game, there are plenty of other things to do and surprises to discover, but on the whole, I couldn't help feeling a little as if – like the options at the clothing store – it could have all been much more fun and that the opportunities for having huge amounts of fun have been somewhat wasted.
Going back to the main story, it becomes clear that Aiden is determined to find the people responsible for killing his favourite niece, and what also becomes clear is that I should have played through a few of the story missions first, as they cleverly introduce the various elements of the game, including the multiplayer parts. There's so much going on in Watch Dogs, that it's pretty unlikely that you won't have a blast doing at least some of them – there are multi-level AR games like 'Alone', hidden audio recordings to find, secret AR codes to line up, car races, Nintendo-style 3D platformers using city buildings to jump on and grab gold coins, adverts to watch on outdoor TV screens, items to craft ... the very scope of all the options you have to choose from makes it an above average game.
The problem is, all these little bits don't seem to fit into the main whole in any way – they're all just fun extras that you can go off and play when you feel like taking a break from the main story and doing something different for a while, you don't feel you're achieving any progression doing them. It's such a shame that Watch Dogs somehow doesn't take that bar and ratchet it up to being truly great.