The latest competitor to GTA's throne is Ubisoft's Watch Dogs which puts the player into the shoes of hacker and vigilante Aiden Pearce who pursues a campaign of revenge in the mean streets of Chicago. The publisher have given maximum publicity to this title which has certainly paid off in terms of sales though there has also been a certain amount of criticism from some who felt that the game did not live up to their expectations.
The main innovation of the game is the introduction of a hacking mechanic which allows Pearce to access information on every passing citizen, as well as the option to raid the bank accounts of some and get information on crimes occurring across the metropolis, which the player can then prevent from happening if they so wish. Pearce can also use his smartphone to hack into security systems which often involves a mini-game highly derivative of Pipe Mania. The most fun can be had from manipulating the traffic control systems in the city which becomes available as the player gains experience. Changing the traffic lights to cause collisions is pretty hilarious, and it is very satisfying to be able to raise blocks which put pursuing cars out of commission. Such tactics are pretty essential as enemy AI is pretty smart and they will follow you relentlessly, which was rather frustrating at the beginning when the player has not yet gained the ability to use the city's infrastructure to their advantage.
The near future setting of Watch Dogs is one where the city authorities have adopted a computer system which runs pretty much everything. It is a very unlikely scenario, as placing all of their eggs in one basket would so clearly result in a situation where the operating system would be extremely vulnerable to hackers, which unsurprisingly is exactly what happens in the game. This is in fact on the whole a game with a fairly unreal setting; the city never feels truly real in the same way that some of the GTA titles have achieved. It instead just feels like something that has been put together as a playing field for the gamer. I haven't been to Chicago but I don't imagine that there are avid chess players on every street corner. Watch Dogs also inherits many elements from previous Ubisoft franchises, anyone who has climbed up a radio tower in Far Cry will recognise the equivalent here.
Story-wise WD is fairly average, suffering from stereotyped characters such as the punky female hacker who seems to be making a guest appearance from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and cliched settings such as the inner-city slum dominated by a black criminal gang. A level set in the latter played out to a backing of hip-hip music. Aren't any other styles ever heard in the concrete jungle? The main guy Pearce is just dull, with a gruff voice which sounded unintentionally comic on occasion. Reminiscent of both Christian Bale's Batman and Deus Ex: Human Revolution's Adam Jensen, he was very hard to relate to as he was so unsympathetic. At one point another character critcises Pearce for his hypocrisy when he attempts to take the moral high ground and it is hard to disagree when he has been freely ransacking the bank accounts of random citizens throughout the game. There was the potential for an interesting commentary on the conflict between political control and the human rights of individuals but this opportunity is missed as Pearce does not really seem to be on the side of freedom at all, as he endlessly hacks into people's phones to eavesdrop on their conversations and even infiltrates their own homes via security cameras to invade their privacy.
Thankfully the actual gameplay is mostly engaging enough to keep you playing, with a range of things to do across the city. There is some repetition involved in the optional activities as the game aims very much for quantity rather than distinctiveness but it was still pretty enjoyable to play. The option to use hideouts and stations on the 'L' helped to save transit time from A to B in a useful way.
The setting of Chicago was well realised with a large playing area and smart graphics which are well up to the standard of similar titles on the PS3, although interior areas suffered from being a little bland in comparison to the impressive exteriors. A range of environmental effects and lighting changes occur as you play, which contributed greatly to the game's atmosphere. You can also log in to hot spots around the city in a simulation of wi-fi access which gives information about the history of Chicago which was a nice touch.
Overall Watch Dogs is not quite as innovative as might first appear, but it is a well crafted title which should appeal to fans of the free roam style of gaming. Virtual visitors to Chicago should check it out and find out whether the South Side really is the baddest part of town.