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Three hours with Watch Dogs: Multiplayer, hacking and insane side-missions

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell on Thursday 24th Apr 2014 at 2:00 AM EST

Let's assume, just for the time it takes to read 1000 words or so, that you're unimpressed by the cautionary tale of a digitally overrun society offered by Watch Dogs.

Let's also assume that you think the idea of delivering an up-to-date commentary on the risks of ubiquitous internet by way of a five year videogame project with persistent online features is at best doomed to failure, at worst deeply hypocritical; that the game's studied allusions to hacker collectives and phone apps remind you of your uncle trying to bond with you over his new Blackberry.

Don't worry - Watch Dogs doesn't have to be about any of these things. If you prefer, it can be about clambering up buildings and smashing cop cars as a massive robot spider.

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Spider Attack is one of several reality-bursting side activities or "Digital Trips" in Watch Dogs, purchased with in-game cash via your D-pad smartphone menu or from shady app dealers in Chicago's back alleys. Together with Cash Run, in which you sprint for spinning arcade machine fruit, and a sort of holographic shooting ARG with fractal aliens, it's a body-blow to the game's vaguely David Fincher-esque main plot and gloomy portrayal of an always-online era.

Sure, you could be off looking for the person or people behind the assassination attempt that led to the death of your niece, or swapping tips about the underworld with your shady associate Jordi. Sure, you could be patrolling Chicago's streets with your head down and your smartphone out, sifting the wifi chatter for the glimmer of an impending crime.

But you've just blown a helicopter's tail off with your abdominal howitzer, and you're well on your way to unlocking a ground pound move. Vigilante vengeance can wait. Yes, there's probably a pun on "web" in here somewhere. Try not to dwell on it.

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Rolling your eyes at how sidequests distract you from the plot is an open world reviewer's cliché, and frankly, Watch Dogs feels like just another open world game much of the time, albeit a very sharp and stylish one. Tuck Aiden Pearce's smartphone back into his exquisite trench coat, and there's little here that can't be done in GTA.

Cars are there to be pinched, raced and wrecked, civilians terrorised or robbed, lowlives beaten up or shot, police annoyed or avoided. The game's body language is different - Aiden's knack of dropping his gun hand to hip level to make the weapon less obvious is masterfully observed, and may help you slip past fretful NPCs - but it walks the same walk.

If the edgy hacker premise can't transform the open world action genre, it does at least give the open world action genre a lot of additional panache. Stealing a ride feels so much more debonair, for instance, when you do it by wirelessly picking the locks, and there's no more satisfying way to take out a police pursuit than by exploding a steam pipe directly behind your car.

"Friction is provided not by the interface, but by the personal lives you'll dip into on your journeys"

Perhaps the game's best trick, though, is how it uses Aiden's phone to introduce these opportunities seamlessly, without dragging you out of the world. While skipping from CCTV camera to CCTV camera - it's possible to hack one from the perspective of another - you might tap into a phone conversation that points you toward the site of an imminent murder. On the way there, you could eavesdrop on a SMS chat and learn of some buried contraband.

Like a loose ball of string, Watch Dogs has a way of unravelling at the slightest nudge. Friction is provided not by the interface, but by the personal lives you'll dip into on your way to the next beatdown or robbery. It's harder to shoot a man down in cold blood when you've just found out, via Aiden's profiler app, that he's a fan of cuddly animals.

Some of the mission types are more throwaway than others. The chance to scour the city for hidden QR codes feels like Ubisoft doing the Uncle Blackberry routine again, and I can't say I'm tempted by the opportunity to become "mayor" of a region by checking into a Hotspot more than any other player (the possibility of gifts from other players at Hotspots is a bit more enticing).

On the other hand, you've got base infiltrations that seem just as complex and enthralling as the Borgia Tower equivalents in Assassin's Creed, where the idea is either to hack a terminal or pound on a leading goon - discreetly if possible. There are also giant chess sets dotted around Chicago's parks, for those slow autumn evenings, and poker games you can win by monitoring an opponent's stress levels care of that all-powerful phone.

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There's also the multiplayer, which seems quite promising. True, many of the competitive offerings are familiar - Capture the Flag with data files instead of flags, Team Deathmatch with guns instead of, er, guns, among other modes - but your hacker abilities create much-needed variation: it's possible to wirelessly defuse people's grenades or trap them on automated suspension bridges, among other things.

A little tip from us: if you're going to trap somebody on a suspension bridge, try not to trap yourself on it in the process, especially if he's driving a car and you aren't.

The basic Hacking one-on-one game type is rarely as dramatic, but it's very addictive. The idea here is to infiltrate another player's world as an NPC, beam a program onto their phone, and wait in the area while it "installs a back door". The host may gun you down in the process, however, so you'll need to blend into the NPC crowd using the same tricks as in Assassin's Creed multiplayer.

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The mode can be initiated at any time, providing both players have ticked the relevant menu box. At one point, I was alerted to a hack attack while shadowing a perp, obliging me to break off the pursuit and start a raging gun battle. At another, I teleported to my intended victim's location and found him right in the middle of a sniper battle with circling police choppers, who proceeded to blow my head off. Thanks, officer.

"What you're getting is a slick, option-heavy modern day interpretation of Assassin's Creed"

It's at times like this that Watch Dogs makes a real contribution to the decades-old business of getting lost in an imaginary city. Alas, there's too often a sense of diminishing returns.

That sounds terribly damning, and it shouldn't - even if all the hacker stuff turns belly-up, what you're getting is a slick, option-heavy modern day interpretation of Assassin's Creed, which will be quite enough for many players. It's just a shame that this much-anticipated game isn't as revolutionary under the hand as it looked back at E3 2012.