As per my usual way of doing things, I didn’t know a damn thing about Watch Dogs until I popped it into my PS4. That might be inconceivable to some of you, that someone could know nothing about a game as important as this, but it’s not that hard, really. Just take all the time you would spend online reading gaming news and watching trailers and do something else with it. Like sleeping. That’s one of my favourites.

That ignorance helps me to remain objective, I think. No exposure to expectations or hype or even knowledge of the game’s content. I only start thinking about the game as I play it. All I knew going in was that it’s an open-world game in which you play a dude wearing a trench coat and a baseball cap, and it has something to do with hacking.

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The dude in question is named Aiden Pearce. He’s a hacker and part-time vigilante. The game establishes that he’s a badass by opening with a scene of him beating some tough-talking thug into submission and trying to get some info out of him. He roughs the guy up real good and then meets his funny assassin helper, Jordi Chin. The two of them let it slip that they’re in a baseball stadium, and they stage a massive blackout to escape. This functions as the beginning tutorial bit.

You find out pretty quickly what Aiden had hoped to accomplish with that beating. He’s trying to find out who was responsible for the death of his six year-old niece four years earlier. That’s pretty much the driving force behind the entire game – Aiden’s quest for answers and payback. He’s a stubborn bastard though, so even when his remaining family members beg him to drop it, he doesn’t, and it doesn’t turn out so well – but you’ll see for yourself what happens.

It’s kind of fun to play a grizzled, middle-aged sourpuss instead of a young, insufferably smug pretty boy. Aiden lives in a near-future version of Chicago, where every single part of the city’s infrastructure is connected online. Everything from garage doors and sprinklers to fridges, kids’ toys, security cams and traffic lights are hooked up and can be hacked. All Aiden needs is his smartphone. The phone itself (or the software on it) is called the Profiler, and it’s one of the major tools of the game.

You can whip out the Profiler at any time while walking the streets, while driving, or even in the middle of a shootout, whenever. What it does is highlight objects in the world Aiden can hack. What this translates into in gameplay terms is basically a long-distance “use” button. Maybe Aiden wants to get onto a roof, and there just happens to be a forklift nearby. He can climb onto the lift part and hack the forklift to raise him up.

Maybe there’s a guard Aiden wants to sneak past, and the guard has a cell phone. Aiden can distract the guard by sending him baffling (and often hilarious) text messages. Maybe Aiden will receive a mission where he has to sneak into an enemy compound, and you wisely decide that running in there blind would result in Aiden’s ass getting riddled with bullets, so you hack the security cameras from outside to see how many guards are waiting for your inside and mark them on the mini-map.

Over the course of the game, you’ll get into plenty of exciting high-speed car chases, and the Profiler can help a lot there too. Aiden can change traffic lights to cause car crashes – which is useful for both stopping people you’re chasing, and stopping people from chasing you. He can do the same with mechanical road blockers and bridges. While we’re on the subject, the vehicle handling in Watch Dogs features some of the best driving physics I’ve experienced in a sandbox game.

You don’t have to do any of the hacking stuff. There are some key story missions in which it’s mandatory, but even in most of the story missions and side missions you can opt to go in old-school shooter style if you wish. It’s certainly possible to succeed that way – but why would you want to do something that boring?

You can also use the Profiler to get information about every single citizen walking the streets. Whenever you point it at a person, you get their name, job title and some random info about them, like “donates to Jewish charities”, or “comic book enthusiast”, or “clown fetishist”, or “recently attended a furry convention”. Some of them are a real hoot. Sometimes you’ll encounter a citizen marked in blue, which means they have something you can gain by hacking their phone. Usually it’s their bank account money, which you can then withdraw by going to an ATM – and I’ve got to say, as someone who’s been hit by card fraud six times (no joke), I feel really dirty doing this.

There’s something about the hacking that I find puzzling. Somehow, it all works on line-of-sight. Aiden has to be able to see what he’s hacking, whether this means he’s able to see it himself, with his own eyes, or being able to see it through a camera he’s hacked. You’d think having access to the network would be enough – unless the people of near-future Chicago ditched cables and Wi-Fi in favour of microwave relays or something.

It does make for some interesting puzzle sections, though. Often you’ll have to hack a camera in a place you can’t reach in order to see another camera further in, which you hack, which then allows you to access another, and so on, until you can finally see your objective and hack it. There have been infiltration missions I’ve completed without even entering the mission area. I just hacked the nearest camera I could find from the outside and jumped from camera to camera until I found what I was looking for. Never even had to face an enemy. It’s really cool that you can do that, or run in guns blazing, as you choose.

As you complete missions and activites, you’ll gain experience which eventually rewards you with points you can spend in several skill trees focused on hacking, combat, driving and crafting skills. Oh yes, you can craft items too, like grenades, distraction devices, and other cool little utility items. The shooting is pretty standard, cover-based third-person shooter action, but the nice thing is you can carry every weapon you find. You can also execute a melee non-lethal takedown when you want to be stealthy or you’re under orders not to kill your target.

Apart from that, it’s a fairly standard sandbox game. The city map is littered with icons representing the dozens of activities you can engage in, including vigilante crime stopping, criminal contracts, augmented reality games you can play and pushers selling “digital trips”, which is a mind-altering experience you can use to play entirely different types of games, like a driving game where you run over zombies in hell, or a dark sci-fi game where you thwart the plans of creepy robots.

There are some multiplayer options too, with which I had limited experience because I’m presently without an Internet connection. What little experience I had was three invasion attempts from other players. Apparently they can hack your game and steal the reputation points you’ve earned (good or bad, according to your deeds). You have to find the invading hacker and kill them. I found and killed two of them. The third guy I managed to find and stop his hack attempt, but he got away with his life. It’s kind of fun. A bit like the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer modes, where players are basically mandated to be dicks to each other.

As for the technical stuff, it looks great and sounds great. Of course it does. It’s a big-budget Ubisoft title. The real winner here is the well-implemented hacking gameplay mechanic, which breathes a surprising amount of life into the old open-world action game formula.