Aiden Pearce, the protagonist at the heart of Watch Dogs, appears on the cover of the game in a pose that best highlights his most prominent abilities. In his left hand, further off in the background of the picture, he holds his magical cellphone. With it, he's able to hack the city of Chicago to his will, changing traffic lights to stop pursuers and steal money from the bank accounts of some very bad people.
In his right hand, in the foreground and the clear focus of the picture, is a gun. Aiden uses that to murder the majority of the population of the Windy City.
That image tells you everything you could possibly need to know about Watch Dogs. The interesting side of Aiden Pearce -- the super-intelligent rogue who is able to manipulate the technology embedded in the city to outsmart his enemies without looking up from his phone -- is represented as faintly as possible. The boring side -- the uncomfortably brutal sociopath who hides grenade launchers, machine guns and bombs in his coat -- is front and centre, a maniac whose driving motivation is that he's the star of a video game and, well, killing everyone is just what they do.
In a game that is so heavily based on the morality of your actions as a character, everything falls apart when the figure at the heart of that story is a nonsensical mess. It's hard to have any fun or feel good about anything you're doing in Watch Dogs when Aiden's behaviour seems to be based solely on the need to hit every demographic for the game to sell a billion copies worldwide. He has no consistency in his motivation, no defined morals and no personality, aside from a constant need to brood and growl.
Without an actual character as a guiding force for the story and your actions, you're left alternating between behavioural extremes, from horrific acts of violence to inexplicable moments of ain't-he-the-greatest heroism that feel so wrong when squished together without the slightest hint of irony.
The wanton destruction and savagery of the Grand Theft Auto games work because there are actual characters behind the mayhem whose defined motivations and moral codes (or lack thereof) dictate their actions. Aiden Pearce doesn't have to be a likable character -- he can be an unhinged lunatic who throws a grenade into a hallway full of people -- but he has to be consistent. He can't be racing to prevent a petty crime one second and then brazenly firing a machine gun into a crowd of low-level security guards the next.
Without that consistency, Watch Dogs is broken. There's no denying how slick, how expensive and how huge the game is, but none of the bells and whistles mean anything when they don't address the paradoxical nature of the game's design.
Mel Stefaniuk is a freelance writer whose love of both video games and writing have been intertwined since growing up with the text adventures of the '80s. He can be found on Twitter as @DisgracedCop.