Going first comes with its challenges. Ubisoft stole the show at E3 2012 with its “one more thing”-style reveal of Watch Dogs at the end of its press event. At a show otherwise characterised by the world’s largest entertainment industry treading water, Ubisoft showed a real vision for the future. The publisher might’ve been forced to offer oblique answers on the subject of what systems the game would finally release on, but it was clear to everyone at the Los Angeles Convention Center that this was a next-gen game – or at least Ubisoft’s first interpretation of what one might look like.

Aiden Pearce is not a hero. In a near-future Chicago, the tortured and obsessive vigilante hacker taps into a huge network of crime and corruption as he hunts down a former employer who, in an attempt to kill him, instead killed his niece.

Read our interview with lead designer Danny Belanger: Hacking for fun and profit

The other star is Chicago, a city of expanding waistlines, sprawling ghettos and rusting industrial complexes, whose best years may now be behind it. More than an open-world grid to pepper mission-start markers across, Chicago is an interactive playground that Pearce will need to control if he hopes to succeed. As he moves through the city, a tantalising procession of interaction icons appear on the heads-up overlay indicating traffic lights that can be hacked to cause car crashes, bollards and bridges that may be raised to thwart pursuers, and steam vents that can be overloaded to blast the brave men and women of the Chicago PD into an early pension.

Watch Dogs hands-on

On foot, Pearce can pull down information on citizens, hack bank accounts, and flit from grainy security camera to grainy security camera, preemptively rigging restricted zones for his arrival. From the outset, the real promise of Watch Dogs has been an entire city that can be hacked and manipulated with the touch of a single button, and Ubisoft delivers with a flourish.

Where the shine subsequently came off following Watch Dogs’ announcement was in the game’s visuals. At its reveal, and in the years of development prior, it’s clear that Ubisoft was building a game based on what it assumed or hoped next-gen console specifications might be, and it looked as if its imagination ran away with it. A small but important audience of gamers has since taken fair umbrage with later builds that compared unfavourably to the kind of graphical fidelity shown at the game’s unveiling. Promisingly, the latest build we played on PlayStation 4 appears to be improved over the version we saw last year, and Ubisoft insists that the final PC build is very close indeed to what gamers first cooed over in 2012.

Watch Dogs hands-on
Watch Dogs hands-on
Watch Dogs hands-on
Watch Dogs hands-on

The game opens in Chicago’s Wrigley stadium, and introduces the hacking and skills systems Pearce will need to master in addition to stealth, shooting, and driving. It demonstrates how Pearce can use the wired landscape around him to tip conditions in his favour by killing lights or triggering distractions. The path here is prescribed so as to conclude with an important set-piece, but the game soon opens up and offers players multiple paths to any final objective.

An exemplary mission from later in the game involves rigging the future sight of an illegal trade with explosives. In an abandoned warehouse, Pearce must hack into the CCTV system to determine where best to place his devices and even the odds against huge numbers of well-armed thugs, whose arrival is soon heralded by black SUVs blasting Wu-Tang.

Off mission, Watch Dogs hews to the Ubisoft design mandate that more is better. When he’s not surreptitiously wreaking digital havoc on Chicago’s underbelly, Pearce can take up activities that range from core gameplay pillars such as racing, stealth, and shooting, to poker and drinking games. There are even digital trips: mind-altering flights of techno-fancy that bolt something of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon right onto Watch Dogs’ core offering. Here, Pearce can clamber around Chicago in a mechanical arachnid, or take out as many demons as possible within a time limit.

More intriguing are a range of asymmetrical multiplayer modes. Players who have opted in will occasionally learn that others have intruded on their game to engage in competitive activities. The most basic of these is a game of anonymous hide-and-seek using the Pearce’s smartphone profiler. Find the other player, steal their information, and get away before they can track you down. In Decryption, the player, or a team of players, must hold a file for a prescribed amount of time in a fast-paced rendition of keep-away.

A tablet companion app provides a final multiplayer mode, and an admirable example of second screen functionality. The player on the tablet is given a bird’s eye view of Chicago and control of its police forces. He or she can then summon units and set traps for a player in game, who is attempting to get away. All of these clever modes make quick and welcome distractions from the singleplayer experience, without entirely undermining the conceit of the brittle hacker.

There’s something about Watch Dogs that should make us all feel a little uneasy. Technology and its uses for good and ill are important ideas for us to spend time with, and in its broader strokes, Watch Dogs has some interesting things to say on the subject. But where the game truly draws players in is with the voyeuristic pleasures of eavesdropping on others’ private communications. Most of them are simply mundane snippets – the kinds of messages we send and receive tens of times every day. Secrets are powerful even when they’re incidental, and it adds a human dimension Watch Dogs’ characters, NPCs – even its villains – that few other games can boast.

The idea that anyone could control a city with a smartphone is of course pure gaming fantasy, and it’s what gives Watch Dogs its back-of-box differentiation. But where Ubisoft cuts closer to the bone is in its examination of what it means for all of us to be constantly connected. We all willingly exchange the private details of our lives online, and rely on governments and corporations to be good and selfless stewards of our personal information. In the wake of ongoing scandals such as PRISM it has become very clear to us that they are not. In its own small way, and with a lighter hand than one usually finds in AAA game development, Watch Dogs challenges us to reevaluate our relationships with technology and information, and wraps it all up in compelling gameplay.