It’s a year since Ubisoft surprised the world with Watch Dogs (thankfully it seems like they’re backing down on the Watch_Dogs styling a little) and while the game looks great, I’m not without my concerns. While every time Ubisoft demo the game they show something that looks impressive, the demos can feel a bit narrow when set against some of the claims they’re making about the game.
That’s not entirely uncommon, and it’s obviously difficult to demo an open game world and show off every aspect of it, but at times I’ve felt like there’s something a little off with what we’ve seen of the game.
One of the two demos they were showing at E3 went quite some way in assuaging some of these fears, as well as showing off more of the game’s multiplayer elements. You’ve probably seen the other demo they were showing, it’s the one from the Sony conference, so I won’t bother to bore you with the details of it.
No it’s the theatre demo that was being shown in the smaller area of Ubisoft’s booth dedicated to Ubisoft Montreal’s newest title that I want to focus on. This showed off a nice segment of the game that focused on elements of the its open world, rather than highlighting a story mission.
More specifically, Ubisoft were showing off a few of the game’s many side missions, and perhaps most importantly they featured the equivalent of Assassin’s Creed’s towers. If you’re not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed series, there are often towers that you either need to capture or ascend to the top of to unlock a section of a town or city, with certain features being unavailable in the surrounding area until you do so.
Of course a huge stone tower would look a little out of place in Chicago, so instead there are buildings that contain a Central Operating System (CtOS) server that you need to break into so you can hack the server. Watch Dogs takes a rather more physical approach to hacking than many other games though, meaning you’ll need to get past some guards and hop a few fences if you want to infect the machine responsible for running an area of Chicago.
You’re free to approach the building however you want, as you are for much of the game. If you want to stealth your way past the guards and get to a position where you can break into the machine that’s fine, but if shooting everything in sight is more your speed then you can take that approach too. Your only restrictions are that you’ll need to retrieve the server’s master code from the head guard, and then get close enough to use this information to break into the server.
One of the nice touches when you’re tackling this kind of task is that Aiden Pearce, the game’s antihero protagonist, will remain in a stealth crouch until he’s discovered, lowering your visibility and raising your chances of reaching your objective without being discovered. You’re hardly invisible though, and in the demo run through that I saw Pearce was quickly noticed by the guards, with a gun fight quickly ensuing.
After dispatching his freshly angered adversaries, Pearce broke into the building’s camera network, found a camera with a view of the server and infected it with a virus that gave him control of another portion of Chicago. Quite why you need to be able to see the server to hack it isn’t clear from a storyline perspective, although it makes perfect sense from a gameplay one; it certainly seems to be a constant in what we’ve seen of the game anyway.
With his new found ability to access systems in this area of Chicago, Pearce headed off to see what he could find. Now able to access phones and data about the owners, Ubisoft highlighted a feature in the game I hadn’t seen much of before. Although we’ve seen Pearce access information about an individual, he also has the ability to assess their threat level. Apparently this kind of technology to determine the risk of a crime before it’s even happened is actually something that’s employed by real world police forces, which feels mildly disconcerting.
The system also tells you how likely someone is to be the victim of a crime, and we were quickly shown a woman who was at low risk until she walked down a dark alley. A man was lying in wait for her and, sure enough, her likelihood of being a victim quickly soared.
If you felt like it you could probably ignore this woman’s plight and, interestingly, the game has a karma style system that will change not only how the public perceive you, but also how the media report on your activities. It’s not only whether or not you help people either, but also how you address situations. Gun down someone you’re hunting and people aren’t going to be quite so keen on you, take them down quickly and quietly and people will probably be a bit more keen on you, as will the media.
We saw this when Pearce chased down the man who’d been threatening the woman he’d been following. The two started out on foot but quickly both jumped into cars, a touch I really liked. The chase ended when Pearce raised a set of electronic bollards, totalling his quarry’s car without harming anyone else. It was a great way of showing the kind of encounters you can expect when wandering around Chicago, and helped to give a sense of the options you’ve got when confronting a situation.
This was all fun to watch, but what came next was probably the most intriguing aspect of Watch Dogs – the multiplayer. Out of nowhere an alert popped on screen, informing the person demoing the game that Pearce’s phone was under electronic attack. The solution? Trace the hack and try to capture the hacker.
As a percentage bar slowly filled, showing how far along the hack was, a direction marker appeared, giving you an approximate location for the hacker. Following this on screen hint, Pearce managed to track down his attacker, although they bolted before a confrontation could come about.
Obviously you can’t let this infringement lie, so the next step was to find them again and try to hack them back. When hacking an opponent you need to stay pretty nearby them, but also stay out of sight or they’ll come for you, just as Pearce had shown earlier. Complete the hack and you’ll gain valuable information on a competitor, as well as the ability to trace them far more easily.
What’s not really clear yet is just how or why you’ll end up in an opponents game, although it seems that other players aren’t playing with the same character model as you. Whether they’re another version of Aiden Pearce, like in Mass Effect, or if they select another character when they enter into the game’s multiplayer mode is probably the biggest question, and something that wasn’t really addressed.
However it works though, the mechanics of it all look very interesting. This kind of drop-in/drop-out play seems like it’ll be a very big part of the next generation, with several of Ubisoft’s games featuring similar mechanics.
Although that’s all very interesting, it’s the city in general and Pearce’s encounters with people on the streets of Chicago that appeal to me more. I always love just wandering the city and seeing what’s going on in open world games, and Watch Dogs takes this to the next level.
The AI is also worth highlighting, with the flexibility of other characters looking very impressive. Whether they’re assaulting you or running from you, they look like they’re really thinking about their next step, and I really enjoyed the way that the AI decided to hop into a car in the chase the demo featured.
To be honest, this demo really did put a lot of my fears to rest. While it’s all well and good to say that you’ve got a brilliant open world, you really need to show it for people to believe it’s more than just another hyperbolic claim. Fortunately Watch Dogs does look like it’s living up to a lot of the claims that Ubisoft has been making, and it’s now firmly cemented in my mind as one of the games to get at the end of this year.