Whenever I’m set loose in a game, I test the waters simply doing what feels natural. Immediately upon stepping into Watch Dogs, I made my mark on Chicago. I wasn’t paying attention to the people and traffic rushing by when I saw the option to hack a traffic light, and with a mere button press my decision affected the world before me. Two cars slammed into each other at full speed, causing a traffic jam with concerned NPCs rushing to assist. I knew I’d have power over the world, but actually experiencing it was such a rush.
The Watch Dogs’ excitement has been going since E3 2012, and Ubisoft’s project has always been ambitious, tantalizing us with the possibilities of the city of Chicago bent to your will. After five-and-a-half years of development, Watch Dogs has found itself positioned as the new-gen title showcasing the future of open-world games. What Assassin’s Creed did for exploration last generation, Ubisoft plans to top with its romp in Chi-town.
Ubisoft turned even more heads because it associated Watch Dogs with the PS4 launch, offered as part of a bundle. In a surprising move, Ubisoft delayed Watch Dogs by a few months, pulling out of the PS4 launch window. “It was hard,” says senior producer Dominic Guay. “One of the reasons it took us a while to announce the delay was we still thought we’d ship it. We still thought we were on track to make the game we wanted. We were playing it and having fun. We were looking at playtests and the results were good; gamers had fun. We were like, ‘Okay, there’s stuff we need to fix, stuff we need to tweak, but we still got a few months, we still got a few weeks.’ And then it got to the point and we were like, ‘We won’t have enough time.’” Making the decision to delay the title and put extra polish on it wasn’t easy, but the team is now confident they are shipping their ideal game.
An aura of mystery has always surrounded Ubisoft Montreal’s baby; after all, we’ve only seen small peeks of what’s under the hood. Thankfully, Watch Dogs is finally ready to show what it’s all about. At a recent event at Ubisoft Montreal’s offices, I received not only an hour and a half of hands-on time and insight into its development, but Ubisoft also finally set its new release date: May 27 for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC. (The Wii U version still does not have a specific release date).
Adapting To The World
Being thrown into the hustle and bustle of Chicago is chaotic from the get-go. The city isn’t a 1:1 replica, but as a Chicago native, I find the essence pretty spot-on. My demo recreates the frenzy you’d find in The Loop; the streets are swarming with people, each with their own agenda. If you pay attention, you’ll find little things, like overhearing arguments or being exposed to some serious public displays of affection. In fact, as I roam, a fender bender happens right in front me. The two drivers get out of their cars and the exchange is authentic — worrying if everyone’s OK, and the responsible party panicking about not having the money to afford it.
The little stories that these NPCs tell enhance the immersion. This extends to deciding if you want to hack and profile people for extra cash. I find myself looking at their backstories, as the profiles bring up little tidbits like their occupations and recent events in their lives. Some of the circumstances are humorous like, “trolls online political threads,” while others are more serious like “recently diagnosed with manic depression.” These threads are small, but they affect who I’m willing to victimize.
As I spot an abandoned car at the gas station, I decide to take my chances behind the wheel. An NPC immediately notices shouting, “That’s not yours!” but I fly down the street without a care in the world, cruising to the music and hacking whatever’s in my vicinity, from traffic lights to barricades. A nice sports car idling in traffic catches my eye, so I decide to hijack it, but immediately witnesses start calling the cops. If you’re fast enough, you can smack the phone out of their hands and prevent the 911 calls. Unfortunately, I’m too distracted by my new wheels to react in time, and I soon find the fuzz chasing me.
Driving is smooth and hacking from the driver’s seat is simple enough that it doesn’t impact my focus on the road. Cues noting what you can hack are clear and simple, allowing a few seconds to make the choice. The decision making is quick, but I never feel pressed for time. The first traffic light I encounter I hack, and traffic immediately crashes into one police car, taking it off my tail. The next one sneaks close to me, but I ram into it, running it off the road. For the final car, I raise a barricade via hacking, preventing further chases. The experience reminds me of what I love about Grand Theft Auto, creating my own stories within the world.
Taking My First Main Mission AKA Thinking Like A Hacker
After I’ve had some time to joyride and get a feel for the atmosphere, I decide to take my first foray into the campaign. Not much has been revealed about the story of Watch Dogs or its lead Aiden Pearce, aside from him being a vigilante and hacker who exploits technology. Pearce is tormented by his past and blames himself for the death of his niece, who gets killed accidentally as a result of him getting caught up with the wrong people. He carries the guilt with him as he searches for answers and tries to keep the rest of his family safe.
The campaign mission I begin is called “Open Your World.” In it, Pearce is trying to track down the person who is threatening his sister via phone calls. He’s been working with someone who goes by the alias, “BadBoy17.” BadBoy17 wants to meet in person, something Pearce immediately finds suspicious, but for the sake of his sister’s safety, decides he will follow BadBoy17’s signal and finally meet face-to-face.
The signal takes Pearce to a subway, and he sizes up possible people who are BadBoy17; whispering the name as he walks past them. After a few people give him dirty looks and act like he’s a lunatic, he finally meets his target – both are immediately on the defense, suspicious of the other’s trustworthiness. The voice acting is solid and the dialogue is smooth; you can tell both have street smarts in addition to their hacking intelligence. It’s clear BadBoy17 has an agenda, but could also be an asset in helping Pearce bring peace to his family. A partnership is proposed. Lead story designer Kevin Shortt teases that BadBoy17 will have a large role in the plot and is one of the main characters in the game. “Eventually you start to learn more about why [BadBoy17] is helping Pearce…” Shortt says. The newfound alliance leads to Pearce to his task for the mission: Infiltrate a company’s building to upload a virus that will leave a wide-open backdoor.
I sneak up on the building’s guards and attempt to distract them. Pearce has a gun in case things gets hairy, but he also possesses secondary weapons that are more stealthy. For instance, he can throw what are called “lures” to attract guards, use explosives to kill multiple enemies from afar, or manipulate objects via hacking to make noises, close garage doors, or cause electrical wires to spark.
As a guard goes to investigate a lure I threw, I sneak up behind him for a stealth takedown. He’s not the only one roaming the area though, so I look at the security camera to assess the other threats. I remain in cover to avoid getting spotted, but as I sneak up on another enemy, I lose track of another’s line of sight, who alerts two other guards. My best option now is to use my gun, and the smooth gunplay allows me to take them down with no issues. I do learn one lesson throughout it all, however: Cover is priceless. It doesn’t take too many shots before I’m near death. I sneak into the building and find some supplies and an audio log giving me more insight into the company.
I’m constantly on the defense, so I open the next door with caution. I spot a soda machine, and immediately take cover behind it. Using my hacking skills, I make the soda machine shake with sodas falling to the ground. It alerts a guard who investigates, I use a stealth takedown once again. I then decide to stand on top of the soda machine and look through the rest of the cameras to survey the area. I’m finding quickly that a hacking solution is always nearby, I just have to put the pieces together. As someone who isn’t always the best at stealth, I accidentally alert a guard, but it’s nice to have other options.
I resort to my gun once again, but as I take out two guards, one calls for reinforcements. I remember that I can throw a jam coin at them, which blocks their call for backup. You must do this quickly, though, so it’s easy to miss the opportunity. One thing I keep forgetting is the importance of the focus button; you can buy yourself some extra time by simply clicking in the right thumbstick to slow everything down for a few seconds, making tasks much simpler.
The options for success are varied, and there is no right or wrong way to play Watch Dogs. “It’s an action adventure game. We use the term free approach, where if you’re a stealth player or an action player, we’re not going to say this game is not for you,” says lead gameplay design Danny Belanger. “It’s your game, your experience, how you want to play.” As I proceed, I notice just how much freedom I have to play missions, and I’m constantly bending the game to my playstyle. I alternated between stealth and force during the demo, but you can approach missions however you want. That doesn’t mean that being reckless and just racing your car through a garage of enemies and running them over will be the best way to go though. Just like in GTA, when you cause chaos, it’s thrown back in your face. More reinforcements and the police are always a step away.
My next move is uploading the virus to the target’s computer. To do so, I must complete a hacking game where I manipulate circuits and make sure they all line up. Nothing is too advanced about it, so don’t worry if quick thinking during minigames isn’t your thing. Even trial and error can eventually find you the answer if the light bulb doesn’t go off immediately.
After successfully uploading the virus, I must escape the building as the guards flock to the security breach. Even as I get outside and floor the gas, the chase is just beginning, as I’m not fast enough to prevent the police from appearing. I lose them in another high-speed chase and successfully complete the mission, providing points to put into the skill trees. Each tree explores a different area; the main focuses are hacking, combat, and driving. Each of them branches; for instance, in the hacking skill tree, you can invest points into areas like better explosions, ATM hack boosts, or L-train control. In the combat tree, you can improve your chances for survival by being more lethal than stealth.
Side Activities Galore
One part of Watch Dogs that’s particularly appealing is just how much there is to tackle. Exploring always points you to a possible side mission, stealing your attention as you pass. The best part is that side missions often provide skills points, so they’re beneficial to the main quest. The side missions don’t come off as filler, either, and they have enough variety to keep things engaging even after several hours.
While there’s a ton to do, from VR games to driving missions, I was most taken with crime neutralization content. As you explore the city, prompts appear about future crimes. If you go to the highlighted destination, you have the chance to stop them. I engage a loan shark approaching a guy who is late on his repayments. As he raises the gun, I pop out from cover and kill him, saving the victim from a likely death. In another, a man is about to rob a store, but because I’m around the back alley he’s snooping, he decides against it. When I went to profile him, I’m appalled to see that he’s a child molester and has a slew of other horrific charges against him. In that moment, I decide it’s better if I take him down than let him continue to walk the streets. These interactions provide benefits, as the news will report on your heroics and your social reputation determines if people will call the cops on you or give you the benefit of the doubt.
My biggest takeaway is how nothing is shoved down your throat. You can play Watch Dogs as you wish, and none of its features are time intensive. For instance, crafting isn’t make-or-break, but it's there for those who want some extra tools that play into Watch Dogs’ hacking fun. “We made it super easy, so accessible that it’s part of the core gameplay,” Belanger says. “It gives you a massive advantage.” For instance, crafting lends you the power to create a massive blackout in no time flat.
The Reality Of Watch Dogs
Being set in a real U.S. city also grounds you in the experience, as Ubisoft picked the Windy City for a reason. “It’s one of the most heavily surveilled cities in North America,” says animation director Colin Graham. “The relationship with crime in Chicago is really interesting for us, and when we dug into that, we felt compelled by our choice.” Ubisoft didn’t take recreating Chicago lightly either. Even though the game was developed in Montreal and the main cast is from all different parts of Canada, Ubisoft made sure to get Chicago natives in the game. “All of our civilians and enemy NPCs are all actors from Chicago,” Graham says. Graham notes this helped immensely with the script, as Chicagoans were quick to point out when certain words didn’t fit the region’s usual lingo.
Technology is a powerful tool in the hands of Aiden Pearce, and Watch Dogs is providing us a playground to see it play it out before our eyes. I walked away impressed; I have a new world that I’ll gladly get lost in come end of May.