When Watch Dogs made its debut at Ubisoft’s E3 press conference in 2012, minds were blown, jaws were dropped and calendars were frantically circled.
The revelation of this open-world action game set in a hyper-connected version of present-day Chicago was stunning, in part because the game had been in development for three years at that point, and yet Ubisoft had managed to keep it completely under wraps. (Apparently nobody decided to show secret assets to some random kid on an airplane.)
But also because it seemed like one of the most ambitious – not to mention eerily relevant – open-world action games ever attempted.
I was stoked. Very stoked.
But as the months went by, I began to lower my expectations. Thanks to Assassin’s Creed IV, Grand Theft Auto V and Infamous: Second Son, open-world game fatigue has set in over the last year, during which time Watch Dogs’ release has been delayed twice. For all its promise of melding hacking, combat and driving in an intricately detailed virtual Chicago, I wasn’t sure Watch Dogs could truly distinguish itself from its recent and very successful competitors, or bring anything new to a formula that’s starting to feel increasingly familiar.
Then I played it. And now… is “restoked” a word? ’Cause I am restoked.
In advance of its May 27 release for PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC, Ubisoft held an extensive preview of Watch Dogs last week at the studio’s San Francisco offices, giving journalists a solid five hours of largely unrestricted and unmonitored hands-on time with the game.
We were encouraged to play through the opening tutorial-style mission that takes hacker vigilante Aiden Pearce from the bowels of a packed sports stadium to the motel room he uses as a base of operations, and then to explore at will.
Later on, we loaded up a preset save point at roughly the game’s halfway mark, with a far greater number of side missions and skills unlocked. Finally, we experimented with the game’s various multiplayer modes, including one that pits someone playing the game against an opponent using a tablet or smartphone and the free Watch Dogs app.
Amazingly, even five hours with the game only allowed a small sampling of its seemingly bottomless well of content. But in that time, I found five things that I already love about Watch Dogs.
One app to rule them all
Aiden’s smartphone is his magic wand, his genie in a bottle, his pistol full of silver bullets. It’s his most powerful weapon, and that’s largely because of the Profiler app. With the touch of a controller button, the Profiler will instantly scan everything nearby in the world (assuming a local ctOS centre has been hacked, a process analogous to climbing a viewpoint in Assassin’s Creed), allowing Aiden to locate devices that can be hacked and calling up personal information on everyone within range.
The Profiler is simple almost to a fault – it’s basically “press button to hack” – but that’s what makes it so elegant. The first time I hopped in a car and approached an intersection at high speed, I was given the option to press a button and make the lights instantly turn green. That alone is a weird kind of power trip, and more relatable than, say, blasting away at police cars with an assault rifle.
Because of how fast and easy it is to use, the Profiler opens up tons of tactical options in combat and while driving, whether its setting off a car alarm to distract an enemy or causing a road barrier to pop up and stop a police cruiser in its tracks. But it’s also the means to delve into the lives of the citizens of the game’s virtual Chicago. I spent a surprising amount of time just wandering the streets with my hands in my pockets, using the Profiler to look up the names, occupations and pertinent details on the people who were passing by, or tapping into their phone conversations or text message exchanges for a voyeuristic thrill.
When you can literally do almost nothing in a game and still feel entertained and rewarded, that’s something kind of special.
I like the way you talk
Nothing yanks me out of a game faster than bad dialogue or lazy writing. While Watch Dogs might not clear the bar set by The Last of Us, I was pleasantly surprised by the deftness of its writing. Sure, it’s loaded with action game/revenge fantasy cliches, but in the small number of cinematic cutscenes I did play through, the writing was surprisingly solid.
The game opens with Aiden and his cohorts pulling off a lucrative cyber-theft at a Chicago hotel, an act that puts Aiden in the crosshairs of some very powerful people. People who then go after Aiden, killing his young niece in the process. When the game begins in earnest 11 months later, Aiden’s primary motivation is to track down the people responsible for his niece’s murder and make them pay.
Aiden is voiced by Canadian actor Noam Jenkins (Canuck TV fans might remember him as dearly departed Jerry from Rookie Blue), and while his voice is occasionally a little on the over-growly side, he’s not just a grim automaton – he’s got a sense of humour.
But he’s also a bit of an enigma, and instead of being handed an open-book of a character right off the start, we’re meant to learn more about Aiden as the game goes on, including his criminal past, his strained family relations and the attack that killed his niece, which he relives in dreamlike flashbacks.
Fans of branching storylines, be warned: Watch Dogs does not have multiple endings. However you choose to play Aiden – as a stealthy, merciful hacker or a vengeful, wanton killer – his story will end the same way. But I like that, because it means the developers have a specific narrative in mind for Aiden’s journey, and they’re sticking to it. Ultimately it should make for a more satisfying story.
Side mission smorgasbord
Remember when people griped about the original Assassin’s Creed because it only had four or five different types of side missions that repeated over and over, ad nauseum? It feels like Ubisoft has never been able to shake off the sting of that criticism, and has been determined to stuff their games with more and more things to do. At one point while playing Watch Dogs I called up the progress menu to have a look at exactly how much content is in the game, and man, do I ever pity completionists. (Creative director Jonathan Morin later told me even the development team isn’t sure how long it will take to reach 100% completion in Watch Dogs. Maybe 100 hours. Maybe more.)
Watch Dogs appears to have more stuff to do than any open-world action game I’ve played, including Grand Theft Auto V. (And unlike GTA V, most of these side missions don’t feel like filler. Seriously, how many bike races or hunting trips have you actually done in San Andreas?) In addition to roughly 40 campaign-focused missions spread across five acts, there are – and I’m just plucking out a few examples here – 18 missions that have Aiden intercepting a convoy to take out an armoured car, 15 missions that have him infiltrating a gang hideout like a baton-wielding Batman, 20 crimes in progress to thwart, 40 fixer contracts to undertake and much, much more. Including everything from augmented reality games (shoot virtual aliens, chase virtual coins) to a Foursquare-style app that allows players to check in at as many as 100 Chicago landmarks and, if they choose, leave money or items for online friends to pick up when they check in at the same place.
And then there are the Digital Trips, a set of virtual reality minigames that Aiden can access any time after he acquires them. These are excuses to run wild in scenarios that add some levity to the game but don’t otherwise conflict with the mostly serious nature of its fiction. And man, are they freakin’ fun.
For this preview, two Digital Trips were unlocked. (There are more, but Ubisoft wouldn’t reveal exactly how many.) The first one I sampled is dubbed Madness, which has players roaring through a hellish cityscape trying to run over demon-zombie pedestrians, Death Race-style, racking up as many kill combos as possible within the time limits. It’s a fun way to blow off steam, and the minigame even has its own set of upgradable skills that apply only to the game itself.
The other Digital Trip I played is Spider-Tank (as seen in the leaked screenshot that had so many people scratching their heads. As far as I know, the eight-legged tank doesn’t appear in the primary game itself.) This has Aiden piloting a nimble, heavily armed war machine that can scamper up the sides of buildings and leap huge distances, as players complete an increasingly difficult series of objectives within time limits: kill five cops, destroy two satellite dishes, wreck the train before it leaves the map and so on. Like Madness, the Spider-Tank game has its own upgradable set of skills and perks. And it’s such a silly, crazy amount of fun that if this was published as a separately sold minigame for $5, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
And there’s a lot more beyond just these. Is it overkill? Maybe. But it’s better to have an all-you-can-eat buffet with too many items than too few, isn’t it?
Skills for thrills
A lot of open-world games give players the freedom to approach obstacles in a variety of ways, yet equip everyone with the exact same set of tools. Watch Dogs has a broad set of skill trees, spread across four primary disciplines: hacking, combat, driving and crafting items. Players who imagine themselves a cyber-savvy Dark Knight can choose to build electronic lures, max out their hacking capabilities and focus on non-lethal attacks. Those who prefer to make a lot of noise and leave a lot of bodies can work on their firearm skills and improve vehicle handling, in order to ram enemies off the road with greater efficiency and riddle them with bullets when they get out of their cars.
There are no huge shockers among these skills, other than the fact the game actually has these kinds of RPG-like elements, which a lot of open-world action games choose to simplify or ignore altogether. As a diehard fan of games like Deus Ex, this makes me very happy indeed.
Playing well with others
The online multiplayer elements in Watch Dogs – I counted at least five different variants – aren’t as deep as those found in Grand Theft Auto V, but they’re a great amount of fun. Online Tailing, one of the modes I sampled, plops you into another player’s game (or vice versa) and tasks you with getting close enough to him or her to capture data. The other player – who sees you as a random pedestrian, not as another trenchcoat-wearing Aiden – won’t even know you’re in their game until you start the scanning process, at which point they must try to stop you by any means. I managed to successfully tail another player and hacked a security camera to scan him, but I got so caught up in my cleverness that I didn’t realize he quickly found my hiding spot and beat me to death before the scan was complete.
Online Decryption is a blend of keep-away and straight-up deathmatch – think Halo’s oddball mode, except played out on a cordoned-off hunk of Chicago. One player holds a data chip, and the others try to siphon off the data by getting close enough to initiate and sustain a transfer, or simply by killing the player and taking the chip. It’s frantic and hilarious, with high-speed chases ending in spectacular crashes or intense shootouts.
But the multiplayer mode tied to Watch Dogs’ companion app is the one I can see myself spending a lot of time with. As one player tries to complete a timed checkpoint race through the streets of Chicago, another player, armed with an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet, uses it to sabotage his opponent with obstacles, police and more.
As the tablet player, points are gained by keeping your opponent in the spotlight of a police helicopter, accomplished simply by keeping your finger on the icon that represents his vehicle on the on-screen map. Building up these points allows you to trigger obstacles which act almost like proximity mines: when you hack a crash barrier or a steam pipe, it will activate once the player passes nearby. A drop-down menu on the screen allows the tablet player to select various types of police response, from lone cruisers to heavily armed SWAT vans, dropping them at strategic points along the player’s route.
It’s clever as hell and it works astonishingly well, even with the second or so of lag that might be inherent on mobile devices. There are 26 of these races in all, half of which follow preset checkpoints and half that allow the driving player to pick his own route, making it a little tricker for the tablet/smartphone player to intercept him.
But that moment when you raise a bridge ahead of your opponent and send him skidding into the river – priceless. Equally clever: the companion app is free, and doesn’t require owning a copy of the game to use, meaning it could be a way of expanding awareness of the game virally from friend to friend.
But wait, there’s more…
Five hours with Watch Dogs wasn’t enough time to try everything the game has to offer, and that could be a great sign for those who are looking for a dense, meaty game to carry them though the lean summer months of few high-profile releases. Of course it’s also not enough time to truly get a feel for the game’s big picture, or the flow of the narrative, or for how well all these interconnected systems will ultimately mesh together.
But at the risk of being naive and setting myself up for disappointment, my expectations for Watch Dogs have been jacked right back up to their 2012 levels. May 27 is circled on my calendar, and it can’t come soon enough.