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Hack the planet with Watch Dogs

- May 10th, 2013

I’m just going to jettison all pretense of cynical aloofness here and say it: It’s been a long, long time since I’ve wanted to play a game as badly as I want to play Watch Dogs.

Ubisoft Montreal’s years-in-the-making open-world game caught most everyone by surprise when it was revealed at last year’s E3 Expo in Los Angeles. A mix of Grand Theft Auto-style gunplay and driving, the fluid free-running of Assassin’s Creed and Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s high-tech hacker aesthetic, it looked like a game with tons of potential.

Yesterday I saw an extended 45-minute demo of Watch Dogs at a small press event in New York City, and now it’s vaulted to No. 1 on my most anticipated list for 2013. And this is coming from a guy who tends to be jaded about everything by default.

If you’ve not yet heard of Watch Dogs (shame on you!), the game casts players as a vigilante named Aiden Pearce in a present-day version of Chicago, as seen through the lens of pervasive surveillance and personal data mining. The Chicago of the Watch Dogs universe is a so-called smart city, and everything from its cellphone network to its power grid to the servers that store reams of data on its citizens is connected and controlled through a central operating system called ctOS. What could possibly go wrong?

Skilled motorcycle riders can drive with one hand and hack garage doors to drop on pursuing cops with the other.

While very little of the game’s backstory has been revealed, we know Aiden is both a skilled hacker and a capable fighter, and that he’s seeking vengeance for something very bad that’s happened to his family. Using a suite of smartphone apps that he’ll keep adding to as the game progresses, Aiden can eavesdrop on nearby phone calls and text conversations, immediately look up the name, income and personal details of any passers-by, tap into security cameras, turn all the traffic lights at an intersection green simultaneously, access the webcam of a private citizen’s laptop without their knowledge or simply switch a P.A. system’s grating Muzak to a song of his choosing.

The number of tools at Aiden’s disposal in Watch Dogs is exhilarating. The real-world technology they’re based on is, frankly, a bit terrifying.

“We are lifting the veil on the reality that surrounds us,” Watch Dogs producer Dominic Guay told me. “We’re not on a mission, but if people start seeing things a little bit differently around them, that would be a great thing to achieve.”

During the early days of development on Watch Dogs, Ubisoft Montreal came up with some concepts that were almost within the realm of science fiction. But now, as technology like facial recognition software working in tandem with public security cameras has become headline news, the game feels eerily prescient.

“When we started 4-1/2 years ago, there were a few things where we said, ‘OK we’re pushing the envelope a bit far here,’ ” recalls Guay. “And then at some point a year and a half later we’d be watching a documentary and saying, ‘Oh my God, reality caught up to us.’ ”

In our demo conducted by Watch Dogs’ art animation director Colin Graham, running on a PC built to approximate the power of the upcoming PlayStation 4 console (and using a prototype DualShock 4 as a controller), we’re introduced to the Wards, a poor and crime-ridden section of Chicago.

As you’d expect from a game that follows the Grand Theft Auto open-world formula, Aiden can acquire and use all kinds of weapons, from handguns to sniper rifles to homemade bombs built through the game’s crafting system. It’s how the city reacts to these instruments of destruction that’s fascinating.

On a residential street in the Wards, we see Aiden draw his pistol but keep it obscured behind his body. When he raises the gun and points it at people, panic ensues. A woman tries to dial 911 on her phone, but Aiden rushes up to her and swats the phone to the ground. Alternately, he could have used his own phone to hack her cell and jam the call, or used an app to pop the locks on a nearby vehicle to make a quick escape, or, if he was feeling especially monstrous, shot the woman dead in cold blood.

Aiden’s smartphone is his primary weapon. But not his only one.

This kind of freedom of choice will be present throughout Watch Dogs, says Guay. As an example, we see the ctOS crime prediction system identify an area nearby where something might be about to go down – shades of Minority Report – and Aiden moves to investigate. By hacking surveillance cameras in the area, he’s able to spot the potential perp, as well as his intended victim. Aiden could have chosen to proactively take out the bat-wielding thug, but instead he hides out of sight and witnesses the savage attack.

When Aiden then moves to confront the attacker, the chase is on. This isn’t scripted, either: Graham says sometimes enemies will stand and fight, and sometimes they’ll flee on foot or look for the nearest car. In this case the thug takes off running with Aiden sprinting in pursuit, vaulting over low fences with graceful ease. When the fleeing perp jumps into a car and peels away, Aiden does the same, and a wild high-speed chase is on, weaving through traffic along major boulevards. It ends when Aiden finally forces the baddie to crash his car, disabling the vehicle and knocking the goon unconscious.

During our brief taste of the game we also saw Aiden infiltrate a ctOS control centre – taking over these buildings will allow Aiden to access ctOS functions in the surrounding area and open up new missions, a mechanic familiar to anyone who’s played Ubisoft’s own Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed games – which could have gone down in a variety of ways. Players can stealthily sneak into these guarded compounds, lift access codes by hacking guards cellphones and break into the ctOS servers without ever raising an alarm, or they can rush in with guns blazing and engage in a chaotic firefight that highlights the game’s robust shooting and cover systems.

Everyone looks more intimidating when viewed at knee height.

Even firefights themselves offer the freedom of choice. During a wild police chase in which Aiden hacks into remote controlled traffic barriers and parking garage doors to cut off his pursuers, he’s eventually forced to bail from his vehicle and confront the police with gun in hand. Using the game’s focus system, which allows Aiden to slow down his perception of time in short bursts, he targets the cops’ legs and disables them without killing them.

The degree of interactivity in Watch Dogs’ world seems unprecedented for an open-world game. Hear a song playing over a store’s speaker system? Whip out your smartphone and use the SongSneak app – similar to the real-world SoundHound – to identify the song and, if you want, buy it with in-game money and download it to your in-game mobile device. Have some time to kill? Fire up the NVZN augmented reality game-within-a-game app and shoot virtual aliens as they attach themselves to the oblivious pedestrians going about their business.

Want to get your Peeping Tom on? Hack into a building’s unsecured wi-fi connection and use it to access vulnerable devices within. In our demo, Aiden taps into a laptop webcam in an apartment and sees a man and woman sitting on a couch, chatting. Through the webcam he can see a smartphone sitting on the coffee table in front of the couple, so he hacks its camera for a closer view.

Turns out the fella is having a one-way conversation with a mannequin in a wig. Yikes. Oh, and the ctOS facial recognition software identifies the mannequin as stolen. Exactly how deep does this data mine go?

“Check out my sweet new wallpaper!”

These layers and layers of different systems excite the hell out of me. Maybe your Aiden will be a psychotic gun nut who will solve problems with bullets. Maybe he’ll be a wannabe superhero, using stealth, technology and non-lethal force. Maybe he’ll intervene when crimes are being committed, or maybe he’ll stand idly by and loot the body of a shooting victim once the killer has fled the scene.

And don’t expect any sort of black-and-white morality in the Watch Dogs world, says Guay. Like that guy with the baseball bat that Aiden chased down… who’s to say what was really going on there?

“Maybe the guy with the baseball bat is a father of three, and he’s being extorted. And the guy he beats up is a con man who basically robbed him of all his money, and that led to the suicide of a family member,” says Guay.

“In terms of gameplay, for a game designer, there’s not a single different line of code involved. But for the player, it will impact how he sees this situation. That’s part of being a vigilante. A vigilante can say, ‘Well, do I want to stop this from happening?’ And we like to play on that.”

As if this wasn’t enough to chew on, there will be multiplayer components to the game that will overlap with the single-player experience. Some of these could be as simple as Aiden being tasked with following a character who is being controlled by another human being. But Guay says there’s also lots more on tap in that regard, including different playable characters with different agendas. “We’ve found ways to have other players come and play (in your game) without creating a situation of grief.”

And then there’s the Watch Dogs companion app for smartphones and tablets, which will allow players to access the grid – the entire network of ctOS-controlled nodes across Chicago – from their smartphone or tablet screen. Guay says players will be able to participate in the game from their mobile devices, affect the games of other players (this kind of interactivity can be turned off at will, naturally) and other fun stuff.

I wonder, then, could we see a scenario where one player is controlling Aiden while a friend is on the couch next to him, using their iPad to hack traffic barriers, security cameras and the like to help clear a path?

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” says Guay with a laugh. I have a feeling we’ll be talking more about this soon.

Kinda makes you wish Grand Theft Auto V was coming out on the next-gen consoles too, hey?

Watch Dogs is out Nov. 19 for the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC, and will also be on the PS4 and the next-gen Xbox console. Guay says the core game experience will be the same across all platforms, but “we’re definitely pushing things like fidelity and resolution higher on a platform like the PS4.”

I gotta say that on the PS4-equivalent hardware, the game looks stunning. Draw distances are incredible, framerates are fluid, objects in the game all seem to have a physical weight and the sheer amount of detail in environments is staggering.

I’m sure that next month’s E3 will bring all kinds of exciting new game announcements, and there will be plenty of next-gen eye candy on display. But as of this moment, Watch Dogs is the game that will have me marking my calendar with big red Xs, counting down the days until its release. And you know what? It feels good to be this excited again.

 

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