Make Canoe my Homepage

Five hours with Watch Dogs, five things to love

- April 23rd, 2014

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.

Action heroes never look back at explosions. Or at the mayhem their hacking has caused.

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.

Wanna trade my sweet skeleton hoodie for that trenchcoat?

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.

Look out! Here comes the spider-taaaaaaank!

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?

Bet that cop is “steaming” mad! OK, I’ll show myself out…

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.

Hacking the planet, one traffic light at a time.

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.

‘Wolfenstein: The New Order’ hands on preview

- April 11th, 2014

Wolfenstein: The New Order is resurgence of a genre done right.

In the first official hands on demo that premièred at PAX East on Friday, players take control of solider B.J. Blazkowicz who has been tasked with taking down one of the most violent, genetically -and mechanically- enhanced divisions of the Nazi party.

What strikes you first when you sit down to play it for the first time, a pair of headphones secured tightly on your head, is the radiant graphics.

Wolfenstein-3

Wolfenstein: The New Order feels like a next-gen first person shooter that can finally be accessed on both Xbox and Playstation platforms.

The game starts with the player embedded in a fighter jet, blazing through the sky in an epic dog fight.

Like most games, the ranking officer commands Blazkowicz to complete a series of semi-menial tasks in order to keep the plane afloat.

Tedious at points, it’s all worth it for the stunning ten minute dog fight sequence. Between the crisp audio, generous graphics, and decent control scheme, it’s a great intro to the game.

Once landed, however, the game turns into a traditional Wolfenstein game, except for one important element: a lack of shocking, horrifying images.

I’ve only played a couple of Wolfenstein titles, but one of the biggest elements to each game that I vividly remember was the sense of absolute terror hiding around every corner.

It made sense, when the context of each game’s plot was taken into consideration. Nazi games should be scary, and less glorified.

Instead, Wolfenstein: The New Order feels more like DICE’s Battlefield with action elements woven in throughout the demo.

Granted, this was just a demo, and in no way does that account for what the entire game will feel like, but it was one of the biggest concerns I found myself thinking about after I finished playing.

Chances are, there will be horror intricately placed throughout the game, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t.

As much as MachineGames, the developer behind the newest Wolfenstein instalment, is going to want to appease the biggest Wolfenstein fans, they’re also tasked with the incredibly difficult job of creating their own game within the franchise.

In fact, Wolfenstein: The New Order is the first title of the nine game franchise that wasn’t developed by Id Software, instead handing the reigns off to MachineGames.

Wolfenstein-2

MachineGames may not be as well known as their Wolfenstein predecessor, but they’re in no way an amateur development team.

Magnus Högdahl, one of the founders of the company, was a founding member of Starbreeze Studios, the development team behind The Darkness, Syndicate, and Pay Day 2.

It’s fair to say Högdahl isn’t a stranger to creating action games, then.

That’s precisely what Wolfenstein: The New Order comes off as. A fiery mix of Battlefield, Syndicate, and just a hint of previous Wolfenstein titles.

It’s a little more colourful than previous instalments, and a little more eyebrow raising, but that’s what made it fun to play.

It feels like an entirely new world moulded into a familiar universe.

Wolfenstein: The New Order will be available on Playstation 3 and 4, Xbox 360 and One, and on PC May 20.

E3 2013: The Last Guardian still alive

- June 12th, 2013

image

Never have so many questions been asked of so many people about a single game’s status. So let’s add another piece of wood to the fire.

Notably absent from E3 this year is The Last Guardian, an upcoming (or is it?) game from the creators of the modern classic PS2 titles ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. It seems every interview with a Sony executive includes a question about the game. Is it cancelled? On indefinite hiatus? Is it going to be for the PS3 or the PS4? There have been conflicting messages.

So at the end of an interview today with Andrew House, president and group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, I simply asked him if The Last Guardian is still something we can look forward to.

“I think The Last Guardian is something we can look forward to,” House said with a smile. Which doesn’t really clear a whole lot up, other than the game isn’t yet dead. Or maybe he just meant we can look forward to it the same way we look forward to winning the lottery. Doesn’t mean either will ever happen.

No, I’m gonna go with the “will come out some day” interpretation of that remark. Trico lives!

E3 2013: Two new ones from Ubisoft

- June 10th, 2013

Which one’s fast, and which one’s furious?

Call it World of Carcraft.

Ubisoft has taken the wraps off The Crew, a next-gen driving game that’s kind of like an MMO on wheels. Set in a virtual USA that includes detailed recreations of New York, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas and more, the game will urge players to form up into groups and take on Fast & Furious-style missions ranging from races to taking down an armoured truck

I went hands-on with the game Sunday afternoon, and it shows some promise. Developed by new studio Ivory Tower, which includes members of both Eden Games (the Test Drive franchise) and Reflections (the Driver series), the game will allow players to hop into any spot in its sprawling, persistent world, in which each city is the size of Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City.

The game is developed with “co-opetition” in mind, where players group up for missions but then receive individual scores based on how well they perform. There’s a staggering amount of car customizability, and doing missions earns you the automotive equivalent of loot, netting upgrades that improve various aspects of your ride.

I played a very early build of the Xbox One version of the game (which marks my first time using the new Xbox One controller to actually play a game – felt great), and while there’s plenty of visual shine, it’s still got a ways to go. But that very specific Venn diagram overlap between car nerds and MMO fans should go nuts for the game when it comes out early in 2014.

The Crew will feature lots of licensed vehicles to race, roll and wreck.

Also coming up from Ubisoft is a new next-gen Tom Clancy game, called Tom Clancy’s The Division. Now this… THIS sounds intriguing. Based on the idea that society is always “nine meals away from anarchy” – that is, three days without food, water or services until all hell breaks loose – the game will cast players as a decidedly non-super soldier, part of a group of jacks-of-all-trades trained to activate if the world goes to hell.

The backstory of the game involves a pandemic spread through currency on Black Friday, and the game will play as a third-person shooter melded with an open-world online RPG – think Watch Dogs meets Day Z. It’s an ambitious departure for Ubisoft and the Clancy franchise, and I can’t wait to see more.