When I saw Watch_Dogs at E3 earlier this year, the words “GTA killer” were circling in my mind. The game’s refocus of the open-world on the player’s drive as a character and how you use that as your playground reeked of fresh blood in the space. Then I saw GTA V and thought “man, those guys know their thing too well”. That thought, however, spawned another in my head -- which was confirmed for me after getting hands-on with Watch_Dogs, just prior to Gamescom 2013 opening officially -- and that was that by no measure is Watch_Dogs trying
to beat out GTA V, or even the GTA brand. Rather, as an open-world game, the team is simply crafting a new, unique experience to the genre. By and large, Watch_Dogs is just Watch_Dogs.
Familiarity spawns in many ways when you first get hands-on with the controller -- driving cars (or jacking them), shooting, going into cover; the works. It’s all familiar territory and is not explicitly owned by sandbox, open-world titles, but this ease of entry paves way for what this game is ultimately about, and that is trust. It’s trust in your abilities, trust in your fear (and rebuke) of Big Brother, and trust in a world that is going to react accordingly, to your own movements and actions.
With no story or context to ruin (because I wasn’t even given any), my only task was that I had no real reach with my hacking ability in one of Chicago’s more lower-income areas. This meant I needed to find a server room and get a code from a guard and then personally hack a system that would extend my reach. At this level of the game, it can be said that hacking is somewhat easy. Certain devices take longer to breach than others, and that’s clearly designed as a system to keep you on your toes; especially when you’re trespassing to do so. But it’s how you get into these areas and use the tools at your disposal that counts. Cameras are everywhere in America’s most CCTV-surveilled city, which gives you all the recourse you need to map out a plan. In any camera view of an area you’re attempting to break into, you can tag enemies with a simple swipe of the game’s reticule and they’ll remain in your interface once you snap back to Aiden.
It’s not just all cameras though. Most electronically controlled devices can be turned on, such as gates, automatic lifts (the construction kind), generators and more. For the purpose of my hands on, these were mostly used for distraction purposes, leaving their other functions somewhat vague. I would later discover that there’s more to what initially appears to be a binary interaction... but I digress.
In many ways Watch_Dogs borrows heavily from Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher, if he weren’t an intensively-trained operative, but rather an uncouth vigilante who is perhaps in over his head. The stealth options are all solid, and the game throws multiple player-driven outcomes at you based on how you’ve approached every situation you face -- a facet that becomes quite important when combating real-world invaders in your game; more on that shortly. You can also deal with everything head-on if you like. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to open the gate to an area you need to infiltrate, only to go get in a car, and simply drive in and run everyone over, for example.
It’s this approach to freeform, emergent gameplay that is perhaps Watch_Dogs’ strongest point. The systemic nature of its myriad systems keeps you evolving as a player and learning just what each hack can actually reward you with. But hacking is only one part of a larger cog, and where so many other open-world sandbox titles have failed to really capitalise on those buzzwords, Watch_Dogs stretches its creative legs to the extreme. If voyeurism is a byproduct of the nature of your ‘super power
’, then what you find could also be your Kryptonite.
The best example of this was hacking into a house through an open laptop. In front of me was a man and a woman on a couch with their backs to me -- the backs of their heads the only real visual indication that there was life in this apartment. Beyond that, a TV blared and another hack icon hovered over a mobile device docked closer to the couple. Switching views reveals that we’re really in the abode of a clearly unsettled person living alone -- his would-be partner, in fact, a mannequin from the store he works at. The longer you investigate this sort of stuff the more unsettling it’ll become, apparently.
Moved along in my demo, it was clear I was being lead to a similar situation to that which was shown in hands-off form at E3, where another player was actually able to access my game and come in and hack me. This lead to a situation forcing me to think about my own in-game actions, or how someone else physically playing in the same space might be acting also. This is clearly an evolution of Assassin’s Creed’s brilliant multiplayer ideology where anyone can be the enemy and only by paying close attention to each supposed NPC’s actions are you likely to discover your session trespasser. When you know you’re being hacked, which the game informs you of, you have a bar that is being filled from zero to 100%. If the perp manages to hack you to 100 you’ll lose much of your in-game goodies, but if you can spot them beforehand, the chase is likely on.
The thrill of finally making your hacker is a good one, and the chase is equally fun, but on the flipside, after killing my infiltrator, I was also given the option -- Predator-style -- to work out their entry point in my game and rehack them. My purpose here though was to clear my name from their list, no longer letting them in my game, but the only way to do this was to track him down and kill him.
Each hack in this instance has a radius you need to stay in, and if you’re spotted you’ve got no choice but to attempt to kill them first. So you can either blend in with the game-world in such a way that you’re not spotted, go all out, or weave a combination of both. I did the latter and managed to kill my encroacher, but the destruction built around our confrontation also brought about the attention of my game's law enforcement. Like GTA and other titles of this nature you’re given an escape zone when you become wanted and fleeing that is usually the only way to get back to your vigilante business unhindered. Like Assassin's Creed, the wanted zone is relative to the authorities giving chase, so if, by line-of-sight, you can still be in that zone but not seen, leaving the police to give up pursuit. This is an option in Watch_Dogs where you can, for example, jump in a parked car, recline the seat and remain still and out-of-sight. It’s a very simple idea, but one that speaks volumes about what this development team has in store for us, with what is arguably one of the year’s most anticipated titles.
From a visual, audio and gameplay perspective, just to cross them off the list, it’s sex. Watch_Dogs is fluid, rewarding and absolutely gorgeous to look at. The city is truly alive and every NPC you come across appears to have a unique look and movement to them that fits the random information you’re able to gleam from their social media-active personalities and actions.
I’m positive that there’s a much deeper message riddled throughout the experience built around personal security and public privacy but Ubi are being professionally coy about that. The thing they’re proud to show off is their stunning game-world and its untapped, potential-laden gameplay that serves as the stage. Asymmetric co-op and competitive play are looking less like bonuses and more like must-play modes, and we still haven’t even seen the full gamut of environmental and interactive play options on offer. We might all be busy playing GTA V soon, but you’d be remiss to pass on looking into the opportunities presented here. Watch_Dogs may well be one of the industry’s most important and exciting new IPs in recent times.