Watch Dogs is shaping up to be a fine addition to the open world fold. VG247’s Dave Cook plays some PS4 campaign, multiplayer and tablet mode to assess Ubisoft’s new killer franchise in the making.
Developed by Ubisoft Montreal and fellow studios at the publisher, Watch Dogs is coming to PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U across North America on November 19, and across Europe from November 22.
It’s also coming to PS4 and Xbox One. This article is based on PS4 gameplay shown at gamescom last week, along with a hands-on session.
The game is getting a movie adaptation and you can see the latest Watch Dogs trailer from gamescom here.
Watch Dogs gameplay is based on the idea of hacking in a near-future depiction of Chicago. You can see many of protagonist Aidan Pearce’s hacking options in this trailer.
“Everything is connected. Connection is power,” sounds like the kind of elevator pitch dreamed up by a slick marketing type who resembles Ellis from Die Hard, but without the heinous beard. Claims of free-roaming a hackable world that reacts to your every movement, and the promise of commanding a city ruled by machines and software may sound like bullet-points on a Ubisoft press release, but I’ve played it and impressively, it all works.
As Aidan Pearce you actually do feel like a lurking, unseen threat capable of ruining lives and creating chaos on Chicago’s streets all with the stroke of his phone’s touch-screen. There is tangible empowerment to be found here, but with every action you tread a fine line between being respected or feared by the populace. There are also moments that beg you to question the position of your own moral compass, which gives rise to a personal sandbox experience.
PS4 controller in hand I played a raid on one of the city’s CTOS server banks, which serve as hack-jammers across the city. The compound was swarming with guards and security cameras, as well as interactive objects to be manipulated. For example, I hopped Aidan over a chain-link fence and snapped to cover, which gave him line of sight on a robotic forklift. I hacked the machine’s arm causing it to raise loudly and attract the attention of guards, letting me slip by unnoticed.
What’s key here is that to hack anything in Watch Dogs you need to have a clear line of sight. So rather than physically skirt around to the server bank and hack it up close, you can jack in to a security camera, pan it to face another camera and hack across to it, chaining your way to a better view of the server node to access it from a distance. It’s really smart, and if that doesn’t appeal you can take a classic Splinter Cell route and just knock out each guard silently, or engage them in some noisy cover-shooting.
That choice is entirely yours, and it nestles Watch Dogs into that empowerment bracket of open world titles such as inFamous, Prototype and most recently, Saints Row 4. While you won’t be unleashing superpowers or tearing a thousand cops limb from limb, there is still much fun to be had here, and it all comes bundled in a slick, espionage-flavoured package set within a reactive world.
To throw a few more examples of how dynamic this world really is, I accidentally ran past a group of civilians with my gun on show which caused one panicked onlooker to start calling the police. With a simple tap of the d-pad, Aidan can let loose an EMP burst that caused all tech in the vicinity to go haywire, cutting off the caller’s line and blue-screening all the adverts and billboards in the area. It’s a small touch, but it shows you have complete power over the world. It reacts to your presence often.
Next, I was gunning across the city in a sports car when a HUD icon appeared to let me know a bank robbery was in progress. I was told there were several ways I could have dispatched the perp, but I ran in quickly, baton in hand and choked the thug out before he could waste the cowering clerk behind the counter. The Ubisoft dev then explained that non-lethal methods net you more respect from the populace, while murdering the goon would have poured scorn on Aidan’s name.
I then took in some monetary theft by aiming my phone at NPCs walking through a bustling plaza. When you aim at a pedestrian you will see their yearly income, occupation and one of their traits. Amazingly, the first guy I tried to hack money from had ‘likes to attend video game conventions’ as his trait. The Ubisoft rep lost his shit with laughter as he assured me that the text wasn’t a scripted gamescom joke. Either way you absolutely had to be there.
Moving on, there’s something devious about seeing how much a person makes before bleeding their account dry. Go to a poor neighbourhood and you might even feel a pang of guilt as you fleece them of what little funds they have. Another hack saw me jacking into a mother’s webcam to rob funds from her home. I could see her laptop on a desk and hear her baby crying in the other room as I wrestled with my decision. She didn’t make much money in a year so I left her savings alone.
After hopping out of her webcam something weird started to happen. I was being hacked by a stranger in the swelling crowd.
Black Phantom ‘Aidan Pearce’ has invaded!
This, I was told, was the game’s multiplayer kicking in. Bear with me on this one because it’s both genius and a little puzzling the first time you have it explained to you. It’s probably best compared to the invading Black Phantom mechanic from Dark Souls, in which other players can enter your world and take you on head-first. It all starts by jumping into the city map and seeing where other match-made players are in the world.
These players aren’t in your world all the time like an MMO but you can select one of them and phase into their version of the city. Once inside both you and your target look like Aidan Pearce on your own screen, but to each other you resemble NPCs. The key is for the invader to get close enough to their target and hack money from them, all while moving and acting like a harmless pedestrian to avoid detection. So off I went to find my mark, tilting the thumb stick slowly as to blend in to the crowd.
“The PS4 version looked superb running and it gave off a level of detail that’s hard to come by in sandbox worlds given their sheer scale. While I’m sure the PS3 and Xbox 360 editions won’t look as nice, each version will have the same ideas and mechanics purring under the hood.”
I spotted my target and initiated the hack, which then dropped a radial on both of our mini-maps. As the hacker, I had to stay in that rough area for a while to complete the money transfer, while the Ubisoft developer I was hacking had to identify and kill me. He started firing his weapon blindly into the air to try and get a reaction from me, but I jogged off with the fleeing crowd and turned into an alley. I climbed up to the roof as I heard my target on street level, gunning down civilians in a desperate attempt to kill me.
After a few minutes the hack was over, and all that was left was to hack open the nearest car, hop in and drive off with my winnings. It’s a thrilling game of cat and mouse that can be played with anyone in a world that is always connected. If anything, this mode stays true to the Watch Dogs ethos and offers a fun distraction from the core campaign.
I was then given a chance to try out Watch Dog’s ‘CTOS Mobile’ tablet play. It’s incredibly smart, and although I always had a feeling that asynchronous, second-screen play could be integrated into games without resembling a mere add-on, I was yet to be personally convinced. After experiencing this mode I have to say I’m more excited about how connected devices can enhance gameplay in a tangible, engaging manner.
From the Watch Dogs app you can open up the map of Chicago, find a player and ask to join their world. The tablet bearer can then drop a race start point, checkpoints and a finish line wherever they please across the vast cityscape. It’s the console or PC player who then has to get in a car and sprint to the finish line using any means possible.
Once the race is on, the tablet player can use touch to direct a police helicopter in the skies overhead. It serves as a base of operations from which app users can spawn-in police cars, hack bridges, switch traffic lights, raise bollards and more, all in the name of stopping Aidan from reaching his goal. On the flip-side, the Aidan player can get out of their ride at any time and shoot down the tablet chopper with some well-placed rockets. That – to me – is mind-boggling, but it works.
The CTOS Mobile app is like a meta-career in itself, as victorious players can upgrade their chopper’s armour and gain new hacking options as they progress. I’m glad that Ubisoft Montreal and the many studios working on Watch Dogs have decided against your typical shooter deathmatch multiplayer, as it would have undermined how smart and interactive this depiction of Chicago can be.
Although I only played the game for 30 minutes I can already tell that Ubisoft has tried to innovate as much as possible given Watch Dog’s status as a cross-gen release. The PS4 version looked superb running and it gave off a level of detail that’s hard to come by in sandbox worlds given their sheer scale. While I’m sure the PS3 and Xbox 360 editions won’t look as nice, each version will have the same ideas and mechanics purring under the hood.
This is – in part – what next-gen thinking is all about; injecting new, untested ideas into familiar achetypes to make them feel fresh once more, and if that truly is Ubisoft Montreal’s aim then at this point I feel confident in its success.
I can’t wait to tear that city up later this year. How about you?