|System: Xbox One, PS4, PS3, PC, Xbox 360, Wii U|
|Dev: Ubisoft Montreal|
|Release: November 19, 2013|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Becky Cunningham
This has turned out to be a very interesting year for the arrival of Watch_Dogs. Headline news stories such as Snowden's NSA leaks and the George Zimmerman trial, not to mention the tenth anniversary of the Eastern Seaboard blackout that inspired the game in the first place, have shown the game's themes of surveillance, vigilantism, and the increasing complexity of our urban lives to be quite relevant.
At FanExpo Toronto this year, Ubisoft showed off the open-world gameplay available in Watch_Dogs. Although the game has structured missions, players can also get lost in the city of Chicago, using protagonist Aiden Pearce's skills to explore, make money, and fight crime. Our presenters began in a low-income district of the city of Chicago, where the game is set.
Before Aiden could do very much in the demo, he needed to gain access to the district's ctOS system. The ctOS (Central Operating System) is a fictional computer system that has been set up to make life in the city more appealing. It helps control traffic, prevent crime, and provide all citizens with access to the online world. Basically, all the city's systems have been conglomerated into the ctOS, and Aiden is a hacker who is able to infiltrate and control it.
Our demonstrator showed off Aiden's stealth and combat skills as he sneaked into the district’s ctOS depot. It was heavily guarded, but Aiden could use his hacking skills to open the building's security fence, sneaking in the back way. He placed a remote detonation device behind a truck, then climbed to the top of a building, turned it on to lure a guard in its direction, and then set it off. This removed a guard but also alerted the others to a hostile presence. Aiden used his arsenal of guns to take out the others while also hacking into the building's system, raising up some barriers to use as cover.
With the guards dispatched, Aiden connected to the ctOS, gaining the ability to hack into communications in the district. He was able to listen in on anybody's cell phone conversations as well as see the basic ctOS profile of any citizen he passed. One particular phone conversation triggered a “crime probability” warning in the ctOS, and Aiden decided to follow that lead and see if he wanted to intervene.
In this case, Aiden stopped a thug from beating up a citizen, then chased the perpetrator on foot and in a car and gunned him down on the freeway. Aiden received an overall positive reputation rating for intervening in this particular crime, though he lost a bit of respect for “unwarranted violence.” This reputation system influences how the public and the media view Aiden, which we were told has important implications for the game.
A trip to Chicago's gleaming downtown to steal money from ATMs also showed us that not everything in Watch_Dogs is serious. Aiden joined a couple of guys who were playing a virtual-reality game on their cell phones. This caused him to wear a VR gun and shoot VR aliens. There are a number of these mini-games available for the player's amusement.
As a vigilante, Aiden is all over the news. A story about him popped up while our demonstrator was buying ammunition at a gun store, which caused the owner to freak out and press the alarm. This set off an extended chase scene in which our demonstrator stole several vehicles while trying to evade the police. Dodging the heat without hitting pedestrians looks challenging, as even our seasoned demonstrator clipped a couple of buildings in order to avoid vehicular manslaughter. Of course, Aiden has the option to mow down civilians, but there will be consequences for that kind of action.
There are lots of great-looking cars in Chicago to steal, and the vehicle-damage system is one of the best I've seen. During the chase, cars acquired realistic scrapes and bullet holes. Most collisions resulted in crumpled bumpers and other forms of body damage rather than the exaggerated explosions we usually see in movies and games. Aiden can die if he's in a bad enough crash, but it was nice to see the care that had been taken in distinguishing between a fender-bender and a deadly fireball-collision of doom.
In addition to simply fleeing the police, Aiden hacked their own systems to throw up roadblocks against his pursuers, a parking-garage door to hide in, and, at the end, a drawbridge, allowing him to do the classic motorcycle bridge-jump. Even with all these tools at his disposal, it was difficult for Aiden to shake the system once it had his scent. There's a definite argument for stealth and caution here.
Throughout the demonstration, we saw examples of using “Focus mode” to slow down time, allowing the player to pull off tricky moves such as shooting out a criminal's tires. This mode looks invaluable for dealing with high-speed chases or simply for helping players who don't have the world's fastest reflexes. It may be the least realistic system in the game, but considering how the deck is stacked against Aiden, most players will probably be thankful for it.
What I like best about Watch_Dogs is that it's neither a post-apocalyptic nor a dystopian-future scenario. Its alternate contemporary setting feels quite plausible considering the direction that technology is going, and the game's action takes place in a fully living and breathing metropolis. It doesn't hurt that the city looks fantastic on the game's lead platforms (PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4). Anybody who knows Chicago will be particularly pleased with how Watch_Dogs has replicated and interpreted this great American city.
Continuing with the game's unique premise, the ctOS doesn't seem to be a secret plot by a bad guy who wants to take over the world. Instead, it's a well-meaning public works project that has generally enhanced people's lives. Just as identity thieves and government officials alike have been shown to misuse our modern, interconnected information systems, the ctOS can be abused by people on both sides of the law. Tom Clancy's The Division may show what could happen if our modern urban systems broke down, but Watch_Dogs shows something more insidious: what some people could have the power to do to these systems even when they're working as intended.
It was nice to see Watch_Dogs in action and confirm that the experience of playing the game is aligned with the lofty themes behind its development. It asks its players to decide what they would do when armed with power over a living city, creating an experience that looks both entertaining and thought provoking. The game as I saw it was gorgeous, unique, and challenging. I believe it has the potential to be one of 2013's best titles, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to indulge my own vigilante fantasies in Chicago.
Date: August 29, 2013