Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 | Wii U | PS4
Watch_Dogs could well be the first truly 'next-gen' game.
We're not talking about graphics here. The latest build of Ubisoft's ambitious cross-generation title looks shiny enough running on a PS4-specced PC, but we can take detailed textures and lighting for granted. Rather, Ubisoft Montreal seems to be obsessed with creating a true sandbox using dynamic systems-upon-systems that allow players to affect a simulated city, which in turn reacts to their every decision. Everything and everyone is connected, from the single mother on benefits you walk past in the street to the police car on patrol and the suspected criminal you discover while hacking a security camera. Instead of dominating players with scripted situations, Watch_Dogs plans to offer us problems and opportunities, the tools to deal with them, then challenge us to find our own solutions on the fly.
Emergent, unpredictable and open-ended gameplay made possible through "systemic" design and sophisticated AI. Gunplay, stealth, hacking, traversal, profiling, driving and media control are all just tools at our disposal, and all have their uses in what's shaping up to be a staggeringly ambitious proposition judging by the 30 minutes of live production code Ubisoft brought along to the Parisian preview session.
Watch_Dogs revolves around Aiden Pearce, a man shaped by violence and obsessed by electronic surveillance. Having made a questionable living through cyber-fraud, identity theft and hacking bank accounts, he's a streewise and tech-savvy individual, but a "violent family tragedy" makes him strike out against the shadowy corporations that dominate a dystopic near-future Chicago. His fixation with surveillance escalates into full-blown vigilantism, and a desire to stamp his authority on the city by any means necessary. Whether he becomes a hard-edged antihero or detested villain will be entirely down to you.
Though Aiden's story underpins the experience (it will be relatively linear in terms of cutscenes and pivotal events, but ostensibly "open to interpretation" by the player), the real star of the show will perhaps be Chicago itself. Chosen because it's the most surveilled city in the US (according to the marketing materials, at least) and steeped in crime legends, the metropolis is a dense warren of stacked-up roads and skyscapers that extends vertically skywards and underground. This already makes for an exciting playground for Aiden to sprint, jump, climb and drive through, but Ubisoft are striving to make it feel like a lived-in, real place that existed before we arrived. Having taken numerous trips to Chicago, including a whole month just recording ambient city sounds, the team have observed the little quirks that bring a city to life.
Watch_Dogs isn't a true simulation per se, but it's probably as close as we've seen from a sandbox game yet in that NPCs are people rather than cardboard cut-outs. Not only does the sophisticated AI allow NPCs to react to stimuli with emotional states rather than preset behaviours - if a pedestrian gets splashed by a passing taxi, they'll become angry or miserable and act accordingly - but they all have an identity. Everyone has a name. An income. A job, criminal predilection or kids to support, all generated appropriately depending on what district they inhabit. As a hacker, Aiden can profile their identities on the fly, which in turn lets you deeper into their lives.
Accessing their bank balance, peeping into their email history, reading their texts or dropping in on a suggestive phone is all totally unscripted, but can lead to numerous opportunities to test your moral fibre. After all, ripping off a rich banker probably won't tug on your heart-strings, but what about an unemployed mother of three? A stoner running a grow-op? An HIV sufferer? Watch_Dogs will let us play voyeur, with all manner of small everyday dramas playing out if you take the time to watch like a digital peeping tom. Crimes in progress can be stumbled into through someone's texts or an incriminating phone call, before being ignored, stopped dead or even assisted, providing more than a few ethical quandaries and surprisingly dark situations. If a suspected rapist is about to get murdered by his victim's husband... are you going to walk away?
Instanced building interiors can be breached through their Wi-Fi routers. Though Aiden won't be able to physically access most interiors, Aiden can peer into them via tablet cameras or webcams. Apparently dark secrets and humorous parodies galore await diligent players, such as watching a sex doll fancier creepily chat up his plastic pal on the sofa. Before digitally stealing his car's license information to sell on the black market. All of this will play out organically, dynamically, happening behind the scenes if you want it or barely noticed behind the main storyline.
That's just the micro-scale, so it's high time we looked at the big picture. Ubisoft have taken the idea of computerised city infrastructure to its logical conclusion, in that the entire town is connected to a single operating system: the all-powerful ctOS. Computers control everything from street lights to power generation to doors and security cameras, all of which is supplied and abused by the corporations that Aiden so deeply fears. It's a perfect way to dominate the citizenship, but for an experienced hacker, it's a virtual playground. Every traffic light can be abused. Every camera can be hacked into by line of sight, even from another camera, allowing Aiden to infiltrate buildings without setting foot inside. Chicago's famous L Train can be driven remotely, used as a mode of transport or mobile cover to break line of sight. Over 65 varieties of car can be hacked into and stolen without incident. Better yet, though hacking is a valid and powerful play style in and of itself, it can also be factored into combat, stealth or even driving thanks to a useful slow-motion focus mechanic and simple context-sensitive controls.
More to the point, it can only be fully utilised if Aiden infiltrates a district's fortified ctOS control centre, which acted as the perfect freeform demonstration of how Watch_Dogs poses problems for players to solve on the fly.
Violence is a means to an end, and guns are a tool at your disposal. Watch_Dogs' arsenal will apparently include fairly traditional armaments such as pistols (which Aiden will dynamically hide when walking down the street in one of the most fluid and natural animations I've ever seen), assault rifles, grenade launchers and other familiar boomsticks, all of which will ostensibly handle very differently. Targets can be killed outright or crippled with shots to the extremities, while intelligently using (or creating, thanks L Train) cover will keep players alive.
Stealth is equally valid, but requires a head for hacking as well as situational awareness. Chicago's embarrassment of cameras are tools rather than obstacles, letting Aiden mark hostile targets and case an area before making a move. Distraction devices can be thrown to lure guards out of position, and scissor lifts hacked to access rooftops or generate sounds for guards to investigate. Guards can even have their darker pasts used against them, since there's nothing quite as distracting as enormous sums of money going missing or embarrassing secrets leaking onto the web. Aiden has a range of non-lethal takedowns and melee weapons to use, meaning that most of the game can ostensibly completed without a drop of blood being spilled.
Brilliantly, players won't have to stick to one play style. Our demonstrator hacked the control centre's cameras to get the lay of the land before leaping over a wall and silently subduing two unwary guards. A quick forklift later, and Aiden ran onto the rooftop, using the situational advantage to kill several guards with a powerful assault rifle. Using the traversal mechanics to jump and roll onto a flatbed, two more guards were distracted and non-lethally dispatched, before Aiden used the facility's network of cameras to find and hack the server room without even going through the front door.
'Soft hacking' and smartphone use also play a smaller yet much more playful role in Watch_Dogs. As an example, if you like a song playing on a restaurant's speakers, you can use an app to find out what it is before downloading it to a custom playlist. Subsequently, you'll be able to hack into other speakers to make everyone else listen to your own soundtrack. A virtual app store bristles with other distractions such as a city guide, social network and even minigames with their own progression systems and leaderboards. NVZN (read: Invasion), for example, acts as an Augmented Reality title where wireframe aliens descend onto the populace, complete with high score tables and weapon unlocks. These little details will likely help to flesh out Chicago yet further as well as adding some welcome extra value.
Watch_Dogs' wanted system is superficially familiar to several existing sandbox crime games, in that a Heat bar fills up as you attract police attention with illegal acts, leading to an escalated response from armed officers, road blocks and helicopters. However, once again, Watch_Dogs' focus on believable AI and systemic gameplay provides you with a wealth of options. Should civilians witness you committing a crime (or worse, are threatened with a gun), they'll react in unpredictable ways. They might cower, or bolt, perhaps into the path of policemen who'll instigate the chase. But they might reach for their mobile phone to call 911, at which point you can decide whether to knock it out of their hands, threaten them into putting it down, intercept the call, subdue them non-lethally or opt to murder them in cold blood, the results of which will ripple through the surrounding citizenry and affect your reputation in the media.
The media's perception of Aiden promises to profoundly affect the gameplay experience. In the demo, our demonstrator sauntered into a gun shop to purchase some new firearms, but was rudely interrupted from his transaction by a live news report that identified Aiden as an armed and dangerous criminal. The shop owner and fellow customers instantly recognised his face, running in panic and alerting a nearby squad car. Should players opt for a more media-savvy approach, targeting only criminals and favouring non-lethal tactics, citizens will likely see him as a hero who deserves to be given a head start or coyly ignored.
Once the Chicago P.D. is on your tail, they'll put up a stern fight, and a whole host of other options open up. If you hide, police will slowly cruise the streets, shining spotlights down alleyways to flush you out and keeping watch on Chicago's embarrassment of cameras. If you fight, you can opt to shoot out their kneecaps and earn a reputation for someone unwilling to kill law enforcers, or employ non-lethal methods. If you run on foot or by car, Aiden's hacking abilities allow him to raise bollards to smash police cruisers off the road, hack traffic lights to cause enormous pileups and close car park barriers behind him to facilitate a quick escape, with crashes depicted in slow motion camera shots reminiscent of Burnout's dirtiest collisions. Vehicle handling is aiming for the sweet spot between arcade accessibility and realistic feel, while dynamic damage turns cars into chunks of twisted metal and missing body panels.
Indeed, during the demo, a failed final escape attempt resulted in a carnage-strewn car chase that would make Jake and Elwood proud (hell, it's even set in the same city as Blues Brothers!).
Ubisoft promises that the core Watch_Dogs gameplay experience will be identical regardless of platform, but the next console generation comes with its own unique opportunities. The PS4 version, for example, will have a real-time wind system that's affected by topography, moving objects and ambient weather conditions, which affects advanced water modelling that whips up enormous unpredictable waves. Since Aiden can pilot boats, expect some seriously choppy conditions. These features may be subtle, but you'll apparently notice their absence once you've taken them for granted. The DualShock 4's touch pad will also likely be utilised in some capacity, though firm details weren't forthcoming despite my best efforts.
It'll also take the 'always-connected' philosophy to a new level. The campaign is playable offline, of course, but sometimes singleplayer sessions will start to bleed into one another "seamlessly," ostensibly blurring the line between solo and multiplayer. A companion app will allow other players to synchronously enter your city on an iPad or smartphone, hacking your cameras and spying on you even as you spy on the citizenry. More details about this mode and a more traditional multiplayer suite will probably be announced soon, but expect the PS4's sharing and multi-device functionality to play a key role.
Watch_Dogs is too ambitious a project to call on the basis of one preview session, and the more complex a game, the more opportunities there is for things to go drastically wrong. Ubisoft are still unwilling to talk about the size of their Chicago, instead sidestepping us by talking about its density and depth. But by focusing on making next-gen gameplay rather than ultimately meaningless visual flair, we feel that Watch_Dogs could well be one of the first of a new breed rather than yet another shiny sequel.
Our fingers, dear reader, are well and truly crossed for November 22nd.
Disclosure: Ubisoft paid for return Eurostar travel to Paris, and provided breakfast, lunch and refreshments throughout the day.