Ever since E3 2012 Watch Dogs, or Watch_Dogs, has been highly veered as the first true open world urban game set for next genaration. We’re talking about driving, walking, shooting, and now hacking to get your way around in full HD and pretty visuals. Up until recently however, the game has been kept under wraps and hasn’t been played by the public. Luckily, Ubisoft Montreal has invited me and the general press to get a sneak peek before its May 27th release date.
My 90 minute playthrough allowed me to explore the city at my leisure as well as take on one primary mission & some side quests. Right from the start I was blown away by the presentation. The animation of civilians walking past by me or doing their regular routine life felt genuine. And then I discovered I could hack. By simply tapping square, Aiden (the main protagonist), will initiate a group profiling using his super cell phone. This basically scans the environment for any nodes which Aiden can plug into as well as profile walking pedestrians. In order to hack I simply picked the node I wanted by looking at it from a specific distance and holding the square button down. I was able to jump into cameras, ATM machines, phone calls, and lots more. Sometimes using a smart combination have led to great results. For example I was able to remotely hack a security camera nearly a block away and through it was able to trace and obtain an ATM code from a nearby NPC. I then just walked towards the machine and drew the money. At that moment I felt powerful as this hacking seems to make me feel in control of the world I’m in. Even when I was being chased by the police, the hacking began to adapt to the situation. The car barricade we’ve seen in trailers, for example, told me when I should press square in order to stop the cop cars behind me. It was a pretty awesome feeling even if it meant the game had to hold my hand a bit just to take full advantage of the hacking ability. Hacking though did deplete my battery so I couldn’t spam it all the time. The battery did recharge on its own over time.
In terms of items Aiden can select anything using the inventory wheel. There was no need to jump into a separate menu; everything was managed in this wheel including weapons and gadgets. The weapons are pretty standard and work the way you expect them to. Gadgets felt more interesting as I could build them myself using junk parks bought from the store. One of the more helpful gadgets was sort of a noise sticky grenade which can be activated by phone to distract guards.
Watch Dogs did have strange limitations, however. For example, I wasn’t able to punch random NPC’s with my baton but I could shoot them. I also couldn’t shoot while driving. This made some chase missions feel rather frustrating as NPC’s were shooting at me and I couldn’t do anything but runaway or find a hacking node. I asked one of the developers why they decided to do this and their reason was for players to rely on hacking rather than brute force. That’s pretty much Watch Dogs selling point which is to be subtle in the environment you’re in and not attract attention.
I also noticed there was no blood. Despite this being an M-Rated game I did see any blood when shooting pedestrians. Perhaps Ubisoft didn’t want Watch Dogs to be unnecessarily violent though that’s purely speculation.
As for story, Aiden is struggling to recover over his niece’s death. In order to protect his family, namely his sister, from unknown forces he needs to use his hacking skills and get revenge. The opening custscene of the story mission I played called “open your world” showed Aiden speaking to an elusive hacker named Badboy 17 who happens to be a female (don’t ask). It seems she needs to help Aiden accomplish his goals in order to overcome her own obstacles. The main mission allowed me to explore more of the stealth aspects behind Watch Dogs. In fact, I felt the majority of missions I did in Watch Dogs always seemed to point towards stealth. This meant a lot of times I needed to study the enemy AI behavior which can be easily achieved thanks to hacking. I was able to use cameras on the walls and even the enemy carried cameras on their vest so I got a better idea of how to plot my course. Of course I tried going in guns blazing and was annihilated almost immediately. Aiden can’t take much damage so treading carefully was the best option. Strangely enough I couldn’t move a KO’d or dead body which was a tad annoying seeing as how I was playing a stealth game.
The game also appears to be taking advantage of a reputation meter. I wasn’t able to fully explore it on my own, but Creative Director, Jonathan Moore, explained that this would play a vital role in how other NPC’s react towards Aiden. A negative reputation gained through hitting civilians will result in people calling the cops when they see you walking on the streets, while a positive rep will let you get away with breaking the law in front of them because they see Aiden as a heroic vigilante.
I also tried the multiplayer mode which so happened to be playing during single player. While roaming around, the game prompted me to enter a match and spy on another player who happened be sitting right next to me. When I chose yes I was shifted to another part of the city where I could track and follow the player around without being detected to gain extra experience points. Through my game I saw the player as a women even though he was still Aiden. This was obviously to make it harder to track down players. Jonathan also promised there were be more variety during these dynamic multiplayer matches.
Speaking of experience points, Watch Dogs will certainly have skill trees. These upgrades will include better weapons, hacking more things, and building more gadgets.
If there’s one thing that definitely stands out in Watch Dogs it’s the graphics. This game is absolutely stunning across the board with HD textures and beautifully rendered animations. The NPC animations in particular feel so natural it’s almost eerie. Pulling a gun out in public will cause civilian NPC’s to panic and pointing at them will cause them to shake in fear. Casually walking into a coffee shop you’d hear couples having conversations and that’s not even counting the conversations I heard while spying over the phone. The game looks even more stunning when it starts raining. For next gen systems, including PC’s, each rain drop will be an individual particular. This can be seen more clearly when using the focus mode or slow down feature.
One last feature I’d like to touch upon is Aiden’s cellphone. It’s loaded with features including leaderboards, ordering a car, and augmented reality mini-games. These minigames appear to be a total of 3. One of them was an alien zapping mini-game while the other two were more about collecting and tracking down coins or items. One of the collecting mini games allowed me to create my own line of coins which I could edit and share online. I see this as a very interesting distraction for players who wish to challenge others to stuns and time trials.
Ubisoft always tends to aim for unique experience and Watch Dogs appears to be no different. While the game sometimes gave me the impression I was playing another GTA clone those feeling slowly went away as I began getting into the hacking mechanism. Whether if it’s for messing around (trolling) or simply trying to complete a mission; it just ends up being a fun mechanic that works. In fact, I spent a majority of my playthrough just messing around with the NPC using hacking and I can see those who love messing around in GTA will have something new to play with here.
Watch Dogs is expected to arrive May 27th. The Wii U version is unfortunately delayed but rest assured, Ubisoft have told me that version is coming and not cancelled. Look forward to my review in about 2 months.