Watch Dogs begins with a tutorial mission that heavily accentuates the game's aspirations as a thriller about modern surveillance.
Set in a sports stadium, this sequence forces the player to make use of cameras and security servers in order to demonstrate power over the world. It is an overlay of semi-transparent lines, criss-crossing the physical realm, bending and warping reality; a conspiracy-theorist's fantasy user interface.
The in-game goons who would harm me can be rendered impotent by the flick of a switch. Reaching that switch is a matter of following simple sequential puzzles and holding down a button on the joypad. It is a secondary weapon, a smart bomb that the designers have placed in the world in order to add an extra dimension to the combat and to give the game a gleam of sharp-edged modern relevance.
Some moments later, free from the stadium, I am running around a competently rendered slice of urban life. Random people yell at me (I am a wanted man). I steal a car, cause a little localized pedestrian havoc and commence to being chased by police cars. The street-map shows me escape routes and cop car locations. My in-car radio is blaring what I deduce to be the sort of music that cool people enjoy. This feels very, very familiar.
In that familiarity there blooms a sense of unease. Since its spectacular introduction at E3 2012, Watch Dogs has been touted as a vanguard for the next generation, a paragon of futuristic game design virtue. What if the game turns out to be a Grand Theft Auto wannabe, draped in thin strands of pseudo political insight?
During my three hours of playing various sections of Watch Dogs at a recent Ubisoft hosted event, there were moments when a fuller potential of the game's surveillance hacking mechanism flashed into view. As main character Aiden Pearce, I stake out a location where bad people gather to do bad deeds. By scoping out the joint I hack into (i.e. find) some old video footage that clues me into the likely movements of my enemies.
I am able to puzzle out a way to welcome them, laying sticky bombs in appropriate locations. My hacking skills allow me to see events unfolding from a variety of angles, with the added bonus of remote access to useful mechanisms, like fork-lift trucks.
Other missions rely almost exclusively on mechanics that are very much of the flesh-and-blood variety. I approach a thief in order to thwart his evil designs. I know he is a thief because I found out by hacking into a random quest-giver's cellphone. Technology plays the part of a magic rune, directing the player towards missions in which startlingly physical attributes come into play. Ultimately, I make use of my abilities as a fightin' man to take the perp down.
Early in the game, I was given a car-delivery mission. I roared through the rain-spattered streets, negotiating the Chicagoan maps and heavy traffic. While driving, there are also opportunities to control the environment, by popping up bollards against chasing foes and switching our traffic lights to suit yourself. It's fun, but in early play, it feels as much like lobbing grenades out of the side window, as taking control of a city's delicately balanced infrastructure.
The scale of the problem that has faced Ubisoft Montreal begins to come into focus, the reason why this game was delayed last year. It is an action-adventure, very much in the mode of a Grand Theft Auto. And yet it makes use of a large narrative undercurrent that must add something coherent and meaningful to the experience. It must both introduce surveillance technology as a theme and mechanism, while allowing players to pretty much do as they please, even if this involves mindlessly rolling around town in a stretch limousine, mowing down innocents.
According to lead gameplay designer Danny Belanger, Watch Dogs began life as a surveillance thriller, based on players hacking one another, with the more traditional running, shooting, driving stuff added later. "We were trying to validate the hacking part of the game," he told Polygon. "How can we make these dynamics? How can they help the players in all these contexts? We did that before shooting, just to make sure we had something that we could build a game on. Then the rest, I guess, everything came after that."
In Watch Dogs, a near-future Chicago is dominated by ctOS, an urban network that keeps tabs on all inhabitants. Over the course of Watch Dogs' pre-launch life, real world headlines have been peppered with government surveillance revelations and a lively debate about personal liberty and state protection. Belanger and his team have undoubtedly chosen a subject that animates many people today.
Where traditional macho game heroes are good at moving around the real world (fighting, driving, schmoozing) Pearce is also good at navigating ctOS, via his cell-phone. In the most reductionist view, this extra weapon gives him a powerful sidekick that, used correctly, is more powerful than a gun.
These powers are tethered to traditional realities of the street. Just ambling down a boulevard, Pearce can access power generators dotted here and there and, what the hell, just blow them up, in order to create distractions. Such is their prevalence, that this skirts with being just another way to mess with NPCs and set them scattering, something that, for example, GTA games have always gleefully provided.
"We were definitely trying to have something unique in the second-to-second, minute-to-minute game," said Belanger. "To build a new game, you have to have something that's fresh. For us, it was a huge challenge, to make hacking a problem-solver. We have to make hacking as effective as shooting. If we succeed at that, if we make players think, I'm better off if I use this, that was the challenge. Some hacks are so extravagant. How do you make that help you, but not remove the fun, the tension? If it's just a win button, then it's broken. That was a huge challenge."
The cameras do offer an interesting third-eye that allows the player to zoom into the city's wiring and take a look around. It's ideal for carefully plotted sneak-missions. I hope there is a lot more of these than there are driving or street hoodlum missions.
"It's a weapon, but it's also a tool to be a ghost," said Belanger. "If you have to go into a compound, you don't even have to go in physically. You can go and use the cameras, distract the guards, solve a problem, and get out. It can be its own gameplay."
Open world action adventures must also grapple with the problem of morality. Players want to shape their own experience without worrying too much about consequences, but how much can we relate to a guy who will stop at nothing to protect his family, but steals cars at every street corner and mows down pedestrians for kicks (I speak of my own play-style here)?
Ubisoft has opted to give the player freedom to choose, always wisest in sandboxes. There is a rich skill-tree to explore, offering new ways to subvert Chicago's infrastructure. Objects can be crafted into useful gizmos. No-one is going to suggest that Watch Dogs is anything less than a very complex simulation play-pen, with lots to do and learn.
"You're playing with the game systems and creating your own kind of story," said Belanger, who argued that many of the surveillance systems require practice to operate most effectively. "That's why the skill tree is important. You're exposed progressively to all these effects. The more you understand how they work, the more you can play subtly."
In the game, Pearce has a reputation to consider. He is known as the "vigilante" and newspaper headlines as well as police response mechanics do alter according to the way he treats fellow humans.
"Aiden is an antihero," said Belanger. "He lives in shades of gray. But as a player you can be the bad guy. You can be that dangerous person, or you can be the vigilante. If you see a crime, if you see something that's going to happen, then you make that choice. We just let it be free for you to interpret and make those calls."
It's not a case of the game rewarding goodness. "It's just the city reacting in a coherent manner to your actions," he explained.
You also react to the city, or at least to its NPC inhabitants, wandering around, going about their business. In the Grand Theft Auto world, other people are reduced to signals for the general iniquities of modern life, puppets without souls. In Watch Dogs, the people come with snippets of information that allows me to make a judgment about them. This person is in debt, that one is a political activist, another is a foot fetishist, while a fourth is clearly engaged in criminal activities.
For me, this extra information is not unwelcome. The weird activities of other individuals, even random creations pulled together by strings of code, are engaging and add to the color of the world. But it is too early to say how much this will affect me as I play the game.
I have a slight hunch that, after I have passed my tenth person with an eating disorder or my eighteenth person who visited Sudan last year, I may find individual peculiarities of vanishingly meager interest. In this respect, the game mimics social media to an uncannily accurate degree. Still, there is no doubt that the database contains a huge variety of potential individuals, even if the art style of their face-icons make them all look sorta the same.
Pearce himself poses some potential problems. He's a difficult fellow to like. For a start, he looks like a randomly generated videogame anti-hero. He is a white male in his 30s, tall, stubbled face, wearing a long coat clearly designed to secrete weapons. He speaks in the kind of gravelly voice rarely encountered outside violent power-fantasies. He walks around with his face in a cell phone. Everybody surely knows, only douchebags do this.
Through the two side-characters I encountered, there wasn't much else to recommend him. His sidekick is an Asian fellow (of course!) with an amusing store of sadistic throwaway lines. The early-game female lead is a cut-out sister coping with Pearce's unusually intense relationship with her family. He is tortured by a desire for revenge against the bad guys responsible for his niece's death (which he partly caused, due to questionable life choices.) Aside from profit or lust, revenge is the least noble of motivations, particularly when you carry some of the blame.
According to writer Kevin Shortt, Pearce is designed to be kind of an arse, who we grow to like as the game progresses. "It takes a while to understand where Pearce is," he said. "This is a guy with a lot of rage. We're not asking the players to fall in love with this guy right from the get-go. We're saying, okay, you're going to have to get a sense of who this guy is. His goals are noble, I think. But for sure, his methods are questionable. I think he's more driven by, I fucked up. I lost control. I'm not going to lose control again."
So, yes, Watch Dogs is attempting character creation and narrative that stands above merely providing the excuse of a series of heists and action sequences, flavored with light social commentary. It is too soon to say whether the attempt has been a success although I do think that the 'wow' factor of 2012 feels like it has now dissipated somewhat.
Watch Dogs looks like a solid action adventure with some neat multiplayer open-world twists (see panel) but it also looks like a game whose ambitions have been held in check by the parameters of action-adventure gaming as we know it. Watch Dogs is not going to remake action-adventures, but its hacking mechanism does add a new layer of challenge and complexity. And in tackling a social issue, in treating NPCs as slightly more than crunchable puppetry, it might rethink the genre above and beyond GTA's sociopath narcissism.
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