Think about this for a minute. What if you could control an entire city with just the press of a button? Having control of many electronic devices at your fingertips? Sounds like an interesting dream, doesn’t it? Let’s take that one step further. Imagine if you could hack anything…and anyone. Get info about anyone, listen in on phone calls, potentially stop crimes before they even happen and, if you’re so inclined, steal money from someone without them even knowing it’s gone. That’s the basic premise of Watch Dogs and as I recently found out, it’s a pretty good premise. On April 17th I flew out to San Francisco, CA. courtesy of Ubisoft to take a look at the PS4 version of Watch Dogs, so let’s see if it’s as good as it looks.
When the preview event got underway, we got a quick speech about what to expect in the game and a few of the game’s basic functions, and then we were turned loose on the game. Not that I don’t like learning the history and backstory of a game (such as during the Darksiders II preview events), but I also like that we were basically tossed right into the game to learn first-hand how it played. The story begins with the main character Aiden on a hacking job at a bank, but backs out once security begins to catch on and the situation gets a bit dangerous. The man in charge of the job vows to get back at Aiden for backing out and the game picks up eleven months later as Aiden has to escape from a sports stadium after a job that ended with him basically killing the person he was hunting down.
At this point you begin the first mission which is pretty much a tutorial for a good chunk of the game’s mechanics. You have to use stealth to get around some guards, hack a camera to find and hack into another camera to hack some door controls, cause a blackout by hacking, and then get out of the stadium. After that it’s time for the game’s driving tutorial, though to be honest if you’ve played games like Grand Theft Auto the driving should seem familiar. Once you get back to your hideout, the real fun begins.
As with other games in the genre you can either continue the story missions or just explore. I did do a few side missions, but like with most sandbox-style games I play I mainly went out and explored the area and checked out some other features. The first thing you’ll likely try to do is hacking and in this game you can hack quite a few things as well as people. You can hack things such as traffic lights to cause chaos in intersections by making all lights green (this became my favorite pastime in the game) or even blow up steam vents in the middle of the road…just make sure you’re not on top of it when you do this. Hacking devices takes up battery power which is limited at the start of the game but can be increased by spending skill points (more on that in a moment). By hacking people you can actually steal money from them and retrieve it at an ATM or even listen in on phone calls which could lead to learning about a possible crime that you can intervene in.
There are also Fixer Contracts which are side jobs you can take on, but they all tend to come in four types: Convoy (take out the lead vehicle in a convoy while not getting shot down yourself), Decoy (take a car and make the cops follow you through a pre-set number of checkpoints), steeling and delivering multiple vehicles in pristine condition (of course I gave the James Bond treatment to a few cars and it still counted), and I never had a chance to experience the fourth. As you complete Fixer Contracts (and the main story for that matter) you’ll gain experience, and after gaining so much of it you earn a skill point to use to improve something, be it combat, driving, hacking, and so on. If you’re curious about what to do once the main story ends, fear not as you can continue to hack people, prevent crimes, and take on Fixer Contracts once you complete the main narrative.
By scouring the map (conveniently done by hitting the touch pad on the controller) you can find locations of Fixer Contracts as well as mini-games you can play, and you can set waypoints to any of them that puts a blue-marked path on the road for you to follow. Two of the mini-games were a drinking game and a chess game. The chess games were interesting as I was expecting to play a full game of chess, but instead what I got were survival games where I had to survive with just my King for a set amount of turns. Pretty challenging if chess is your kind of game. While I didn’t play the drinking game I did witness another player trying to attempt it. Basically you have a string of buttons on the screen and you had to hit the button shown as a white circle passed over it. Pretty simple in concept, but the fact that it’s simulating your drunk means it’s not as easy as it sounds…or looks.
After a while we got to jump ahead in the game a bit to experience some of the later content, and holy crap did things start to get tough. Our skills had been improved some so we could hack more, drive better, and actually stand a chance in combat. Plus we had a plethora of weapons and items we could create and use. It’s a good thing too because the mission we had was a doozy. Basically we had to setup some remote explosives, and then take cover somewhere. Once the enemies arrived it was time for a one-man ambush. After about three tries I gave up and decided to do what I do best: explore and cause chaos in intersections. Seriously, I don’t know why I got such a kick out of that. It also led me to learn about another type of side job where you can learn about enemy hideouts and take down a small gang. Actually what you’re supposed to do is mark the guy in charge and intimidate the gang, and then possibly catch the guy in charge. That always led me to getting shot down in seconds, so I just decided to take cover and pick them off one by one, darn the consequences. Better than going in guns blazing.
The last thing we learned about was the ctOS Companion App. This app allowed for a bit of multiplayer where one person had to drive a car and hit ten checkpoints in a certain amount of time while the other player used a tablet to pretty much play God with the city. The tablet person would move a blue circle around the car the other person is driving and would gain points the longer the circle is on the car. They would then use these points to hack devices (such as the traffic lights and bridges), place police cars on the map, and even place snipers around the city. This is a pretty interesting concept except for one thing; if you’re in the car and don’t know the layout of the city, good luck. Between me and another person we did this five times, and all five times the person with the tablet won. I like the idea, but I think they gave too much of an advantage to the person with the tablet. If they didn’t them activate items like steam vents and road blocks that literally stop you dead in your tracks, it’d be a bit more even. I’m kind of wondering if this is the kind of functionality the Game Pad will have for the Wii U version if/when it does come out, but sadly we weren’t privy to that information. Even then, it would be a bit hard to pull off since the main player needs something to control with, unless they make the classic controller a requirement in that case.
That was about all I had time to experience, but there’s a lot of content to explore and a lot to do. While you can draw some similarities between Watch Dogs and the Grand Theft Auto games in terms of gameplay style, the hacking is what sets Watch Dogs apart. So how did the idea for the game come about? Well according to Creative Direction Jonathan Morin, it basically came about as a mish-mash of two things: social media in society, and that when they got to Ubisoft they noticed everyone buying iPhones. The first “PowerPoint Slide” so to speak about Watch Dogs was the idea of hacking, and they wanted the game to resemble today’s representation of technology so they decided to make hacking the core element of the game, “to control the entire city through a single button”.
As for the positive reaction the game received, it wasn’t something they were expecting. As he explained, surprises don’t happen too often at E3 anymore as the press prepares for what games publishers will have at the event, so Jonathan told his team not to expect much as they were showing Watch Dogs as kind of a surprise. When they did the demo on stage they weren’t expecting the applause and reaction they got and they were doing interviews on the spot. The next day they were expecting to do things with your typical gaming press, but the first people to show up were things like Fox News and other major pop-culture media outlets and essentially became much bigger than they anticipated. It’s just a simple reminder that while you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken, it never hurts to experiment with a new concept. You never know how the crowd will respond until they see it first-hand.
That concludes my preview article for Watch Dogs. I wish I had some more time to explore as there was still quite a bit I didn’t get a chance to do, plus I really enjoyed the story and wanted to see more of it. That’s saying something coming from a gamer who only gets a half-hour into Grand Theft Auto games before he gets bored to the point he starts blowing up cars for fun. I did inquire Jonathan about a possible benchmarking program for the PC version and while he never did say whether or not one would definitely come out, he did say they were very confident that as long as your system meets the recommended specs, the game should run without issue. Watch Dogs received a lot of hype when it was announced and shown, and thus far I’d say it’s lived up to it. The story is good (what we saw of it anyway) and the hacking is a lot of fun. Special thanks go out to Jonathan Morin and Danny Belanger for answering any questions that popped up during the event as well as Ubisoft for giving me the chance to control an entire city with the press of a button. If you were excited for the game just by what you’ve seen, you’ll be even more excited when you get to experience it for yourself.
Ubisoft paid for lodging and airfare for this trip
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.