Watch Dogs Preview: Grand Theft Data

By Gerald Lynch on at

I’m sick of AK-47s. I’m sick of dragon punches. I’m sick of red shells, chainsaw-equipped Lancer rifles and Master Swords. Gaming has relied upon the same tried and tested weaponry for too long now, which is what makes Ubisoft Montreal’s forthcoming Watch Dogs so intriguing. In it, your most powerful weapon is a smartphone.

I was let loose for four hours on the game’s at a recent press event. While it’s still a little rough around the edges as it approaches its release, with some ideas executed better than others, Watch Dogs’s mixture of high-tech concepts and open world staples looks set to make for a unique, sometimes excellent experience.

Watch Dogs puts you in the shoes of hacker Aiden Pearce. Following a data heist gone wrong, Aiden becomes the target of a hitman. The hit goes bad, and rather than kill Aiden, the assassins cause a car crash that leads to the death of Aiden’s niece, Lena. Fuelled by revenge, Aiden goes on the hunt for the attackers, and becomes embroiled even further in the data-fuelled underworld.

Being a skilled hacker doesn’t necessarily sound like the best defence against armed murderers out for your blood, but Aiden lives in a city unlike any other currently in existence. Watch Dogs is set in a very-near future version of Chicago, one that has its entire infrastructure and city-wide surveillance system controlled by a central operating system, the ctOS. It’s the The Internet of Things on crack -- with his smartphone, Aiden is able to hack traffic lights to cause car-crash pile ups, spy on enemies through security cameras, blow up underground pipe lines and hack into the bank accounts of passersby, among many, many other tricks. Handy with a pistol and his fists too, Aiden is a one-man tech-savvy army.

In practice, Watch Dogs pulls together many elements from Ubisoft’s other franchises in an attempt to make something new, with a healthy dose of Grand Theft Auto free-roaming chaos thrown in. There’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s cover system; there’s a stripped-back climbing mechanic reminiscent of the Assassin’s Creed games; there’s an open world map like that of Far Cry 3  that empowers the player as they explore its landmarks and take on its challenges. Then there’s the car-jacking of GTA, and even a The Last of Us-like crafting system at play.

It’s the smartphone that sets Watch Dogs apart then, something that’s made instantly clear in the tutorial mission -- though Aiden gains access to guns, the phone affords the more more imaginative and satisfying approaches to scenarios. An opening stealthy escape from police in a baseball stadium is made all the easier when you can peek at patrol routes through hacked security cameras, or trigger electronic distractions from alarms to shutters. And though it may prove to be a one-off set piece for the opening tutorial mission, Aiden’s even able to trigger a stadium-wide power cut, letting him sneak past his pursuers from the shadows.

With its menu screens overlaying onto the world as you play, and its ephemeral wireless connections branching out like a silvery web towards anything it can interact with, the smartphone is as valuable a tool with which to take on your enemies as magic would be in some other games. And, fittingly, it has its own magic meter of sorts -- high-powered hacks will deplete the phone’s battery, reducing its capabilities. Its capacity can be upgraded through Aiden’s skill tree, as can his other skills and stats, such as his health.

But the smartphone isn’t just an offensive tool -- it’s also a window into the lives of the game’s NPCs, letting you play the voyeur, spying on the private details of Watch Dogs’s citizens. As well as being able to tap phone calls and read text messages, Aiden’s smartphone also has a “Profiler” ability that lets you find out all kinds of information on the NPCs walking Chicago’s streets. With it, you may find that a character is a “recent newlywed”, or a “social network stalker” or a “volunteer lifeguard”, or that it spends its time conducting “frequent online searches for rape.” It’s a masterstroke by Ubisoft Montreal -- though these NPCs are no more alive than those in any other open world game, access to these snippets of information has a great humanising effect on them. Will you rob that citizen, knowing that it has just overcome cancer, for instance? It inspires moral questions that often go unanswered in games where bystanders are little more than notches for the bodycount.

The game’s disparate elements work well in Ubisoft’s tightly crafted story missions, but it’s hard yet to judge how well it all comes together when you’re let loose to roam Chicago freely. For every incredible moment when you perfectly time a gas main to explode under a cop car, there are the struggles with disappointing getaway vehicles, complete with dodgy handling that sees them slip and slide horribly around the roads. And while there are plenty of side missions to dip into, the quality varies -- the best see you, naturally, using the smartphone to tap into the private lives of city citizens in order to prevent crimes, while the worst (such as a coin-chasing on-foot checkpoint race) are too keen to break the illusion of a living world with on-theme-but-jarring augmented reality elements. The “Spider Tank” digital trip (a mini game that lets Aiden enter a virtual version of Chicago and cause havoc as a giant armoured arachnid) was great fun, but totally at odds with the rest of the game.

Out in the open world the lure of the Profiler and phone hacking proves a double-edged sword too. While all NPCs are fleshed out to a degree with some background information accessed through the tool, it seems there’s actually only a small percentage that can be spied upon to any revelatory depth (be that an enlightening hacked phone call or text conversation) and fewer still that lead to an interactive mission. Playing the role of a hacker, you’re naturally going to want to push these systems as far as they can go, and the magic of the Profiler can fade if you expect too much of it.

Each of these elements are never what you’d call bad -- they’re often very fun in fact. It’s just that (so far at least) they pale in comparison to the structured missions, and the way the smartphone can be used to great effect within them. It was a feeling that was reinforced when the devs thrust me further into the game to try out an excellent later mission. Here, Aiden was to stake out a deal going down between two rival gangs at a warehouse. Arriving early, you’re able to hack in to the security system for the location, discovering that it's a regular meeting point for the gangs. Armed with this information (and each gang’s meeting habits), you’ve a few minutes to prime the site full of phone-triggerable traps and cover points, as well finding the best vantage point from which to snipe the criminals. It wasn’t far off a scene from Dishonored, and it was great.

My brief time with the game’s multiplayer component was positive too. I only had time to play the “Decryption” match type, but it was a blast. A cross between a capture the flag and domination match, it had two teams of hackers vying for control of a single data package. The team holding the package the longest at the end of the round would win, and teammates could earn more points and strengthen their team’s connection to a held data package by keeping in close proximity to each other -- a clever mechanic seeing how easy it could be to become remote from one another when spread out across the large map. The whole matchmaking process, on Ubisoft’s demo server at least, was seamless -- once I’d told the game I was open to playing multiplayer bouts, I was free to continue with the single player campaign until a suitable match became available, after which I’d seamlessly transition into it. There was no need to quit my solo game and load a separate instance of the the game world, as happens with GTA Online.

I was also given a brief glimpse of the game’s second screen tablet companion app. It will allow sofa-bound pals to hound players by dropping police squads onto the map, or activate computer-controlled roadblocks, like some sort of Orwellian ctOS overseer. Connectivity issues at the demo venue prevented me from trying it personally, but it looks a reasonable distraction for those left without a controller in their hands.

Visually, Watch Dogs has so far left me wanting. Regardless of the furore surrounding the recent trailer’s “visual downgrade”, Watch Dogs’s world didn’t "wow" in even the same way that last year’s next-gen versions of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag did. While night time scenes (with their atmospheric lighting) fare better, a day in Watch Dogs looks very bland. Perhaps it’s a case of over familiarity -- there are only so many ways you can build a modern, urban, realistic open world -- but even with all of its hacking and AR visualisations, it was hard to see where the next-gen graphical grunt was being put to use.

As is becoming customary with Ubisoft’s next-gen releases, Watch Dogs will launch on the PlayStation 4 with a bunch of exclusive content. This includes an hour of exclusive missions that sees Aiden team up with in-game hacking collective DedSec, as well as a “White Hat” outfit and Superior Capacity perk, giving the player a valuable extra battery power slot for pulling off perk moves. The same content will also be available to PS3 gamers too.

There’s a lot to see in Watch Dogs, a game its developers claim could easily extend beyond the 100-hour mark for the most dedicated of players, and four hours with it barely scratches the surface of what’s on offer. My relatively short time with the game was filled with jaw-dropping moments, and also enjoyable quieter stretches too that I simply spent people-watching. But while it’s jam packed with side quests, play styles and content, it’s hard to say at this point how well it all gels together. The tighter-focussed missions were an early highlight for me. How liberally those aforementioned jaw-dropping moments punctuate the full, lengthy game remains to be seen. Regardless, Watch Dogs looks set to deliver an open world with a killer USP you won’t find anywhere else.

Watch Dogs hits stores on May 27th, headed to the Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3 and PC, with a Wii U edition (tentatively) expected to follow in the autumn. Keep an eye out for more on Watch Dogs from Giz ahead of the game’s release.