The delay of Ubisoft Montreal's new open world IP, Watch Dogs, surprised many. With only a month away from launch, and a rather bold marketing push for the holiday season, Ubisoft appeared ready, but then we found it wasn't. At all. It's not too often you see publishers holding back a game's release to further development, and it's certainly admirable of them to be so honest.
"The game wasn't finished," said lead game designer Danny Belanger rather bluntly. "You see all the content we have, there was a lot of different parts of it that were not at the level we wanted -- so it was hard, there was a lot of others reasons too, but at the end of the day, we didn't want to release the game in state we weren't happy with."
With its May release approaching, Ubisoft is ready to unveil its upcoming open world action title, and the publisher invited the press to get plenty of hands-on time with the game. As you can tell with title, I came away pretty pleased, though I have some reservations still.
Watch Dogs (PS3, PS4 [Previewed], PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U (Q4 2014))
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: May 27, 2014
Set in the city of Chicago, Watch Dogs lands players in the role of Aiden Pierce, a gifted and resourceful hacker with a some serious baggage. After a failed assassination attempt on his life leaves a family member dead, he embarks on a vendetta across Chicago to find out who was responsible. Utilizing his hacking skills to use Chicago's city wide surveillance and service operations system, ctOS, Aiden bends the city to his will to root out the culprits, while keeping an eye on the citizens and suspects at large.
1. The Windy City
There aren't too many games set in the city of Chicago. As vast and dense as it is, you'd think there would be more games having players explore the city streets. So that's why it's a refreshing sight to see an open world title plant its feet in the Windy City as it's known. While of course it's not designed to scale, they do capture many of the familiar locales and attractions of Chicago -- from Millenium Park, Navy Pier, and many of the iconic skyscrapers -- the developers at Ubisoft wanted to set a title in a city that wasn't too often visited by games.
"[Chicago] feels fresh, the autumn, the setting," Belanger told Destructoid. "The architecture is both modern and old, and this creates a visual richness. Also, the surveillance system in Chicago is one of the most advanced in the U.S. Narratively, in terms of organized and population density, it give credibility for our story."
Don't expect to stay in the city and suburbs of Chicago for the entire game, however. Aiden's missions will sometimes take him out of town to the local wilderness, away from the heavy traffic and dense ctOS infrastructure. This also presents interesting situations where players will have to rely on their other core skills, such as driving, shooting, crafting, and a little less on the hacking.
2. The Brooding Hacker
Every conspiracy thriller needs a central character, and Watch Dogs has got it with Aiden Pierce. Looking to find the man responsible for the assassination attempt on his life, Aiden Pierce will hack, shoot, drive, and amass resources to find the answers. Known as "The Vigilante" around the city, he's got the skills to track, hunt, and fight his prey on the streets of Chicago, all while keeping a low profile using the ctOS to his advantage.
Along the way, Aiden Pierce will meet other hackers and dangerous individuals who will either hinder or assist him in his vendetta. While collecting resources and funds, players will be able to acquire new weaponry, spend skill points to boost his core skills such as combat, driving, hacking, and crafting abilities, and spend cash to get new vehicles and clothing (over 40 different options). When worse comes to worst, Aiden's no slouch in terms of combat. Wielding a baton and an assortment of firearms and gadgets, he'll take down waves of gangsters and cops who want him out of the picture.
3. Hack The Planet
Obviously, hacking your environment is the name of the game in Watch Dogs, and the developers at Ubisoft Montreal have pulled out all the stops to allow players full access to the city infrastructure. With the press of a button, players can manipulate city services to their whim, take control of security systems for intel, and even take out enemies with clever environmental manipulation.
As you rank up and acquire more resources, you can invest in new upgrades for your hacking skills, which can open up even more opportunities. If you think causing traffic accidents was interesting, wait until you set off an explosion from a steam pipe underneath a busy street, or cause a mass blackout across the city. The level interaction is vast, and Watch Dogs offers an impressive amount of freedom for players.
4. Walk around the right corner, and you can find anything
One aspect of Watch Dogs that I really admire is that the people in this open world actually matter. In other open world titles, NPCs are mostly just cannon fodder or walking dummies to humiliate, maim, and otherwise ignore. While you can still grief and be a menace to the in-game society of Watch Dogs, it's good to remember that the citizens of Chicago all have identities. They have names, occupations, quirks, the list goes on. While this isn't to make you feel bad about harming them, it does highlight the reach you have when utilizing ctOS. Having information on a whole city brings you many different opportunities.
"The goal was to have a lot of density," said Belanger while discussing the opportunity players have at their disposal. "There's gameplay in every street corner. Those people, you can unlock side-content, story -- it's about fulfilling that fantasy of surveillance. We didn't want to gamify it, we wanted to make it a choice for players."
Aiden's phone can tap into the devices of people in the city, and from there you have an all access look into their lives. While many of the options you have are purely voyeuristic, such as listening to calls and reading text messages, there are cases where you are presented with a choice.
In one instance, I came across a woman on the street who was recently diagnosed with a disease. When I looked deeper into her data profile, I ended up stealing about $1,200 from her bank account. I immediately felt bad about it, but these newly acquired funds went to paying for my new gun, and then I moved on to the next person. The best part about this instance is that these tiny moments of narrative are scattered across the whole city. Some are minor, but others can pull you into something bigger with serious consequences.
5. Mess with the Best, Die like the Rest (Multiplayer)
As seen back in the E3 2012 reveal, Watch Dogs takes a very fluid and blended approach to multiplayer. After reaching a certain point in the story, Aiden will be able to contact and come into conflict with other hackers. Just like him, they have access to ctOS and high powered phones to bend the city to their will. If you haven't guessed, the other hackers are actually other players, and at any time they can invade your game to either steal vital information and resources, or simply eliminate you as a threat.
This asynchronous approach to multiplayer makes things fluid and feel natural, and it all ties back to your primary resources and skills. Instead of playing as a fresh-faced wannabe hacker, you'll be playing as Aiden online. Of course to avoid confusion, others online will see you as a regular NPC that blends into the crowd.
During my time online, I stalked another player to steal vital information from him. While he was aware of my presence in the game space, they didn't know where I was. I stalked the guy in my muscle car, stole his intel remotely via my phone, and made my getaway while he was none the wiser. I felt pretty sneaky, and I made out with a hefty amount of EXP to rank up. But then that excitement faded as I was invaded by the same guy minutes later. He T-boned my car at an intersection and filled me up with bullets from an assault rifle. It's good to remember that revenge is also an option in the online mode. But of course, if you're not up for facing other online, you can decline the in-game prompts or disable the online mode altogether.
6. The devious power of a Companion App
Much like other recent titles, there will be a free companion app for mobile devices called ctOS - Mobile. Wait, before you scroll down to the next point, just hear me out. ctOS - Mobile isn't just a simple app that relays supplementary data about the game as it also functions as an extension of the multiplayer experience. With your tablet device synced to your game, a friend can challenge you to a special ctOS - Mobile match. During these special scenarios, players in-game can either race against the clock across Chicago, or face off against waves of enemies, while the person with the tablet has complete control of the in-game ctOS infrastructure.
This may all sound simple, and sorta gimmicky, but I can say that this mode felt very different from the traditional multiplayer. It felt way more devious and cruel, in fact. With control of ctOS, the player with the tablet can lay traps and swarm players in game to the point of exhaustion. During a racing mission, I was having a pretty pleasant time, but after the player on the tablet got the hang of the system and acquired more resources to spend on ctOS operations, I was running into barricades left and right while being swarmed by Chicago police. It felt exhausting and pretty scary to be on the receiving end. Moreover, players with ctOS - Mobile can taunt those in game by hacking into electronic signs and leaving messages. Much like the multiplayer features, the ctOS - Mobile game mode is entirely optional.
7. Strange Days have found us
If you've been following this game in the last few months, then you probably saw a picture of a giant robot spider running around Chicago. Don't worry, Watch Dogs won't jump the shark or go Indigo Prophecy on you. Throughout Chicago, Aiden can take a break from busting up gang hideouts and uncovering conspiracies to unwind and expand his resources and skills by taking part in optional missions and games. Some of which are secret poker matches, street races, and even a clever take on Alternate Reality games, which task players with collecting holographic coins or shooting holographic space aliens in the streets of Chicago.
"We wanted to support the fantasy of having a phone, and playing alternate reality games was a part of that," Belanger stated while discussing the colorful side missions. "It's an homage to older games, but it's also a lighter side -- even though the tone of the story is serious, we wanted to show that it was still a game. They fit the story, in the sense."
Now, here's where things get strange. Across Chicago, there are sly merchants that sell "Digital Trips," which are special VR missions that Aiden can undertake. Not to be confused with the AR games, these missions are instanced and task players with goofy and bizarre challenges. Such as controlling a giant mecha spider as it rampages across Chicago, or another mission that's a nod to Carmageddon, where you get behind the wheel of a demonic car and mow down possessed humans across a hellish version of Chicago.
This all may sound really odd and not in keeping at all with the game's tone, and that's OK. In the thematic sense, they help to illustrate the divide and detachment we have with reality because of our reliance on technology, which is in keeping with the game's central story. But in regards to game design, it's just good ol' dumb fun. And that's fine by me.
Well, those are the things I really dug with Watch Dogs. Unfortunately, things weren't all great in the Windy City. Despite the fun I had with messing other players and the citizens of Chicago, I still found a few issues that bothered me. Many of them are purely technical, such as the unusually long load times, which are painful after failed missions -- but also how clunky platforming and free-running abilities feel. It feels like a scaled down version of Assassin's Creed, to be totally honest. This is especially troubling when meeting some objectives that require you to run to specific marks and make certain climbs. The accuracy for the traversal just isn't there.
Of course, the big concern is the obvious visual downgrade. There was a bit of controversy last month about how different the game looked after its appearances at E3. Unfortunately, I can say that the game does look a bit off the mark with what was shown at E3. Moreover, the draw distances of assets can be somewhat of an annoyance, as you'll see cars and people phase in and out at a somewhat short distance. Don't get me wrong, though -- the game still looks pretty and runs very well. I was playing the PlayStation 4 version and the title runs at a solid 30FPS with little to no drops, and it looks very smooth in action. But, I'm still a bit disappointed to see how it doesn't quite reach those same visually heights we were originally shown.
But in any event, I still came away quite impressed with what I played in Watch Dogs. I had my reservations at first, I assumed this would be more Assassin's Creed than anything else, but I found myself pretty intrigued with being a sneaky hacker in a city full of possibility. The attention to detail is strong, and the amount of content packed into the vast cityscape is impressive.
With apparently over 30 hours of single-player content, in addition to the full potential of online multiplayer, there's a certainly a lot to uncover. It's a long time coming, and I'm definitely looking forward discovering how far Watch Dogs takes things when it comes out next month.