Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Watch_Dogs Preview

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal, Additional Studios / Publisher: Ubisoft / Release Date: November 19, 2013

Watch Dogs dropped a lot of jaws during its E3 2012 debut. The premise is worth a gawk or two: an open-world, near-future setting in which you use your cell phone to hack and control your surroundings.

But this is E3 and stage demos are notorious for misdirecting players with smoke-and-mirrors gameplay demos. Ever since its unveiling, I'd questioned whether or not Watch Dogs was the real deal or just faking it through scripting trickery. It's the sort of question you can't verify until you actually play the game.

Luckily, I have… and I can. Watch Dogs provides a legitimate open-world script-free experience that responds elastically to your actions.


"You have to be at peace with giving [control] to the player. If you interact with the game in a certain way, then the game has to have the right consequences to your actions," Watch Dogs Lead Gameplay Designer Danny Belanger said. "Sometimes some designers might want to make a movie out of everything, but for us, you have to be able to read the situation, create an event, and it has to give you enough feedback to know 'Oh this makes sense.'"

My demo opened with a simple task — plant a virus in a local server node, which would grant me digital access to nearby city utilities like traffic lights and bridges. The process is similar to hitting synchronization points in Assassin's Creed, a similarity even shared by the presence of a parkour button allowing you to vault over objects when held.

I made immediate use of that button by vaulting over a fence into the guard-ridden restricted area surrounding the server. By smoothly moving from cover to cover, I established line of sight with a security camera, hacked my way in through that, and gained access to the server room remotely without anyone having so much as a clue.

Of course, it didn't have to go down that way. I could have strolled right in, gunning down anyone that looked at me cross-eyed. Or, I could have piggybacked off the external security cameras to set off a car alarm, drawing guards away from the entrance to thin their numbers. In my first five minutes with the game, Watch Dogs already hit me with meaningful decisions.

"It's a good philosophy for an open world, to give a lot of freedom to the player and a lot of ways to tackle a problem," Belanger said. "We use terms like 'free approach,' meaning that your style of player has to be supported. That can mean a lot of things. You're an action person, you're a stealth person, you're a cunning person that likes to use hacking… or a mix of those. Or, today you're frustrated and want action. We don't want to say 'Oh you're this player? This is not a game for you.' It's more that we want the city to react accordingly and support your play style."


That doesn't only apply to structured missions though. Watch Dogs creates an open world that provides opportunity for player choice at every turn. For instance, once you've worked your way into the local node for an area, you can hack random pedestrians. Within a couple of minutes, I'd stolen some passerby's identity and cashed it out at a local ATM to the tune of $700.

Like any good vigilante, I could justify to myself that I'm stealing for the greater good. Or, I could employ my own moral judgment by reading the augmented reality info cards that hover above random citizens. Oh, you volunteer at the homeless shelter so on your way, citizen. But you molest children so your bank account is forfeit. Either way, the game is not there to judge your actions.

"We refuse to gamify everything. We could've said bank account, money, minus reputation. But in the end, we give you enough narrative info to make that choice, and it's the choice you make," Belanger said. "It would be easy to say 'Reputation goes down, that's bad.' But who would know you did it? No one would know. You have to make that choice yourself."

From there I clambered onto a nearby rooftop thanks to the aforementioned parkour skills. From here I hack a local wifi node, granting me access to any device connected to it. In this case, that happened to be an open laptop in an apartment across the alley. While the car registry stored on the laptop was a good find, the view from the webcam was not. Let me tell you, when you see a man conduct a very stern relationship talk with his real doll, you start to rethink the benefit of unfettered access to information.

"People are voluntarily putting personal things in public networks. It's public property. If you post something on a corporate site, it's not yours anymore. You're giving that away," Belanger said. "We like the questions. If we push that a little bit, what can happen? There's great positive to it but there's also some risks."


One of those risks being that even if you think you're the all-powerful God of the Internet, you're still working on the same flawed tech that everyone else is. That's the basis for Watch Dogs' unique take on multiplayer. Other vigilante hackers with the same powers as you can join your game to hack your jam.

The rules for a competitive player hack are pretty damn cool. The attacking hacker simply has to mark his target once, then find an inconspicuous spot to start the hack. Once stationary, the hack begins and the hackee gets a notification they're being attacked along with a general area to investigate to find the attacker.

That's when the game of cat-and-mouse begins. Given that attacking players look exactly like random NPCs in the game world, the encounter is similar to multiplayer in Assassin's Creed. Armed only with your phone to sniff out the hacker, your knowledge of how players tend to move, and a bevy of guns (natch) you must kill your attacker before he silently cuts you down.

"There is definitely a fantasy of empowerment that we're giving the character through information and technology, but there's more to that," Belanger said. "The surveillance theme is not only you, it's on you. It's happening to you. It's in the narrative and in the game as well."


There's another flavor of multiplayer in Watch Dogs. By using the game's mobile app, you can spectate other players players while they play by watching them through a wireframe overhead map. Aside from naturally playing into the game's themes of surveillance and paranoia, you can also challenge other players to a sort of race.

The concept is simple but a long time coming — the in-game player simply has to get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time. The mobile player controls the police forces and electronic assets of the city (stop lights, retractable barriers, shutter doors, etc) to try and stop them. Playing digital God sounds like an awesome way to spend some bathroom time, not to mention the voyeuristic joy of watching other players scurry about like ants.

"We wanted the player to experience that paranoia," Belanger said. "The feeling that someone can be watching you. It's layer on layer and at some point maybe no one's on top."

My demo concluded with an epic 20 minute police chase through the streets of Chicago. To describe everything that happened would take a ridiculous amount of words, but it's the ultimate expression of Watch Dogs' gameplay breadth. In that span I'd driven multiple cars (including an exceptionally speedy and downright cool motorcycle), darted in and out of car wrecks, raised bridges to throw off my pursuers, and ultimately hid in an underground parking lot until the heat died down.

The experience trumped cop chases I've experienced in Grand Theft Auto, and oddly reminded me of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit thanks to the ctOS mechanic. Owing to the city-wide computer network, you can hack traffic lights and bridges even as you drive. Triggering environmental changes in real-time like that sends unpredictable ripples throughout the gameplay. For instance, hacking a traffic intersection's lights green will cause all the cars to floor it, but that doesn't result in a predictable crash or sometimes any crash at all. You just have to initiate and react to the chaos.

"Everything's working together," Belanger said. "If there's an action in one system it's communicating to another system. The other system has to react."

The systemic nature of Watch Dogs is vital. My experience (though brief) with the game convinced me that it can produce those magic moments — those "I've never seen that before" moments. It makes the game world feel alive, a quality that usually belongs to the Grand Theft Auto series.

And, like the Grand Theft Auto series, that magic in incredibly hard to express via trailer or preview.

"It's the hardest thing to show," Belanger said. "When we present something, we're trying to show some moments and values of our game in environments that are a bit more controlled because we want something to happen. If you're going to a game show and you want to show an open world, it's very, very hard."

If you run down the list of what's in Watch Dogs, you can start to get an idea of how difficult it is to communicate what it is. You have the stealth / action dichotomy of Deus Ex, the open-world driving and unpredictable action of Grand Theft Auto, and the emergent gameplay of… Spelunky of all things.

"There's always going to be a place for scripted games, but I think they're going to have a harder and harder time. When we can bring scripted moments in the systems of an open world and make it feel like a realized story, it's going to be difficult for [scripted] games," Belanger said. "They have one mechanic. We have that mechanic, but it's a choice."

Watch Dogs will release for PC, current, and next generation consoles on November 19, 2013.

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