E3’s kicked off with a visible bang this year, and if the excitable LA ruckus cluttering up my Twitter feed is anything to go by, “HYPE” in big capital letters is a cool new thing and anyone who’s not over there is missing out big time. The other thing that’s become increasingly clear, with the revelation that is Watch Dogs, is this: Ubisoft are increasingly and somewhat bafflingly making a case for themselves as the new word in contemporary shooters.
What with Ghost Recon: Future Soldier coming out of nowhere to pip everyone at the sales charts and striking an unforeseen chord with firefight-fans the globe over, and Far Cry 3 continuing to impress just as it divides (to Ubi’s discredit, they’re really not showing this game’s full potential off in the right ways, which is sad), Watch Dogs’ sudden arrival on the scene is the third game in a trilogy that suggests the French publisher has been paying attention.
The introductory trailer was enough to whet my appetite. From memory, my personal GOTY for 2011, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, has been the only release of the sixth gen to adequately modernise and explore that distinctly cyberpunk paranoia I crave – a paranoia that’s becoming more and more of a reality in this day and age of global connectivity. Whereas in the ‘80s stylised dystopias and almost comical depictions of future hackers reigned, now we’re seeing those utilitarian concepts once thought unexciting next to robot-people and men with exploding brains take center-stage. We’re dooming the planet as we bridge its divides, sure – but we’re potentially dooming ourselves at a much faster rate. Knowledge has always been power, and knowledge is becoming instantaneous and free.
The trenchcoat, the neon ‘n rain, the grizzled and world-weary monologue: It’s not wholly unlike Ridley Scott’s Blade Runnerbefore the radioactive kipple sets in and we all escape offworld to the colonies, but Watch Dogs’ narrative is a distinctly Orwellian near-future that could very well be ours in just a few decades. That and it looks like it’s goddamn Grand Theft Auto Xwith mad tech. The plodding pace with which the demo proceeds is understandable given how many fresh ideas are at work here, and initially I took it for more of a storied adventure game. The ability to electronically mess around with your environment, too, seemed a new and exciting joy not to be rushed through.
Then the shooting started. Until today, I thought I could go the rest of my life without playing another cover-based shooter ever again. Once I’d seen our man vault over one car and seamlessly slide across the hood of another whilst capping the goon hunkering behind it, I realised that a large chunk of everything I’d ever hated about the largely stoic genre had been tended to, right there. It makes Max Payne 3 look instantly dated, which is quite the feat and one that, whether Ubisoft intended it or not, stands them in promising stead.
Although Watch Dogs’ themes seem concerned with the ailing freedom suggested by technological advancement and centralised governments, its nucleus is that of complete control, both personal and impersonal. As dynamic as its gameplay, fittingly. Only one question remained: Hey, can you drive any of those ca- oh.