We steal money from a struggling family and escape in a stolen limousine, because we can.
By Tim Colwill on October 3, 2013 at 4:50 pm
There’s a lot of weight resting on the shoulders of Watch Dogs. As Ubisoft’s first major new IP in a few good years, the game represents a breath of fresh air in a world of long-running Creeds, Crys and Cells, and almost wholly represents the philosophy of new-Ubisoft: massive open worlds, increasingly darker storylines, and systems to play with that offer unpredictable and complex gameplay.
Ubisoft showed us Watch Dogs running on a beefy PC, and although they weren’t able to give us the exact specs, it looked genuinely good: silky smooth even in this unfinished build, and with in-engine cutscenes that looked better than the stuff we saw pre-rendered in other games. The scale of the city is impressive, and there’s no slowdown or lag as you cruise between districts in your stolen limousine (more on this later).
After watching a play through of a single-player mission, we were handed the controller — a PS4 controller, no less — and given the chance to fool around in sandbox mode by trying to take control of a server which would give us access to the entire district. The server was in a heavily guarded compound, and story designer Kevin Shortt advised me to try taking the stealth way in so I could get a proper lay of the land and avoid any (fatal) open confrontations.
I nodded, agreed with his suggestion, and then drove a stolen car through the compound at top speed, trying to run as many people over as possible.
Unfortunately I’m just not very good at driving. While I was able to clip a few of them, having to reverse back and forth through the tight spaces of stacked crates meant I was eventually shot to death. This wasn’t working out. I reloaded and this time, reluctantly, actually went for a stealth approach.
The way Watch Dogs works is that when you’re looking at something and you can hack it, you just… well you press a button to hack it. That gives you instant control over whatever it is and ‘activates’ it, so if you hack a person’s phone you take their money, if you hack traffic lights you flip them instantly to red, or if, in this case, you hack a forklift, then you make the forklift go up or down. As the guard’s attention was drawn by the suddenly activated forklift, I tumbled past him and scampered up the ladder onto the roof.
From here I was able to jump into a surveillance camera and scan the area. While hacking a camera, you essentially ‘inhabit’ it, and can jump from camera to camera as long as you can draw line of sight to them. From your position in the camera you can also tag guards and scan them, which meant I quickly located the guard who had the access code I needed.
Unfortunately as I stood up to reposition myself, I was spotted. I tried to fight my way out, but with my cover rapidly disintegrating under the hail of fire and my own incompetence with a controller hindering me at every turn, I quickly fell dead to the floor.
Watch Dogs: It’s surprisingly brutal.
I abandoned this quest and decided to just go for a drive. Watch Dogs’ Chicago is an impressive achievement, and it took me about five minutes to get from the slums of my previous mission into the city proper. I parked my stolen government van in the middle of the street and clambered to the top of a roof to get a better view.
One of the neat things you can do at any time is to follow ‘data lines’ between objects in the world, which allows you to not only see things like “which power generator is locking this door”, but also find neat little secrets lying around. Breaking open a control box in an alley, I was able to trace the data lines back around the block to a webcam left on in somebody’s kitchen. It was a run-down inner-city apartment, with peeling paint and the sound of a baby crying in the other room.
I cleaned out their bank accounts and left.
Perhaps ironically, it was shortly after this that I found myself the target of a fellow hacker, played by another Ubisoft developer sitting behind a screen on the other side of the room. Watch Dogs handles this sudden attack with impressive smoothness, giving you no warning about the presence of another player until they’ve literally already begun to break into your system. Once this happens, you’re able to backtrace the attack, which gives you a rough zone that indicates where the hacker is located.
From here it becomes an almost Spy Party-esque game of cat-and-mouse, with the hacker (who looks to you like a regular NPC) trying to simultaneously avoid being scanned and stay “in character” as a regular NPC — which means slow movements, NPC-like behaviour, and not frantically legging it down the street giggling.
The hackee, in this case myself, can scan NPCs in the area to determine if they’re the hacker or not. Doing this on foot is fine, but you can also jump into surveillance cameras and scan that way, which is faster but less mobile. Eventually I spot him as he flees across a plaza, and sweep his legs out from under him with a burst of assault rifle fire. He screams from across the room.
Neatly, once somebody has hacked you, you can bring up your minimap to jump into their game and reverse the process. I pretend to check out a garden bed as he runs past, dropping a back door into his phone which I activate once he’s out of sight. The effect is immediate: blaring symbols pop up on my screen and intense music starts playing as on the minimap I see him screech to a halt and begin sweeping the area to find me. I use a series of bus shelters to block line of sight between us in the hope he won’t be able to scan me, and there’s a delightfully tense moment when he is standing just a few feet away, squinting through the traffic.
I panic and try to cross the street as an alarm sounds: he’s made me. I sprint for a car and try to get into it, but he pistols me to death with the precision aiming of a man who has spent years developing the very game he is right now playing.
I wasn’t expecting the multiplayer hacking to be such a big deal, but it was actually hugely entertaining and still sticks out as the most memorable event in the whole hour of gameplay. That’s odd when you consider I was playing in a massively sprawling and complex open world full of interconnected data, but for some reason I guess I was just ‘expecting’ that, and so everything over and above that really acted to impress.
I’m very excited to try more and to see how much strategy comes out of it — as the attacker you get to choose the battleground which, in a game where you can clamber up on most of the rooftops, could prove to be a significant advantage.
I ended my session by trying to stir up trouble with the cops, which resulted in me fleeing away down main street towards the docks in a stolen limousine, hacking traffic lights as I went to cause head-on collisions. Shortt told me to get a different vehicle or I’d never lose the cops, but I refused to do things the easy way. What’s the point of a complex series of interconnected systems if you can’t do what you want?
It took a while, but I did lose the cops and I did make it out alive. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in the most ridiculous possible way, as my grandmother used to say.*
Watch Dogs is out in Australia on November 21. You can play it this weekend at the EB Expo in Sydney.