Heading up to the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, one of the most-anticipated titles seemed to be Ubisoft's Watch Dogs. Just weeks out from release, Ubisoft decided that Watch Dogs wasn't ready for prime-time and delayed the game until Spring 2014. Why? Because Ubisoft wants Watch Dogs to stand as another tentpole franchise, like Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell, and Far Cry, and new games rarely get a second chance to establish themselves.
"At Gamescom, everybody was looking each other in the eye thinking we would be there at launch," Ubisoft North American president Laurent Detoc told IGN regarding Watch Dogs. "There were already some lingering doubts, but we were plowing through it. Then eventually, a month later, we said, 'this is not gonna fly.' It's not just about delaying for the sake of delaying it."
"No matter how hard we try, we also put out games that are not good quality, unfortunately. Some games, you just can't make them that much better because of how they've been progressing. Part of the decision to delay Watch Dogs is also that. We know it's not where we want it to be. Can it get there? What will it take to get there? That's why it takes a longer process."
It's a fair desire, especially in this tight market. A game like Watch Dogs has been crafted by over a thousand developers working in concert; no one wants to spend that kind of money on a flop. That's why many AAA titles are relatively safe, playing within a tight set of boundaries.
In fact, Watch Dogs had its genesis as a follow-up to one of Ubisoft's semi-successful franchises, Driver. Not in the sense that Driver became Watch Dogs, but in the sense that assets for a possible Driver game were re-purposed in a new form. When you're dealing with millions of dollars, it's best not to let anything go to waste. Driver: San Francisco was a fantastic game that was able to meld its story and its mechanics together perfectly, but it might not have been something Ubisoft could've carried forward into sequels more than once or twice.
"Watch Dogs wasn't started as Watch Dogs," Detoc told IGN. "They were working on a driving engine. We had the Driver license. Then we were thinking, 'no, this is not the way we want to go with a driving game,' so we cancelled that and restarted. That's at least three years ago, and then the Watch Dogs project reused some of the work that had been done on this driving engine. It's not that Driver became Watch Dogs, so much as the driving game we made was a driving game."
What came from the husk of a possible Driver game was something closer to Grand Theft Auto, albeit with the interesting tweak that you can hack and control items around the city. When the game first touched down in trailer form at E3 2012, it was exciting because no one expected Ubisoft to have a new IP in development.
I was intrigued, but I admit other viewings of the game didn't exactly pull me in. At best, I was looking at something along the lines of a modern-day Assassin's Creed. I have much love for the AC series, but I feel the 'modern-day' aspect tends to go against what I look for in the franchise. For me, everything stand out about Watch Dogs hinged purely on the hacking mechanic, which could be hit or miss. That's not to say some of the video demos showing off the mechanic haven't been great, but I have yet to sit down with the game to see if it plays as well as it looks.
The story of Watch Dogs has also been largely ignored or kept under wraps. Hacker Aiden Pearce seems to be on a straightforward revenge bender, but we don't know enough to judge what direction the overall campaign may take. The world-setting trailers make a big deal about the city being under the control of a machine, but what about it being under the control of one man? Who is Aiden Pierce to deserve this power? These are questions I hope the story tackles in detail.
My interest in Watch Dogs started to take an upward turn during an E3 2013 multiplayer demo, which surprised me. I'm not a big multiplayer guy, as frequent USgamer readers have probably noticed. I prefer to spend my multiplayer time in MMOs, though I used to do the arena FPS thing back in the days of Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena. The fact that Watch Dogs' multiplayer intrigued me is shocking.
The first appearance of multiplayer at E3 2013 was in the vein of Dark Souls. In this mode, you can enter the game world of your friends, where you become a generic NPC avatar. While in you're in another player's world, you can attempt to upload a virus to their mobile device. When you start hacking, they'll get a notice that they're being infiltrated and they can then search the immediate area to see who's attacking them; hacking can only be performed near your target. It's odd because from your point of view, you're still Aiden; to you, they're a faceless NPC and to them, you're an NPC. The player is always Aiden, even in multiplayer. It works in context.
Watch Dogs multiplayer is an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse. Even when you find the hacker, they have a chance to run away, changing the chase into a physical one. Luckily for us single-player gamers, the multiplayer aspect is off during missions and can be turned off altogether. Ubisoft has yet to go into the risk and reward of attempting to hack other players, but if it's tuned right, it could be a rewarding little mode to try out from time-to-time... with people you trust.
Multiplayer version number two was shown to me at PAX Prime 2013 in Seattle. This version requires an Android or iOS tablet to work. Yes, it's the dreaded second-screen experience! The player on the tablet controls the city's infrastructure and the police force. You can send a challenge to the console player. If they agree, the game throws a few checkpoints around the city that they have to clear within a certain time limit.
Once again, it's a chase as the tablet player throws up roadblocks, changes traffic lights, closes bridges and hacks other objects to prevent the console player's progress. The only direct NPC object the tablet player controls is a police helicopter, with acts as a beacon for other police forces around the city and shows the tablet player what objects can be controlled in the area. Do you activate a roadblock to stop the console player, or do you have something better waiting for them near a check point? What if they decide to hack to the roadblock to stop police pursuers? It seemed really cool both times I saw the demo, which was played live for audience benefit.
This mode is meant to be more fun, so the penalty for the running console player upon dying is having to start back at the beginning without the lost time. Like the first multiplayer mode, the rewards are currently being worked out. The tablet player can also help the console player if they so desire, but that's not the version I expect to see people using most of the time.
So, what we have is a single-player game that feels like Assassin's Creed mixed with Grand Theft Auto and an interesting hacking mechanic... that I actually want to play for multiplayer. I was generally looking forward to Watch Dogs because I enjoy Ubisoft's output in general, but the multiplayer was interesting enough to put the game on the top of my hype meter. Yeah, 2014 is a year of change already I guess.
Will Ubisoft pull off Watch Dogs? Again, everything I'm telling you here is based on nary a single hands-on demo. That's not to say they're hiding anything; I didn't get a chance to play Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag until PAX Prime in September of this year. The game may have not been ready for me to sit down and free play. I'm not going to speculate as to what was so wrong that Watch Dogs had to miss the holiday shopping season, but I hope the team can smooth it out. If not, the early part of 2014 could be a dark period for me.