Watch Dogs has been in development for five years, and not only has it evolved a lot in that time, it's become a project that the team at Ubisoft Montreal is clearly very proud of.
The game itself isn't playable at Eurogamer Expo but it does have its own dedicated presentation area in the show's "over-18s" area, and Ubisoft Montreal's creative director Jonathan Morin also took to the stage of the Expo's theater to give an in-depth talk about the game, how it came to be and what players can expect from it when it finally releases later this year.
Watch Dogs was originally designed under the codename "Nexus," a word that simply refers to a connection between two or more things. The original game logo was a lightning-bolt symbol broken in the middle to represent the game's core concept of interrupting connections through hacking -- if that sounds familiar, it's because it made it into what we now know as Watch Dogs, though not as the game logo; instead, if you look at the front of protagonist Aiden's mask, it's there.
Everything about Aiden is symbolic, Morin says, from the way he moves to how he dresses. He carries his gun in such a manner as it can remain concealed until the last possible moment, for example, and his trenchcoat is specifically designed to hide things. His use of a mask to cover his face is intended as a visual symbol of him being aware that he's doing something "bad" and attempting to stay out of sight while doing so; his cap, meanwhile, is inspired by Hollywood celebrities' use of hats to try and avoid being photographed. The intention behind these specific designs was to make Aiden an "iconic" character that people will remember; he certainly cuts a striking figure, though whether the "old coat, cap and mask" look will prove to be as instantly recognizable as the Assassins' uniform in Ubisoft's biggest triple-A franchise remains to be seen.
Aiden isn't the only symbolic element in the game, however. The game's "Disrupt" engine features detailed modelling of wind -- the game's setting of Chicago is known as "The Windy City," after all -- that affects everything from the trees in the streets to characters' clothes. It isn't a static influence, though; passing cars will affect the wind, for example, and the wind will affect bodies of water. Everything is interconnected in nature, just as everything in Watch Dogs' digital city is interconnected through technology.
Watch Dogs is a game about technology's impact on society. It poses the question as to what the "next step" would be after today, the age of smartphones and almost constant connectivity. The game's answer to that is the concept of a computer-controlled "smart city" -- a concept that sounds futuristic, but which some cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, are already exploring in the real world.
Chicago was picked as the game's setting for several reasons. Firstly, the political setup of the city, and the fact that the various crises it has suffered have helped it to define and improve itself over the years. The rise of Al Capone forced the city to come up with a new, more effective means of policing that led to the formation of the legendary Untouchables group; similarly, the great fire of 1871 that levelled most of the city's central business district gave rise to new, distinctive and more fireproof architecture. The city's adoption of the CTOS "smart city" central computer system was seen as a natural evolution of Chicago's willingness to move, change and adapt with the times.
The second reason Chicago was picked was due to its density and chaotic nature. Chicago is a city with layers, with streets crisscrossing one another in three dimensions. This makes it challenging to build and explore, but believable; there's a lot going on at any one given time, and getting that feeling of dense chaos is something the team at Ubisoft Montreal was very keen to get right.
The final reason that Chicago was picked is that it is simply an enjoyable place to drive -- important for a game that includes driving as one of its main mechanics.
Morin notes that driving is one of the three main components to the game, with the other aspects being the hacking and on-foot/parkour gameplay. He describes the game as the culmination of some of Ubi's best previous projects, and that the team wanted each individual element of the game to feel as good as a dedicated game in that genre.
The addition of a slow-time "focus" mechanic -- which Morin freely admits is inspired by "Bullet Time" -- was added as a means of allowing players time to think about what they wanted to do, as well as the ability to do multiple things at once -- things like hacking while driving at high speed, or while engaged in a chase. It's not all frantic multitasking, though; Morin also notes that it's possible to stand still for 20 minutes and still make progress in the game through observing the people around you, profiling them, finding someone worth tailing and then watching events proceed from there. These "escalations," as Morin calls them, are largely unscripted, encouraging players to improvise with the game world and its mechanics, and rewarding creative play.
Improvisation and creative play is also encouraged in the game's seamless online mode, in which players can invade each other's games by making use of a system called "The Grid." Morin was keen to emphasize the fact that this is largely an opt-in affair, however; once you've been "invaded" once, your world's firewall goes up, preventing further invasions until you invade someone else. Similarly, you have to specifically opt-in to allowing players using the CTOS iOS and Android app to invade your game and manipulate your game world; in this way, you can make as much or as little of the online functionality as you desire rather than being forced into it if you don't find it enjoyable.
It's interesting to hear how the elements of Watch Dogs all work together, but it's still a little difficult to picture how the game will play as a complete, coherent experience. How is it structured? How do you progress? Are there missions or is it a more freeform experience? These are questions for which Ubisoft is still holding the answers pretty close to its chest; it'll likely be much closer to the game's November release date before we find out much more in that respect.