Open Watch Dogs' world map and what will you find?
I see a city divided into districts, around half a dozen in number. Each has a central control point to capture, to unlock a surrounding sea of icons - side-missions, mini-games, collectibles. So it is in Assassin's Creed, so it is in Far Cry and so it is in Watch Dogs too.
It's surprising how similar Ubisoft's latest open world is in structure to its predecessors -- especially after that first swaggering slice of gameplay we saw back at E3 2012, that promise of a next-gen city full of open-ended missions and dynamic gameplay. But despite how openly Watch Dogs' world wears its heritage, it also manages to repurpose this framework to host the game's most intriguing new features.
Wander the game's streets and you'll soon find yourself greeted with a warning message: you are being hacked. We've known something of Watch Dogs' mysterious multiplayer activities for some time -- how they blend your version of Chicago with another players' and let them infiltrate your game. But watching it happen during your playthrough is something else -- there's something wonderfully disconcerting about knowing that the culprit is somewhere around you, a human player that has been watching your movements, who has calculated a path to get close to you and is now attempting to stay hidden, to blend in amongst the game's NPCs.
You can be the one stalking others too, of course -- on foot, while in a car, hidden in a nearby alleyway or perched up above, out of sight. Find a line of sight and you can hack their smartphone, sending them that same warning message as their data streams to your device. Then it's just a matter of remaining in range while evading their view, which is easier said than done. The other player is armed with their device's Profiler, the app you can use at any time to see details of passers by. But there are tricks to hide from it -- enter any nearby vehicle and you have an option to huddle down behind the wheel, for example, which also lets you roar off once the download is complete and leave your bewildered victim in a cloud of tire smoke.
Managing a successful hack is satisfying, but the chase that ensues if you get spotted is perhaps more interesting. The tables are now turned and it's you who becomes the hunted party, scrabbling to put distance from your target while they give chase, hoping to catch you and destroy the data you managed to siphon. It results in fast-paced player vs player free-running pursuits and car chases across the game's technology-filled streets, Watch Dogs' structured world now an elaborate backdrop for your personal game of cat and mouse.
And there are several other types of interaction, too, which go far beyond simple one-on-one encounters. You'll be able to race against other players on land and sea and, most interestingly, interact with others in a full free-roam mode for up to eight players -- the exact details of which are still under wraps, two months from release on the five year project. But it's safe to say Ubisoft is aiming big.
"Free-roam is an old idea," Watch Dogs creator Jonathan Morin explained to us during our visit last week to the game's Ubisoft Montreal home. "It almost comes from Far Cry 2. We wanted just a mode where you can have fun and start -- who knows -- inventing stuff. It's a pretty spectacular way to take a very sophisticated and advanced game and recognise an old-school pure state of play. It's a 'you can activate it the way you want' type of thing."
You can elect to receive regular prompts that other players are online and waiting to be hacked, or that one is nearby and has their sights on you (although you won't be penalized for playing offline or simply turning online features off). Alternatively, you can also search for online players to activate social missions whenever you want from the world map -- different types are unlocked as you spread your control over the game's districts.
Social interaction in Watch Dogs is such a distraction, in fact, that Ubisoft's sea of structured missions fades into the background somewhat. The game's story has been kept under wraps, Ubisoft perhaps understandably wishing to highlight the bigger draws of a malleable next-gen city over the specifics of the plotline. The one mission available to play was a straightforward infiltration assignment -- bad guys have been intimidating the sister of protagonist Aiden Pearce and he is out to find out who was responsible.
It leads Pearce to a facility patrolled by guards, and allows him to flex some of the Splinter Cell-esque tools he had on his person -- disruptors, distraction aids and simple old-fashioned stealth. Or you can go in guns blazing and watch the guards swarm you with reinforcements, which isn't the greatest idea. The mission also provides an opportunity to try out one of Pearce's best tricks -- the ability to hack security cameras for a birds-eye view of his surroundings, then remotely hack any others within range of that camera, and so on, allowing him to visually swoop through an entire area.
And then there's the game's side-missions, of which Ubisoft has included its usual huge glut. Cast an eye across the game's map and you'll see racing events, mini-games and other distractions. There were the usual map icons inviting me to play poker or chess, but also the fun AR games, which let you shoot virtual aliens and complete Assassin's Creed-style free-running challenges against the clock.
Watch Dogs' world feels a bit of a hybrid -- its another familiar map filled with things to do, and possibly too many mini-games than are strictly necessary. But it's an open world that feels like it could be home to some truly unusual gameplay -- at least for a triple-A release. Playing the game's social side and, possibly just as fun, watching others do the same, reveals emergent gameplay of the like more usually found in experiences such as Rust and DayZ. So yes, Watch Dogs' world may seem familiar, but thankfully that's only half the story. The other stories you'll experience while playing will be all your own.