After an untimely and unexpected delay, we're finally closer to being able to play Watch Dogs, Ubisoft's next hope for open-world success. Sure, we won't be seeing the Wii U version until Fall, but we'll have an idea if the title is good or bad on May 27, 2014. Back when the game was delayed, Ubisoft went radio silent on anything relating to the game. Now that we're nearing launch, the publisher is releasing details out into the wild.
In addition to demos like the one Jaz played, developer Ubisoft Montreal is being very open on the final playable product and everything that went into getting there. Part of that means tackling the cries of "downgrade" head on. Fans on the internet have struck out at Ubisoft for presenting one graphically-intensive game at E3 2012 and then showing something less impressive this year. Watch Dogs creative director Jonathan Morin insists that the game will stand up to its E3 2012 debut and admits that last month's story trailer wasn't a good reference for the game's graphics.
"People look at things and interpret things based on what they know. You cannot control that," Morin told Eurogamer. "I think the game compares greatly to E3 2012 if you use the same weather at the same place at the same time. People are really responding to stuff like reflection, to rain, things like that - which is why we chose those settings for E3 2012 to show the full potential we can get."
While the PC version will be leading the pack graphically, Morin noted that the PlayStation 4 version isn't that far off. Morin explained that the differences are in the details.
"Even the PlayStation 4 version compares to the E3 [2012 build] pretty good," he said. "There are resolution differences, one or two effects which are more dedicated to high-end PCs. But in the end I think it's pretty fricking close."
"There are noticeable differences, it's mainly stuff like when you put the wind in very strong situations, tree dynamics with lots of leaves moving at the same time, on PlayStation 4 sometimes you can see certain things going on - some tearing and stuff like that. I think that's normal to some extent," Morin added. "Seeing it without any of those issues [on PC] is kind of impressive, but it's really fine detail like that - it's for certain people, and definitely PC gamers are those kind of people, who notice every single detail."
He also said that the graphical prowess of the delayed Wii U version leans more towards the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions, not new generation consoles like the PlayStation 4. Oddly enough, the Xbox One version doesn't elicit a single mention in any interview. The complete omission could be related to the fact that some developers have had issues wringing everything they can out of Microsoft's new console in comparison to the PlayStation 4, or due to Ubisoft and Sony's comfortable working relationship.
Protagonist, Not Hero
For Watch Dogs, players will be taking mental control of Aiden Pearce, a middle-aged, gruff, white guy who is out for revenge against the people who killed his loved ones. That's a pretty boilerplate action protagonist. According to lead gameplay designer Danny Belanger and writer Kevin Shortt, Pearce is meant to be a very gray character. Those shades of gray give players a chance to make their own choices."
"It takes a while to understand where Pearce is," Shortt told Polygon. "This is a guy with a lot of rage. We're not asking the players to fall in love with this guy right from the get-go. We're saying, okay, you're going to have to get a sense of who this guy is. His goals are noble, I think. But for sure, his methods are questionable. I think he's more driven by, I fucked up. I lost control. I'm not going to lose control again."
"Aiden is an antihero," Belanger explained to Polygon. "He lives in shades of gray. But as a player you can be the bad guy. You can be that dangerous person, or you can be the vigilante. If you see a crime, if you see something that's going to happen, then you make that choice. We just let it be free for you to interpret and make those calls.
Hack Into The Matrix
Pearce and his grey morality will be stomping around Watch Dogs' version of the city of Chicago. It's very much in the open-world style that's worked from Ubisoft in Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. According to Morin, the team at Ubisoft Montreal wanted to do a big open world game in a modern city, but they realized they needed a hook to draw players in. Watch Dogs' hacking mechanic was that differentiation, but Ubisoft Montreal still had to build a cohesive game around it. And that meant prototyping.
"We started by making a worst-case scenario," Morin told Gamasutra. "We did a multiplayer [version] very quickly, where four players could play against each other. We were focusing on fast driving, and then it was all about, 'Can I, at 200 miles per hour, against other talented players, use hacking against them?' Back then there were traffic lights, bridges, and bollards that were already implemented. We had two buttons -- one for certain kids of categories, and another. The goal was always, 'How can we bring it to one?'"
"The only thing you have to teach is: When there is an X [on PlayStation] you hold it, and it hacks the thing. The rest is about experimentation," he explained. "Players can slowly but surely pay attention to those things and start exploring them, trying them."
Now Watch Dogs' hacking system relies on a single contextual hacking button; just point and click. What you can hack is determined by what you've unlocked in your skill tree. Hacking itself is a simple operation, the rest is playing around with the system and choosing which skills you wish to unlock.
"You're playing with the game systems and creating your own kind of story," Belanger said to Polygon. "That's why the skill tree is important. You're exposed progressively to all these effects. The more you understand how they work, the more you can play subtly."
Delay of Game
Morin said one of the major reasons for the delay was to improve the way the game eased players into the hacking system. That meant redesigning some of the earlier content to really teach players more about how everything works, without significant hand-holding. That required a great deal of fine-tuning, which required time.
"Beginning of maps, tutorial maps... I think most people know, but players may not realize how much money that costs," explained Morin. "Every time you make one of those things you need to script it entirely, you need to animate it, and those kinds of stuff. So we didn't want to go that route, on top of having all of those systems."
"So you make your systems and then you define, 'Okay, we feel the player really needs to master this thing early, or else they're never going to access this part of the game.' And frankly, we had iterations where we were teaching too much stuff. It felt overwhelming. So you always come back and say, 'Do they really need to know that? In fact, they don't.' So that you can just give them the bare minimum."
"That's, in fact, one of the main reasons why, of the delay," Morin added. "We had very deep connection of systems that some players found, and the outcome wasn't as we planned, so we said, 'Fuck it, we need to push. We need to take the time to fix those.' That all came based on testing those kinds of maps. "
Watch Dogs is launching on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360 on May 27, 2014. The Wii U version is coming this Fall.