I cannot help but be impressed. I’m standing on the top of a hill, staring out over a lake. In the distance is a minimalist Chicago skyline, building lights turning on as the sun slowly sets. The lighting is subtle, and the detail amazing. These are the next generation graphics I've been waiting for.
I’d found my way to where I was through random exploration, some four hours into playing Ubisoft’s new GTA-style, open world hack-venture. At that point I’d already run several inaugural missions, and had been boosted to a later point in the game so I could experience some of the more advanced content – and enjoy in-game life as a richer, better equipped individual. But despite all that, what I was most interested in seeing was what was out there. Or should that be in here? Inside Ubisoft’s sandboxed digital Chicago.
So I'd jacked a car and driven around, enjoying the sights and sounds of downtown, the suburbs, and then some slums. I stole a motorcycle and rode it up the stars of an L-train station so I could race along the tracks to see where they went. I traveled a fair distance, but then failed to negotiate a curve in the track and ended up back on the streets – on two wheels fortunately – heading straight towards the shoreline. It was there I discovered a boat moored to a pontoon gantry, and decided that perhaps the best way to see Chicago was by water. As it turns out, it is.
While Watch Dogs consistently looks outstanding, one of its most impressive features is its water. The way the world is reflected in the waves, and the layers of color used to give the water a slightly oily look is absolutely stunning. As I cut through it in my freshly-purloined speedboat, the coastline changed from urban to suburban to pseudo-wilderness. I ended up navigating a fairly narrow creek that runs the length of what is essentially the "back" of the city's sandbox wall. After a few minutes, the creek opened out into a broader backwater, and beyond that was a dam and lake. Having already cruised the length of the city's lakefront, I realized I was about to complete a full circuit of Watch Dogs' reasonably-sized world, and decided to jump out of my boat and swim to shore to see what was there.
Fortune – or perhaps a game designer – was with me, and I found a nearby motorcycle which I rode up an interesting-looking dirt track that snaked up to the top of a hill. Which leads me to back to where I started, staring across a lake at a stunning Chicago skyline.
I’m glad I stopped there, because it was the perfect place to pause and reflect upon my first four hours spent in a game that was initially touted as a flagship launch title for the next generation consoles, but was then delayed because, according to creative director Jonathan Morin, it was "pretty good" and "fun to play," but was lacking "important details".
Was that an admission that perhaps conceptually, the development team had bitten off more than they could chew in the time they had to develop the game? Maybe so when you consider Morin also said, "When you're promising a player that they can hack everything and express themselves, they expect the result to be there. A complicated game that is broken is no more acceptable than an easier one that works."
Because if that is the case, I can fully understand why Watch Dogs needed more time. Being able to hack almost anyone and anything is a critical part of the game, and the primary feature that sets it apart from its obvious archrival, Grand Theft Auto. As you walk around Watch Dogs’ open world, you can whip out your phone and connect to other peoples’ phones, traffic lights, cameras, gates - and pretty much anything else with an electronic pulse - and play with it. Perhaps raising a drawbridge across the river, or simply stealing someone’s data to find out who they are, how much they earn, and other interesting nuggets of potentially useful information.
The reason why you’re doing all this is only superficially articulated in the early parts of the game. The player starts out by taking control of protagonist Aiden Pearce in the thick of a situation that he has to work his way out of – which is essentially a fairly well put together tutorial. After this prelude mission, Aiden’s back-story and his tragedy-fueled motivations are outlined. I assume these will be fleshed out further as you progress through the game. At least I hope so. Despite spending some hours with the chap, I had little immediate empathy towards him or his predicament.
What we do know is he’s a hacker, and a good one at that. His story plays out over a linear series of missions in typical GTA fashion - although the electronic/hacking aspect of the game helps add a novel twist to the proceedings. For example, a mission requiring you to enter a building site involves hacking a series of security cameras in sequence until you can take control of one that lets you zoom in on a particular security guard’s face, so you can hack his phone for the password to the gate.
Once inside, you can hack other things like machinery to create distractions, or even overload circuitry to create deadly explosions that can eliminate some of the guards you need to avoid. Hacking is definitely an interesting mechanic, and helps spin the gameplay in a slightly different direction to what you’d normally expect from an open world game. You can even hack things while driving – such as raising a barrier in the road. Which I did after passing over one, much to the chagrin of the cops who were in hot pursuit.
The game's structure will be familiar to anyone who’s ever crossed paths with GTA or a GTA-type game. There are main missions, side missions, and a slew of activities to participate in. One random activity I found involved running around a part of downtown Chicago collecting large floating gold coins that looked like they’d been lifted from Super Mario Bros. After I'd picked them all up, my time was recorded for posterity. Apparently there are other challenges like this that let you see how you rate against other players.
Speaking of which - Watch Dogs has a fairly meaty multiplayer component. I raced cars with other players, completed a mission that involved tailing someone for cash, and tracked down and hacked someone for specific information. At one point, someone entered my game and started hacking me, but I just ran off and let them “win” - though the consequences of this weren't immediately clear. The online component of Watch Dogs seems quite interesting, and is something I’m looking forward to exploring more. I’m most intrigued to see how you can positively and negatively affect the experience of other players. So far it seems fairly low-key, and some of the multiplayer activities can be turned off should you not want others impinging on your experience.
Weapons play a big part in the game, and as you earn money by completing missions or stealing it from other people, you can buy the usual array of tactical weapons and ordnance. There’s also a crafting aspect to the game that enables you to pick up parts and chemicals and combine them into bombs and other useful items.
Use any of these against the city’s innocents, and exactly what you think will happen, happens. Cops arrive, and a merry old shoot-out ensues. Watch Dogs has cover mechanics that enable Aiden to hide behind objects and landscape features, and he has reasonable athletic skills when it comes to negotiating scenery. But really, to avoid the long arm of the law, he needs a vehicle so he can put enough distance between him and those who are chasing him to make them magically forget what they’re doing. This is a fairly easy proposition for anyone who’s done this in Rockstar’s comparable game – unless the developers decide to upgrade the rather bumbling pursuit tactics of Chicago PD.
After a four-or-so hour stint with Watch Dogs, I left feeling impressed. It offers a quite incredible open world that isn't huge, but does feel alive. Its hacking component is novel, and it packs a myriad of missions and activities to engage the player.
What I'm most interested in seeing, however, is how the character and the game’s storyline continue to develop. Despite spending some hours with the game, I didn’t feel particularly connected to the character, and much of what I was doing felt somewhat arbitrary and lacking meaning - despite being exciting and challenging. Hopefully that’s just an upshot of not enough time spent with the game, and that deeper reasons and better understanding of the protagonist's actions are revealed after more hours are invested.
Either way, we’ll be able to find out when Watch Dogs hits the streets on May 27.