PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360
May 27, 2014
The 6-year ride to market has been fairly bumpy for Ubisoft’s newest piece of IP, Watch Dogs. Development delays and a very public trademark incident cast long shadows on the title. A team best known for its work on large franchises such as Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed found itself in hot water. It’s quite impressive, therefore, that the hype machine Ubisoft has fabricated for the antics of Aiden Pearce has done so well, netting record preorder figures and prompting speculation from Yves Guillemot, Company President, that the company expects to sell upwards of 6 million copies between five release formats.
Speaking publicly about the most recent delays, creative director Jonathan Morin has assured gamers that the decision, whilst a difficult one, led to a vastly superior final product; most recent conservative estimates place the main campaign at somewhere around 25-30 hour mark, while the completionist will invest in the region of 100 hours to collect, solve and best the many challenges spread across Chicago – the scene for the game.
Building a game on the scale of Watch Dogs is no mean feat and something that very few studios could achieve. I’m happy to report that for the most part, Ubisoft Montreal has managed exactly that: a game which compels the player from beginning to end, and offers a whole world of distractions and other activities, keeping gameplay interesting and varied.
Person of interest
Our protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is a man on a decidedly singular mission. Originally a small-time hacker, stealing from the rich and famous, Pearce is targeted by a mysterious third-party, who orders he be made an example of. Attacked whilst with his niece, the ensuing car accident sets Pearce on a revenge-fuelled trajectory, which drives much of the main campaign. The game picks up less than a year after, with Pearce making the first significant progress – identifying the hitman who by this point is terrified by his relentless pursuit. The first half-hour tracks Pearce’s interrogation of the suspect, introduces Jordi, a fixer hired by Pearce to assist him on his crusade, and Pearce’s escape from the police-riddled sports stadium. Despite the intensity of the storyline, this serves as a tutorial for the basics of hacking and stealth gameplay.
Reach for your tinfoil hat
The game world is managed by a city-wide computer system, ctOS, which governs any electrical system more sophisticated than a toaster, a scary prospect with all of the present day fears over privacy and government spying. Pearce has managed to gain access to the system, and is capable of profiling any of its inhabitants, providing details of their jobs, income, and simple one-line facts deemed significant by the system such as education, medical history, or implication in any wrongdoing. At first, seeing the system first in action is quite impressive, however, on reflection, it also feels quite limited, singularly exploiting the real-world fear many have of living in a surveillance state, where a remote computer distils us down to a single fact, act or transgression.
Whether you agree with the technology or not, the core game mechanic uses it to great effect; Pearce sources money and resources by non-violent means to aid his crusade against the malevolent forces that put him on his path. Many of the situations he finds himself in are best rectified using his smartphone which has control over much of ctOS and allows him to interfere with all kinds of equipment including traffic lights, electrical supplies, doors and computer systems to name but a few. Police chases are quickly brought to a standstill by hacking structures to block or disable police cars, raising bridges to prevent pursuit, even police helicopters hovering overhead are vulnerable to Aiden’s tools and can be disabled for brief periods to give him respite from the search lights. Each of the six districts of Chicago: The Loop, Parker Square, Pawnee, Mad Mile, Brandon Docks and The Wards, are governed by ctOS sub-stations. Over the course of the story Aiden will gain control over each, expanding his area of influence.
exploiting the real-world fear many have of living in a surveillance state, where a remote computer distils us down to a single fact, act or transgression
The Windy City
Potentially the most extraordinary and widely discussed feature in Watch Dogs is the decision to set the story in a roundabout facsimile of a real city. Similar in scale to Grand Theft Auto V, albeit with some sensible artistic license, Ubisoft has created a digital version of the Windy City, complete with procedurally generated population, weather, and a day-night cycle, which together make the game world feel much more alive than any previous attempts. A scale of this magnitude requires significant effort that preceding game engines were incapable of delivering on. As a result the developers created Disrupt, a purpose-built engine for the game.
The team has emulated some of the iconic sites of Chicago, rather than spend time designing the world from scratch. The game further capitalises on many of these locations with a social check-in app on Aiden’s phone, which bears more than a passing resemblance to FourSquare, and allows players to register visits to locations which earns badges and mayorships.
According to the developers, no two of the city’s inhabitants look alike, with the number of potential combinations of race, age, gender, and attire running into six or seven digits. Whether that’s true or not, a truly diverse population filling the streets enhances the backdrop of Aiden’s antics; sometimes it’s entertaining to park up by a crowd and listen to the ridiculous conversations.
A rep to protect
Depending on how you choose to go about missions, or traverse the city, the population will respond in very different ways. Assisting citizens in need, driving carefully and keeping weapons concealed will lead to the populace looking favourably to Aiden’s presence, while mowing down unsuspecting pedestrians, crazy taxi style, brandishing munitions and killing innocents will soon have witnesses calling the police.
The first time I failed to intervene on a stabbing, I found myself questioning what I could’ve done differently to prevent the atrocity
Emergent gameplay, procedurally generated scenarios created on-the-fly when the player is nearby, are a considerable slice of the Watch Dogs pie. The profiler will periodically detect imminent crimes and give Aiden the opportunity to intervene. Dependent upon how Aiden tackles the situations he can further improve his reputation with the population, or start yet another police pursuit. The first time I failed to intervene on a stabbing, I found myself questioning what I could’ve done differently to prevent the atrocity while Aiden berated himself in-game for the same failure. Many of these missions are variations on the those seen in the main campaign, such as intervening on criminal acts, assaulting gang headquarters, or intercepting a convoy.
As Aiden completes missions and progresses through the story he’s awarded experience and skill points. Aiden also receives a number of skill points when progressing through significant portions of the story. Points can be spent a number of ways that enhance his tactical abilities relevant when driving, fighting, or hacking. There’s a lot of flexibility as to how Aiden can be specialised early and the individual setup will complement personal play styles early on.
Gameplay is quite varied, with Aiden undertaking a broad range of challenges across the 39 main campaign missions. Ubisoft has thankfully, for the most part, been quite flexible in how missions can be approached. There are a couple of mandatory stealth sequences which I didn’t particularly care for at the time, although they were oddly rewarding to beat. One particularly annoying sequence toward the end of the campaign story required a precisely prescribed action within 10 seconds. Failure to do so resulted in a loading screen before resetting the sequence. With everything that Watch Dogs gets right it’s a little irritating to see such a jarring step in an otherwise well executed series of events.
Even at higher levels with many of the combat skills unlocked, Aiden is still relatively fragile. Charging headlong into a room full of enemies invariably leads to a swift death as the AI is relatively good at emptying shotguns straight into his chest with a minimal amount of fuss. Tactical awareness is a necessity, as is good use of cover. Some rooms can be tackled without ever stepping foot inside, particularly if there is an abundance of hackable cameras and hazards which Aiden can trigger remotely. Initially, armed with any pistol Aiden can still hold his own, particularly with the use of focus, a triggerable pseudo bullet-time mechanic, allowing him to briefly slow down time to fine tune aim, evade hazards, or lethalise the nearby environment. Aiden isn’t a mindless killer though, the game rewards bonus XP for calculated headshots and non-lethal takedowns.
I found myself mostly using mouse and keyboard for the combat, which if anything was slightly too accurate even with the heavier ‘pray and spray’ style weapons such as a machine gun. Combined with the focus mechanic, it was quite easy to score single-round headshots almost every time. The proximity sticky bombs added another tactical layer to combat, serving as both an offensive tool and warning that enemies had breached a particular route.
Making Friends and Influencing People
Multiplayer in Watch Dogs is seamless. If you want to take a break from the current mission and invade the game of another player, the online contracts app on Aiden’s phone is where it’s at. Hacking, Racing, Mobile challenges, Tailing, Decryption and Free Roam are all available within the virtual app. Game modes such as free roam, decryption and racing, support up to 8 players while Hacking, Tailing and Mobile challenges are strictly one-on-one.
Being away from your computer doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t join in on the fun either, with the ctOS mobile app for Android and iOS, which allows players to control the city systems and turn them against their friends.
The range of vehicles available in Watch Dogs might not be the broadest, but that doesn’t mean that Aiden is going to be short of ways to get around the city either. Over the course the game Aiden unlocks a variety of motorised conveyances which he can request be delivered to his current location by his pal Jordi, some 60 cars in total.
Watch Dogs doesn’t include any airborne travel, nor are there any airports, however, it’s enjoyable traversing the game world. Many of the performance cars are pleasurable to drive, and after little practice can even be quite convincingly controlled without the need for a joypad. Motorbikes are equally fun, and the off-road bikes are particularly suited to Pawnee, although I had more than one collision where Aiden remained firmly planted on the saddle and I felt cheated of a spectacular accident. The only disadvantage of riding a motorbike in Watch Dogs is that during police chases, Aiden is capable of killing the engine of cars and hiding himself within them, reducing the distance at which the police will detect him. With a bike there’s nowhere to hide.
Drivers unfamiliar to Chicago will be glad to hear that Watch Dogs includes the a now-mandatory GPS, presumably integrated through Aiden’s phone. The implementation is particularly smart, superimposing faint blue guidelines on the road in front rather than on the minimap in the corner, and soon has you navigating Chicago like a local.
Paint me a picture
Since their initial accidental disclosure back in November, the system specifications required to run the game at Ultra have been fiercely debated. In my time with the game we ran Watch Dogs on three configurations: an i7 4770k system with three GeForce GTX 780 Ti in SLI, driving a 4k panel; i7 3770K with a single GTX 780 Ti at 1080P; and an AMD FX8350 with Radeon R9 290X, also at 1080P. All three configurations used 16GB of RAM and Samsung 1TB 840 EVO SSD drives. We expected that either single-card setup should be able to run the game in Ultra, with ambient occlusion set to ‘HBAO+ High’, but found that the AMD system began to stutter in more extreme circumstances, particularly during police pursuits at night with lots of vehicles and search helicopters involved.
We plan to share our findings running the game in 4K in a follow-up article, suffice to say when it’s running smoothly, it really is a great looking game.
Ubisoft Montreal has succeeded in creating a vast and convincing virtual world with some pretty incredible attention to detail. Even after completing the main campaign, it feels as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of the things to do in Chicago. It’s going to take a long time to complete each of the digital trips, and even when I do I’m guessing I’ll go back for more spider-tank action, and to roam around the desolate wasteland of virtual Chicago in Alone.
With everything the game gets right, it’s easy to forgive minor shortcomings. Sure, Aiden could have been more interesting had he not been so one-dimensional, and weapon accuracy could be dialled down a notch, but in the grand scheme of things it matters not when we’re faced with this beautiful 3D playground to explore.
Watch Dogs isn’t just another open-world game. It redefines what is possible in the genre and sets new standards which the competition will be hard pressed to match. Here’s hoping that this is just the first chapter in the story of ctOS and vigilante hackers, and that Ubisoft can find a convincing way to continue the series in the future. The first piece of DLC, another single-player campaign, has already been confirmed. Chicago is a pretty big place and could still be concealing all kinds of interesting characters we’ve yet to meet.
A download code for Watch Dogs was provided for the purpose of this review. Please see our Ethics Statement for more information.