One of the few reveals at this year’s convention, Watch Dogs is in development at Ubisoft’s internal Montreal studio. An open world adventure title set in 2013 Chicago, the game’s premise is the stuff of paranoid thriller movies with a tech bent – think Enemy of the State.
Following the New York blackout caused by a disgruntled public servant in 2003, all city infrastructures were put under the single jurisdiction of a central operating system run by private companies, ctOS, spins Ubisoft.
These corporations track consumer behaviours, and use that information to persuade huge swathes of the population – not just to consume, but also how to think.
Player character Aiden Pearce has total access to this system, and can tap into it through his phone. Why or how and to what purpose wasn’t clearly explained, however, Ubisoft did describe Pearce as a character obsessed with violence and technology.
In the demonstrated mission, Aiden is tracking an artist of sorts named Joseph DeMarco. The city is Aiden’s weapon. He can hack into much of the city’s systems, such as closed-circuit surveillance, and also into citizen’s private phones, private conversations.
Hacking appears to be based on line of sight, meaning Aiden can chain hack cameras though the city to tap a phone call made some blocks away. Here, however, he simply hacks into a citizen’s call and eavesdrops on a perfectly benign conversation between a man and his partner outside a DeMarco exhibition.
The exclusive showing means Aiden is unable to simply swan in. The bouncer is on his phone, however, so by disrupting all calls in his immediate vicinity, he distracts the security and slips in.
Within, Aiden meets Jordie, a sleazy caricature in league with our character. Jordie both contrasts to the largely flavourless Aiden, and provides some necessary exposition. DeMarco has not yet arrived. Aiden’s plan, it turns out, is to use himself as bait to draw the artist out. Using his phone, and ctOS, Aiden profiles everyone in the gallery and discovers Mary, DeMarco’s private assistant. She has recognised Aiden and is calling her employer. Through her phone, we’re able to mark the location of DeMaro – in transit to the showing.
Having successfully traced his target, Aiden must make good his exit from the gallery so that he can set up an ambush for DeMarco. ctOS may be Aiden’s primary tool, but he’s also no slouch with weaponry. Dispatching a guard and making his escape through a rear exit, Aiden scales up onto the metro line and prepares his trap: by hacking into the traffic lights, Aiden is able to orchestrate an accident just as DeMarco is about to approach the gallery. Cars collide spectacularly, an explosion ignites a nearby building, and our quarry is pinned.
The game then transitions into cover-based shooting as Aiden circles the wreckage picking off DeMarco’s security escort. Finally, he drags DeMarco from his vehicle and executes him in the street.
How scripted the traffic accident was is a question that will need answering. If it was one of several ways to take out DeMarco, Ubisoft Montreal may have achieved greatness – skids line the road, a helicopter overhead blows rain sideways and skims puddles, the burning building would be a very deft procedural touch.
Also worthy of high interest is tablet functionality that turns an iPad – or similar – into a version of Aiden’s ctOS-enabled in-game device. A 3D map of Chicago allows players to track targets, show landmarks, hack infrastructure; control the city.
The demonstration has the attendant press buzzing, but it’s impossible to know how much freedom is to be given to the player or how tightly Ubisoft will control the mission experience. It’s unlikely we’ll know until review time when the publisher can no longer steer any preview or hands-on experience with the game.
That said, Watch Dogs is very much a title to follow extremely closely, and based on what we’ve seen of it so far, a comfortable contender for Best of Show.