Preview: Watch Dogs creates a paradise fit for a hacker

Watch Dogs made a big splash when it was first unveiled at last year’s E3 and, with its daring new take on third-person sandbox adventures, has quickly become one of the most anticipated titles of the year. I recently got a chance to check out the game, and my already high hopes for the game have only gotten higher. Ubisoft is taking some big risks, and, if the build I saw is any indication, those risks are most definitely paying off.

Ubisoft decided to eschew story details in favor of purely unscripted gameplay for this presentation. Gamers play as Aiden Pearce, a mysterious man with a dark, troubled past, roaming the streets of a not-so-distant future Chicago. Aiden isn’t a good guy by any means, but it will be up to players to decide if the actions he takes in the game are ‘good’ or not. At the core of Watch Dogs is a hacking mechanic that, combined with Aiden’s own dirty street smarts, will determine how the game moves forward. Via Aiden’s smartphone, players can hack literally anything: streetlights, cellphones, bank accounts, wifi routers, security cameras, and more. By hacking these devices, players will be able to access vital information to solve mysteries, as well as fundamentally alter the game world and lives of the NPCs. Literally any computer in the city can be hacked, and this provides a seemingly limitless number of possibilities for gamers to play around with.

Watch Dogs hacking

During the demo presentation, Aiden needed to hack into a security grid in order to access all the computers in a local area. To do this, he needed to sneak into a control station. While the demo I saw featured Aiden stealthily hacking his way around guards unnoticed, Ubisoft made clear that should players prefer to run and gun they will be able to, and, should they prefer to handle things a different way, they’ll be able to do that too.

Later, Aiden found himself witnessing a man being mugged in an alley. Upon hacking the cellphone of the man being mugged, the player was presented with his private information… namely that he had quite the hefty criminal record of his own. The player can choose to act upon all violence, regardless of the man’s history, or make the choice to let him get what’s coming to him.

This freedom to decide upon Aiden’s moral code is really the highlight of Watch Dogs. The ability to spy on everyone and uncover their private information is addictive, and players can very well spend more time spying on people than completing missions. But the game will present the player with many moral decisions that they must act on through Aiden: If you see a woman getting mugged what will you do? When you’re strapped for cash will you hack an ATM and steal money? While many games in the past have offered options that affect the story and game world, they were done through scripted and often polarizing options. Rather than put extreme good or extreme bad choices before the player, Watch Dogs operates in shades of gray. The moral implications of the game provide a speculative comment on the nature of privacy in a digital age, and are infinitely more interesting than the gameplay itself.

Watch Dogs hold up with a gun

To make all of this possible, Ubisoft has built the Disrupt Engine and has made dynamism of paramount importance in Watch Dogs’ development. Players have complete freedom to play the game however they please, and it will meet players in the middle. Everything from NPC interactions to wind and water engines have been refined to guarantee a truly unpredictable, unscripted world for players to explore. There are no instances in this game, but instead an AI that can respond directly to the player rather than one that forces the player to respond to it. This was especially evident during a thrilling car chase sequence, where the player could choose how to go about their pursuit and being pursued and we all watched as the game reacted.

Now as for the gameplay itself, if you’ve played Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, or any other open world sandbox-y title, then you’ll feel right at home here. This is a mix of third-person action, over-the-shoulder shooting, and stealth that we’ve all seen before, though perhaps with a greater emphasis on stealth gameplay. As I said, the moral implications of hacking are much more interesting than the actual gameplay.

That being said, the gameplay looks quite solid; after all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Anything can be used for cover to cover during shooting sequences, and players can take advantage of the in-game economy and item system to not only amass their own custom armory but to create their unique own tools and weapons as well.

One particularly notable departure from the third-person ‘formula’ is the Focus ability, which grants Aiden a Matrix-like bullet time. While focusing, Aiden can aim his shots more precisely, and even hack machines during the middle of a heated gun battle.

The game features plenty of bells and whistles that continue to support Ubisoft’s goal to make the world of Watch Dogs a living and breathing one. There are in-game augmented reality apps that can be collected and played with to add additional fun to an already meaty title. What’s more, Aiden’s hacking phone can actually do more than just hack… it’s also a phone! Players can unlock different apps for their smartphone to further customize their experience. One example was the Sound Sneak app that operated like an in-game Shazam, allowing players to tag real world music from the game (Vampire Weekend in the demo) and create custom soundtracks using that music.

Watch Dogs riding a motorcycle

At the end of the presentation Ubisoft briefly touched on multiplayer, which comes in two forms: dedicated multiplayer modes and missions, and seamless multiplayer where players will find themselves running into actual people in the game despite thinking they’re playing single-player mode. You might be in the middle of a single-player mission, only to find yourself being shot at by another real-life player who has been assigned to take you out in their own mission. There will even be a cellphone app that will allow players to interact with the game anytime, anywhere.

Watch Dogs is really shaping up to be one of the most daring titles to be released in recent memory. While its basic gameplay mechanics are nothing revolutionary, the AI, hacking mechanics and dynamic world certainly have the potential to be. We’ll likely see more of the game come E3 before it releases late this year for PS3, Wii U, 360, Windows, Xbox One and PS4.