Watch Dogs Single Player Preview: Chicago is for hackers

It's been a long time coming, but I was finally able to get my hands on a fully playable build for Watch Dogs. After nearly two years of watching from the sidelines and drooling, I could actually control Aiden Pearce and see how his hacking skills work in the game.

Our play session was separated into two sections. The first hour and a half or so concentrated on letting us start the game from the beginning and learn the basics of the story, as well as see how players will be introduced to the open world of Chicago. The second part of our session consisted of fast forwarding further into the game, and letting us free roam around the fully open city of Chicago and have most of our skills upgraded.

I would like to point out (and feel ridiculous for doing so) that no tablets or any sort of 'swag' were given out at this event. I walked in with my backpack containing my notepad for notes, and I walked out the exact same way. It's sad that I have to say this in order to have my thoughts on the game validated, but apparently, such is the world we live in.

In this Preview, I'm going to focus on the Single Player aspect. For impressions on the Multiplayer you can head here, and for impressions on the Tablet ctOS App, you can head here. Also make sure to watch the video above to see the game in action.

You are not the hero

Warning, I'm going to be talking about some of the story elements in the very beginning of the game. If you don't want that spoiled, skip the next paragraph.

In the first scene that introduces us to Aiden Pearce, it's obvious that he's not what you'd call a good guy. Aiden heads into a populated hotel area with a colleague on an earpiece. After disabling security cameras, he attempts to drain the bank accounts of everyone who has their smartphone out in the area. Aiden realizes his cover is being blown, but his colleague insists on him staying and finishing the transaction. Of course, things go wrong and Aiden ends up pissing off the wrong people. They put a hit out on him and his sister's family. They don't succeed in killing him, but they do end up killing his niece.

Watch Dogs

The game then fast forwards a bit and our goal is clear. Aiden is furious and wants to take matters into his own hands. He wants to find out who ordered the hit and have his own satisfying revenge.

Aiden has opportunities to stop various crimes happening around Chicago, but he still partakes in hacking unsuspecting victim's phones, just to drain their bank account. You, as the player, can make the conscious decision to spare someone's account based on their background, which could be a recent death in the family, or the loss of a job. Ultimately, I saw no lasting effect on this, so I happily went around draining everyone's bank account.

I was able to speak to Lead Writer Kevin Shortt, about the implications of Aiden's behavior toward other citizens, since the game does have a Reputation system that shifts depending on his actions. I was told that the overall story isn't affected whatsoever. There is a clear ending to the game and he didn't want to force gamers to play a certain way in order to achieve a specific ending. However, the Reputation system does synergize with Aiden's involvement in the world.

For example, if you run over citizens, or pull out your gun and start shooting innocent civilians, people will start to view you in a negative light. They'll snap photos of you on their smartphone and alert the cops. Aiden's picture will be plastered on various TV screens across Chicago and once people spot you, they'll call the proper authorities. On the flip side, if people spot you stopping crimes in process, they'll grow to respect you, and might turn a blind eye if you need to "borrow" a car to get to the other side of Chicago.

Places to go, people to see

The Chicago of Watch Dogs convinced me within minutes that it was a living and functioning city. It was heavily populated, with folks going about their daily tasks. Street performers line the streets and criminals will occasionally pop out to steal a phone or a purse. The only other time I ever felt like this about an in-game city was San Andreas in GTA V.

Watch Dogs

Chicago itself is separated into five sections, with each section containing a myriad of side activities to distract players from the main campaign. I wouldn't say that Chicago is the biggest city I've seen in a game. It walks the line of being big and not too big for its own good.

The Keys to the City are in your pocket

Games these days have iconic gadgets or weapons that on their own can easily define the game. Assassin's Creed has the Hidden Blade, Portal has the Portal Gun. Hell, even GoldenEye 007 had the Golden Gun. Watch Dogs has the Smartphone. If you were to tell me that the game contained no weapons for Aiden to use except for his smartphone, I'd be fine with it. Think of the smartphone as the 'Keys to the City.' You'll be controlling everything from traffic lights, bridges, pipes bursting, to lifts. With it you can access personal details from every single unsuspecting civilian. Oh and if they're on their smartphones, they're susceptible to getting their entire bank account drained, conversations listened to, and secrets discovered.

I never felt so powerful with a such a simple tool. With the press of the Square button (the build we were shown off was on the PS4) Aiden pulls out his smartphone and instantly the reticle on screen will start to profile everyone in your sight. You'll get info such as 'Recently convicted of theft' or 'Has a gambling addiction.' None of these things really matter in the context of the big picture, but it's neat to get to know the NPCs walking around you.

Watch Dogs

When things heat up though, you'll be able to use the smartphone in a pinch. If you're being chased by cops for example, you can press the Square button at the right time to lift up blockers on the road, causing them to crash. Or perhaps you can signal the bridge to start opening from a distance and then hop across right before it fully opens. It's all very satisfying.

A major change to hacking on the fly is that hackable structures don't pulsate in white anymore. A while back, a video showcased the player hacking a bridge so he could jump across it, and the bridge would awkwardly pulsate in white, clearly signaling that it's a hackable structure. This is thankfully gone. Even without this visual cue, you'll always have a small prompt on the top of your screen which signifies if there's a hackable item coming up in your location.

Rat-at-at-at and some pew pew pew

Even though the game does include a slew of weapons for Aiden to wield, I still felt like the gunplay took a backseat to everything else, which was totally welcome. However, there will be times when you'll need to squeeze the trigger to dispose of your enemies.

Ubisoft took a lot of cues from Splinter Cell when it came to gunplay. The key to success is to stay hidden behind cover, which is easily done with the press of the X button, and Aiden can even move between covers automatically by targeting them and pressing X again. The aim is somewhat assisted, but will require some precision aiming on the player's part.

However, players can opt to take the stealth approach as well and dispose of enemies instantly using Aiden's Telescopic Baton. This weapon packs a punch and each time Aiden whacks someone with it, you can feel the heaviness of his hits.

Watch Dogs

There's one question on everyone's mind: does L3 really reload your gun?. Well, yeah. I hated the notion of it at first, but while playing, I didn't find it to feel awkward at all. Since the Square button is used for all smartphone controls, Ubi had to move the reload button elsewhere. It isn't the most logical solution, but it didn't detract from my experience.

Aiden can also craft a few items on the fly, directly from the weapon wheel, very similarly to the newer Assassin's Creed games. Various items can be picked up around the city of Chicago that can then be combined to create items like grenades, sticky bombs, lures and electric jams. 

Getting from A to B

Aiden has a wide assortment of methods of transportation that allow for some fun travel around the city of Chicago. The game contains a total number of 7 vehicle classes, ranging from SUVs, luxury cars, trucks and motorcycles. Each time Aiden sits in a car he's never driven before, that vehicle can then be purchased via his smartphone for an on-demand delivery. A similar setup was present in last year's Saints Row IV.

Watch Dogs

Ubisoft ensured that vehicle handling felt tight, but also made sure that each class of vehicle had some slight differences in control. Muscle cars had worse handling but fast acceleration, whereas a sports car was quite the opposite, able to take corners on a dime and having a higher top speed.

What also took me by surprise was the fact that each vehicle comes with its own cockpit mode. Now before you get all giddy, the cockpit view isn't as fully featured as it would be in a racing sim. The car interior itself shifts out of focus when you're driving, keeping the focus solely on the windshield, which makes complete sense. If I'm looking on the road ahead of me, the speedometer isn't in focus unless I look down at it. It's a touch I appreciate, since I'm one of those weirdoes that actually prefer the interior cockpit view when driving.

Activities galore

Ubisoft games, especially open world games like Assassin's Creed or Far Cry, carry the stigma of having both too much to do and not enough variety. It seems like Ubisoft really listened to that criticism and is offering some truly varied side content.

My favorite was definitely the Digital Trips. This new form of audio drug sends Aiden into a hallucinatory state, and allows him to play one of two minigames, Spider Tank or Madness.

Spider Tank is unbelievably fun. In this mode, you take control of a giant… well, Spider Tank. The game constantly feeds various goals to you like "kill a certain number of police officers", "destroy satellite dishes" or "explode vehicles". Each time you succeed in a goal, you'll be awarded XP and level up within the game, which will allow you to unlock various upgrades for the Spider Tank. I was amazed at just how in-depth this one particular side activity was, and there were tons more.

You can challenge someone to a drinking competition or play a game of Poker. However, you can also participate in two AR (Augmented Reality) games, where items are projected onto the streets of Chicago. In one game, alien invaders will fly out of portals and you have to shoot them down before time runs out.

Keep in mind, this is all happening on the streets of Chicago, around other pedestrians. If Google Glass becomes something like this, people are going to look absolutely ridiculous. But in Watch Dogs it works, and it's extremely fun.

Closing thoughts

As I mentioned, the build I played was the PS4 version, and it definitely seems like the graphics are slightly worse than they were during the game's debut back in 2012. Ubisoft didn't comment on whether the PC version will look like that, but given its already announced specs, one can only assume it will.

If you came to this preview wanting some hard numbers, I can give you those. The game has 39 main missions, 93 side missions which include things like criminal contracts and fixers, 53 investigations which includes things like human traffic missions, missing persons, weapons trade, 192 collectibles across four categories and 6 minigames to partake in. The game runs in full 1080p and 30 frames per second on the PlayStation 4.

After my four or so hours were up, I wanted to keep playing. I didn't feel like I even scratched the surface of what the game has to offer. It's a good sign that continuous play didn't wear me out. So far I have high hopes for Watch Dogs. I still know very little regarding the story, but only have to wait about a month to fully delve into what Watch Dogs has to offer.