Last night I returned home from PAX AUS 2014. Long story short, it wasn't perfect, but it was quite possibly the best weekend I've had this year. It was a lot of fun. If you'd like to continue reading, the long story is just below.
Buckle up. This is gonna be...
A digital world, full of digital people, with digital lives.
Watch Dogs wastes no time in going meta. In the Sears Tower plaza in downtown Chicago, protagonist Aiden Pearce whips out his cell phone and activates an augmented reality game where he sees purple aliens attack the citizens around him. Green pixelated hearts count how many hits he can take before failing the mission, and a score tally racks up points for every kill. Turning off the augmented reality gives us a view on others playing the same game, goofily pointing and shooting with their fingers while business people walk by. A few minutes later, Aiden is reading a man's conversation by text as it happens, setting up an opportunity to stop a potential murder a few blocks away.
All this happens towards the tail end of a nearly 30-minute hands-off demo which pits Aiden against the oppressive ctOS or "central operating system" and any citizens who might have it coming to them. The developer in control starts the demo in an alley located in one of Chicago's wards where unemployed people wander around and cars obey traffic lights, as any unsuspecting bystander could come under Aiden's eye. In the half an hour of gameplay that follows, Watch Dogs presents a strikingly intimate open world, complete with all of our modern connections, distractions, and digital demons.
The first thing I notice in the open alleyway is how much life clings to streets and buildings in Aiden's world and how readily that life reacts to his actions. The developer in control pulls out his gun and starts waving it in a man's face. The people around him scatter, and a few start to call the police, resulting in a yellow bubble engulfing the player's location on the mini-map. ctOS notifies law enforcement of a possible crime, but due to time restraints, a debug code is entered to remove any incoming heat. Aiden hijacks a car and loots the glovebox inside, then sets off to sell his newly pilfered goods at a pawn shop. Money allows players to buy new weapons, cell phone apps, and more, but without skipping a beat, Aiden leaves through the shop's back door and starts scanning the faces around him.
As the player's cursor drifts over different NPCs, details about their lives pop up, allowing Aiden to interact with different people in different ways. These vary from things like drug habits and personal debt to human trafficking, the last of which the individual in front of Aiden happens to "enjoy" from time to time. Another individual nearby upon further analysis prompts a display of a crime-probability statistic. Players can encounter these individuals all across the city, and following them to set locations will engage the player in random encounters like the one we saw during the PS4 reveal (below). Aiden watches as a drug dealer beats another man with a baseball bat and intervenes with his pistol in the air. The dealer takes off running and a foot-chase quickly turns into a vehicular pursuit around the wards.
These early open-world encounters exemplify the dynamic systems in Watch Dogs, connecting the player to any random NPC by providing opportunities for Aiden to slip by in moral gray areas. WIth the dealer under his thumb, the player can choose between killing the criminal or letting him escape for the time being. If the player chooses to kill needlessly, news reports and citizens might recognize him for the player's dirty deed later and turn on him. The "Disrupt" game engine plays directly to that ripple effect. In Watch Dogs' Chicago setting, the player can stand on any street corner and hack anything, but not without consequences somewhere down the line.
Maybe it'll make Aiden a target for unseen multiplayer opponents. As shown in previous demos, another person can invade and hack a player's single-player game, surveil the player with controlled cameras around the city or simply empty the player's bank account. There's an entirely separate multiplayer component as well, but choosing to play the single-player campaign offline, without letting opponents enter the player's world, will rob the player of that interaction and random element. Between single-player, multiplayer, and a companion app for mobile devices to be detailed later, there's a seamless blend of solo and communal interaction all from wildly different angles.
Still, I was watching a single-player demo, so in order to access different areas and persons of interest in the city, the player will need to install backdoor devices on select ctOS control points. These aren't story missions; the ctOS buildings are more akin to the Borgia Towers in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood or the radio towers in Far Cry 3. The warehouse containing the ctOS tech in the wards is heavily guarded with armed personnel quick to warn Aiden about any funny business as he stands on the opposite side of the fence. Around back, a platform allows the player to hop over and hack a scissor lift for roof access. While hacking security cameras around the compound lets Aiden mark enemies on his HUD, the demonstrator decides to use his perch to gun down the guards.
Aiden could have also stolen the access key from one henchman and used it to disrupt the ctOS signal silently, but Watch Dogs leaves lots of choices for the player to make in the heat of the moment. And some choices aren't so grave. Aiden's cell phone can install new apps, both legal and illegal, throughout the game, including a song-listening app call Song Sneak. From his phone Aiden can identify a song playing in a cafe, buy it with in-game currency, and add it to his personal music player for listening later. Players can also choose to sell vehicles to other ne'er-do-wells and call up that car from their collection later. As such, it goes without saying that Watch Dogs provides plenty of opportunities for players to grow distracted in the open city, an important staple of the genre, and one that is compounded by the game's gorgeous visuals.
It didn't hurt that the demo we were watching was running on approximated next-gen hardware by way of a beastly PC. The camera hangs closely to Aiden, whether he's running around on foot or driving through busy streets. Much of the game looks as if it's drawing the player into Aiden, but without knowing much about the story I could only speculate as to how much the player is supposed to embody his character. Everything in this open-world demo suggests that the player will likely utilize his or her moral sense throughout the game, but do players have the same autonomy in key narrative scenes?
The potential murder suspect Aiden identifies by surveilled text messages exemplifies the use of the player's moral compass. As the text messages scroll by on Aiden's screen, it's revealed that the man's wife was raped and that the perpetrator is only a few blocks away. Hiding in an alleyway, the player is able to watch the killing by way of hacked security cameras. Animation Director Colin Graham, the one driving the demo, decides to let the murder happen, empathizing with the enraged man. "Some of the other developers ask me why I let him kill the guy, " he said. "They'd rather stop the murder, but it's all a matter of choice."
All of this open-world action distracted us from our original goal, as it's not supposed to take a half-hour to get to this point (unless the player wants it to). Aiden intends to sell the valuables to the pawn shop and use the cash to buy a new gun, which is simple enough, but every door, every Wi-Fi router, and every citizen on the ground in Chicago presents another gameplay loop to Aiden, continually distracting him from his main mission. Only the best open-world games can turn a three-block walk into half an hour of random gameplay.
With cash in hand, Aiden starts flipping through the firearms on offer in the gun shop, but seconds later a news report on TV identifies him as having shot and killed a man in the wards earlier that day. The drug dealer, that extended car chase, that innocent buried-in-debt man he exacted vengeance for: Everything has consequences. The store owner makes a shifty-eyed face and reaches under the counter, triggering a silent alarm. The demo ended at that moment, as the mini-map displayed the speedy approach of law enforcement. With so many eyes, ears, cameras, and networks watching Aiden's every move, Watch Dogs appears to teach the player the value of thinking and acting morally. The player can be the hero, hunted by ctOS but celebrated by the people, or the player can be the villain, hated, feared, and almost always on the run.
Ubisoft still has a few months and several worldwide studios filled with talent to tighten and sure up Chicago's living, breathing, connected citizenship. Watch Dogs is likely the most ambitious game in recent memory, launching on five different consoles and two different hardware generations as a new IP in a market saturated with sequels. I'm still hungry to get my hands on the game later this year to experience the open world myself, and if Ubisoft can deliver on the promises it's made, Watch Dogs could very well be the only game it needs to keep everyone busy with their shiny new console.