Watch Dogs Preview

I got you, dog!

I’ve been anticipating Watch Dogs for years now. The game is expected to turn into a brand new open-world franchise for Ubisoft, publisher of other open-world franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, so it seems like there’s a lot riding on Aiden Pearce and the smartphone Aiden uses to fight bad guys, escape police, and generally take control over the entire city of Chicago. Did I mention that you probably carry one of those superhero gadgets in your pocket right now?

Imagine if you could whip out your phone and analyze the crowd around you for guarded personal secrets, access some hefty back accounts, or even become a vigilante carving your own path of justice for citizens throughout your world? What if a game could actually present you with a moral gray area wide enough to navigate with two analog sticks or a mouse and keyboard? Watch Dogs hopes to accomplish all this, and from my lengthy hands-on time with the title last week, it might actually have a shot at pushing the open-world genre forward in a major way.

What do you do in an open-world game anyway? Depending on the character you play as, you drive, shoot, climb, fight, get drunk, or throw some darts with a cousin. That might sound really boring after the likes of Grand Theft Auto V or inFamous: Second Son, each expansive, varied, and entertaining sandboxes in their own right, but Watch Dogs has clearly aimed for something more grounded in the fanaticism we all share with the digital. If you’re on Facebook constantly, it’ll be a stark and shocking revelation to learn that some people have the privilege of looking over your digital shoulder and judging you for what you do, what you say, and what you buy.

That’s where Watch Dogs stakes claim away from others and that’s how Aiden Pearce gets caught up in a messy digital conflict. After stealing millions of dollars in broad daylight using just his cell phone, a contract is taken out on his family. A hitman blows out Aiden’s car tire and leaves him and his niece to die in the ensuing wreck, but when Aiden survives he’s haunted by his loss, his carelessness, and vows to “fix it.” The first hours of Watch Dogs explore Aiden’s nearly sick attachment to fixing things.

In the game’s tutorial mission, for example, Aiden hunts down his niece's killer and stages a blackout at a baseball game to escape stealthily, establishing key mechanics that’ll come into play when you hit the open-world and have to face off against other players who infiltrate your Chicago dressed as average citizens, though they’ll still recognize themselves as an Aiden in their world. All in all, I was desperately hooked on Aiden’s story and rushed through more of the tutorial to chase the narrative, but once Ubisoft let the media gathered in its San Francisco offices loose, online interaction became decidedly different.

Having leapt forward in the game’s narrative, Aiden now had an extensive skill tree to explore and even more control over the CtOS network that powers Chicago’s communications and responders. For example, very early in the game you get control over traffic lights and, under the right circumstances, a civilian will impede a pursuing police car for you. Later in the game you have access to the city’s blockers and plumbing, allowing you to more effectively ruin the chances of police officers who hope to end your digi-lante ways.

Between Aiden’s focus ability, which slows down time and allows you to fire your weapon more effectively or time CtOS exploits perfectly, and the explosive effect of a burst water pipe, players will have fun getting into trouble and creating jobs for Chicago’s maintenance department. The best Watch Dogs gameplay during my hands-on time came from online interactions with other players at the event, especially as they flooded my game world in droves hoping to steal information, money, or outright kill me.

Much like From Software’s Souls games, players connected to the Internet (with multiplayer options turned on) will have to fend off attackers on the fly anywhere in their game world. Aiden might be shopping for a new weapon or cruising around town looking for alternate-reality games to play, but that won’t stop another hacker from invading and disrupting what you thought would be a casual tour of downtown.

When a player joins your game, you’ll be alerted to his or her presence but that doesn’t mean they’ll be easily spottable or that you’ll be able to whip out your pistol to blow them away. Remember, Watch Dogs is about exploring the gray area that many games ignore and while there is good and bad in the game, more often than not you’re reacting on a gut instinct. The same is true of online invasions. In one sequence, I was hoping to dismantle a CtOS network box when another player started to hack my phone.

I panicked, jumped off a roof and died. I didn’t want to start firing at the random civilian nearest to me and you can’t pick another player out of lineup because the game scrambles their look to meld with the district and population around you. In another sequence, a player tried to run me over with his car, but a quick trigger finger silenced them and left civilians scrambling for cover. I darted down an alleyway and stole a motorcycle to leave before the cops could arrive on scene.

If I’m honest, I’d rather not have to deal with these kinds of interactions as I chase the story across Chicago. The option is there to turn off online interactions, but one developer told me that no one at the studio plays the game without invasions enabled. It’ll be up to you to decide when you finally take the game home at the end of May, but feel secure in knowing that major campaign missions won’t be interrupted by XxBongRipperxX.

Before our session was over, I got to visit with Aiden’s friend Jordi Chin who provides Aiden with cars, information, weaponry, and missions both by phone and in-person. Jordi helped Aiden escape the baseball stadium and introduces the numerous Fixers that exist within Chicago. Other players who attack you or join your game are also called Fixers.

Jordi is a fast-talker and quick witted. If GTA V’s Lamar had a degree in computer science and grew up in Chicago, he might have turned out something like Jordi. Aiden gets some sticky bombs from Jordi and then heads to an abandoned warehouse to deal with drug dealers. To be honest, I didn’t really know what was going on in this mission but the explosive combat setpiece that ensued stuck with me beyond the event’s finish. Aiden had a limited amount of time to prepare his assault on the gangsters that were coming to make a big buy. I used Aiden’s phone to change the position of cover and laid sticky bombs at specific junction points. When the gangster’s cars rolled into the warehouse, I could detonate sticky bombs just like I manipulated electronics around Chicago.

As more waves of enemies flooded the warehouse, things got out of hand and I needed to maneuver Aiden from cover to cover quickly. At this early point, the controls felt a little clunky, but if you’ve played any of the Assassin’s Creed games, you should get a good grasp of Watch Dogs early on. Overall, Ubisoft’s latest open-world looks polished, diverse, and replete with different gameplay loops to enjoy, including augmented reality games, park-bench chess matches, races, competitive online modes, and a few CtOS centers to hack into. What you do with Aiden Pearce will certainly diverge from every other player out there, but that’s currently the best thing Watch Dogs has going for it.

Watch Dogs is out on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC on May 27th. The Wii U version will be out later this year.