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Watch Dogs’ director explains why you’re never safe, even playing alone

Check out our full written Watch Dogs review.

With Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs still weeks away from release, there remains a fair amount of confusion regarding the game, including how the multiplayer mode actually works. Early hints seemed to describe an online mode where aggressive players could break into the games of others and harangue the weak — digital Darwinism where only the strong would survive.

This is only partly correct, and doesn’t do justice to what in truth is a clever and original new approach to online play.

At a recent event hosted by Ubisoft, Digital Trends had the chance to try out all six multiplayer modes and get a sense of how things worked. We then spoke with Watch Dogs’ Creative Director Jonathan Morin about the multiplayer functionality and how online matchmaking works. He also explained the reason that one section of Chicago is set aside for people to go wild and do whatever they want.

Online play in Watch Dogs is different than in most games, in that you can be attacked — or “invaded” — without your knowledge by another player during the course of your single-player game. Some online game modes you join deliberately; you can also find yourself involved in one of two multiplayer offerings at anytime without even realizing it. In those modes, you can be attacked at any time by anyone … as long as the game decides you’re a fit.

“In the case of the one-on-one type of situations, if [a player] fits the criteria under the hood, then he’s available,” Morin told us.

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In “Online Hacking,” an invading player surreptitiously joins another person’s game while they roam Chicago in a single-player campaign, blissfully unaware that they are not alone. The invader must first locate the target and then stay within range long enough to fill a progress meter that installs a backdoor into the target’s smartphone. Once that backdoor is installed, the targeted player is notified and a new progress meter appears with a percentage. The target has until the meter reaches 100-percent to find and eliminate the invader.  

During this alert phase, the invader must stay within a specific area outlined on the map, while the target tries to find him by scanning nearby NPCs with a smartphone or using CCTV cameras. But it ain’t made easy: The invader still sees himself as protagonist Aiden Pearce, but to the target he appears as a randomly generated character. Likewise, the invader sees the target as a random model. Finding and killing the invader (who can run once spotted but can’t fight back) earns the target an experience reward. If the invader pulls off the hack, his experience bonus is taken from the target’s points.

“A lot of people are really competitive … you want to encourage that, but you don’t want to push away those that only want to do it from time to time.”

The second invasive multiplayer game is called “Online Tailing.” This mode requires the invader to find the player, then tail her around the city while a progress meter fills up. If the target realizes she’s being tailed and spots the invader, she wins.

Players can opt-out of these incursions in the settings altogether if they choose, but even is you continually lose, the consequences aren’t severe. Losses can add up, but Morin was quick to point out that the developers didn’t want to alienate players by overly penalizing them.

“I think there are a lot of people that are really competitive that will get a lot into [earning experience points], and you want to encourage that, but you don’t want to push away those that only want to do it from time to time,” Morin told us. “You want to be careful there.”

Behind the scenes an algorithm determines how frequently you are eligible to be invaded. This “shield” is determined by your own actions, and tailors itself to how you want to play based on the “do unto others” method.

“If you get invaded, [the shield] activates itself, so you have a break for a while,” Morin explained. “If you’re not a player that’s overly excited by that, or you don’t invade a lot of people, then this shield will grow … but if you invade, it shrinks.”

The four other game modes require you to accept an invitation from the game to join. The most traditional of these is the “Online Race” mode, which features up to eight players racing a variety of vehicles. The twist? You can hack the city of Chicago itself as you play, and try to sabotage others with traffic jams and even by raising the odd bridge.

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“Decryption” is a co-op deathmatch, built around a single objective. Up to eight players are split into two teams, both tasked with retrieving and decrypting a single, Critical File found inside a relatively small section of the map. Leaving the boundaries won’t cost you the match, but you need to stay within the boundaries to interact with the File.

In order to grab the File, you just need to get close to it for a few seconds without any enemy interference while a meter fills. Once someone is in possession of the File and decryption begins, a percentage meter appears on the screen and counts up to 100; the more teammates you have near the File carrier, the faster it decrypts. The best way to keep the File is either to run and stay out of reach of the other team, or fight off the attacking players, forcing them to respawn away from the action. The longer a team holds on to the File, the more experience bonuses they gain. Both teams contribute to the same decryption meter while they hold it though, and the team left holding the File when it reaches 100 wins.

The next mode, “ctOS –Mobile,” requires a tablet connected to the game. The person on the tablet challenges a friend or a random gamer playing the primary game; when that player accepts they find themselves in a race to hit a set number of checkpoints before time runs out. The player on the tablet sees an overhead view of the city along with a helicopter icon that can fire on the racer when properly lined up, and they can also hack objects in the environment — traffic lights and steam pipes — while sending cops after the player to kill or slow them long enough for the timer to hit zero. 

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The final mode is not really a mode at all, but rather an area. A small section of Chicago is set aside as a free play mode, where up to eight people can converge and do whatever they like. The only rule you can set is whether you can shoot and kill each other.

Beyond that, it’s up to the players.

“It’s not a free realm with missions or modes or stuff like that. It’s more like the kind of mode we had to test the systems online,” Morin said. “We realized it was quite fun, and we [asked ourselves] why would we remove the option once we shipped the game?

“Why not keep that in and let old school people get together and find their friends, almost make rules with pen and paper and say let’s follow those rules and try and see if it’s fun. It’s almost a game design R&D place. You remove all of the content, just keep the systems in and let the player see what the hell they are going to do.”

For a look at the single player game, check out our recent preview of the campaign. Watch Dogs and these online modes debut on PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One on May 27. A Wii U port is due later this year.