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‘Watch Dogs’ puts you in the center of a nearly-real surveillance state

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Check out our full written Watch Dogs review.

Twice now, Watch Dogs has managed to steal a show.

The first time was during Ubisoft’s E3 2012 press conference. The French publisher wheeled out a few surprises, but nothing that really got people to stand up and take notice – right up until Watch Dogs appeared at the close of the show. The demo showed in-game footage of the series protagonist, Aiden Pearce, walking around a fully realized model of Chicago, interacting with just about everyone and everything thanks to his ability to hack nearly any electronic device in the technologically connected city. The scope was breathtaking, and the crowd was amazed at the possibilities of the original new game. Many immediately assumed it was a next-gen title. They were only half right.

The second time Watch Dogs took command was during Sony’s PlayStation 4 unveiling last month. The PS4 was the undeniable star, but when it came to the games, even though it shared the stage with Bungie’s eagerly anticipated title Destiny, even compared to the PlayStation-exclusive series Killzone and Infamous, it was Watch Dogs that had people talking afterwards.

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The game is ambitious, to say the least. You take on the role of Pearce, an anti-hero who does his best to keep his family safe by constantly watching them from the shadows, thanks to his hacking abilities. Watch Dogs takes place in an alternate version of Chicago, where a supercomputer connects and controls the majority of technology in the city, and collects data on its inhabitants. Pearce manages to gain access to that system, and in doing so gains an incredible power. The heart of the story is about a man guarding his family, but the game also reflects current fears and realities that have only recently surfaced thanks to our reliance on technology. With government-operated drones making weekly news, hacking at an all-time high, and social networks harvesting more personal information about us than ever before, there is a relevancy in Watch Dogs.

“It’s actually 100-percent based on real technology”

In Watch Dogs’ universe, the 2003 Northeast blackouts were caused by a hacker, leading the city to unite its technology under a Central Operating System (CtOS) that constantly monitors and interprets data from its citizens. While that history is fiction, the technology is not. The game takes a few creative liberties, of course, but nothing is taken from the realm of imagination. The idea of a “smart city” is very real. These smart cities are defined in several ways, but one unifying idea is that the city is connected by a wireless sensor network connecting everything. The idea is slowly gaining traction with urban developers in America, but China has embraced the concept for future development, and many major cities around the world – such as Amsterdam, Cairo, Dubai – are experimenting with the idea in certain test areas.

Jonathan Morin

Jonathan Morin

The world of Chicago in Watch Dogs is not a real place, but Ubisoft Montreal wants you to believe that it could be. A smart city comes with its benefits, but it also raises several dangerous questions, questions that plague us today. At what point does privacy yield to safety, and what happens if the technology is abused?

“It’s actually 100-percent based on real technology,” Morin said, “but like all the time, when you tap into the edge of what’s going on right now, you enter what I would personally call the ‘sweet spot’ of certain people that say ‘wow, it’s really relevant, it’s today’s world.’ Some others would say ‘near future, cyber punk.’ And that’s an awesome spectrum. It’s like the Profiler. You want to let the player perceive what he likes.”

With the power to control the city of Chicago comes the burden of responsibility. The character of Aiden Pearce has a noble goal – to keep his family safe – but his methods will vary based on the player’s choices. Random events will constantly beset you as you roam around the open world of Chicago, presenting you with a choice. In the demo displayed at the PS4 event, Pearce was walking down a street when a random domestic disturbance began. Pearce’s ability to tap into the CtOS told him that the man was breaking his restraining order and the woman he was accosting seemed like she would soon become a victim. This gives the player options.

“… every player, regardless of how they play the game, they will expect natural, believable reactions from the system…”

In the demo, Pearce chased the man down and stopped him by causing a fuse box to explode, knocking the perp out. Instead of using the fuse box, Pearce could have decided to use lethal force and shoot the man, which would attract the police to him. Alternatively, Pearce could have stared at the man and woman but done nothing. The choice you make (even choosing to do nothing) will affect how the rest of the game plays out. The concept of a persistent reputation that builds based on the way you play is a familiar trope for open-world games at this point, but there is more to it in Watch Dogsthan in most games with a similar mechanic.

“What’s important for us is not to judge the player, but I think every player, regardless of how they play the game, they will expect natural, believable reactions from the system,” Morin told us. “So if a player wants to kill the good guy, he’s expecting to see the world surprise him with logical situations afterwards. That’s where we’re going, we’re not judging anything.”

Ubisoft Montreal wants you to have the freedom to play the game how you want, and that includes playing it like a bad guy. But rather than punishing your actions through gameplay mechanics like sending police after you or having crowds attack you as you see in most games of the ilk, if you manage to pull off your unseemly deeds unseen and escape, the game will confront you with your actions in an indirect way. If you kill someone, the media may report on the person’s life that you snuffed out, for example. The developers want to immerse you into the world to the point that you actually care about the consequences of your actions instead of just facing arbitrary penalties.

watch dogs police takedown screenshot

“If you do something wrong and it feels very raw and realistic, and then you’re like ‘OK, I’m not punished for it, but that was kind of wrong.’ That’s what we want to achieve,” he said.

It’s this type of adaptable interactivity that led many to believe that Watch Dogs would require the additional processing power of the next generation of consoles, but while there will be a PS4 version available when the system launches, Watch Dogs was designed for this generation of consoles. The game has actually been in development for nearly four years, long before Sony or Microsoft had even begun to finalize what the upcoming generation of consoles. So for the most part, the game was always meant to be for today’s hardware – even though the development caused the developers to rethink several things.

The news that the next-gen consoles were going to be available didn’t reach Morin and the Ubisoft team until around Christmas 2012, when the development kits began to arrive. To the developers, the slick new hardware was just gravy.

watch dogs pearce car jump screenshot

“When PS4 shows up, to us it’s like ‘OK, here’s a new set of tools and possibilities to think about,’” Morin said. “So I think that progressively every month we’ll discover new opportunities to make it grow to the next level, but the soul of the project will remain the same on every platform.”

The development was not without its troubles though, and many of the things you’ll see in the finished product have never been done before. Ubisoft Montreal was challenged to try new things, in many cases forcing the team to reconsider the way it designs games.

Morin wanted his team to create new tools and think of new ways to design. “The only way to do that is to create a vision together with them, where they always feel like we have this crazy dream that doesn’t take into consideration limitations. That way you don’t make decision for the experts, the experts can come to you. Then you can start by them saying you’re insane,” Morin said. “If you go into more detail and how you see it, then they go back to their desks and they think about it, and they find very articulated and very artistic ways to countermeasure limitation, and invent new ways of doing things. And I think that’s how making games should happen. Make something that will make people dream about 20 years from now. If you play a game that’s great and pushes you to your limits, you should be able, as a player, to dream about ‘Wow, that makes me think about the game I could play in 10 years.’ That’s a memorable experience.”

Watch Dogs still has a long way to go before it can live up to its growing hype. It’s one thing to say that an open-world game is teeming with life, and another to actually pull it off and differentiate it from others in the same genre. Ubisoft Montreal is pulling out all the stops, though, going so far as to record life in Chicago down to the minutiae of individual accents in different regions within the city. The game’s rendition of Chicago is altered to make for smoother gameplay, but it should feel like Chicago, even if some of the landmarks are in the wrong place. But that is just the gloss on top of the project. The real heart of the game is the inter-connectivity you have with the city and the people, and the way your actions affect the world. 

When Watch Dogs arrives at the end of the year, it will have spent twice as long in development as other big name titles like Call of Duty. But it’s a different kind of titles – one that wants you to think and be aware of what you are doing. And while it is not exclusive to the PS4, Watch Dogs is shaping up to be the first “must-own” title for PS4 owners.