A closer look at who is watching the watchers in Ubisoft’s ‘Watch Dogs’

WatchDogs Police Block TrafficLight

Check out our full written Watch Dogs review.

What happens when Big Brother isn’t the only one watching you? The shiny, next-gen future presented in Ubisoft Montreal’s upcoming open-world adventure Watch Dogs finds a perfect home in Chicago. The city’s long history with organized crime needs no introduction, but did you also realize that the Windy City boasts one of the most robust video-surveillance networks in the United States?

As we’ve already seen, in Watch Dogs, that technology is advanced to the point that Chicago is considered what some would dub as a “smart city.” Think of your smartphone. You’ve got your phone, sure. Then you’ve got your camera. And your music player. Possibly your video player. Your social networking nerve center. Any number of other points of connection with the wider world on the web.

Aiden Pearce is doing bad things to help good people.

Chicago as a smart city operates under the same principle. All of the key services that keep things running are operated under a single, supercomputer-powered umbrella. This Central Operating System, CtOS for short, is the game’s Big Brother. Omnipresent, but not omnipotent. If it were, Aiden Pearce would be no threat at all.

Pearce is an established crook when the story opens. He’s not a man of pure evil – not necessarily – but he’s earned himself some enemies over the years, and now his family is in danger. Ubisoft is keeping quiet on the details for the time being; for now, it is enough to say that Aiden Pearce is doing bad things to help good people. Or people who have been good to him, at any rate.

Through Pearce, players are able to twist Chicago’s CtOS to suit their needs. Traffic lights, subways, surveillance, and electricity grids all fall under your control, along with the various network-connected electronic knickknacks that you can find in the pockets, briefcases, and homes of everyday citizens. Even Wi-Fi hotspots scattered throughout the city can be used as a weapon of sorts; hack into it and you’ll be able to peer into the private lives unfolding inside tenements and high rises.

WatchDogs Vigilante-Wards-Gang

In one example showcased during a recent eyes-on demo of the game, Pearce hacked his way through a pair of outdoor routers, then used his newly gained control of the local network to tap into an apartment-dweller’s laptop webcam. Cameras offer more than a set of eyes in the world of Watch Dogs. Spot another hackable device while you peer through a camera and you can interact with it remotely.

Leaping into the laptop webcam, we see the apartment owner sitting on a couch at the other end of the room with a motionless female form sitting upright beside him. There’s also a tablet positioned next to them both on a nearby table. Jumping over to the tablet’s camera gives a clearer view of what’s going on… and it’s a little disturbing.

We already know that the apartment dweller has a thing for action figures, thanks to the text pop-up that appears over his head when your crosshairs center on him, as it does with other Chicagoans. This guy isn’t spending hundreds on Star Wars or G.I. Joe figures though. No, he’s got a thing for life-size lady action figures. The motionless woman on the couch is a wig-wearing mannequin, and the pervy homebody is laying on his best pick-up lines.

Also visible from the tablet cam is Mr. Perv-o’s smartphone. Hacking that provides a much more useful bit of information: license plate and vehicle registration information. Watch Dogs features a full-blown economy where you can earn money, pawn off items looted from vehicle gloveboxes, and purchase all manner of useful items, weapons, and crafting materials. In this case, your loot is raw information. Bring it to one of Pearce’s shadier contacts and you’ll add that vehicle to your garage for on-demand use.

Hacking into local Wi-Fi networks amounts to a useful diversion. If you really want to harness the power of the smart city, you’ll need to exert some measure of control over CtOS. Like many other open world adventures from Ubisoft, the player’s reach in the world is limited until certain conditions are met. In Assassin’s Creed, you’re scaling your way to sync points. In Far Cry 3, you’re unscrambling radio towers. The map in Watch Dogs is visible from moment one, but Pearce’s abilities as a hacker in a given district are governed by his access – or lack thereof – to CtOS Control Centers.

These Control Centers are fortified, patrolled compounds sealed off behind high walls and mechanical gates. Gun-toting guards walk the perimeter to prevent unauthorized access. For players, the goal is to obtain an access code and then hack backdoor access to the district into the Control Center.

There’s no explicit “morality” mechanic in Watch Dogs, though your behavior as this sort of accidental techno-vigilante ripples out into the city.

Watch Dogs is designed to permit a varied set of approaches. Belligerent players can simply find an entry point, break in, and murder everyone in sight. A more cautious approach, on the other hand, could see Pearce slip in and out with no one ever realizing that he was there. Cameras, gate controls, and even random objects like forklifts can be hacked to cause distractions, open pathways, and create cover opportunities – like popping open a rooftop vent – that weren’t there before.

Installing a backdoor in a given district’s CtOS Control Center doesn’t just open the door to hacking everything, it also brings the city’s Big Brother-like surveillance network under your control. A Crime Prediction System marks locations on your minimap where trouble is likely to flare up. In one example, a gangbanger ambushes a rival with a baseball bat to the head. In another, a known drug dealer hunts down a man who raped his wife.

Players are left to respond to situations like these however they see fit. In the case of the baseball bat ambush seen in our demo, Pearce intervenes and the gangbanger takes off running. A car chase ensues. Pearce carries a universal remote door unlock that opens up any vehicle, and he soon runs the thug off the road. Pearce flees the scene as a “mission success” prompt pops up; police handle everything from there.

Pearce is neither a good guy or a bad guy. He can be both, and he can be neither. You can intervene in all the crimes, or you can be more selective. Sure, that drug dealer is selling death to small children, but he’s also taking out a known rapist. There’s no explicit “morality” mechanic in Watch Dogs, though your behavior as this sort of accidental techno-vigilante ripples out into the city, for better and for worse.

WatchDogs Clara

Cause enough trouble, and you’ll start to see your name and face popping up on TV and in the in-game social media. Players won’t be able to interact with this content; think of it as more of an information resource. Criminal acts can lead to trouble. Wave your gun on the street like a raving idiot, and someone’s bound to call the cops. You can chase that person down – they’re marked on your minimap – and smack the phone out of their hand, but some other cretinous good samaritan might see that and call the fuzz.

Notoriety follows you everywhere. In one case during the demo, a news report popped up on a gun shop’s TV while Pearce browsed at the counter. Seeing this, the clerk sounded the silent alarm and Pearce went running as cops closed in. Ridding yourself of heat works similarly to the way it does in Grand Theft Auto IV. A circle centered around your last known location appears on the minimap. Escape that circle without being spotted and you’re clear. It re-centers whenever you’re spotted, however. Thankfully, Chicago boasts an elaborate network of back alleys.

Watch Dogs isn’t all criminal behavior. There’s some fun future play to be had in Chicago’s smart city as well. Apps on Pearce’s smartphone open up all sorts of play opportunities. You can use the Shazam-like Song Sneak to figure out what is playing over a speaker, and then buy that song from the in-game store using in-game money; no microtransactions. You could also fire up an augmented reality game called NVZN that sees you blasting phantom aliens with an imaginary gun.

WatchDogs CarChase

Yes, this is the future we are speeding towards: people wandering around the streets like idiots, their hands formed into fake guns. Can you taste the anticipation?

There’s plenty more that Ubisoft isn’t talking about in any detail just yet. Watch Dogs has a multiplayer mode that stands apart from the story-driven portion of the game, but there’s also this idea of seamless multiplayer, which sees other human players jumping into your story and doing… things while you play. What those “things” are is still unspecified at the moment though. There’s also the companion app that was teased at E3 2012, a tool that allows players to hack into a friends’ game – for better or for worse – using a real-world smartphone or tablet.

Watch Dogs is heavy on ambition, and it continues to look like it can deliver in this latest demo. We’ll surely be seeing plenty more of the game and its other modes in the weeks and months to come, but our excitement continues to run high for this fall 2013 release.

Deals

The best Apple Watch deals for November 2018

The Apple Watch has surged to prominence in recent years. If you're in the market for an iOS wearable, we've sniffed out the best Apple Watch deals available right now for all three models of this great smartwatch.
Deals

You can now watch soccer games online with streaming service ESPN+

Launched back in April, ESPN+ is a direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service. For a mere $5 a month or $50 per year, you can have access to the best sports content available including multiple soccer leagues.
Deals

College sports are yours to watch live online with an ESPN+ free trial

It can be difficult to catch all the college games, especially for smaller conferences. Well, thanks to ESPN+ that’s no longer the case. Now, you won't need to miss any of your alma mater rival games.
Movies & TV

How to watch NFL games online, with or without cable

The NFL's 2018 season is here, and we know you don't want to miss a moment of the action. Our comprehensive streaming guide will show you all the best options to watch the games online so you can make the right choice.
Computing

Want to game on your Chromebook? Here's where to start

Chromebooks aren't great for gaming, but there are a few titles that most machines can run. There's a surprisingly diverse crowd that includes role-playing games, action side-scrollers, and puzzlers.
Gaming

Dominate in multiplayer with a few of our favorite 'Battlefield 5' weapons

Here are some of the best weapons you can use to get the upper hand in Battlefield 5's multiplayer, including assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols, and anti-tank tools.
Gaming

Playing ‘Battlefield V’ on an $800 Nvidia card is stunning. And disappointing

‘Battlefield V’ is the first game to use Nvidia’s ray tracing support, now available with the RTX 2080 and 2080 Ti graphics cards. The feature can, in an ideal scenario, make the game look better, but the performance hit may not be…
Product Review

‘Let’s Go Pikachu’ and ‘Let’s Go Eevee’ feel like true ‘Pokémon Go’ RPGs

Pokémon: Let’s Go’s simplified reimagining of Pokémon Yellow has a great balance of old and new mechanics. It has a streamlined approach that makes it easy to get into, but depth remains for longtime fans.
Gaming

How to become a master assassin and perfect the art of execution in 'Hitman 2'

'Hitman 2' introduces new and improved story missions with a scale that can feel overwhelming if you're not prepared. Learn everything you need to know to obtain a high score while remaining unnoticed.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Nissan turmoil, product designer Jae Yoo of Nerf, and more

For today's episode of Digital Trends Live, we turn our attention to the L.A. Auto Show and Lamborghini's race-ready version of the Urus. We also speak with Jae Yoo of Nerf and MLS defender Zarek Valentin about their origins, modern tech…
Gaming

The best Gamestop Black Friday deals in 2018

Gamestop is hosting one heck of a Black Friday and Cyber Monday promotion period, highlighted by excellent deals on games, gaming consoles, and gaming accessories. We combed through everything and have all the best Gamestop Black Friday…
Deals

The best cheap-but-awesome PlayStation 4 game deals under $20

The PlayStation 4 has hit its stride in recent years and is now more affordable than ever. If you have a PS4 or are thinking of buying one, we’ve collected some must-have games. The best part? Each of these is just $20 or less.
Gaming

Valve responds after ‘Artifact’ slammed for taking microtransactions too far

Streamers and gamers heavily criticized the monetization model of Artifact, as the digital card game may have taken microtransactions too far. Valve quickly responded to the feedback, with planned changes to the game's public beta.
Gaming

‘Darksiders III’ gets its own Fury-led ASMR series, and it’s weird

Darksiders III is out in less than a week, and to celebrate the game's impending release, publisher THQ Nordic has released an ASMR video starring Fury. The video focuses on her fire abilities.