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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.

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