Watch Dogs

Gamescom 2013: Watch Dogs In-Depth Preview - Space Invaders

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In light of the recent hacking scandals that have dominated the headlines, is a game that allows you to invade the privacy of whomever you choose going to be a tough sell? Probably not, especially when it’s this much fun. In the final act of every console generation there are invariably games that come to define what has gone before, mainly because developers are finally able to coax every last drop of quality from the hardware. Though being up against the open-world juggernaut that is Grand Theft Auto V is always going to be a tough ask, it helps that Watch_Dogs will be openly available on the next generation of consoles. A fact that Rockstar has yet to confirm for its own magnum opus.

Getting the chance to go hands-on with Watch_Dogs shows just how much fun there is to be had. A quick look at the map of Chicago shows a vast city waiting to be discovered, with all of the major landmarks present and correct, not to mention the fact you can explore most of the key landmarks both externally and internally. While there are certainly a lot of open doors and hidden nooks, it’s disappointing to see the same old painted on doorways and invisible barriers cropping up that we seem to see a lot in most open-world titles.

While it’s safe to say you can explore the majority of the mean streets it seems that the actual number of buildings you can expect to be your playground is much smaller. It doesn’t help that the map, as it stands, never really highlights which areas you can and can’t enter, plus trying to open a door leads to a jarring animation and a strange delay before you discover whether or not you can enter.

Still it’s hard to judge just how massive a play area you’ll have to tinker with without actually investing a lot more time into the game. The above gripes are just minor issues and ones that soon disappear into the back of your mind once you start to let your hair down and enjoy yourself. Playing as self-styled vigilante Aiden Pearce you can use your handheld device to basically do what the hell you like.

Hacking into mobiles, computers, cameras and the like all offer different benefits and information for you to use in your quest to expose the shady organisation that Pearce is trying to bring down. The game mixes a variety of styles and abilities that you might expect in most third-person titles, so elements of stealth, cover systems, combat and basic parkour all combine to give your character the edge. The hook though always comes back to your ability to hack and connect to anything and everything, which is not just a blast, but provides unique solutions to the various missions.

As you roam the streets you can pull out your phone at any point and use it to get an idea of the people around you. At the touch of a button you have their name, job, criminal record and so on. So just on that basis you could choose to pull the bank details of a crooked art dealer and then help yourself to his cash from a nearby ATM. You could hook into the security access of a local building, giving you control of a nearby baby monitor. Oh dear, looks like mummy left her laptop open – so you can use the camera to then gain access to the laptop and all of her stored information. The game is never gratuitous in what it gives you, so you don’t get screens of boring personal details, and instead creates a world of individuals on the fly and then lets you skim read their personal backstory for your own gain. You could literally roam the city as a vigilante Robin Hood if you so choose and waste hours just helping those in need or punishing the criminal element.

Part of what ties neatly into that idea are the random events that are scattered around the city. So your PDA might alert you to a nearby robbery in progress which you can then either ignore or head towards to stop the theft. Positive actions have an impact on your reputation throughout the city, so as your infamy rises people will react to you based on whether or not you are a saint or a menace.

Pull your gun out in public, run over civilians and generally wreak havoc and you can expect locals to call the cops. You can use your powers to interrupt their communications, but what if five people are making that call, or ten? Then it’s time to get the hell out of dodge before the fuzz arrive and put a real dampener on your day. Even then you can choose to deal with the police in different ways, escape them or use non-lethal methods to increase your standing, or just take them out to show them you’re a force to be reckoned with. Too much gunplay will make it that much harder to escape but at least you can have fun trying.

The beauty of your hacking abilities is that they grow over time. So you will soon be hacking car alarms to cause a distraction, or raising security barriers to improve your chances of escape. You can escalate to turning off traffic signals to cause accidents to cover your tracks, or raise bridges to cut off your pursuers. Being on the run has never been so much fun and the fact you can hack devices while you drive around means that no chase will ever play out in the same way. Hell, it’s fun just to make people chase you just so you can come up with inventive ways of ditching them.

After we’d had enough fun on the mean streets we decided to take on a mission. You can hack specific locations in order to open up areas of the map and give you access to more information and quests in the nearby vicinity. Such locales are heavily guarded but often give you a variety of ways to approach them. Our first port of call was to hack into the guard's security chatter and determine which of them had the access codes we needed. That done we could just take him and his buddies out, all guns blazing, or opt for a subtler approach.

We decided to sneak around the back and clamber over the fence, then we crouched in the cover of a nearby truck and hacked a camera overlooking the yard. The camera gave us a perfect view of our target and we could hack his own PDA from there with impunity, though we had to be quick as if you dally too long the security system will detect your presence and the alarm would be raised. With the code in hand we snuck past the remaining guards and into the building itself, then hacked the internal camera network to upload our details to the main computer. With full access granted we could beat a cautious retreat with no one being any the wiser. It’s probably worth mentioning that this was the second attempt, a rather more robust attack ended in a premature death but the option is certainly there to tackle it in your own way.

Thankfully the different approaches mean you should never get bored and the hacking tool itself fulfils a variety of functions often with unexpected results. From bank details to blacking out a whole city block, you can expect to use it in a variety of ways. The combat is pretty much what you would expect with cover-based gunplay, that is at least helped by the ability to use slow motion focus abilities, and basic stealth style takedowns.

The driving mechanics are pretty much spot on too and every vehicle handles appropriately and the variety is spot on – word to the wise though, don’t try and outrun the police in a fire truck. It may seem like a laugh, but it’s a terrible idea. The game also has a sense of humour too, which is nice to see amongst the more serious main story, as you can play random mini-games via your PDA which sees, amongst others, mini space invaders invade the city that you then have to run around like a lunatic to take out. No one else can see them mind you, so you may just look like an escaped mental patient, but it’s an entertaining diversion and nice to see that such little asides exist.

If that was all that Watch_Dogs had to offer, then this would be an exemplary third-person, open-world title that players would be happy whiling away many an hour on. It plays superbly and the range of gameplay styles and sheer scope of the hacking options mean that you will be seeing new ideas almost constantly. However, the 'everything is connected' mantra also plays out in terms of multiplayer too and that is where the game gets interesting.

Just like Dark Souls you can hop (or hack, in this case) into someone else's game and basically mess with their head. You could literally just run up and kill them, but where is the fun in that? Instead the main idea is to try and hack another player without getting caught. Success means you have a permanent back door into their progress, so you then get a cut of their profits for every subsequent action they undertake. They can get rid of the hack by either stopping your initial attempts or take revenge by hacking you in retaliation.

The way this works is well thought out. You have no idea that a player is in your world until they start to hack you, at which point you are alerted to their presence and a progress bar flashes up on screen. You then have to use your PDA to scan the people around you and identify the target, an X appears over those that are regular folks to make your life a bit easier and the mark can only stay within a certain area or the hack will break down. So it becomes a game of cat and mouse, with you trying to hunt down the interloper while they try and blend in and hide from your attentions.

If you spot them then the chase is on to gun them down before they get away. When one of the Ubisoft team hopped into our game it was a shock, but we soon hunted them down before they got away. That gave us the chance for some payback, so I popped into his game, started the hack and then cleverly sauntered away down some steps and hid in a corner by a crowd of people. The hack succeeded and I then had to hot-foot it to a car and get the hell out of dodge, as once you succeed the other person gets a brief interval when they know exactly where you are and have a few minutes to put an end to your shenanigans.

As an idea it plays out like a well-crafted mix of Assassin’s Creed multiplayer and the aforementioned Dark Souls. The idea of hacking other players, expanding your network and profiting from their efforts is superb and players are sure to get a kick out of taking part. Alternatively, you can just as easily opt out of the mode entirely, if you don’t want interlopers turning up every five minutes or are just afraid your friends might pop up to harass you.

Secondary to that mode is the ability for people with tablets to challenge you to a game of cat and mouse, with them controlling the police forces and able to hack steam vents and security bollards in a bid to stop you in a point to point race. This soon turns into a brutal race against time, as you try and avoid the police cars sent your way while keeping an eye out for hacked vents that might total your car, or bridges that might suddenly be raised. Thankfully both forms of combat take place ‘outside’ of regular play so any damage you do will not effect your ongoing reputation, but you will have a chance to score some quick money and experience for taking part.

Watch_Dogs certainly has a lot going for it. The main gameplay mechanics are what you have seen before in countless other modern day open-world games, but the addition of your hacking abilities gives everything a fresh new twist and expands your horizons immeasurably. The amount of activities you can take part in even when you’re really doing nothing, in mission terms, is staggering and the game is just flat out fun to play. There are still some bugs and niggles to be worked out, but that was to be expected, and the overall experience of our hands-on is that this is a game that deserves your attention for sure.

Expect to hack into some fun when Watch_Dogs launches on Xbox 360 and Xbox One in November 2013.


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Game Info
Ubisoft Montreal


US May 27, 2014

HDD Space Required : 20.42 GB
Price: $49.99USD
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