It’s been four months since Watch Dogs, Ubisoft’s crowning jewel of next-gen gaming, was originally supposed to launch – but we’re currently in Chicago, the IRL setting for the game, still talking with the development crew about the upcoming release of the game. It’s now set to hit shelves next month, May 27 worldwide to be exact, but just why did the game get delayed? Has it been worth the wait?
If you’ve forgotten about the eagerly anticipated title, Watch Dogs is the latest open world game from Ubisoft, following in the same vein as past city-sprawling games like Grand Theft Auto, only in this next-gen title, you take the role of Aiden Pierce, a vigilante armed with a smartphone who can hack into almost anything in this futuristic rendition of Chicago. He’s got a score to settle, and you as the player can tap into the city to carry out that that vendetta.
You’ve seen plenty of games set in many other major cities: from London to New York, even Los Angeles and Hong Kong, but a city like Chicago has never really been done before – surprising when you consider its rich, often bloody past.
“Chicago has a very complex history,” Kevin Shortt, story designer for Watch Dogs, tells Red Bull. “Chicago-style politics, as they say. It's all part of the reason why we chose the city – it's a city that has a checkered past. It’s an exciting city, but man, there's a lot of corruption, there's so much crime going on. For the world we're playing around with, with all the lies and betrayal, it just fits. The power that comes with secrets, that's a big thing for Watch Dogs.”
It’s also a city on the cutting edge of surveillance, which made it ideally suited to Watch Dogs’ hacking gameplay. Chillingly so, some would say. “Chicago now has 22,000 cameras all around the city that the cops can tap into for surveillance – that seems like a natural fit, so if any city was going to take on a system like CtOS (short for CenTral Operating System, the computer system controlling the city of Watch Dogs), Chicago would be a perfect place.”
The topics addressed though, especially in the modern-day age of information, almost seem like a commentary on the world we’re in today, especially in light of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. But Watch Dogs was started five years ago – well before any of these leaks even happened.
Shortt tells us, “It's interesting – when we started the game, one of the things we were looking at – we started peeling back the layers, and asking questions like what does it mean to have this kind of power and access to all of this information – is there a sense of privacy anymore? Who's controlling of all this information? Can you turn it into a commodity? Then a year ago, we saw all those revelations with Snowden and all that information he put out. It reinforced the sense that we were always hoping this game would be a game that yes, it's fun, you're going to lose yourself and have a good time, but at the same time, you would come away with 'ah, when I'm out in the real world, I'm one of those NPCs you can hack’. We were hoping the game would be a part of the dialogue.”
When we last spoke to Watch Dog’s creative director, Jonathan Morin at last year’s Eurogamer Expo in November, we sat down in a small room where he was proud to talk about the game’s profiling system, how the game is jam-packed full of places to visit and nooks and crannies to explore – then bang, the game was delayed. This time, we’re sat outside in the open, right next to the Chicago Tribune building, and Morin tells us why: players got in too deep. They got too good at hacking.
“I think when we started to play the complete game, we did a lot of play tests, sometimes what was happening is that the game was doing a good job at encouraging the player to explore the possibilities of hacking, but sometimes they'd go really deep into the manipulation and get really creative about things – it would create a trigger and unexpected results. It wouldn't necessarily encourage them to continue to do it, but those kind of clashes happened.”
“We decided to step back a bit and take the time to define how we could perform very surgical and precise ways to fix the problems. That's why we didn't have a new date immediately after the delay.”
To make way for these fixes, something had to give though – the Wii U version of the game. Nintendo’s oft-ignored console has been left until last. There’s not even a date set yet, but Morin tells us it’s all for a good reason: “Right now [the Wii U version is] currently being done, but I'm not directly involved. We wanted to finish all the platforms that we are currently shipping. We needed those guys to get [the shipping versions] finished, and the good news now is that they're all fully focused on the Wii U version, making sure it gets the attention it deserves to make it the best version it can be.”
Still, it seems like all the extra time has been worthwhile. Watch Dogs runs as smooth as butter and its lighting system is picture perfect. Most importantly, it’s fun to play, something you can rarely say about games involving gamified hacking. In our hands-on time with the PlayStation 4 version of the game, we were treated to the opening hours of the title and left to our own devices to explore, hack and check out the entirety of Chicago – as well as dive into a spot of multiplayer.
If you’ve played the likes of Grand Theft Auto V, Saints Row IV, or Sleeping Dogs, you’ll be right at home treading the streets freely. The World of Watch Dogs feels much more serious however, and more interactive than anything else we’ve seen before, thanks to the hack button. Driving down south on LaSalle Street, we found ourselves trying not to press Square on our Dual Shock 4 controller on everything that was possible – there are so many things you can hack, from traffic lights which can cause vehicular mayhem, to bridges that raise and even steam vents you can overload during a police chase, but it’s when you’re on foot that the possibilities become almost overwhelming.
At one press of a button to bring up your smartphone, you can open up profiles of almost everyone around you – countless NPCs, which we’re told are all unique. Bank account details, security camera footage and phone call conversations all flow through the air. In one way, it’s extremely creepy, but in another, it’s also extremely addictive – just a tiny little button press can open up a whole new set of doors for you. Information is power, right?
“I think players are going to find that tempting,” Shortt tells us. “Yes, you should probably stop spying and hacking into people, but you can't help it. You just want to hear that conversation, find out those bank account details, and so on – it's about greed, opportunity, and what you do with it.”
Not all hacks are just quick, one button bursts though – some still need a little bit of time to complete, such as a rotating mini-game that heaps up the pressure with a time limit. Regardless, Ubisoft appears to have delivered on its promise of a massive metropolis that’s entirely yours to play with.
We also tried out the game’s multiplayer, which lets you seamlessly drop in and out of sessions (you’ll be alerted if someone has intruded into your game, Dark Souls style), all without a hint of a loading screen. One of the most basic modes is a hide-and-seek style game using Pearce’s smartphone, and you have to find the other player, steal their info and get away before they can find you, while in Decryption, which plays similarly to Halo’s Oddball game mode, you or a team of players must hold a specific file for a certain amount of time. These modes sound simple, but they’re actually a lot of fun – and that’s before we got to the race modes which let you take to the streets of Chicago in your speedster, flinging hacks at your rivals while you head for the finish line. It’s a great break from the serious storyline of the game.
Another form of multiplayer isn’t even played on console at all: a tablet and smartphone companion app, known as the CtOS app, gives a different take on second screen play. The app player is given a top down view of Chicago, and takes the role of the police, spawning in cars, units and traps to take down the fleeing in-game player – and there’s even a police chopper to commandeer too. It’s an interesting twist on second screen play, and it also means you can play against your friends no matter where you are in the world – it even works with all of the platforms that Watch Dogs is on.
One of the most exciting revelations is the giant mecha spider, which you can ride to wreak havoc around the streets of Chicago as part of something called a ‘Digital Trip’: an in-game, mind-bending, hallucinatory experience. “Watch Dogs is a game that's very focused on the drama, so it's a pretty serious game – but at the same time, we always felt that we needed a lighter tone to it too, without breaking the elegance of the game and story,” Morin tells us.
We didn’t get to take the arachmechanid out for a spin sadly, but Morin hints that there’s more where that came from in the game. “We've got a few more surprises in store for launch too, even though we've showed a lot – the two we've shown so far, the giant spider and the Madness one, where you go on a kind of rampage to grab souls – they're all in a very weird and sick perspective of something that relates to Watch Dogs, whether that's the cyberpunk theme pushed to 11, or even some form of easter egg homage to open city games of the past.”
The hacks however, Ubisoft maintains, are all very real – every single one is achievable in real life. Thomas Geffroyd, content director, tells us “absolutely – we've been working really hard on that. Every hack in the game has been tested proven and true. We've been to Defcon and other hacker conferences throughout the US, and we've got a great network of hackers helping us get things right.”
So much so that even during the game’s development, many of the hacks that were put into the game have since hit real world headlines – it’s taking authenticity to a whole new level. Vitaly Kamluk, chief malware expert at Kaspersky, and consultant on the game, tells us that in Russia, emptying ATMs and taking control of traffic lights actually have happened, almost as if the game was predicting the future. “I was really surprised when I saw some hacks that are part of the game started taking place in real life. Like taking cash from the ATM. The developers put these in years ago, and they put it in the game before it happened in real life and now it's happening.”
If elements of those hacks are happening in real life, could the entirety of Watch Dogs also happen in real life? Could we see hackers taking on whole cities and bending them to their whim? “Absolutely. I'm pretty sure it's where we're going,” says Kamluk, “We're being surrounded by cities which are all controlled by computerised systems that monitor the state of the city – that's connected to ATMs, CCTV cameras, traffic lights and other systems throughout the city, so it's definitely the future.”
We’re looking at a frightening future if so – but if Watch Dogs lets us have fun and raises important questions along the way, we’ve got something to look forward to at least. Let’s just hope no-one hacks that May 27 launch date.