Watch Dogs has been among my most anticipated release ever since it was revealed at E3 last year. Naturally excitement levels were high as I made my way to a hotel near the centre of Cologne where some long waited hands-on time with both single-player and the tablet-powered multiplayer awaited.
With a PR representative whispering all kinds of instructions in my ear I went along and grabbed the PS4 controller and jumped in to the action. I found myself on the sidewalks of one of the many streets in a near future Chicago, and in the shoes of the main character Aiden Pearce. Hacking is of course the main element/theme of the game. It's as simple as pressing a button to hack into the personal information of passers by. But in order to get deeper in to their information, I needed to break in to the local CtOS system center to unlock the full potential of the city sector.
The data center seemed like an ordinary warehouse at first but with a surprising level of security. Although there were plenty of objects to hack in order to distract the guards and open up alternative routes, my stealth-based efforts fell short and I had to resolve the situation with a full on shoot out. Luckily the guards did not offer much resistance against my assault rifle (that I was packing since the start of the demo). The action itself is your standard cover-based shooter, not overly impressive. I would much rather have remained in the shadows, but with the clock ticking and PR person urging me on, a more straightforward approach was forced.
Hacking the CtOS center revealed an interesting mechanic with security cameras. I couldn't go inside the facility physically, but I was able to scan the interior via the cameras. As long as there was line of sight between them, you could jump from on to another until the CtOS main frame was exposed and possible to hack. The same mini-game-esque camera hopping also made an appearance in the next side mission. I managed to follow CtOS data lines on the side of an apartment building and hack into a nearby flat and eavesdrop on the goings on there.
The hacking jobs work much like collectibles, but can also lead to various Vigilante side missions. Most often they are activated by just being in the right place in the right time, but you can also find them by listening to conversations as in the before mentioned apartment. I came across one of the more simple missions while I was trying to visit the local gun store. It was naturally being held up at the time and, given I'm the hero, I had to stop it and chase and catch the robber - with bullets.
Performing Vigilante and other side missions grants the player Reputation points, which dictate how others see and react to the player's presence. If the Reputation is seriously 'in the red' passers-by are more likely to call the police. However, if your actions have been popular with the public they can even assist you on your way. The game producers did try to emphasize that the Reputation system is not just black and white morality-meter, but more subtle impact on the environment. The main point being it won't bind players to a particular playstyle.
While racing from one side mission to another I found one of the most essential capabilities - Focus. It allows you to slow down time and hack items almost in the blink of an eye. It differs from many other games by not directly helping you while shooting or driving, but it can be used to activate a variety of obstacles to stop your pursuers, or to prevent enemies from getting the upper hand in a fire fight. I had some trouble getting the hang of Focus but after couple of spectacular failures I was able to use to make some equally elegant getaways.
After trying out the single player I tried out two very interesting two-player-modes. Both were asymmetric 1 vs 1 clashes, the first of which resembles a little of Assassin's Creed's multiplayer. The goal is to hack another player without that person finding out who the opponent is. The trick is to blend into the ordinary NPC character ranks. The defending player then has to use Observe to find and get rid of hacker before his download is complete. When found out the hacker's only choice is try and flee from the designated play area.
The game mode is intended to be dynamic, so it can basically happen at any time between missions if the 'door' has been left open for your friends or others online to jump in. If in turn you want to go and try to earn experience, potential victims can be found easily in the map's grid view, letting you check if anyone is vulnerable for an attack.
The other two-player mode requires the second player to have the Watch Dogs companion app, that will be launched at the same time as the game on all key smartphones and tablets. The app player takes control of the Chicago's CtOS system and tries to stop the console player from achieving his goal and reaching checkpoints. CtOS players has the view of city in map and can directly control traffic lights and other obstacles, but can also indirectly send police units after the other player. A helicopter works as CtOS player's eyes so it's always important to have it close by.
The player on console or PC has access to all of Aiden's normal abilities, but he has to be careful while cruising through the streets. Hit and runs increase the Wanted level and give the other player more police units to send Aiden's way.
When I first heard about CtOS app it felt completely unnecessary, but after trying it and seeing a few rounds played, it seems to have merit. There were definitely some fun moments during the chase. The application is completely free and works across all platforms, so availability should not be a problem. The app also supports friend lists, as well as creating your own challenges and sharing them with other users online.
Both of these two player modes stand out nicely from what else is on offer in other games, which is something Ubisoft deserves credit for. Still, there definitely is question mark hanging over how much longtime appeal there is. Even if the single player campaign is what mainly attracts me to Watch Dogs, I'm looking forward to giving both multiplayer modes a proper workout once the game launches.
The size and appearance of the near future Chicago was impressive, but it was clear that game isn't quite ready yet. The code we sampled had plenty of bugs and glitches, particularly with the NPC characters, who often seemed to get stuck in objects and reacted to events sluggishly. Sadly there was no time to freely roam the city in my limited time with the demo, and the side missions were perhaps not mindblowing in their design.
The session left me feeling both impressed and a little worried about Watch Dogs. Judging by the code I played there seems to be a lot of work left for Ubisoft until the release in just three months time. But I'm still hopeful they can pull it off and deliver a game that lives up to the high expectations come November, as I would hate to see this game released in anything but a polished and pristine state.