A security gate suddenly rises unbidden, prompting a guard to investigate. Jumping out from behind a wall to catch him unawares is Aiden Pearce, a shadowy hacker clad in a long trench coat and baseball hat, with a bandana hiding his face like he's some sort of stage-coach robber in a Western. Pearce clobbers the guard with his police baton, then skulks back to cover behind a nearby wall.
He's trying to sneak into an operations control centre – a secure compound similar to the modern exchange buildings that dot most cities, where server cabinets and wires connect residents to phone and Internet networks. Pearce has an eye to hacking the central computer, so that he can then access all those phones and Internet connections.
Another guard spots him and raises the alarm, which immediately shifts the action from stealth to conflict. Pearce wastes no time in gunning down the guard. Other sentries now start shooting at him, so he decides to flee to the building's rooftop. He pulls out his phone and hacks a work platform to take him there. Amid the confusion, he throws a pair of improvised explosives at a parked van, then sets them off, again with his phone. The explosion knocks out some more guards.
He hops back down to the ground and uses his phone to turn on a storage lift. The machine moves a container out of the way, clearing a line of sight to the final guard. With another shot, he's out and the centre belongs to Pearce. He does his hacking thing and the systems and residents of this particular district of Chicago are his to do with as he pleases.
The episode is one of the central concepts of Watch_Dogs, Ubisoft Montreal's latest blockbuster game, due in November. An open-world game that's been in development for more than four years, it brings together some of the best elements of some of the studio's biggest franchises, but also adds the all-important aspect of technological interconnection.
The compound conquering looks and feels a lot like the best part of Montreal's Far Cry 3, which was recently named Game of the Year for 2012 at the Canadian Videogame Awards. At the same time, the climbing, stealth and gradual discovery and unlocking of the open world is reminiscent of Splinter Cell and Assassin's Creed, two other Montreal-designed series.
The similarities are purposeful and, to some extent, unavoidable. Most of the core team, including senior producer Dominic Guay and lead story designer Kevin Shortt, come from Far Cry 2, released in 2008, with individuals from the other franchises also contributing. The goal with the new game, Guay says, is to replicate the sort of unpredictable dynamism that Far Cry has become known for, but with its own distinct flavour.
"The most memorable moments in that game are not the ones that are scripted, they're the ones that emerge from the system," he says. "Everyone has that, 'tried to attack that camp and something [unpredictable] happened' story, and there are many reasons for that. If we can piggy back on some of the good ideas they had, that's great. And then they can piggy back on ours too."
To get that unpredictability, the team started by building a new game engine, called Disrupt. Existing technology was too linear in how it lined up in-game events, so Guay and his crew wanted an engine that would be a little harder to predict. With older engines, if Pearce stood on a street corner and hacked a traffic light, for example, it was likely that the same chain of events would follow. With Disrupt, the number of potential outcomes is greater.
It's this unpredictability and dynamism – the core of the game – that the team chose to spotlight at a demo in New York this week. Watch_Dogs was the surprise hit of last summer's Electronic Entertainment Expo, where it was unveiled. Its setting and plot, which features a protagonist who can hack into the central operating system of a city and therefore control its many systems, not to mention access the entire electronic footprints of every individual in it, seemed to hit all the anxieties of our current digital moment perfectly. With such uber-connected cities quickly becoming a reality, Watch_Dogs looks like it will ask many relevant questions in regards to just how far we want this connectivity to go.
That's very much the point, Shortt says. The initial concept of the game emerged in 2009 when a few members of the core team sat down to discuss ideas, and the first thing they all did was plop their phones down on the table. That got them thinking about the positives and negatives of ubiquitous connectivity.
At the start of Watch_Dogs – initially developed under the code name "Nexus" – players are introduced to all the positives. The citizens of Chicago are quite happy because their city's central operating system, known as ctOS, ensures the traffic lights are synced properly, that the electrical grid functions optimally, and that authorities are dispatched when needed without delay.
Yet the dark side quickly becomes apparent. Pearce is a man with a shadowy past, from the shadier side of Chicago. He's a criminal hacker who has made a living by lying, cheating and stealing. His past brings him into conflict with some powerful enemies, who inevitably turn him into something of an anti-hero. Wanted by both the crooks and the cops, he becomes a vigilante with the power to literally control his environment.
It's what players do with the character and the technology, however, that will ultimately determine the message of the game, Shortt says. He references part of the demo that Guay guided, in which Pearce encountered a man threatening another man with a gun. By hacking into their phones, he found a text message revealing the aggressor was planning to kill the man for attacking his wife earlier. According to the gleaned info, the threatened man had a history of sexual assault. Knowing that, Guay opted not to interfere, which indeed resulted in the one man killing the other. Shortt, for his part, would have played it out much differently because he wouldn't have assumed guilt on the victim's part.
"I wouldn't be able to do that. That guy's just saying that. It doesn't even matter if he used to do that, you're still just going off some guy's word," he says.
All of Pearce's actions – whether he gets involved in such situations or not – will have repercussions. His story will be documented in the game both by traditional media in the form of television and newspaper reports, and by the citizenry through their own in-game social media. How people react to him will be shaped by the image the various media paint of him.
"We are not telling the player you should go this way or that way, but we are making sure they're thinking about it. The citizens are going to respond to you," Shortt says. "Hopefully that'll get players thinking, 'What's my role in this, am I culpable in what's happening?' "
With the realistic urban setting, criminal protagonist, ambiguous morality and a whole lot of driving around and shooting, Watch_Dogs also bears more than a passing resemblance to the godfather of all open-world games: Grand Theft Auto. It might be tempting to consider it a modernized clone – a Grand Theft Hacker of sorts – but doing so could ignore some of those deeper questions that the game designers hope to ask.
"I'm fine with being compared to whatever games people want to compare us with," Guay says, "but when people start playing they'll realize that we're really making our own beast."