If there's one thing that's evident about Watch Dogs after playing it for 90 minutes, it's that it is going to be a big – and long – game when it's finally released on May 27.
Set in modern-day Chicago, the game asks timely questions about technological surveillance and privacy, and what happens when someone is able to exploit it all.
The realization about how deeply this setting will affect gameplay hits me on my fifth attempt to make it through a parking garage packed with bad guys. Having played plenty of action-adventure shooters, my instinct is to simply blaze through. The problem is, I'm woefully over-matched and outgunned, which means I'm going to have to play it smart.
Fortunately, the game's protagonist – a shady hacker named Aiden Pearce – has access to all manner of tricks via his smartphone. I pull it out and connect to the security cameras that dot the garage and mark each of my opponents' positions.
Then, I remotely set off a car alarm and sneak by as a guard near the entrance goes to investigate.
Deeper in, another sentry stands in the way, so I distract him by sending him a text message disguised to look like it's from his girlfriend. While he busies himself with replying about his preferences for dinner that evening, I move on. As I get close to the exit, I'm spotted and the alarm is raised. I quickly hack into an explosive hanging from another guard's belt and then bolt for the door in the ensuing chaos of the explosion.
The demo I played at Ubisoft's Montreal studio this week suggests that Watch Dogs isn't going to be your average third-person shooter. In a world where everything is connected and hacking is your main weapon, this game will require thinking, planning and patience, rather than just fast reflexes and a quick trigger finger. As if the prospect of its open-world setting – which itself usually results in a lengthy and beefy game – wasn't enough, the methodical and strategic nature of the gameplay means this is a title that will likely keep players busy for a good, long while.
From the perspective of getting your money's worth, that's a good thing – both for gamers and for Ubisoft. Watch Dogs is a huge development effort, the biggest new original intellectual property for the company since the launch of the Assassin's Creed franchise in 2007. With more than 300 staff working on the game in Montreal for nearly six years, it's an expansive creation with high expectations, both from gamers and company management.
With the constant stream of revelations over the past year about how real-world governments are spying on people through their technology, it couldn't be a more poignant game. Pearce, although ostensibly the hero, has the ability to hack into just about everything by accessing the city's central computer system, known as CtOS. With that, he can change traffic lights, raise bridges, control trains, listen in on phone conversations and funnel peoples' bank accounts into his own.
"We don't have to explain what we're talking about anymore," says senior producer Dominic Guay. "Most people have an opinion about it, which is awesome. That's even better. It makes our game more relevant."
The long development, which started well before anyone had ever heard of Edward Snowden, hasn't been without its bumps. Watch Dogs was initially scheduled for release this past November, but it was pushed into 2014 when both the team and management decided it needed more time. The goal for at least the past few years was to create the best game yet for next-generation consoles and the consensus was that it wasn't there yet.
So far, most games for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have simply featured graphical improvements over their previous-generation counterparts. One of the more important next-generation developments, however, is the blending of multiplayer modes into single-player games. Whereas games previously ran such modes separately by having players access them through a central main menu, the beefed-up horsepower of next-gen machines is allowing them to run simultaneously.
Watch Dogs is among the vanguard of this trend as it allows players to "invade" each others' single-player games. At one point during the demo, for example, I noticed a suspicious-looking character, so I followed him. After using my phone to get a look at his profile, I started to hack his device, at which point he hurried away from me.
I followed him around a corner and into an alley, only to be discovered. Boom – a message appeared on screen, telling me my hack attempt had failed. It was only later, after talking to developers, that I learned the stranger was in fact another actual human and that I had just engaged in multiplayer.
In early playtests, players weren't voluntarily engaging in this mode as much as the developers had hoped, mainly because the incentives for doing so weren't obvious.
The game's delay allowed them to redesign the system so that the rewards for taking part – point bonuses that could be used to upgrade Pearce's skills – were clearer. Now, a sort of controlled multiplayer chaos is finally happening.
"By intertwining it we're seeing new player behaviours that we were hoping for, but also that we didn't expect," like people branching off into multiplayer games for days before ultimately returning to the main single-player story, Guay says.
The extra time also allowed for the shuffling around of certain content and events within the virtual city. By studying playtesting "heat maps," or tracking tools that showed where players were spending most of their time, the team was able to see which parts of the open world were most exciting and which were underdeveloped.
Now, they feel that the city is more balanced with interesting side missions, characters and tasks better spread out.
"You try to plan in advance, but it's impossible to have everything land in the right place," Guay says. "Maybe in a sequel it's possible, but not in this case."
While the game is also releasing with scaled-down graphics on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and, later this year, the Wii U, it has been designed primarily for the Xbox One and PS4. The next-gen versions will feature a rich and immersive Chicago, with more fully realized civilians. Pearce can use facial recognition on his phone to read profiles on just about everyone he encounters – on next-gen, there will simply be more citizens populating the city, heightening its reality.
The randomly generated profiles are relatively basic – they might reveal what a person's job is, that they're addicted to pornography, or that they give a lot of money to charity – but they do a great job at adding depth to the city. Pearce can discover that an enemy is a newlywed, for example, at which point the player might project certain behaviours or feelings onto the person and interact with them differently.
"It turns regular [non-player characters] and enemies into more than just these animated figures. They actually become these quick personalities," says lead script writer Kevin Shortt. "They're kind of like quick haikus. It changes your perspective on them just a little."
In other words, there's a lot of people to get to know in Watch Dogs. Just as in the real world, that's going to take a lot of time.