Hands On Preview: Watch_Dogs – A Giant Sandbox Meets Sneaky Sneaky Demon’s Souls
When I walked into a crowded room to try the PS4 version of Watch_Dogs, I was a little hesitant. The game managed to set my expectations high, and at the same time trigger quite a lot of my fears of disappointment, as works of this scope tend to always do, with developers that either talk big and build small, or squander too many resources on building too big and forget the little details.
Luckily almost as soon as I picked up the DualShock 4 (that was actually attached to a PC for the demo) my fears were gone. I tried to hack the cellphone of a passer by in one of the poorest districts of Chicago, only to notice that nearby CtOS control center hadn’t been violated, making most of my personal data-stealing skills ineffective. It was time to try some stealth action.
The CtOS control center was located in a red zone of the map, meaning that being discovered equated to a lengthy and possibly lethal firefight with a lot of guards. Another journalist walked nicely to the gate and hacked it open right in front of a guard, triggering the obvious reaction and getting gunned down in a matter of seconds.
Since my level of tolerance for looking dumb in front of my peers is much lower, I first hacked the local surveillance cameras one by one to mark all the guards (and there were indeed quite a few) and then I found an open spot in the fence to infiltrate the compound unseen. The developer hosting the demonstration reassured me on the fact that I could have simply ran in Rambo-style if I wanted to, but that’s not my style, so I left the Call of Duty stunts to some of the other reporters in the room.
Despite my experience driving Solid Snake around, the guards were no pushovers, or better, they were much less of a pushover than what most other specialized stealth action games got me used to. Hacking nearby car alarms did get the effect to distract them for a moment, but it also raised their awareness level, making them all the more dangerous. Their patrol routines were predictable, but also very tight. It took me quite a few minutes to finally hack the camera that helped me get a glimpse of the inside of the compound and take control of the mainframe. It doubtlessly felt very satisfying.
With one mission accomplished, I was encouraged to steal a car Grand Theft Auto-style in order to drive downtown. That allowed me to get a nice glimpse on just how lovely it is to drive with the DualShock 4: the triggers are very precise and don’t let your fingers slip like those built in the previous iteration of the controller, and the analog sticks are very tight, allowing a more solid control on my recently and unlawfully acquired classic sport car. I impressed myself by zipping through packed traffic in ways that would have had disastrous effects if I had a DualShock 3 in my hands.
I also defied my friendly demonstrator by wandering quite a bit on the way to my destination, “Sorry, didn’t see that turn”-style. The city may not be quite as big as the real Chicago, but it’s really enormous. When I drove over a long bridge, that I think crossed the digital version of the Calumet River (I’m not familiar with the real city enough to say for sure), the vista that opened in front of me was breathtaking. I asked my host if all that urban goodness was explorable, and he proudly confirmed that it was.
As I finally reached my destination without a single scratch on my car (thing that seemed to impress the demonstrator quite a bit), I started exploring the area, checking out the cellphone conversations of the civilians around me and stealing their bank account credentials to grab some handy money from the conveniently placed ATMs nearby. While I was distracted by that activity, that I was apparently enjoying way too much in its devilish voyeurism, a message warned me that I was being hacked, with a menacing red percentage bar appearing at the top of the screen.
I was told that another player in the room seamlessly entered my game from his, and disguised as one of the passers-by, he was trying to steal information and cash from me. I’m not the kind of gamer that lets this kind of stuff slide, so I immediately hacked one of the nearby cameras trying to find a civilian that was acting as something that didn’t really look like an AI.
That proved to be a harder task than I thought it would be, as the virtual citizens behave in a definitely varied and believable way, highlighting their rather advanced artificial intelligence. It took me quite a few wrong guesses before I finally caught my hacker, disguised as an African-American woman. I ran after her, but my lack of familiarity with the controls allowed her to slip away. Luckily this wasn’t the end of our duel of wits.
Thanks to my ever powerful cellphone I managed to locate the spot where the invading hacker infiltrated my instance, and tried to turn the tables by infiltrating his. Now it was my turn to walk around another player’s game disguised as a random civilian while trying to act inconspicuous. I managed to approach the local version of the protagonist Aiden Pierce and started planting the backdoor in his cellphone, then I carefully walked away to find a place to stand at while the bug took roots (you have to be stationary for the process to begin).
That’s when the real hacking actually started. The local Aiden was warned by the same red bar I saw before, and started looking for me like a headless chicken. I moved away from the telephone booth I was using to block his line of sight, and calmly walked into a nearby alley, finding myself a nice blind spot to crouch into and hide while the bar progressed towards the sweet 100% spot. When it was at about 70 I raised my gaze only to notice with dismay that there was a camera on the opposite wall pointing right at my face. If my host had thought to hack it, it would have been his win, my position was way too exposed and it was too late to move.
I hacked the camera myself as quickly as I could and used it to spy my surroundings. At around 90% Aiden walked into the alley, but he went the wrong way, overlooking my position. Victory was mine, and the sensation of triumph was priceless, despite the fact that I didn’t have to shoot a single bullet to grief the dude that tried to steal my stuff.
With the backdoor planted and functional, I ran through the other end of the alley and stole another car, quickly driving to safety. I just got a glimpse of Watch_Dogs‘ hacking PvP, and I was really impressed by the simplicity of it all, combined by the thrill of switching from hunter to hunted in that way based on stealth and cunning, more than on a fast trigger and good aim.
That’s how I walked away from the demo with most of my worries about Watch_Dogs dispelled. Not only the concerns about scope and level of detail I previously harbored seemed unjustified, but the game managed to really surprise me with the ingenuity of its multiplayer gameplay, that many will compare to Demon’s Souls, but still retains its own unique flair and theme.
While I walked away, I was just a little sad because I won’t be able to set foot in that lovely, enormous urban sandbox for a few more months, but I couldn’t help but looking at the faces of the dudes around me, wondering who was the one I had just outsmarted. Good times…