Here we go again. I'm at a preview of a big game coming from Ubisoft, hoping that it's going to be as terrific as it seems. I can be sceptical, but I'll be damned if I can cease being optimistic. Watch Dogs is looking and sounding good.
We're in a conference room. Same one where a different team at Ubisoft Montreal talked up Assassin's Creed III rather impressively a year ago. A few of this new game's creators are there. One is going to play the game on a PS4 controller. Two are going to talk about it. Me, Brian Crecente from Polygon, and a bunch of Canadian reporters are there sitting around a long table. The gameplay will wait.
First comes the spiel, and pretty soon comes the cascade of good ideas that made Watch Dogs, already a head-turner when it debuted at E3 last year, a fall 2013 game near the top of the list of the ones I can't wait to play.
They go through the basics, setting up their character — vigilante Aiden Pearce — and their game world — a modern Chicago wracked with crime and heavily networked by a program called CtOS that is responsible for dotting the city with security cameras. The game is open-world. As Pearce, we'll be running around, stealing cars, shooting bad guys, all the stuff you might think of in a Grand Theft Auto, though they don't mention rival series. You'll also be doing a lot of hacking. Hacking the traffic lights, hacking ATMs, hacking cell phones, hacking any piece of electronics in the game to learn things, change things, and use the city as a weapon. If you've been aware of Watch Dogs, you knew all that.
Then they're bragging about their game engine. Specifically, senior producer Dominic Guay is boasting about how much "dynamism" their game engine can allow. At first what he's talking about sounds like the kind of dynamism we've seen in other open world games. But then he starts writing checks that those other games tend not to cash. Here's that bit:
"[At] E3 2012, in our demo, the player went to a street corner, hacked a traffic light, caused an accident. That trapped his target. He started a firefight there and then.
"Now, theoretically, you could do the exact same thing in any game engine. You could walk up to a street corner, a specific street corner, then you’d hit the button — or not — and a scripted event, something with always the same outcome would happen and there would be an accident. And then if there was a fight… the [artificially-intelligent enemies] would be predesigned or predetermined to go to certain areas and start shooting at the player. Things would be very predictable in the sense that they would always happen in the same way.
"But not in Watch Dogs.
"The player can go to any of the hundreds of street corners in our city, Chicago, and if there’s a traffic light, he can hack it at any time for any purpose he has. He can do so at any time of day, in any traffic condition with any amount of pedestrians around. And when he does this, will he even cause an accident? I don’t know. It depends on the traffic condition. And if there’s an accident, the other cars will try steering away, avoiding the accident. At E3 that caused a fire — an explosion — in a nearby gas station. But it could have caused hundreds of other things. Now, some of those drivers will be knocked out, pedestrians will try to help those injured people, some pedestrians might call the cops, the cops on this street corner might try to intervene. If a fight starts there, any of those cars can be used as cover by the player or the AIs. And if the player wants to navigate across this busy intersection, you need to be able to do so in a very fluid manner even though that intersection was basically created out of his own will — his own source of action."
This sounds pretty great, because, hey, I do want you game developers to be trying to make your gameplay awesome. I'd rather you brag about that than your graphics.
And then he's talking about the wind.
He's actually showing visualizations of this on the TV behind him. We see city blocks with lots of arrows flowing through them. The arrows are of different colours. Guay is talking about how Chicago is the windy city and how in lots of cities you'll get gusts of wind down the corridors between skyscrapers. They're trying to get that in the game. They want there to be wind gusts when a car rushes by or when the elevated train goes by. Later, when we chat one on one he'll confirm that this is all cosmetic for now. They'd like to make it a gameplay thing — would love to incorporate that wind into the game's driving physics. But it sounds like a maybe, trending toward an unlikely. Still, he reminds me that the game takes place in the fall and I suggest that the higher-end versions of Watch Dogs could do a lot with blowing leaves or even newspapers. He doesn't commit, but, hey, dynamic wind? I want to see it (to the extent you can see wind. You get the idea!).
This sounds pretty great, because, hey, I do want you game developers to be trying to make your gameplay awesome.
Guay starts promising an exploration of moral grey areas in this game, suggesting that as a vigilante we'll be making decisions about who to help or hurt in this city without being given the spectrum extremes of simply being the nicest or most evil guy around. More on this in another story, I promise.
We're on to multiplayer, which they still don't really want to talk about, except to point out that they've shown some versions of it already in their E3 demo and in their February demo shown during the unveiling of the PlayStation 4. In that PS4 demo, they'd had Aiden Pearce running around the city, fighting, hacking and so on. But they also showed/hinted/teased that another player was controlling a security camera in the game. Guay explains at this event I'm at that the other player was in that game on a mission from a faction in Watch Dogs. The mission was to follow Pearce using security cameras. Multiplayer tracking of someone else's gaming hero? OK! That could be cool. I'm in your game, watching you. Nothin' creepy about that at all... nope! Good idea.
It's when Guay gets to teasing how awesome the game's "companion apps" will be that it's clearly time to get to some gameplay. Look, it does sound neat that you'll be able to play the game on PC or console while I'm interacting with your game from my phone while riding the bus, but today is not the day to be excited about companion apps.
Today is the day to be excited about games that make Wire references:
They play the game for about half an hour, and one of the first things that catches my eye is how real the city and its people look. Not in some "good lord, look at all the polygons rendering their faces" kind of real, but in a, hey, "people actually dress like this" and "there's grass growing between the cracks of the sidewalk" kind of real.
The clips I have to show you are from about five minutes of footage of a playthrough of what the developers play live with the PS4 controller. That five minutes shows some of the good parts, but not all.
For example, what I can't show you is that civilians will notice if you're acting shady and might call the cops, and this will allow you to hack their phone to cancel the call or, as they do in the demo they show me, just knock the phone out of the person's hand. It's such a tiny thing, but knocking a phone out of someone's hand is something I've never seen in a video game. No snark: this is progress!
I can show you how Pearce can hack stuff and use it to his advantage when sneaking and fighting guys. Check this out:
And here he is hacking while driving:
Oh, and this is the bit where he hacks some a Wi-Fi hotspot, uses it to get into the laptop webcam in some guy's apartment, and then is able to then hack the guy's phone, get his licence plate number, and track down his car. He is apparently able to have that car added to the player's collection of accessible cars. Here's part of that:
Some of the best stuff, sadly, isn't in the clips I've got.
Pearce has a cell phone and the player can pull up its interface and add apps to it. Some apps are for legit purposes, some are for criminal activities. One is like the song-identifying Shazam. The developers show this one off by having Pearce walk by a shop where some music is playing. He holds his phone up and IDs the song. Then, using in-game money, he can buy the song and add it to a playlist. I'm not sure if this same app is in play later when, walking by a shop that is playing music he doesn't like, the Ubisoft guy hacks the shop's sound system and changes what song is playing.
The thing I keep flip-flopping about with Watch Dogs is how excited I can be for this game, how much it actually is different as opposed to just being dressed up differently.
Pearce's phone also has some games in it. Specifically, he's got augmented reality games. Yes, this video game has virtual augmented reality games. They're kind of just a justification for the kind of rooftop-race/score-attack type of challenges we've seen in other open-world games, I guess, but the justification is just so wonderful and executed so well, that I'm immediately a fan. The game we're shown is called NVZN ("Invasion") and has Pearce holding his phone up and, through it, seeing a Chicago that now has purple aliens floating around and attaching themselves to pedestrians, waiting to be shot for high scores. As Pearce is playing the game, a computer-controlled civilian walks by, muttering "This is not a playground."
The thing I keep flip-flopping about with Watch Dogs is how excited I can be for this game, how much it actually is different as opposed to just being dressed up differently. There are a lot of neat effects that pop up, including all these displays that hover over all of the people in the game's city, each offering some backstory and maybe affecting how you feel about them. I'm not sure how much that stuff matters. Maybe it will change how I feel about the cops and crooks and civilians I encounter in an open world game. Maybe not. I'm not sure. And for all the cleverness of the hacking, at plenty of times in the demo, I'm reminded that, yeah, this is a game that's ultimately about shooting people:
I ask Guay about this later. Did you consider making the game without guns? It's not a violence thing that I'm reacting to. It's a more-of-the-same thing. The guns stuff feels so conventional compared to the hacking. They had these discussions, he tells me, but decided to give people the opportunity to choose their own play style. He doesn't expect that you'll be able to go through the game without using a gun, but he's seen big chunks of the game played with just hacking, stealth and no guns.
Watch Dogs does make a very good impression and it's an easy one to root for. Please, let it be different. Please, let it be as refreshing as it seems it can be. My hopes are high.
The game will be out on November 19 for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC, on whatever the launch date is for PS4 and, presumably, at some point on whatever they're calling the next Xbox.