Grand Theft Auto V is so well-made, so visually impressive — even on my creaky old Xbox 360 — that it could crush any excitement I might have for any other 2013 open-world action games that are set in big cities and let you steal cars and cause mayhem. There is that risk.
And there I was, yesterday, with a chance to play November's Watch Dogs running at a demo suite in a hotel in New York City. I think it was the E3 build that the game's senior producer, Dominic Guay was showing. Looked next-gen but, frankly, GTA V looks pretty close on current-gen.
I had been so, so, soooo interested in Watch Dogs. For quite some time.
It's just... Watch Dogs has one character, not three. There's still so much for me to explore in Los Santos. I'm not really dying for more open-world gunfights right now, which is what I think this game has a lot of.
I was sitting there with Watch Dogs in front of me fearing that GTA had killed my buzz.
I then got my hands on the (PS4) controller and... I can't say I played the game properly in that I didn't go on any missions or glean anything about the story. I can say that I just screwed around and that Watch Dogs, quite successfully, provides some great open-world screwing around. Buzz coming back, thanks in part to these three things:
1) Knocking people's cell phones out of their hands is the great new video game interaction of 2013
I reported back in May that Watch Dogs hacker protagonist Aiden Pearce can knock people's mobile phones from their hands. Yesterday, I did it. It's great.
First, you freak the citizen's of Watch Dogs' near-future Chicago out by, oh, I don't know, taking out a machine gun. They will reach for their phones. You'll see little phone icons over their head making this more clear. You'll hear them dialling. This is your chance! Run up to them and hit the melee button. You'll knock their phone down to the sidewalk. Doing this once, I discovered is not enough. It's too much fun!
I started running up and down the sidewalk, knocking everyone's phones out of their hands. Knocked some of their coffee cups out of their hands, too.
If video games are in some way virtual places to act out things that we'd never do, then society will soon owe Watch Dogs gratitude. Act out your revenge on chatty iPhone users this November on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U and PC!
2) Hacking traffic lights so that they're always green is divine
When you're walking around in Watch Dogs' Chicago, you can hack stuff. ATMs. Security cameras. People's phones. Etc.
When you're in a car, you can hack, too. That means that, when you're racing toward a traffic light and you see that it is red, you can hack it. It will turn green.
Sure, you probably don't stop for red lights in video games as is, but I can now report to you that there is something sweetly satisfying about tearing down an avenue in a virtual sports car, spotting a red traffic light, holding down the game's hacking button, seeing that light switch to green as cars in the intersecting lane screech to a halt and then racing through.
You're supposed to be able to hack traffic lights and road barricades in this game in order to stymie drivers (cops!) who are chasing you, but I'm telling you, just getting the lights to all go green is great.
As a bonus, you can, as I did, drive really fast toward a drawbridge, hack it so that it starts rising, and do a jump over it. Very, very good.
3) At long last, we can judge video game characters based on their income
If you hit a certain button on your controller while playing Watch Dogs, you can see little floating pop-up boxes floating over any of the crowds of people in the game's world. The boxes will tell you a person's name, a little bit of biographical information, their occupation and their income. This is really cool for anyone out there who is considering a career change or who enjoys quietly judging people.
I observed this feature closely yesterday. Here are some in-game incomes that I jotted down while watching someone else play Watch Dogs yesterday. Guay said he thinks the game's writers pulled this info from real data (translation: didn't make it up)...
Baker — $US18k
Laundry operator — $US45k
Hair stylist — $US22k
Chef — $US45k
Customer service rep — $US48k
Real estate agent — $US34k
Freelance writer — $US29k
Food inspector — $US27k
Adult literacy instructor — $US46k
How do those seem to you? High? Low?
Narrow your eyes on this one, which I found in an official screenshot:
And here's real-life-celebrity-turned-Watch-Dogs-hype-woman Aisha Tyler, from a trailer for the game (running on an ugly current-gen build):
Trust me that when you play this game, you'll be seeing tons and tons of this. Every character in the crowded game's got this info. And as you walk by you'll see it pop up all the time unless you turn your profiler-tech off.
I'm not sure if it'll get annoying, but, for the moment, I like it. I like how it makes me think of the characters differently. Hey, that poor guy's busting his butt as a writer! I like him. That person's an overpaid exec. Screw them. That henchmen isn't making any money. I'll spare him!
For better or worse, you can't just approach and punch any of these people — the melee button only works when things are already heated — and I think shooting them would be overkill, but you can hack them and maybe steal money from their bank accounts.
Sadly, for the sake of game balance, I was told, you can't get more money by hacking the better-paid people. Being able to hack a random millionaire for his or her millions would have imbalanced the game, Guay told me. Too bad.
The above three reasons are probably not the reason's you'd spend $US60 on a game. If they are, hey, you're a very unusual gamer and an interesting person. They are, however, things that make Watch Dogs still feel timely and brimming with potential.
Open world games are generally better if you can have fun screwing around in them. This week, even in the shadow of GTA V, I can say that Watch Dogs still seems to have what it takes.
This preview was based on a pre-release build of Watch Dogs running on a PC with a PS4 controller. Hands-on time lasted about 10-15 minutes.