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Turning our greatest weakness into a strength, Watch Dogs puts you in the shoes of hacker extraordinaire, Aiden Pierce.

Most of us don’t give a second thought to how connected we, and our world, are connected online everyday. At any given moment most of us have at least one smart device within reach, for many of us, it’s several devices. What would you do if you had unlimited access to not only other people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers, but streetlights, surveillance cameras, and even building infrastructure? Will you hack the school teacher’s cell phone to get her bank records or will you intercept the drug trafficker’s text to stop a deal? Watch Dogs puts that scenario in front of you, and you’ll need to decide what kind of person you choose to play as.

I recently spent a few hours at a Ubisoft press event playing Watch Dogs on the Playstation 4, both in free roam single-player and online multiplayer. I’m happy to say the wait has not been in vain. After being delayed from a Holiday 2013 release to May 27, 2014, the development team used the extra time to put finishing touches on the open-world experience. The build I played looked and felt great. In fact, it looked so great I wrongly assumed I was playing the PC version. It’s important to remember builds of a game change over the development process, so while certain scenes may not look identical to their trailer counterparts from 2012, the overall world of Chicago looks fantastic.

I began my playthrough learning how anti-hero protagonist Aidan Pierce went from being a hacker and a thief to a man out for revenge. Story spoilers aside, Aidan is a conflicted character and you as the player will need to craft what kind of man he becomes through the choices you make in the sandbox of Chicago.

There is an extensive RPG-styled skill tree consisting of four main parts, Hacking, Combat, Driving, and Crafted Items. Spending earned skill points will unlock bonuses that will help you be a better driver, a savvier fighter, or give you access to cool gadgets, depending on which playstyle you choose to invest in. Each individual branch varies on the amount of options, but it was extensive enough that I asked Creative Director Jonathan Morin about a “New Game Plus” mode, and he told me that no such mode exists as there is enough ancillary content for players to continue leveling after they complete the main mission.
At first glance, Watch Dogs appears to be a GTA clone, right down to the car hijacking, city traversal, and third-person shooting mechanics. I asked Morin what makes his game different.

“I think the theme of hacking is not just a little tool that you can use here or there. It’s something you can use while you’re driving, while you’re shooting, while you’re in stealth, while you’re interacting with citizens,” he said. “Pretty much everything in the game…is tied to that online element…We wanted it to be the entire structure of the game.”

Check out the Single Player preview right here!

Hacking can be used as much or as little as you want in the game when you are in free roam mode, but from my short experience with the game, mastering hacking can be extremely useful. There are a variety of ways, and objects, to hack using a series of button prompts, including using mobile apps on your phone like Jam Coms which interrupts phone calls. Or if you are on the run from the police you can change stoplights, blow open steam covers, and even raise bridges with the single press of a button.

You can travel almost everywhere you look in the open world by walking, running, swimming, driving, or even taking the famous L train, which also acts as a fast travel system. Aidan isn’t as swift on his feet as his Assassin’s Creed counterparts nor is the driving as fluid as Grand Theft Auto V, but I’m hoping the skill tree system will help improve that as you play through the game. There are all kinds of locations to visit in Ubisoft’s interpretation of Chicago, including Pawnee, Parker Square, and Mad Mile.

Many people have inquired about the size of the world, and while it certainly seems quite large based on the map I saw, it isn’t going to be largest in open-world history. “I think size is something you put in a game for a purpose. You want to make sure you have the gameplay dynamics that need it, or else you are just doing it to create more space between A and B,” explained Morin. “It’s a huge city. It’s a very dense one, but I always say don’t expect the biggest city ever created in a video game.”

While running or driving through Chicago you’ll inevitably end up fighting someone. When you do engage in combat, do so carefully. Aidan is a mere mortal and cannot sustain heavy gunfire. There is a whole Combat branch to the skill tree, but utilizing the stealth and cover system was a more successful path to victory, at least for me. There are plenty of ways for you to practice your hacking, fighting, or sneaking by going on some of the hundreds of side missions. Like many sandbox games, it is very easy to stray from the main storyline with fun distractions like a ride in a Spider Tank on a Digital Trip. Yes, I said Spider Tank.

I asked where the inspiration for Digital Trips can from and Morin said, “We found on the web those kind of digital/audio things that can trigger hallucinations on your brain. We thought that was pretty cool, and we decided to just exaggerate that a little bit…The Spider Robot tank is kind of an exaggeration of the cyberpunk inspiration we have in the game.”

In addition to Digital Trips there are Fixer Contracts to fulfill, Gang Hideouts to infiltrate, Criminal Convoys to take down, and more. Still need more ways to avoid finishing the game? How about mini-games? Poker, Drinking Games, Chess Puzzles, and AR inspired Cash Runs are just a few of the options.

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Everything you do earns you more experience and contributes to your reputation, including online multiplayer. The development team stressed to me that all of the online experiences are completely optional, and that you will never have anyone entering your game without your permission despite the impression I got from some of the trailers I had seen.

“It’s a seamless online experience,” said Lead Gameplay Designer Danny Belanger. “When you’re in free roam, any activity in the game, you can choose to go there….All the experience and skills, the money and the weapons you get from those you bring back in your single-player game and they can be used. You just continue progressing. It’s just one seamless, continuous experience.”

Generally when I hear developers repeat buzzwords like “seamless” my skepticism flag immediately rises. But, he is not wrong. It did truly feel like a seamless experience, something similar to what games like Need for Speed: Rivals and The Crew are doing. You can select which mode you want to play from the city map, and continue to run around the world causing mayhem while waiting to get dropped into a match.

Online play options include a small, but solid, variety of options. The only mode I didn’t get to try out was Free Roam but it seemed pretty self-explanatory. Belanger couldn’t confirm how many players could play in each mode because he said it isn’t locked in yet, but that it could vary depending which platform you are playing on.

The hacking mechanics really shined in Online Decryption, the only mode where there is any type of cooperative play. In Decryption you need to recover a file from opposing players in a sort of “capture the flag.” When I began the round every player was competing to secure and decrypt the file before anyone else. The game quickly escalated once the file was secured by a player who then jumped into a vehicle, or worse, a motorcycle.

Chasing down the file became quite hectic once more players dropped in, so utilizing hacks such as changing traffic lights or raising security bars from the ground was essential in tracking down the file. There is also the option for team PvP in Decryption where teammates help protect the person who was able to pick up the file against the opposing team who is trying to steal it. I actually had more fun ramming my car into opposing players while protecting the file keeper than actually being the one who captured the file.

But unfortunately, it appears this is the only team-based or cooperative mechanic in the game at this time. I asked why that is and Belanger explained, “Trust me, we tried a lot of different things but the modes have to be fun all the time. To help someone, you have to find the right moment. When does he need help? Does he want help? By the time you find that person and you matchmake, is it going to be too late?”

That is certainly a valid point in a game where stealth is a big focus. The Online Tailing and Hacking modes are both good modes to use stealth in and focus more on 1v1 gameplay. Online Racing is also a great way to see a lot of Chicago while earning experience points to bring back to your single-player game. You can learn more details about the multiplayer experiences in Watch Dogs by watching my interview with Danny below:

Check out the Multiplayer preview right here!

In addition to the various multiplayer modes on the console and PC versions of the game, Ubisoft is also releasing ctOS, a companion game for mobile devices. The game is completely free with no built-in microtransactions. Lead Game Designer for ctOS Philippe Baude said, “You have to forget everything you know about companion apps because this is not a second-screen experience.”

You’ll play as a ctOS agent from your iOS or Android device, and infiltrate a player’s game from their console or PC version of Watch Dog in real time. The mobile player can set up checkpoints the console/PC player has to hit before time runs out. Playing from the ctOS perspective, mobile players can use police helicopters, cars, and other obstacles to slow down their opponent. Both iOS and Android versions are compatible with all other platforms. You can see how the infiltration works and what modes are available in hands-on demo by watching the video below.

Check out the ctOS Demo right here!

“It’s always an invitation, it’s never an invasion,” said Baude, so players never have to engage in any of the online experiences if they prefer to play solo. But if you and your friends love to grief each other, I definitely recommend trying it out.

Watch Dogs was one of my most anticipated games of 2013 and it continues to be one of my most anticipated games, just now in 2014. From the innovative gameplay mechanics inside the sandbox of Chicago to the unique character interactions and refreshing narrative, once you dive in, you’ll remember all the reasons you were excited for Watch Dogs in the first place. The freedom of choice of how you want to play is both empowering and a bit frightening, because you never know who is watching.

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