Although many onlookers maintain that E3 2012 was a lacklustre vintage, the event will surely be remembered for one rather rare occurrence: a brand new IP stole the show. While familiar brands huffed and puffed for attention during morose press conferences and on exhibitors’ stands, Watch Dogs sprang its unknown universe onto a captivated audience and immediately everyone got it, making the rest of the show floor look decidedly last-generation.
The setup is intriguing, and it’s also enormously relevant to modern fears. Chicago has become a hyper-connected data city, in which a single computer system controls everything from the electricity grid to subway lines and surveillance cameras. At the controls are a group of vast corporations able to access the records of every inhabitant. In this near-future information hell, privacy is dead and people are just data clusters to be exploited.
Enter Aiden Pearce, a sort of data vigilante who has worked out how to hack into the mainframe and can now control the city and grab the personal data of any inhabitant via his super-powerful smartphone. Ubisoft isn’t saying much about his backstory, but he has a major vendetta against the corporate rulers of the city and is seeking revenge through his stranglehold of the data channels. “You’ll experience the power of controlling an entire network and surveillance system,” says lead story designer Kevin Shortt. “Every citizen’s darkest secrets will be at your fingertips. You not only play in an open city, but also for the first time, the city becomes your weapon.”
It seems players will be able to utilise this ability in a variety of ways. During the E3 demo, Pearce needs to gain access to a private gallery opening, sponsored by a wealthy businessman named Joseph Demarco: Pearce’s mission target. Jamming the mobile phone network sends a bouncer scurrying away from the doorway to look for a better signal, allowing Pearce to sneak right past. Inside the club, he hooks up with a contact who tells him Demarco isn’t around – however, Pearce spots one of the magnate’s employees on the phone and is able to use the ‘profiler’ functionality on his smartphone to listen in. Demarco knows you’re there and he’s driving over.
This looks to be a small section of a much wider campaign in the game’s open-world environment. And fascinatingly, Watch Dogs offers a seemingly emergent side quest system. The streets are filled with pedestrians, each of them carrying a phone that Pearce can hack into and investigate, revealing voicemail messages, medical and marital information as well as any criminal record. Any of this may throw up interesting snippets that players are free to investigate. Even more intriguingly, a multiplayer component may see you being given objectives that dynamically result from other players’ actions – the demo even ends with a second player covering Pearce’s escape.
And the impetus to really pummel the streets of Chicago will come from the game’s astonishing visuals. Drizzle billows in the night sky, creating patterns on reflective puddles, while steam flows from grates in the sidewalk, all running on a high-spec PC.
In addition to the main game, the team has devised a smartphone and tablet app, which will allow players to engage in asynchronous multiplayer challenges, as well as use a map of the city to track the progress of friends in the singleplayer campaign. It’s a beautifully ironic notion – a game about the death of privacy and massively connected data networks that features cross-platform functionality and open access to the play-data of others.
With a likely release date of 2014, there are rumours Watch Dogs will launch alongside next-gen consoles. Either way, it’s clearly looking towards a new generation of design.