Watch Dogs’ open world, hacking and its surprising companion app – first impressions

Watch Dogs was announced what feels like an age ago (E3 2012, to be precise), so it’s a surprise to discover that no-one outside Ubisoft has been allowed to actually play the thing, even now, a few months from release. That changed yesterday when we spent an hour dabbling with the game’s more dynamic open world elements, and sampled how hacking into other players’ games will work. There was also a first look at the surprisingly excellent, completely free tablet-based add-on game, which pitches the on-console player against a tablet-controlled helicopter in a frantic dash across Chicago.

Our first job is to hack into a CtOS control centre, which in turn gives us access to the game’s wider suite of tools in the surrounding area – the ability to listen in on conversations, peer through the lens of the surveillance cameras on every street corner, play with traffic lights, open gates and tinker with almost anything connected to the network. This means a simple spot of stealth, spotting a weak spot in the centre’s guarded server room and use of a familiar cover system and close-quarters stealth kill.

Then, it’s out into the world, where we can now scan and hack as we please. We pinch data from a passerby’s mobile phone and to use it to take cash from their account at an ATM; we listen in on a phone conversation involving a resident with an interest in niche pornography; we jump from camera to camera, eventually ending up gazing into the apartment of a man who has, for some reason, recently stolen a mannequin from a shop. We steal a little more data from his laptop, just because we can. Though we know much of this is generated on the fly, it’s still impressive, and gives the impression that each place and person exists independently of us; an important trick to pull for an open world game.

Alerts on the map draw our attention to events in the area, and you can choose whether or not to interject. How you handle each situation – be it by stealth or by brute force – feeds back into a reputation system and an ever more detailed profile of the way you play. It’s fitting that Ubisoft is watching your every move.

A hold-up at a liquor store could have been tackled in a number of different ways, but, keen to squeeze the triggers of the DualShock 4 in our hands and wired on a little too much coffee, we opt to just shoot the would-be thief in the back. Brutal. He’s left for dead as we coolly stroll away, apparently unnoticed by the authorities. Frankly, it wasn’t the most thrilling of introductions to Watch Dogs’ dynamic world; but in conversation with colleagues who encountered the same side mission afterwards, several different stories unfurled. One took longer to arrive at the scene and found the assailant escaping on foot before giving chase, triggering Focus mode – bullet time by any other name – to take down the crook with a friendly, non-lethal kneecapping. Another encountered the ne-er-do-well’s cohorts around the back of the liquor store and later succumbed to a volley of gang gunfire.

The difference between these events and GTA’s systems is in the permanence of every action. Where in Rockstar’s worlds you can go on a rampage and emerge (almost) unscathed, Ubisoft says that Watch Dogs’ reputation system will discourage players from going on a bloody cross-town killing spree just to see what might happen – the studio is aiming for a deeper kind of dynamic play with the singleplayer campaign, and it all revolved around discoveries made when you hack a pedestrian’s phone or laptop.

Thankfully, the thrill of freeform chaos hasn’t been drained out of the game entirely. The ability to hack into other players’ games and the companion Watch Dogs app each satisfy the urge to cause mischief away from the main storyline, which remains something of a mystery – we weren’t allowed to play through any really meaty campaign missions in our demo.

Hackers are signalled by an on-screen alert and will appear as any other pedestrian would in Ubisoft’s alt-Chicago, so scanning people and looking out for odd behaviour is the best way to identify your assailant. Fail to accost them before a countdown reaches zero and they’ve won, stealing precious data and cash from your profile. The initial identification part is tense (and a little fiddly – you have to target each and every suspect individually), but once that’s over the potential for emergent, tactical play is huge. Hacking encourages the player to think about how to use the environment more creatively. As the hacker, it’s wise to seeking out a good hiding place, different ways to stop your victim from getting a clean shot at you or, more simply the best escape route; as the hacked, you can hinder their escape by jamming traffic, triggering barriers which pop up from the ground and even raising bridges once you’re on their tail. It all feeds back into that persistent, evolving identity. Successful hackers will have bigger data networks and then, in turn, become more valuable prey themselves.

Pursuits of a more familiar kind define the companion app, and wisely, your actions here have no bearing on the singleplayer campaign or your character’s statistics. Though most iOS and Android add-ons have struggled to feel like more than an afterthought, Watch Dogs attempts to rectify that with frantic timed races through checkpoints through the city, with one player in a police helicopter and the other on the ground. It’ll be completely free, and will allow players to challenge friends or strangers with a uPlay account.

The player on the tablet swipes around a zoomed-out view of the city and, controlling a police chopper from above, must stay in range of the player on the ground while raising barriers and bridges to halt their progress through a series of checkpoints. Avoiding those obstacles is a real test of Ubisoft Reflections’ work on the cars, bikes and trucks in the game, as it’s only by racing across town through checkpoints that you’ll escape the attentions of your opponent above. Handling is noticeably different from vehicle to vehicle, and the roads are busy – dodging in and out of traffic isn’t easy, and full control is never quite within your grasp. That uncertainty adds to the thrill of the chase, particularly with your opponent in the same room, though it’ll feel a little soulless played remotely on a tablet with only the grey city map for company.

In its detailed and dynamic openworld, cat-and-mouse hacking and a surprising companion app, we can see Watch Dogs’ potential, but with the nature of Watch Dogs’ main storyline still to be revealed it is too early to pass judgement. It is a subtler kind of open world game, certainly, and one that might lack a little character compared to Rockstar’s most famous locations. But it compensates with a rich set of environmental toys and the sense that each inhabitant has a backstory of their own. In allowing us to wander around its open world a little, Ubisoft has set the scene well – but left us wanting much, much more.