Why you need to keep an eye on Watch_Dogs
- E3 2012
Words by Mick Fraser
One of the biggest highlights of this year's surprisingly-unexciting E3 came courtesy of Ubisoft, when the European developer rather unexpectedly dropped Watch_Dogs on us all.
Casting you in the role of vigilante hacker Aiden Pearce, this open-world thriller goes a step beyond anything we've seen in games before by arming you with an entire city. Able to hack into the Central Operating System (CtOS) of near-future Chicago, Aiden can tap into phone conversations, alter traffic lights or learn intimate details about a person at a glance.
The frankly stunning 9-minute E3 demo shows a mission from, presumably, fairly well into the game, wherein Aiden is attempting to assassinate media mogul Joseph DeMarco – a rich and powerful socialite wrongly acquitted of murder.
After meeting an acquaintance at an event organised by DeMarco, Aiden receives a gun and then listens in on security to learn that not only is DeMarco en route, but that his employees are already aware of Aiden's presence. Able to determine the personal history of individuals around him (from single mothers to krav maga instructors), Aiden identifies the bouncer most likely to kick off and proceeds to beat the shit out if him with a retractable cosh on his way out.
The level of detail is extraordinary, the engine producing a graphical beauty that we suspected – but didn't know – was possible on the current generation of consoles. The segue from player-controlled action to cinematic dialogue between Aiden and his contact is slick, flawless, putting even the Uncharted series under its shadow, and we're willing to bet that this sequence isn't tightly-scripted, either. There's bound to be more ways than one for Aiden to learn of DeMarco's approach – we'd even guess that you can thoroughly scope out the gallery without being detected right away if you're careful enough.
Regardless, if you're anything like us, as Aiden steps outside you'll almost fall clean off your chair. The detail is phenomenal, the lights, the night, the living city, the rain – oh, the rain... It's rare in games to see a world that looks so alive, that feels so real, even down to the way Aiden moves.
As Aiden stops to cross at the lights, we're shown something incredible. Out comes the little pocket gadget he's been thumbing all night, up pops a radial menu and crunch goes the traffic as Aiden's actions – carried out in real time under the player's control – cause one hell of a meaty pile-up. Cars explode, flip into the air, plough into a nearby gas station; people panic and run through smoke and fire to get to safety – and DeMarco's hired guns leap out and start shooting.
The combat looks solid as Aiden ducks down, using the smashed cars for cover. One guy screams for help and Aiden opens his door to drag him into shelter. All the time the little minimap, the occasional flash of the radial menu and camera work remind us that this all gameplay.
The way Aiden moves and reacts to dynamic stimuli like a sudden explosion is fast and fluid; the moment he leaps over a car bonnet to shoot a guy point-blank in the face we remember that Ubisoft are responsible for the Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell franchises. It has that same level of cinematic flare, just on the right side of Hollywood, that you see in a rooftop chase with Ezio or a carefully planned mark & execute with Sam Fisher. It's obviously a contextual move, but it looks natural and exciting.
We couldn't help but feel, for the whole 9 minutes, that Watch_Dogs is important. Not only because the artwork and dynamic character animations are so effective, or because the voice acting and mo-capping looks so real, or even because the concept of slow-burn action meets in-depth mainframe hacking hasn't been executed like this before – but because, as a whole, it has the potential to push the developers of "next-gen" titles to deliver quality games earlier.
Similarly to the way a little-remembered Criterion-developed shooter called Black came along to show what the original Xbox could really do right at the end of its cycle, so Watch_Dogs arrives next year to make us question whether we really need a new generation yet – and why consoles produce their best titles as swansongs. As James Bowden said, games like Watch_Dogs and The Last of Us are set to prove that this generation isn't done with yet, right before Microsoft and Sony steamroll over them with a pair of new consoles whose full potential won't be realised for another 5 – 7 years.
But that's a discussion for another day. For now, let's just say that if Watch_Dogs plays as good as it looks like it plays, there aren't many other titles so far announced for 2013 that will trouble it overmuch. We hate to echo the hype train at the best of times, but we've got a feeling there's something very special about this one. Don't let us down, Ubi.
Watch_Dogs is due in 2013. For more information, visit the official website.
Words by Mick Fraser (Twitter: @Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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