The problem open world games have when it comes to telling gritty stories is the fact that players have a lot of freedom to go off-script. The best examples of this genre toss moral considerations into a rubbish skip before the plot even gets going.
Titles like Grand Theft Auto 5, Saints Row 4, Prototype and InFamous embrace the tendency of players to behave like sociopaths while enjoying their chosen form of entertainment, rather than risk creating a disconnection between the activities of the player and the portrayal of the character they’re controlling.
Ubisoft's Watch Dogs follows suit, but it doesn’t let the player off entirely; here’s a game that offers players immense power while pinpricking their conscience at every opportunity.
Watch Dogs: Characters
The world of Watch Dogs is the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. The game’s protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is a hacker and as such is used to seeing most people in his environment as obstacles, targets or non-entities.
This fish-eyed view of the world doesn’t extend to his family – indeed, we learn early on in our hands-on that Pearce is seeking revenge for the murder of his niece and is tapping up contacts to locate a person who is stalking his sister. But by and large, Pearce is a cold pragmatist and the only indication he’s a good guy is his penchant for stopping the odd street crime.
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In other words, Pearce has the same outlook in the game that the player does. Any NPC on the radar is an obstacle or a target. All the rest are background noise. Any activity the player pursues needs no moral justification since the world and people they affect negatively (or otherwise) aren’t real. In the end, their moral compass is the only guide they need and, if it’s non-existent, it doesn’t snap the game’s narrative.
Watch Dogs: Environment
It’s a neat trick positioning a borderline sociopath at the centre of an open-world game as it allows the developers to grant players freedom, but not at the cost of the story they’re trying to tell. Watch Dogs isn’t the first game to do this, but it may be the first title to take a crack at pushing guilt on the player to steer them onto the straight and narrow.
As the player guides Pearce through the world, they can use his phone’s ‘Profiler’ function to pluck data on NPCs in his vicinity out of the air. This allows them to hoover up bank details – useful, if they hack an ATM – but it also presents them brief windows into hundreds of lives.
They’ll hear a phone call in which a woman tells a friend she’s worried her nephew is being neglected by his alcoholic mother. They’ll read texts between two lovers patching up their differences. They’ll see a post on a social network site from a young girl who has just been stood up on a first date.
As these details flood in, they start to instil a sense that the crowd of people in Pearce’s vicinity are real people with real lives, loves and problems. After a fashion, unless they’re totally heartless, the player starts considering each illegal activity that’s open to Pearce. The start asking questions about their actions; do they, for example, empty the bank account of someone they know has Bi-Polar disorder? Do they lift the last cash a man battling mortgage payments have?
Watch Dogs: Features
Make no mistake, they’re able to do all of this – and a whole lot more with Pearce’s phone, which isn’t so much a communications device as it is his all-powerful pellet of smiting. With it, players can jam communications, hack into CCTV cameras, unlock and start cars, scramble traffic lights, deploy sleeping policeman, plunge streets into darkness and more.
The range of abilities available to Pearce is mapped out on a talent tree players can access through the right bumper and they can level up using XP they earn throughout the game.
The map of Watch Dogs is positively twitching with activities, ranging from street races, to side missions, to nodes and towers to hack and more. Players can even troll one another by entering each other’s games, although they have to be given permission by their target to do so first.
Watch Dogs: Plot
And then of course, there are the main campaign missions. The over-arching story here has Pearce trying to track down those responsible for his niece’s death while taking out a shadowy authoritarian group called cTOS that controls the city’s data infrastructure. In our hands-on, we were tasked with meeting a member of DedSec (a hacktivist collective) and then breaking into a cTOS server.
It’s here that the game’s mechanics seemed built to function more in a stealth game than and open-world sandbox. In order to hack the server, Pearce had to break into building via its underground carpark and then climb a couple of stories to the server room.
All of these environments were crawling with security guards so the direct approach wasn’t an option. Rather, to achieve Pearce’s objective, a good deal of sneaking about was required, since in an open confrontation, his phone didn’t save him.
Watch Dogs: Verdict
So for the brief hour we had at its controls Watch Dogs played like the illegitimate offspring of Grand Theft Auto and Splinter Cell Blacklist. It’s not a bad combination, just not the one we were expecting.
That having been said, we can’t judge the whole game after a mere sixty minutes and Watch Dogs simply begs for further exploration. From its intriguing premise to its empowering mechanics to its twitchy, paranoia-inducing world, this is still one of the year’s most anticipated titles and it can’t arrive soon enough. Roll on, May.
Watch Dogs release date: 27 May 2014
Watch Dogs price: From £29.99 on PC