By Chris Wright
on 10.2.13
Photo by Ubisoft

I watch from behind a dumpster as the man with the government employee wife saddles up to the gangster. He’s not made a smart move. The gangster calls him a snitch, pulls out a bat. Warnings flash on my readout: crime probability 40%, now 55%, now simply “imminent” as the gangster cocks the bat and the man cowers. I step forward while whipping out my pistol and the gangster hoofs it, sprinting to a nearby vehicle and burning rubber through a red light. I easily steal a car and give chase, hurtling past terrified pedestrians. A few blocks later I use my tech skills to hack a gate; it closes and he crashes into it and comes to rest, his limp form using the steering wheel as a pillow, the drone of his horn a lullaby. The police can take it from here.

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What I’ve just witnessed at Ubisoft’s sneak peek event is vigilantism from inception to bloody villain-gets-his-due conclusion. This is Watch Dogs, an upcoming title that’s headlining next-gen console releases. Set beautifully in Chicago, the game puts players in the shoes of Aiden Pierce, an expert hacker and vigilante who uses his skills to access digital data from both private citizens and an NSA-esque (1984?) government security system. We don’t know much else about the plot, but it involves high speed chases, gun battles, and leveraging technology to do all sorts of seedy (awesome) things.

But let me go back to that first scene and quickly break it down. (1) Aiden cruises into a bad part of Chicago. (2) Though he’s extremely tech savvy, Aiden can still only “hack” (that is, see texts, emails, and vital information about people, from “lead singer in a cover band” to “convicted of assault and battery”) a handful of passersby; this is because he has not yet bugged the government’s main communications center in this area of the city. (3) Aiden sneaks by guards and uses various stealthy means to hack that communication center. (4) Tapping into this government system, Aiden sees that the possibility of a crime has been flagged nearby. (5) He locates the most possible victim — the man with the government employee wife — and his potential assaulter — aforementioned gangster thug — via the hacking abilities he now possesses. (6) He decide to intercede. (7) He hack things while driving at high speeds. (8) Thug ultimately loses, and a sort of “credibility score” goes up because Aiden helped out someone without injuring any innocents.

Until now games largely felt like movies where players only acted to kill the bad guys or be killed by them; now, game makers are allowing the gamer to edit the script on the fly.

In fact, this sequence of events could have played out many different ways. We could have let the crime happen; we could have simply killed the gangster outright; the car chase and subsequent happy-ending capture of the villain could have ended with Aiden being shot by the police if we hadn’t played our cards so well. If we hadn’t successfully tapped into the government’s comm center, we wouldn’t have even known about the impending crime.

Throughout the sequence there wasn’t a single break in the action. That’s the most stunning thing I noticed in this sneak preview of Watch Dags: the game is a sandbox without any of the previously inherent drawbacks of that style of play. Our sneaking, hacking, battling and car chasing all happened in one very convincing linear chain of events — and this chain adjusts flawlessly to any choices gamers make. This seamless, action/appropriate reaction play style lives in the huge Chicago sandbox throughout Watch Dogs, and it marks a big turning point in gaming. Until now games largely felt like movies where all players controlled was whether they killed the bad guys or were killed by them; now, game makers are allowing the gamer to edit the script on the fly.

Another of Ubisoft’s upcoming big-name titles, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, hits the same vein from a different angle (and century). As a pirate-cum-assassin, the main character continues the general plot and theme of the franchise, but this time he roves a huge Caribbean world both on foot and at the helm of his ship. Just like our battle in Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed showcased a failed assassination and foot chase wherein we jumped aboard our ship and took to the high seas seamlessly. In fact, captaining across vast oceans, plundering any ships you come across, picking up castaways and adding them to your crew, encountering huge storms and even exploring underwater wrecks (where you must dodge somewhat overly aggressive sharks) makes the naval aspect of the game almost able to stand on its own.

The scale of both games edges on daunting. Fortunately, both also have the fundamental aspects that will make them comfortable for gamers: jaw-dropping graphics on next-gen platforms (just wait until you see the shading on ocean swells in ACIV) and combat/action dynamics — driving, shooting, stabbing — that seem smoother than ever before. Watch Dogs has a multiplayer aspect where one player works as the police to keep the other player, a hacker, from accomplishing his objectives; two single player games can also intersect in a strange hybrid where players try to thwart each other anonymously.

The expansive sense of consequence and grandeur that these games accomplish puts many big-budget movies to shame. Though it’s yet to be seen whether the games have strong plots to provide backbone to their expansive universes, for the features we’ve discovered alone we’re willing to pick up copies and bid our free time adieu.