Watch Dogs hands-on: playing it cool as an incognito hacker in cyber-Chicago

Tyler Wilde

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There's a rhythm to Aiden Pearce's incognito shuffle that I don't want to break. He can run and vault if I want him to, but instead I skulk up to a chainlink fence around one of virtua-Chicago's CtOS (Central Operating System) hubs, nonchalantly hack open a gate with a casual glance at my phone, and creep into the lot unseen. I have the calmness of a t'ai chi master until I gracelessly fumble with the cover system.

I'm being more careful than I need to be. This is one of the easy side missions, but I'm timid as I sneak from crate to crate (all conveniently placed for the shootout I could be having), trying to guess at the guards' vision cones. It turns out the guards are nearsighted anyway, and short coverto- cover dashes don't give me away. I infect the server, still unseen, then backtrack until I'm strolling down a Chicago street, hands in pockets, all smug with power.

In terms of game mechanics, Watch Dogs is Grand Theft Auto plus. GTA plus hacking. GTA plus sneaking. GTA plus decent shooting. The developers seem exhausted by the comparison, but it's true: openworld urban games aren't required to have guns, car theft, police chases, a shady thirdperson male protagonist, or the same encouragement to be reckless that GTA thrives on.

At first, I don't want to be reckless. I steal my first car, pull up to a red light, and stop. My guide chuckles and tells me that everyone does that. It's a hint that I really don't need to, so I shrug and pull onto the sidewalk instead.

The cars are fast, nearly indestructible, and laws are for babies. I smash through traffic, using the sidewalk as a lane when I need to, changing lights and raising concrete roadblocks with the game's onebutton hacking while shifting between golf cart and drag racer.

The motorcycles are insanely fast. The only way I can white-line it through traffic and live, as the motion blur sticks my hair back, is to use the time-dilating focus button. I forget about that feature a lot, and probably break every rib in Aiden's body vaulting over parked cars.

All this and not a peep from the police. Unless a pedestrian steps out in front of my ride of terror, I'm free to play Fast and Furious all over Chicago. After handling the CtOS facility with such care, it feels tonally off.

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Watch Dogs has some GTA in its genes, but playing it doesn't feel like playing GTA. It's not satire and it's not silly. There's nothing funny about driving over pedestrians or shooting into a crowd. I ghosted the CtOS facility because killing those guards didn't feel like something Aiden would do. Now I'm finally playing with my handgun, and when I pull it out the crowd reacts with fear. I point it at a civilian dialing 911, and they drop their phone, hands up. I could pull the trigger, but that doesn't seem like fun.

While GTA 4 is populated by massproduced cardboard people running on tracks, Watch Dogs feels less like a carnival game. Even shooting the bad guys is a more affecting experience.

I spot one of these outside Sears Tower (Aiden's CtOS access gives him special insight), chase him down, and shoot him in the back. Then I stand there contemplating justice as he crumples to the sidewalk. I have to be told to use my disposable cellular jammer and hijack an escape car, which I do clumsily. The police are already onto me.

Escaping the police is seriously hard. It's all about breaking their line of sight with sharp turns, but my inexperience sends me drifting into sidewalks and dividers, ploughing through pedestrians. It turns out, though, that there isn't much punishment for being killed or captured anyway. The worst thing that will happen is that your reputation will be diminished, but it won't affect the story: there's only one ending regardless of how you play, though I'm told its meaning will be up for debate. I'm also told that the story can't be completed without using a gun. I hope little else infringes on my preference to play a low-key Aiden Pearce.

That's because when I was skulking around the CtOS facility I was living in the world, immersed in all the little stories around me. I could have pulled out an assault rifle and murdered the guards, shrugging off the approaching sirens, but that would have stripped away the world's fidelity – to borrow a concept from Assassin's Creed, it would have desynchronised my Aiden from the 'real' Aiden in my head.

At the end of the demo, I was fully desynced. I wasn't in Chicago anymore: I was in a sandbox, exploiting game rules to act like a maniac. The action was fast and exciting, but I found it less fun than stopping at red lights.

Will your PC run Watch Dogs? Check out the system requirements to find out.

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