Hey GTA V, I think we need to talk. You should sit down for this. It's just getting hard to keep waiting for you to commit to my platform and—look, I'll just come out and say it: I've met a new game. Shh, don't worry. I still care about you, and I can be excited for more than one open-world crime game, but I just saw a live demonstration of Watch Dogs and if I did have to choose...well, let me explain.
Remember that gameplay video from E3 ? Anti-hero Aiden Pearce hacks a traffic light to cause an accident, then gets into a firefight. We were skeptical that this was all as dynamic as the demo suggested—it looked pretty darn scripted—but it wasn't a trick. I just saw that same accident again and again, happening differently each time. This simulation is powered by Ubisoft's new "Disrupt Engine," and it really does appear to run a living Chicago for the player to manipulate.
It also helps that Watch Dogs looks like a game running on a high-end PC. (Sorry, was that a low blow?) It's not just the pretty shaders or fancy wind and water simulation, it's the whole realization of the city. It's Aiden's motion-captured animations and the way pedestrians convincingly react to violence. It's how the grimier neighborhoods look lived-in, littered with evidence of people's lives. I saw Aiden jack a car that, for once, wasn't shiny and new—it looked like a car someone in Chicago's suburbs might own, with rear window louvers and a hood caked with dust.
So Aiden steals it and goes for a quick drive to a pawn shop. He walks in, no loading, and the sunlight is snuffed out by florescent-lit clutter, all beautifully detailed and imperfect. A quick transaction and he saunters out the back door, head down and hands in pockets.
Aiden Pearce is a shady fellow. He's a lot like your anti-heroes, GTA V, but less eccentric and bombastic. The tone here is obviously very different—Watch Dogs isn't just GTA with hacking—but there are enough similarities to call the two comparable. It's about a vigilante out for revenge, a good guy with bad habits who murders, steals, and runs from the police. That's about all Ubisoft will say about the story for now.
We do know that Watch Dogs' central plot device is CtOS, a series of computers which run all of Chicago's systems. Traffic lights, trains, security cameras—you name it, Aiden can hack it—but before he can use his wizardry to manipulate every bit of tech in a district, he has to infect its local, heavily-guarded CtOS node. You don't have to do this, Ubi tells me, and you can do it however you like, but here's how one of these code injections went down in the demonstration.
From outside the fence surrounding the CtOS facility, the player hacks into a security camera and surveys the situation, stealing the server passcode and identifying the guards. Turns out they're a bunch of shady ex-cons, so he only has to feel a little guilty if he ends up murdering them.
After circling the building, he vaults over the fence. From inside the lot, he hacks the gate open to distract a guard, then sneaks up behind him and makes him an unconscious guard with a fluid take-down. He plays this game again with another guard, remotely activating a forklift to confuse him, but a third thug spots him. Now, I was assured by one of the devs that you can play Watch Dogs without killing anyone, so don't assume it always has to be like this, but it turns into war here.
The rifles come out, and a cover-to-cover firefight lands a couple guards in the dirt—Aiden's slow-mo Focus mode giving him the advantage. The player activates a scissor lift, hits the roof, and gives 'em a few more pew pews before dropping back down to hack into the server room. Peering through a camera inside the building, he hacks yet another camera (hacking is a line-of-sight thing, and yeah, it doesn't make a lot of sense), chaining his way into the control room to plant the virus. Then he sticks his hands back in his pockets and strolls off before someone calls the cops.
For the sake of time, Ubisoft used a dev hack to call off the police, but when we're really playing we'll have a few options. There are preventive measures—smacking a pedestrian before he can call 911, or escaping the area before patrols arrive—but if the cops do pursue you, you'll have to break line-of-sight to escape. It's basically your system, GTA, but in this case we'll have the advantage of movie-magic-style hacking. Ubisoft demonstrated how messing with traffic lights, raising blockers, and opening and closing garage doors can create spectacular and helpful crashes, which the camera pulls around to show off in slow-mo, Burnout-style.
And that was only the first half of the demo. We also saw Aiden empty a guy's bank account, chase down and murder a murderer, decide not to intervene when a man shoots an alleged rapist in an alley, ID a song with his smartphone and add it to his playlist, and take a moment to play an augmented reality game called NVZN (pronounced "invasion") which has him running around Chicago like a crazy person, shooting at aliens only he can see.
There's a lot to do in Watch Dogs' Chicago. One thing I did hope for is the ability to talk your way out of situations using stolen information, but hacking is a much more binary mechanic: turn this on, turn that off, assume the POV of a camera, and complete an objective. It can also be used to identify potential crime victims, though, and in his most invasive display of technomancy, Aiden connects to a free wi-fi hotspot, hacks into some poor fellow's laptop, spies on him as he relaxes with his mannequin lover, then steals his car registration info. And all this—the nearly hour-long demo—happened without once touching a story-related mission.
Also getting little mention was the multiplayer, which we've glimpsed briefly before in gameplay footage. Ubisoft is saving those details for now, but we did learn that you can opt to play the story offline, while online play will allow others to invade your Chicago and work against you. There's also a companion mobile app which allows remote hacking of systems in other people's games. We don't know quite how it all works, and if there are other modes, we don't know about them yet either.
We also don't know all the details on the PC version. The demonstration was played on a PC with an Xbox controller, which is fine, but I do hope for remappable controls and some extra care put into the PC interface. As always, we want an optimized experience, not the console version with Steam achievements, and we've got some questions about PC optimizations out to Ubisoft. For now, at least we already know we can play it on our preferred system—Watch Dogs releases on PC November 19 in North America and November 22 in Europe.