The world of Ubisoft’s “Watch Dogs” is a brutal one. You risk your life to save an injured thief, bringing him to what you thought was safety — only to watch him get stabbed to death by a gaunt, skeletal crime boss. And it’s a world that forces your hand. Need money? Hack the cell phones of everyone around you and get access to their bank accounts, along with information about their private lives. “Grand Theft Auto” never alerts you that the pedestrian you ran over is a single mom with a sick kid, but when it comes out on May 27 for Xbox One and Xbox 360, “Watch Dogs” won’t let you off the hook that easily.
It’s a novel — and sometimes uncomfortable — game dynamic. With a focus on hacking, espionage, and security, it’s amazing that Ubisoft created a world where everyone feels like a real, breathing person. “Watch Dogs” does not let your brain just assume that all the security guards in an office building are bad guys; instead, you learn information about them as you plan your attack. You killed a family man. You didn’t have to, but you did… and now you get to live with that.
Details like these are part of why “Watch Dogs” feels so fresh. Sure, it’s a sandbox game, and fans of “Assassin’s Creed” will feel right at home with the controls. But every time you think “Oh, it’s going to be one of those missions,” “Watch Dogs” takes a turn.
What seems like a simple stealth mission through a parking garage becomes a deadly strategy game. Which guards do you distract with a car alarm? How many can you take out before someone spots you? The puppeteering aspect of the game — hacking cameras, steam pipes, and even guns and grenades — is what sets “Watch Dogs” apart from other stealth-action titles. At our recent play session at Ubisoft’s U.S. headquarters, we spent a lot of time simply hacking everything in sight. You get a very strong “What does this button do?” drive each time protagonist Aiden Pearce learns a new skill. And “Watch Dogs” encourages you to play around and learn how to effectively utilize your hacking skills to control the city.
Most of the hacks are small and simple, but some missions require you to employ specially crafted devices, or go to some serious extremes. Early in the game, you have to escape a packed baseball stadium in the middle of a playoff game… by causing a city-block-wide blackout that plunges the stadium into a dark panic.
Driving through the streets of the game’s alternate-reality Chicago offers many distractions and side missions. Many of them fit in really well with the tone of the game, feeling like natural diversions Pearce might make; pop-ups about potential crimes give you the chance to take a detour and save a life. And as you complete these side missions, you build a narrative of Pearce as a vigilante, an antihero with a lot of demons. We realized after our fourth stop at a bar — to play a drinking minigame — that Pearce might have an alcohol problem… that we gave him.
It’s things like this that make “Watch Dogs” one of the most engrossing games on the horizon. It’s what you might imagine a modern-day “Assassin’s Creed” might be like. “Watch Dogs” challenges the form by creating a world that feels too real to take for granted, while still making you feel like a super-cool badass with phone-hacking superpowers.
If you want more on the game, be sure to check out our feature on how Ubisoft made Watch Dogs realistic.
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