Watch Dogs is finally out. After more than five years of development, French video game publisher Ubisoft has begun selling one of the most anticipated games in its history. It’s no exaggeration to say this is one of the biggest video games of the year, and one that could either be a blockbuster or another disappointment at a time when sales of triple-A console games have been underwhelming.
Watch Dogs will deliver dozens of hours of gameplay for hardcore gamers. See our own review here.
I’ve played the game for seven hours or so, and I’m only 12 percent into it. I’ve gone through a couple major plot points in the story, and I find it pretty compelling. So much so that I’m zooming right through the missions, and I’m not yet bothering to pursue many side missions or beef up my cash hoard or possessions. Sooner or later, that may become important. But the strength of the narrative and the ending will be key to whether this game sells as expected.
In Watch Dogs, players assume the role of Aiden Pearce, a vigilante hacker whose criminal past led to a violent family tragedy. As Pearce, the player can monitor and hack enemies, manipulating everything connected to the future city of Chicago’s Central Operating System (ctOS), which controls every piece of the city’s infrastructure and holds information on all city residents. You can control securities cameras, listen in on smartphone calls, or hack ATMs. That is, you can pretty much do everything that hackers have been doing to us in real life. You can use your skills for good or bad.
“I don’t think we’re asking the player to decide whether they’re going to be ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ We like writing in that gray zone,” said Kevin Shortt, the lead writer on Watch Dogs, in an interview with GamesBeat. “The situations we put players in are meant to make them think a little more.”
This MacGyver-like capability to use technology to set traps for the bad guys is part of the core fun of Watch Dogs. It’s a great feeling when you can cause a traffic accident, take out a target, and then escape by jumping onto a speeding train. You can use your cyberpower to turn the tables. Watch Dogs appeals to our morbid sense of curiosity and obsession. The hacking ability is the ultimate Orwellian power of Big Brother — put in the hands of someone who wants to bring down the system. But Pearce’s hacking has its consequences.
The connection to today’s headlines, like Edward Snowden’s revelations about massive spying by the National Security Agency, is what makes the story and message of Watch Dogs relevant, timely, and intriguing. It raises questions about vigilantism, the ethics of voyeurs who eavesdrop on the private lives of others, and just how much data can be collected about a person and used against them.
“IBM doing smart cities, we knew about that a long time ago,” said Jonathan Morin, the creative director on Watch Dogs, said in a recent interview with GamesBeat. “I think it’s natural that reality has caught up. Where I had no idea that it would go so deep is the timing of all that news, though. With Julian Assange, we already knew he was part of the picture. He was big news at the time. But now you have the timing of the NSA leaks, the Edward Snowden affair. It was like there was some new big thing every week.”
Tony Key, the senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft, said in an interview that the anticipation for Watch Dogs is high and that the game is now the most preordered new intellectual property in Ubisoft’s history. Not bad for a company that has titles like Just Dance, Assassin’s Creed, and Splinter Cell. GameStop has also acknowledged that the game has massive buzz as it is the highest preordered next-generation console title to date and the most preordered new IP of 2014.
Watch Dogs is debuting on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Windows PC. The Wii U version is coming at a later date.
For Ubisoft, the game is important as well. It is one of five major games coming this year that could help the French company generate more than $1.9 billion in sales, according to analyst Michael Pachter at Wedbush Securities. The other major releases are expected to include Assassin’s Creed Unity, Far Cry 4, Just Dance 4, and The Crew. Ubisoft’s management believes it can sell more than 5 million copies of Watch Dogs, or $300 million at retail, Pachter said. He thinks that review scores averaging in the high 80s out of 100 (our review rates the game at 85) could mean the game will sell more than 10 million in its lifetime. On top of that, Ubisoft could have a franchise that it could use as the foundation for many related games.
The game was built by Ubisoft Montreal, with collaboration from teams at Ubisoft Bucharest, Ubisoft Paris, Ubisoft Quebec, and Reflections, Ubisoft’s U.K. studio. They built a setting that is a mixture of the open world of Grand Theft Auto and the gadget-driven stealthiness of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell games. The team took the job of creating a believable world very seriously, creating a virtual replica of Chicago and its citizens that captures the sense of place and the mannerisms of its people. Last year, they even hired cyber security experts at Kaspersky Lab as consultants.
“When I first learned about the idea of the game, I was amazed,” said Vitaly Kamluk, the chief malware expert at Kaspersky and the Ubisoft consultant, in an interview with GamesBeat. “Ubisoft made a good bet on the future as far as how cities will look like in five or 10 years. The game gives you a good opportunity to see what might happen if control goes into the wrong hands. You can take this control for yourself and play with it and see people experiencing difficulties. Your actions can hurt or kill someone. You can bring a lot of chaos to the city if you wish, or your enemies can. We hope that this game will be a good chance for people to think about the security of future city operating systems.”
Morin said the team tried very hard to stamp out bugs, particularly after the game was delayed about seven months, so that players would never break out of the illusion that they were living inside an immersive game world. All along, from the very beginning of the idea, the plan was to create a game where you could “control an entire city with a button,” Morin said.
Ubisoft’s designers tried to make the city come alive, and one of the ways they do that is to insert your human friends as characters inside your single-player experience. Those friends can walk around in disguise, looking like any other artificial intelligence NPC on the streets of Chicago. When they get near, they can challenge you and ignite a frenzied multiplayer session.
In one of their most innovative gameplay ideas, the Watch Dog designers enable your friend to follow you without you knowing it. When they get close enough, they can activate a hacker attack on your smartphone. It will take them about a minute to break into your device. Once that happens, an alert notifies you that someone is stealing your data. Then you have about a minute to figure out who that person is and kill them before they finish.
The tough part for the invading hacker is that he has to stay in range in order to complete the download. So the player being attacked has to run around frantically, looking at all of the NPCs to see who really looks human. You can start killing NPCs, but that’s sure to bring down the cops on top of you. So what you have to look for is anybody who is running around or walking erratically.
In another twist on multiplayer, Ubisoft added a two-player battle played with an iPad app. One player with the iPad can monitor a city grid and send police cars, helicopters, and SWAT teams after a suspect. And the player in the video game can take evasive actions.
Ubisoft is working all the angles to boost sales. Players can buy a $20 Watch Dogs Season Pass, which gives them access to a unique single-player story featuring T-Bone, the brilliant but eccentric hacker; a new Digital Trip game mode, Conspiracy!; an exclusive Untouchables Pack; plus new missions, weapons, and outfits. PS4 players will get four bonus missions adding up to an extra hour of gameplay.
Whether Watch Dogs succeeds or not, it has some important lessons.
Shortt said, “It hopefully gets the player to come away thinking, ‘Wow, I have all this power to hack into people’s lives.’ That’s exciting. It’s great to be able to peer into someone’s life and see what goes on behind the curtain. It’s human nature. But it also raises the question of what right we have to that information. By putting you in the hands of Aiden Pearce and giving you all this power, it’s a way to get the player thinking, ‘Wow. We’re moving to a world where privacy isn’t really a thing anymore. Everything is online. Everything is hackable. We’re moving fast. Maybe it’s worth slowing down and seeing what we think about this.'”
As for the ending, we won’t spoil it. In fact, I don’t know it yet. But Shortt has this to say: “Pearce goes through an evolution, absolutely. He starts very single-minded, very much out for himself. Even this idea of protecting his family and obsessing over his family’s safety, it really comes from a selfish place. He made a mistake in the past, and he’s determined to fix that. He just cloaks it in this idea of, “I want to protect my family.”
Shortt added, “So he goes through an evolution from there over the course of the game. His eyes are opened to the amount of power and access he has. He realizes that his personal goals should be overshadowed by something bigger. He realizes that something more is going on. I hope that players — we don’t want players to come away thinking, ‘OK, that’s the answer to it all.’ What I would love is if players finish the game — they see Pearce’s evolution from this pretty selfish guy to a guy who’s opened up a bit more. I hope they come away looking at their own lives and privacy and security and access to information, and they now have something to bring to the table when we talk about those issues, things like the NSA or Edward Snowden. It’s all part of our discussions nowadays. It would be great if we could be part of that dialogue.”