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.