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Watch Dogs

Reads to school children. Failed CPR training. Father is currently in jail. Churchgoer. Makes porn films. Related to Dutch royalty. In possession of stolen credit cards. Potential victim. These slivers of data hang by every pedestrian you see walking down the street in Chicago.

Information is power, and career cybercriminal Aiden Pearce can access that information at will. Watch Dogs (releasing Nov. 19 on PC and all available consoles) then makes you decide what to do with it, diving deeper into strangers’ lives or quietly moving on. As Pearce, you constantly intersect with people on the street, mine their information with your smartphone’s Profiler, and make decisions based on what you learn about them.

In a fairly unusual move, Ubisoft showed us a 30-minute, hands-off demo that steered clear of any story or side missions in favor of various “random” encounters in Watch Dog’s open-world sandbox. After trading notes with people who attended other sessions, it’s clear that key moments repeated almost exactly across the different presentations, suggesting many in-game events were, to some extent, canned. On the other hand, I also saw a hatchback mow down Pearce just as he stepped out of his car.

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I’m guessing that was unscripted.

Regardless, the game that took shape showed me a different kind of free-roaming playground with a different set of rules. Call it open-world morality.

“You start spying on people, looking into their lives, it becomes addictive,” says lead story designer Kevin Shortt. “You start seeing things you didn’t expect. It becomes hard to look away. Almost by accident, Pearce becomes a vigilante hero.”

Watch Dogs

Abusing the system

That’s when Pearce slips on his mask and goes to work.

The unusually symbol that mask bears comes with its own backstory; it started as part of the placeholder logo for Watch Dogs’ project codename, Nexus. “This was the symbol for connectivity,” says senior producer Dominic Guay, “but we added a little gap in the middle to represent themes of vulnerabilities, flaws, and hacking the connectivity.”

But before you can hack the world, Pearce has to slip a back door into a well-guarded City Operating System (ctOS) control center. It’s a lot like conquering the towers in Ubisoft’s other games — Far Cry 3 or Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, say — only with more options for breaching security. Pearce mixed it up a little, luring guards in by remote-hacking forklifts and then beating them down with his telescoping blackjack. Watch Dogs features a crafting system to build IEDs and decoys, but for the purposes of this demonstration, Pearce fell back on his assault rifle and a wad of dynamite to finish off the opposition. A hacked CCTV camera, rewound to the moment of detonation, confirms those kills.

Watch Dogs

After that, accessing the ctOS hub is a breeze, and the grid opens up. Pearce can now hack the “smart city” systems on every corner and pull info on everyone around him; age, occupation, income, and a tiny, 3-6-word story that gives them some personality.

That makes all the difference. Now you know a little something about them. They aren’t just faceless units wandering around in a Grand Theft Auto metropolis or an ancient Assassin’s Creed city. And if Mr. “Filed adoption papers” stored his bank information on his cellphone, you can siphon off his life savings to help bankroll Pearce’s personal mission of vengeance. But c’mon … the guy’s trying to do a noble thing. Should you steal from him?

That’s not a question I ever asked while pickpocketing scores of people as an assassin in ancient Rome. The man who solicits prostitutes, on the other hand, sounds like fair game.

Watch Dogs

Anti-heroics

You won’t find any shortage of ways to use information and the network against people, either. Tapping into free Wi-Fi hubs lets you spy on people inside their homes through their laptop webcams, tablets … anything that’s connected. I found one guy whispering sweet nothings into a dressed-up mannequin’s ear. Perfect blackmail material. I could’ve rifled through his email for more dirt, too. “Threaten” is always an option while negotiating prices at the local Pawned Off store. Pearce can also hack ATMs for quick money, or replace musical selections on public speakers with his own (purchased in-game, iPhone-style). Goodbye, muzak. Hello, thrash metal.

But unlike a Grand Theft Auto or even Red Dead Redemption, Pearce can proactively choose to help people.

Watch Dogs

Potential crime scenes show up on his radar, and his ctOS Profiler can pick out both predators and their victims. Criminal potential warnings start low but escalate fast as a burst into violence approaches. So it’s not just a matter of whether you intervene, but when. You could end things before the perp gets anywhere near his intended mark — and take a hit to your reputation for the unsolicited violence — or wait and step in when things escalate. Wait too long, and it’ll be too late.

As always, information is vital. Dig deeper, and it could turn out that “victim” is a drug dealer. When Pearce intercepted a text-message conversation detailing the planned murder of a alleged rapist by a distraught husband, he tracked the would-be murderer down. From a safe vantage point, Pearce watched the “rapist” die and let his killer walk.

Shortt later told me, “I couldn’t do that. I don’t know if this guy’s telling the truth. I would have said, ‘No, I have to stop him from killing the other guy, because I don’t know the whole story.’”

Watch Dogs

Breakin’ the law

Stopping street crime boosts Pearce’s reputation with the citizenry, but police never tolerate a vigilante, and any public show of force gets a proportional response. On both ends.

Any time you pull a gun, civilians run for it and call 911 on their cells. Pearce can listen in, jam the signal, or catch up and slap that handset away … or worse. “Worse” seriously affects public perception of his deeds. When a newscast connected Pearce’s face with a few recent shootings, a gun shop owner didn’t hesitate to hit the silent alarm.

Even the best intentions can have a negative impact. A simple stab at crime prevention led Pearce on a wild car chase from the run-down Wards to downtown Chicago, ending in a bent car and a bloody shootout. That netted him points for stopping an assault in progress and dropped his fame for popping off in the street, and the cops came running. The ctOS system and its facial recognition software works for the police, too, so quick getaways aren’t so easy. Then they send a helicopter in.

Even while ripping up asphalt in a slick, faux-Roadster, skidding through rain-slick streets and trying to break line-of-sight with officers in pursuit, the “smart city” system is all around you. Using it is vital to escaping a full-bore manhunt.

Watch Dogs

Fortunately, Pearce’s focus abilities slow time to a crawl — useful both in combat and while trying to hack a streetlight as you take a corner at 60 mph. This time, he activates a few automatic barricades that spring up from the ground, totaling the cop cops chasing him. After a few corners, Pearce remote-opens an underground garage where he can dump the car and blend back into the crowd on foot. If the police find that car — and ctOS makes that very possible — they’ll be on him again. What Pearce does then is up to you.

That’s the real magic in Watch Dogs. It doesn’t lock you into a set hero/criminal role like other open world games do. You access information, and from there, the choice is yours. It doesn’t become good or bad until you do something with it.

Now that’s a sandbox worth playing in.

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