Hands-on preview: Get hacking with 'Watch Dogs'

"Watch Dogs." (HO)

Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:06 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO – Do you know who owns the computers that your personal data sits on? Do you know who has the power to access it without your consent? And if you could tap into other people’s private information for your own gain – or just your own voyeuristic thrills – would you?

Yeah, you probably would.

Part cautionary tale and part power-tripping, gun-toting digital fantasy, the action-adventure game Watch Dogs is nearing the end of its five-year development, ready to reveal a hyperconnected digital dystopia that’s looking an awful lot like the world we already live in.

Created by game giant Ubisoft Montreal and due in stores May 27, Watch Dogs tells the story of Aiden Pearce, a hacker turned vigilante whose grim quest to avenge the death of his young niece draws him into a conspiracy beyond anything he imagined.

The game is set in a fictionalized version of present-day Chicago, where the city’s digital infrastructure is controlled by a central supercomputer called ctOS. Using his smartphone, the player-controlled Aiden can hack into ctOS at will – even in the middle of a police chase – and reshape the world around him to his advantage, from triggering a blackout to turning traffic lights green in every direction, creating a massive, chaotic pileup.

Aiden’s smartphone is his magic wand, and the ease with which he can use it to hack into surveillance cameras, electronic locks and even other people’s personal data is the stuff of Hollywood sci-fi. But the underlying technology is very much grounded in the real world, says Watch Dogs creative director Jonathan Morin, whose team studied cutting-edge hacking and surveillance technology while designing the world of Watch Dogs.

Then something funny happened: the real world started to catch up. Watch Dogs was in development long before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s digital spying, and long before the Heartbleed bug revealed cracks in some of the Net’s most secure foundations.

With the game’s release delayed six months – it was initially scheduled to launch with the next-generation Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles last November – some wondered if Ubisoft was going to attempt to fold the events of the real world into the already prescient Watch Dogs’ fiction.

But the delay was simply to hone and polish the game, and inserting ripped-from-the-headlines plot devices was never considered, says Morin. “There’s a danger in doing that. If you start being a reaction to stuff, then you lose track of what you’re trying to achieve. We didn’t want to fall into that trap.”

While Ubisoft has spent the last two years showing off their progress on the game, they’ve been fairly mum about the character of Aiden himself. From our hands-on time with Watch Dogs at a recent preview event at Ubisoft’s San Francisco offices, we know Aiden – voiced by Canadian actor Noam Jenkins – is a hacker as skilled with firearms as he is with firewalls.

During a lucrative digital heist at a posh Chicago hotel, Aiden unwittingly crosses the wrong people, and his niece is killed in a retaliatory strike on Aiden’s car. The game begins roughly a year later, when Aiden, vengeance still burning in his heart, has finally tracked down the person who ordered the attack.

But that’s just the mouth of the rabbit hole that Aiden tumbles down, as there are many strands to Chicago’s web of corporate, government and criminal interests, and many facets to Aiden’s own identity. “I like to compare him, without being pretentious, to Breaking Bad’s Walter White,” says Morin. “TV shows prove that defining the motivation for the character can be a very enticing way to follow a character.”

And like a long-running TV drama, the scope of Watch Dogs is immense. I had a solid five hours of hands-on time with the PS4 version of the game, during which I got a handle on its interlocking trinity of driving, fighting and hacking. Even from the very first time I sped towards a red light and changed it to green with a simple tap of a button, it was intoxicating having that kind of power in the palm of my hand.

After guiding Aiden through the first chunk of his journey – killing one of the men responsible for his niece’s death, visiting his estranged sister, checking into a rundown motel that serves as a safehouse – I then tried to sample every variety of optional side mission available in the game.

I failed. There’s simply too much.

In addition to the story-driven campaign that spools out over five meaty acts, the game features an ever-expanding set of side missions, many of which offer players new ways to buff up Aiden’s huge roster of unlockable skills.

It’s a formula followed by everything from Grand Theft Auto to Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed, but the sheer amount of content here is staggering. Some of the side missions involve thwarting crimes in progress, others are more complex investigations into gunrunners and human traffickers. There are criminal convoys to ambush, gang hideouts to infiltrate and fixer contracts to accept.

Then there are the augmented reality games Aiden can tap into on his smartphone, including one that has him blasting away at virtual aliens descending on Chicago. A different set of virtual reality games, dubbed Digital Trips, see Aiden running over hellfire-spawned zombies in a hot rod or tearing up the streets in an eight-legged tank that can crawl up the sides of skyscrapers and leap between buildings. (The so-called Spider-Tank mini-game, an almost insignificant fraction of Watch Dog’s overall content, is practically worth the price of admission alone.)

I also went hands-on with Watch Dog’s seamlessly integrated player-versus-player offerings, which range from a cat-and-mouse hunt reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed’s online modes to a game of lethal high-speed keep-away, in which one player tries to prevent the others from getting close enough to decrypt a data chip he’s carrying. Players can choose to drift in and out of these online contests at will, and can even allow human players to invade their game without warning.

But the most technically impressive multiplayer mode is one that pits a Watch Dogs player against a friend with a smartphone or tablet running a free companion app coming to the iOS and Android platforms. As the first player tries to finish a race around Chicago within a time limit, the player with the mobile device follows his opponent on a touchscreen map while using it to sabotage him with everything from squads of police cars to automated crash barriers. It’s intense and hilarious, yet feels like digital witchcraft – I’m doing stuff with my phone that’s affecting my friend’s PS4 game in real time? How very meta.

It’s a lot to take in, a lot to absorb. From the soaring skyscrapers of its high-tech Chicago to its individual characters’ private thoughts laid bare, Watch Dogs feels like one of the most wide-ranging and ambitious video games ever attempted. And after years of hype and months of delays, we’re now just weeks away from knowing how well it will connect.


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