I've seen a lot of games over the past few days, but as is often the case - the best is saved till last. At this years Ubisoft conference, Watch Dogs was revealed. It has been kept a tightly guarded secret for over two years, and it's announcement at this years E3 has been all that anyone has been talking about.
I had the chance to sit down at a behind closed doors, appointment only session, to get a sneak early peek at the title. I left that booth seriously impressed, and desperately hungry for more.
Watch Dogs takes place in today's modern, connected world. We live in an age where everyone is connected - from Facebook to SMS, from city surveillance cameras to online bank accounts. Without knowing it we are already in a cyber-punk world. Everything is recorded, everything is traceable and everyone leaves some kind of digital shadow. This isn't some kind of 'Ghost in the Shell' fantasy, it’s real and it’s happening right now.
Watch Dogs' developers - Ubisoft Montreal - have tapped right into this unique facet of modern society. This is exactly the kind of gaming that I love. Gaming is a powerful medium, and it’s incredibly encouraging when developers take on contemporary, weighty themes. Watch Dog's take on this setting centers on that icon of 21st century civilisation - the city. Every city is a hive of digital activity, with traffic lights, surveillance cameras, electricity systems, bridges, metros and the digital profiles of the users who live in them.
My eyes on preview took me to the city of Chicago. There the developers presented to us the character of Aiden Pearce. Dressed in a thick brown coat and a baseball cap, he was making his way to the famous Ambrose Theatre in Chicago. At this venue was an art show by a character named Joseph Demarco. We don't yet know much about this man, but we do know that Pearce really doesn't like him, and was heading to the theatre to seek him out.
Even before Pearce made it inside we could see the attention to detail and quality work that has already gone into this title. The streets and decor of wintery Chicago and rendered extremely well, with sophisticated lighting and incredible texture art. Show demo's should be taken with a grain of salt - but if the rest of the title looks as good as this, gamers are in for a visual feast.
Also obvious was the style of the gameplay mechanic. This is a third person, over the shoulder game that mixes various elements we have grown to enjoy and love. Borrowing from GTA, the city of Chicago is open world, and has total free roam. If you can see it, you can go to it - both along Chicago's broad streets, and crucially for a city based title, up and across its rooftops and ledges.
I was only privy to a small slice of what the city had on offer, but I can't wait to take the time to explore - what appears at the moment to be - a very realistic recreation. Stealth elements from Hitman appear, and the hacking cyber-punk feel of Deus Ex Machina also infused through the title. For a first impression these are all very encouraging signs.
As Pearce wanders the streets towards the Ambrose Theatre, other gameplay mechanics presented themselves. Everything that is digitally connected is usable and can be hacked by Pearce. Cell phones, digital devices, traffic lights, security cameras - all can be manipulated to your advantage. My eyes on showed Pearce listening into phone conversation, while viewing the caller through a hacked security camera. None of it was cinematic, all of it was in game.
Eventually, Pearce made his way to the Theatre, but there's a problem - it's a VIP event and he's not on the guest list. It was here that the developers described the variability in the titles gameplay. Pearce could sneak around the back, he could give the bouncer the bash or he could use his hacker abilities to harness the city as a weapon. Pearce took the third route, busting out a cellphone jammer which disrupted the bouncers signal, forcing him to leave the entrance while waving his phone around to get his connection back - and Pearce walked right on in.
Once inside Pearce was met by Geordie - not much is known about this character apart from the fact that he's a little shady, and that him and Pearce have an uneasy relationship. The dialogue between the two was scintillating. That sounds a bit gushy, but I've seen some bloody terrible writing this week and this conversation sparked with character. Geordie (who apparently is a central character in the game) gave Pearce a gun - always an ominous sign - and Pearce explained that he was waiting for Demarco to arrive so he could use it on him.
This scene inside the Theatre displayed two more exciting aspects of Watch Dogs gameplay. First, Pearce can use a gadget called a "profiler". This lets him gain access to citizen's personal information, such as their name, occupation, and level of income - as well as letting Pearce tap into their phone conversations. Peace uses this on one of Demarco's staff members, and finds out that Demarco is on his way, and that security has been alerted.
At this point the game seamlessly shifted gears, becoming much more action orientated. A security guard blocked Pearce's exit, so he took him down with a combo of stylised whacks in the head with a vicious extendable nightstick. This combat animation was brutally violent without being over the top, and it was accompanied by bone crushing audio. Other members of the audience audibly winced, it was that well done.
But that was just the start. Once outside, Pearce needed to lay a trap. This gave the developers a chance to display the creativity that Watch Dogs offers. What better way to stop a speeding car, than to cause it to crash violently into traffic. By hacking the traffic signals, Demarco's convoy was T-boned and out jumped several heavily armed bodyguards. Now, not even Pearce can hack away bullets - so the action escalated to an all out street battle, complete with engrossing slow motion combat effects, brutal knee-capping close combat kills, and very inventive AI - who ducked and weaved, covered and suppressed. It could have been a cinematic and I'd have been just as amazed. But it wasn't, it was totally playable and the scene was entirely of the players own creation.
Once Pearce had taken out Demarco's bodyguards and sent him a message via a bullet to the brain, he needed to escape. Here too, the city could be used as a weapon in a number of creative and interesting ways. In my eyes on, Pearce rushed into a parked car (all vehicles you see are drivable) and sped away from the police. He charged towards a bridge, hacking its control system in mid drive, so that it began to rise before him. Hitting it at full speed, his car leapt off the tilting edge and the car flew into the air, to gasps of amazement from all those present. And there there the demo ended - or so I thought.
One of the develops dimmed the lights and brought out an iPad. Accessing an app on its screen he displayed an interactive 3D map of Chicago, that directly accessed the game he had just been playing. It showed where Pearce had gone, what mission he had done, and what key milestones he had achieved. It also showed the progress of other friends who were also playing the game, and how far they were through their experience. And finally, it enabled him to access the profile of Demarco's staff member who Pearce had hacked only minutes before. Why is that important? Because she had an annual income of $86,000 and once accessed I was told that Pearce would be able to slowly drain her of funds that could be used in game. That kind of cross platform synergy is truly astonishing, and shows a level of gaming interoperability that is unprecedented in a video game. I can't wait to try it out on a finished product.
But I also can't wait to try Watch Dogs out with my friends. At the end of the demo shown at the Ubisoft Conference, we were teased with a few second of footage showing a second player gazing down on Pearce's violent actions from a nearby rooftop. I aggressively questioned one of Ubisoft Montreal's developers about this, and while he did not make any firm commitments he did intimate that several players could be playing the single player experience all at the same time, but with different objectives, different characters and different motivations. Whether this also means drop in, drop out, co-op we don't yet know - but it's incredibly exciting and if it’s fully realised it could herald a completely new way to experience games.
I simply cannot wait for Watch Dogs to progress, and will be following this title extremely closely. It’s very rare for new IP to do well these days, due to the huge momentum that swells up behind franchise titles. So it’s great to see a studio that pushes the boundaries and serves us up something new, exciting and inventive. Watch Dogs has been the talk of the town on E3's showroom floor, and for good reason. This is definitely one of the show's standout titles, and something that every fan of innovative, creative, gaming should have right at the top of their watch list. There is no solid release date yet, but we are hoping to see it sometime next year.
NZGamer.com appears at E3 2012 thanks to Orcon Broadband.
The Good: An extremely innovative new title
The Bad: We couldn't see more
The Ugly: Cracking a security gaurds cranium with a nightstick