It shouldn’t really need to be said but these are trying times for the games industry.
Spiralling development costs have led to increased pressure for games to perform well and success measured in millions rather than thousands, in turn seeing most teams fall back on familiar concepts, safe sequels and reliable brands.
It’s pretty telling that of all the games we’re looking forward to this year, only a handful buck this trend (Dishonored, being chief among them) and these days, only the biggest publishers can justify the risk of launching something original.
Despite the misleading title – which suggests it might be a game about actually watching dogs – Ubisoft’s new IP feels instantly familiar. The open-world setting and HUD make GTA comparisons inevitable while the nature of the tasks dished out give the feel of an Assassin’s Creed for the digital generation, anti-establishment protagonist Aiden Pearce relying on mad hacking skills in place of hidden blades and information instead of gold.
In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if Watch Dogs indeed started life as a modern-day Assassin’s Creed game, later given a name and life of its own when its ideas grew beyond the confines of the flagship franchise’s canon.
And ideas are something that Watch Dogs has in plentiful supply. Tying into topical fears over database hacks and information leaks, the core concept is that skilled hackers are able to learn or alter anything about anyone in the blink of an eye, turning the technological comforts and conveniences of the modern age against their users for fun and profit.
With the whole of Chicago networked by a system called ctOS (that’s CenTral Operating System, acronym fans), Pearce will be able to access personal data on residents, tap into thousands of cameras’ worth of security footage and sabotage larger devices and services, seizing control of traffic lights and trains or overloading entire networks.
One crucial factor in the success of this ambitious and original game, however, will be just how much freedom the player has to bring down the system in the way they choose. Why go to the effort of chasing down and killing a mark, for instance, when the game’s premise should allow for cunning players to simply alter the target’s file to give them a criminal record as a fugitive sex offender and have the cops put in the legwork on your behalf?
Currently, all of Pearce’s technopowers are handled from a radial menu, though there are contextual uses beyond the initially obvious ones to expand the usefulness of each. We just hope the eight current options aren’t the extent of Pearce’s potential for digital mischief, because there’s scope for a hell of a lot more besides.
For all its ingenuity, mind, Watch Dogs can’t help standing up occasionally and yelling “I’m a video game just like all the others!” After intercepting a target (by tampering with the lights at a busy intersection to cause a pile-up), Pearce is dragged into a fairly standard cover shooter gunfight with a bunch of goons – the idea that knowledge is power sort of goes out the window when you’re staring down the barrels of several firearms, after all.
Still, it all goes down with a typical Ubisoft Montreal attention to detail; Assassin’s Creed-style contextual melee kills and the ability to help innocents escape the fray are among the standout moments in the already impressive showdown. So long as this level of polish and detail can be maintained, even more standard moments like these can be made to feel special and as Assassin’s Creed proves, few developers can captivate like Ubisoft Montreal.
It’d be impossible to have a game so focused on networking and technology ignore the potential offered by the Xbox’s own versions of both aspects, namely Xbox Live and SmartGlass. Ubisoft is promising a unique online experience and this seems to be a kind of mutual existence in the same world that straddles the usual multiplayer standards of ‘co-op’ and ‘competitive’, a system that parallels the freedom and innovation of the game itself.
We love big sequels as much as anyone, don’t get us wrong. But only new IP can get away with such grand ideas as these, and it’s these ideas that make us so excited for Watch Dogs. Show original games a little love or this kind of imagination will die along with them, leaving us all with nothing to play bar the Generic Gun Man franchise until the end of time. And nobody wants that.
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