First Impressions: Going Underground With Ubisoft's Watch_Dogs
Posted by Ben Potter
We go hands-on at Ubisoft's Digital Days 2013
One of many blockbuster titles in Ubisoft’s stable adopting their second screen experience initiative, the potential for Watch_Dogs’ iOS "H_ide" app is high — and in a game where you can hack everything, you’re not quite as unhackable as you might think.
At Ubisoft’s Digital Days 2013 event in Paris we finally managed to have a go on the hack-happy sandbox title, but not in the way you would assume. The set-up involved one player and one app-user, sat side-by-side. As the player spawns into the game, they’ll appear on the App’s map of Chicago and upon being selected, the player can choose to engage in a head-to-head battle with the app-user.
We decided to use the app first and upon starting it up, were presented with a birds-eye view of Chicago in all its isometric hacker-glory. The player’s emblem appeared on the map as they started the demo and, tapping on it, you can challenge them to a versus event. There was only one mode available, which required the player to make their way to several checkpoints on the map within a tight time limit and they could get there however they pleased.
However, playing as the eye in the sky, the app-user aims to put a stop to the player’s little road trip. For the first time, the game’s protagonist Aiden Pierce has very little control over his environment and while he may still be able to hack into things around him, they’ll do very little to help — It’s the app-user doing the hacking. Taking physical form in the game as a helicopter, using the app you must continuously take care to drag the flying machine across the map and ahead of the player’s red indicator. At this point you’re able to tap on the icons of hackable items in the chopper’s vicinity, from retractable bollards and exploding steam pipes to changing traffic lights and raising bridges.
All of these things will have an instant effect on the player’s game and, if you’re fast enough, you can catch them out when they least expect it. It was initially rather tricky to focus on both dragging the helicopter towards the player icon and frantically tapping on the hackable objects simultaneously, but once you hear the frustrated murmurings of the player, it instantly makes the juggling act very satisfying.
However, it’s from this that the app’s biggest flaw derives. While we were sat next to the player we were griefing, this isn’t exclusively how the app is meant to function. In fact, it wants you to be able to connect to anyone, anywhere — not just the people you’re with. Although we found it very difficult to pull our gaze away from our in-app actions to see the mayhem we were causing on screen, the resulting sighs were enough to know that we were doing our job. If you’re playing against someone that isn’t sat next you, this feedback is completely lost as there’s no way of knowing that one of your hacks stopped the player in their tracks. You must simply assume that, as their indicator has stopped moving, you managed to get them — and even then, you’ll be too busy moving the chopper onto the next area to prepare for their arrival to notice.
From the perspective of the gamer, it’s a totally different experience. One you accept the app-user’s challenge, the first checkpoint will appear on your map, drawing a route to your destination. This route is invisible to your pursuer, so you’re safe to follow it — but don’t drive too predictably, because that’s exactly how they’ll know where to hack.
When we began we dived into the nearest car we could see. Speeding off in the direction of the first checkpoint, we got to grips with the driving. It felt very natural from the get go and it wasn’t long before we were handbrake turning around corners and smashing through parks to avoid road-based hazards. Being the victim of Pierce’s level of hacking ability adds a great deal of tension to affairs; hackable objects in the environment are all around you and give audible signals that they're being hijacked — it’s up to you to evade them.
If you’re going fast enough — and the app-user’s helicopter is too far away — your indicator will disappear from your pursuer’s screen for 10 seconds, but if they catch up and are hovering directly over you, their spotlight will point you out to police – who won’t hesitate to take you down by any means necessary. It was at this point that our escape hit a little speed bump. The law enforcement were so relentless that it wasn’t long before our car was totally incapacitated and all that was available to hand was a slow-moving minivan. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your outlook), we were gunned down before we had chance to contend with its sluggish speed and handling, but the game was happy to respawn us with the same time remaining.
Having given up all hope of reaching our destination in time, we decided to try out some of the game’s other features for the last 30 seconds of our hands-on session. Snapping into cover behind a car, we had a brief shoot-out with police that felt tight and responsive, before sprinting off and jumping into a boat for a mosey down the river.
We’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t the demo’s aim to show off anything besides the app functionality, but from our brief visit to Watch_Dog’s vision of an Orwellian Chicago, we were suitably impressed. The app in particular is another well thought through accompaniment to one of Ubisoft’s prevalent games and if they can lock down a system whereby feedback is provided to the app-user — to notify them of a successful, player-stopping hack — then it would make a fantastic addition to one of 2013’s biggest blockbusters.