Watch Dogs on PS4: we visit Ubisoft in Paris to see the killer next-gen open-world game
Crafting the intangible. It’s the first thing Ubisoft Montreal mentions upon firing up a PS4 dev kit to run us through an exhilarating demo of its high-tech, Chicago-set sandbox. You’d think wielding the almighty power of a next-gen machine would tempt the developer into pushing the button marked ‘all the graphics… preferably in explosion form’. Yet the studio emphasises it’s what you can’t immediately see in Watch Dogs on PS4 that really sells this tale of Minority Report meets GTA.
Watch Dogs on PS4
“The experience is magnified,” says creative director Jonathan Morin, when we ask him about the difference between the PS3 and PS4 versions of Aiden Pearce’s vigilant adventure. “There’s a lot of assimilation that we do that can’t be achieved on current-gen. It’s about making sure everything feels coherent in the dynamic of the atmosphere, something that takes a lot of juice. But it makes a huge difference in your impression of how everything correlates with each other together, like the entire wind system.” Ah yes, those gorgeous gusts.
“Watching the weather systems in action, we’re reminded of that bit in American Beauty with the floating shopping bag”
Remember the first time you saw heaving goblets of rain douse Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2? Witnessing a gentle breeze catch a speckled batch of autumnal leaves in a Windy City suburb, before a current spools them out on the pavement, is up there with the MGS downpour. Watching the weather systems in action, which are governed by the sort of advanced physics only PS4 could pull off, we’re reminded of that bit in American Beauty with the floating shopping bag… uh, without the existential mid-life crisis and leering over a starkers cheerleader covered in rose petals.
Watch Dogs is so much more than subtle next-gen graphical trickery, though. This is an open-world experience that combines shooting, surveillance, hacking, driving and Assassin’s Creed-inspired parkour into a thrillingly cohesive whole. It’s also a game that utilises a variety of sophisticated AI systems to forge an expansive environment that potentially feels more connected and emergent than even the best of Rockstar’s work. The GTA developer transformed Red Dead Redemption’s Old West into a coyote-attacking, stagecoach-saving, six shooter-duelling landscape that constantly felt alive thanks to random dynamic events. And Watch Dogs deploys similar strategies to make Pearce’s Chicago bristle with an immersive unpredictability.
“It’s really about building systems that can coexist to create unique moments,” Eric Baillargeon tells us. The AI and gameplay lead programmer has been suitably impressed by PS4 and stresses the console’s developer-friendly interface has helped bring Watch Dogs’ connected world to life. “The added resources of PS4 make our job easier in some aspects, like animation and sound. It’s when we thread the driving, shooting, combat and hacking systems together that the connection that makes the game so unique comes to the fore.”
“The game’s clean HUD system whisks up little info reels for your nosey peepers to suck up”
That’s basically a slightly longwinded way of saying “random stuff happens; deal with it”. Watch Dogs’ non-scripted moments are actually what make the game feel more truly next-gen than Aiden’s badass billowing coat or the breadth of thoughtful hacking features – we’ll get to those in a moment. During our demo, we’re shown Pearce skirting around a dilapidated suburban neighbourhood. Breaking out his phone/hacking device extraordinaire, the obsessive vigilante automatically scans dozens of civilians milling around the streets. The game’s clean HUD system then whisks up little info reels for your nosey peepers to suck up.
Ooh, Ingrid Manners has crippling gambling debts does she? What a shame. What’s this? Simon Johnson has recently been binned off by his work and can’t pay his child support. Juicy. Rather than transforming Aiden into a tittle-tattle who hoovers up gossip and private information on a whim, NPCs’ details prove crucial in creating side missions. Cleverly, the game will also randomises each person’s bio, meaning no two characters in Watch Dogs are ever exactly alike.
Though the main campaign will be formed from over 100 story objectives, it’s the randomly generated quests that develop from observing people which take the focus of our walkthrough. In this case, the paranoid surveillance expert hones in on an agitated man who looks like he’s just been told he’s about to be wailed on by a loan shark… probably because he’s just about to be duffed up by one.
Sure enough, after you track your target to a rundown car park, the poor sod is set upon with a chrome bat by a miffed money lender. This is where paths will start to fork for different players. With AI systems that are genuinely reactive, it’s impossible to predict how the encounter between hacker and loan shark will play out. In this instance, the perp flees after the assault, which triggers a breathless car chase through the heart of Chicago. Of course, some gamers will never see this. Instead, their gangster could call up his buddies to jump Pearce. For others, the crim could simply open fire as soon as he claps eyes on you. If Watch Dogs can pull these emergent scenarios off, it’ll be a revelation.
But what of the headline-hogging hacking? The feature that so confidently stole the show at last year’s E3 demo, now it’s so indelibly and organically strewn throughout the fabric of the game you almost forget about it at times. The options for manipulating/buggering up almost any electronic equipment you come across are vast. Your hacking devices are capable of grand gestures that can literally halt the flow of the entire city – you can stop the iconic Chicago L-train if you need an impromptu getaway ride with all the ease of decoding the instructions of a Kinder Surprise. Yet there are far smaller, previously unseen, implications that are equally appealing.