Watch Dogs preview: Grand Theft OS

By Andrew Yoon, May 10, 2013 6:00am PDT

When Watch Dogs made its sudden and surprising debut at E3 last year, I couldn't help but be mesmerized by it. It's not often that a game--seemingly as ambitious as this one, at that--can take the entire industry by surprise. What was Watch Dogs?

After seeing 30 minutes of the game in action, I have to admit that much of the mystery is gone. It's very clear what Watch Dogs is: it's Ubisoft's take on Grand Theft Auto, with a magical hacking twist.

To avoid revealing any story spoilers, Ubisoft intentionally avoided starting a story mission. Instead, they decided to have Aiden Pearce free roaming around a digitally recreated Chicago. However, doing so makes it incredibly easy to see the parallels between Watch Dogs and Grand Theft Auto. Just like a Rockstar thug, Aiden can just as easily hop into any car on the street, race around, buy weapons at a dealer, run over pedestrians, and call attention to the police. Watch Dogs even uses a similar five-star rating system to represent the intensity of the chase.

I couldn't help but feel like some of the mysterious charm of Watch Dogs had dissipated as I watched Aiden take cover whilst shooting down thugs, and running over pedestrians as he fled a crime scene.

Granted, that's not the only way you can play Watch Dogs. Ubisoft may be adhering to many of the genre's conventions, but there's enough of a twist to keep things fresh. Hacking opens up a whole new set of powers, making Aiden far more capable than Niko, but with a level of sophistication that Saints Row 4 is intentionally omitting. Aiden's hacking ability is really just wizardry given a technological coat of paint. You can--for one reason or another--interact with nearly everything in the world. For example, you can turn on random vehicles to distract guards. You can open and close any digitally-controlled door. You can take over security cameras and wi-fi hotspots to get a better look at your surroundings. You can even magically spawn new cover points by controlling conveniently located barricades.

Aiden's powers will require the suspension of disbelief--but hey, you're in a video game and he regenerates health. One of the more intriguing uses of Aiden's digital powers is the ability to see quick summaries of every NPC in the world. Not only will you see their occupation and bank account info, you'll also get a snippet of revealing information: has a gambling debt, works at a children's zoo, HIV positive, etc. This profiling will also reveal "potential criminals" and "potential victims," letting you become a city-defending vigilante--if you wish.

Like Infamous, Watch Dogs utilizes a notoriety system that reflects your choices. Although Ubisoft wants to focus on the "moral gray" of Aiden's abilities, it seems like a clear-cut representation of "good" and "bad." For example, running over random pedestrians will lower your reputation, while stopping an in-progress crime will raise it. And while you'll be able to play the game as dirty as you'd like, it's clear that being "good" will have its benefits. In the demo that I saw, a gunshop owner called the cops as a breaking news story on the TV identified Aiden as a suspect in a recent crime. Avoiding notoriety will undoubtedly prevent these hiccups in the future.

While Watch Dogs is an undoubtedly pretty game, especially running on a high-end PC, it's clear to me now that it's absolutely possible on current-gen consoles. The game, at least in single player, doesn't appear as if it will be as revolutionary as I had hoped. Still, Ubisoft's digital Chicago looks like a fun playground to play in, and Watch Dog's world still intrigues me. Add, Watch Dog's still-unrevealed online mode could be a game-changer--transcending Ubisoft's latest from something much more than "GTA with cell phones."

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