Watch Dogs multiplayer preview: shooting up Chicago

By Andrew Yoon, Apr 23, 2014 9:00am PDT

In spite of its heavy emphasis on hacking, Watch Dogs can sometimes feel a bit too much like 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," I wrote in my last preview.

At a recent preview event in San Francisco, I got to try out nearly four hours of the game, including a good deal of multiplayer. Like the campaign, Ubisoft's game shines when it's doing its own thing, rather than trying to go toe-to-toe against Rockstar's heavy-hitting franchise.

A new competitive mode revealed at the event turns the world into a lethal game of tag. Here, players race towards a package and must hold onto it to decrypt its contents. Of course, anyone that gets within a certain range will be able to remotely hack it, making it crucial to grab the package, run, and hide.

It's an interesting concept, one that fully exploits the open-world that Ubisoft has created for the game. However, it quickly devolves into a murder-fest, with armed players gunning each other down, and running each other over with vehicles as they try to secure the package for themselves. It's somewhat hilarious to see a massive traffic jam develop as players ram into each other, with no care of the consequences of their actions. (There's no impact to your notoriety when you run over pedestrians, and there's no police threat to respond.)

There's some encouragement to play it smart. For example, the range which you can get hacked from changes depending on whether you're on foot or in a car. I was able to sneak away by racing into a garage, driving up a few floors, and then hoofing it. Instead of a deathmatch, I turned the game into hide-and-seek--although I'm sure my opponents would have loved to have other ways of triangulating my position.

Clearly, this mode is meant to appeal to the run 'n gun crowd--the audience that will be shooting instead of stealthing their way through missions. But, I couldn't help but think this was potential squandered. Given the uniqueness of Watch Dogs' hacking premise, it's somewhat disappointing to see it so thoroughly underutilized in this mode.

The other multiplayer modes are truly inspired, however. As previously mentioned, you'll be able to hack into other players' games. Your single-player experience can be interrupted by a hack attempt by others. While some have drawn allusions to Dark Souls, it actually shares more in common with Assassin's Creed's multiplayer offering.

When hacking into another player's game, you'll be able to score points that can be used on an entirely different skill tree set, separate from the abilities you can unlock in the campaign. When your game gets hacked, you'll be notified to investigate a certain area. You'll have a set amount of time to identify the hacker and dispose of them.

As the hacker, you need to remain close to the target player. However, you don't want to draw attention to yourself. Like in Assassin's Creed, success depends on hiding in plain sight. The player will scan all the characters in the environment. Acting suspiciously, like running around, will undoubtedly draw attention to yourself. Blending in with the AI civilian characters, however, will increase your chances you'll remain undetected.

The search radius narrows as time passes by, giving the hacked player better odds of finding the hacker over time. Even if the hacker gets detected, he can run away. For example, in one game, I was hacked while exploring a park. I did manage to find the intruder--but he managed to run away via speedboat before I could shoot him. Clever boy.

You can even screw around with players even when you're not playing the game. The ctOS companion app is a brilliant addition to Watch Dogs. Playable on tablets and phones--even whilst on a 3G connection--you can issue challenges to players on either PSN, Xbox Live, or Uplay. With the application, you'll get an overhead view of the city, and you'll be able to use a helicopter to track a player, deploy police, and trigger traps.

Players that accept challenges from ctOS commanders will have to race through a series of checkpoints, while avoiding all the obstacles that the city throws at them. However, that is much easier said than done. Tablet players will be able to use their finger to keep a helicopter over their target, while deploying police to create roadblocks, for example. Players must reach their checkpoints in a certain amount of time, so smart ctOS players will figure out a way to redirect their targets away from the shortest path.

Perhaps one of the smartest twists in this mode is that players must avoid killing cops and civilians while racing to their checkpoint. By harming innocents, the ctOS commander gets more points to use, which can then be used for increased police response. It's a clever way of mimicking the real-world consequences of these actions, while still making it playful.

It can be overwhelming playing as the driver. However, there are ways to fight back. You can attempt to hack the ctOS player. Or, you can also try brute force: shooting the helicopter can take it down, rendering the tablet player powerless for a limited time.

The ctOS app also lets players create custom challenges. While these races can't be used to earn progression, it'll be interesting to see the kinds of routes players decide to create. Perhaps one that goes through all of Chicago's most famous landmarks? The drag-and-drop interface does a lot to make it easy and accessible.

Watch Dogs is at its best when it innovates and fully takes advantage of its hacking concept, and focuses less on running-and-gunning. It's possible to play the campaign and turn off all these online features. But, Ubisoft has made a convincing argument: why would you want to? From deadly games of hide-and-seek with unknown enemies to helicopter car chases against players who may be commuting from work, Watch Dogs' online elements add a lot to the game experience.


Disclaimer: Ubisoft provided Shacknews transportation from New York to San Francisco to attend an all-day preview event.

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