Introducing Ubisoft's mind-blowing cybercrime adventure.
It was a relatively quiet year at the annual E3 gaming show in Los Angeles last month, with publishers wheeling out a conservative array of sequels and annual updates to their established brands. However, one entirely new title stood out head and shoulders above the competition for both its impressive ambition in gameplay and gob-smacking visual prowess: Watch Dogs, from Assassin's Creed developer Ubisoft Montreal.
The game is set in a near-future Chicago, where every aspect of life has been incorporated into a massive all-encompassing digital network by snooping mega-corporations. Every imaginable scrap of information about a person is stored on the grid, as is every city system - from traffic lights to mobile phone networks.
You play as a mysterious figure called Aidan Pearce who's somehow managed to hack into the network and intends to use his new-found power over Chicago as a means to take down his enemies. Yes, Watch Dogs essentially asks you to use an entire city as your weapon.
So, an example. In one sequence Pearce is attempting to gain access to an invitation-only gallery opening to track down and eliminate a crime boss called Demarco. Using a PDA device, he scrambles the mobile phone frequencies causing the bouncer on the door to wander off in search of better reception, allowing him to wander in unchecked. Once inside, he digitally scans everyone in the room to pinpoint one of his target's minions, and then hacks into her phone conversation with Demarco to find out exactly where he is.
As it turns out, he's on his way to the building in his car. So Pearce races outside, finds a suitable vantage point and manipulates the traffic lights at a crossing to ensnare Demarco in a pile-up. A brief-but-visceral firefight ensues, Demarco is killed and Pearce jumps into his car and races off across the city chased by police. With a quick flash of that PDA, he raises a bridge across the Chicago River, halting his pursuers in their tracks.
It's not hard to see the huge potential here. Ubisoft is promising countless different solutions to every mission and a massive city to explore. Every single person walking Chicago's streets can be scanned and their backstory read, providing an impressively freewheeling second side to the gameplay. Should you chance upon an unsavoury character with a history of, say, violent domestic abuse, you're free to follow him, learn more about his life, and administer vigilante justice as you see fit.
New Dog, New Tricks
And there's a whole other string to Watch Dogs' bow too. An accompanying smartphone and tablet app offers a tantalising opportunity for asymmetric multiplayer. While one player attempts to complete a mission on the TV screen, another can either help or hinder by manipulating the city on a fully interactive 3D map displayed on the app. And on top of that, it will also provide a comprehensive stat-tracking and social networking service on the side.
If all this wasn't enough to quicken the pulse, Watch Dogs has one more ace up its sleeve - it looks absolutely stunning. Admittedly, Ubisoft has only shown the game running on a high end PC, but the detail on offer in its visuals is remarkable. Pearce's trench coat billows elegantly in the winds, rain sweeps and swirls through the streets of Chicago, and gun combat is lit up with extravagant muzzle flare and ricocheting ammunition. Its developers are promising they'll squeeze this same fidelity into the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions by the time the game's ready for release late next year. That's a bold promise - we wish them luck.
It's unusual to see ambition on this scale, this late into a hardware generation - publishers generally choose a new console launch to showcase their big ideas. Ubisoft's willingness to push the envelope at this stage of the game, while its competitors play it safe with incremental sequels, is very welcoming indeed. Here's hoping it can deliver on Watch Dogs' huge potential, rather than getting swamped by over-reaching ambition.