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Games of 2014: Watch Dogs challenges the morality of open-world gaming

By Nick Cowen on Wednesday 22nd Jan 2014 at 10:01 AM UTC

Anyone who makes a habit of playing open world games knows that they have the tendency to warp your moral compass. In video games, there are no real consequences for any of the player's actions and, once you couple that to the unbridled sense of freedom a sandbox game offers, you have a recipe for creating monsters.

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Some of the activities players get up to in an open-world game wouldn't (hopefully) ever be considerations away from their PCs or consoles. In games like Grand Theft Auto 5 or Crackdown, however, even the most oblique infraction by anyone not controlled by the player is reason enough for homicide; cast your mind back to the last time an AI cut you off in traffic in either of those games - what did you do? We're betting it involved bloodshed.

In light of this, Watch Dogs - Ubisoft's open-world cyber-thriller - is something of an anomaly. That's not to say it doesn't encourage the player to engage in a lot of amoral behavior - after all, its protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is a vigilante - but it leaves reminders that the player's actions, however small, are going to have an impact on the world around them. In Watch Dogs, your tangential actions may not come back to bite you on the arse, but they have the potential to haunt your conscience.

Mind you, this doesn't happen until players have sunken a fair amount of time into Watch Dogs, if the demo we played is anything to go by. For our first hands on with the game, we were tasked with hacking into a Server Hub in order to increase the size of Aiden's network and the amount of targets he could then hack within it.

Taking control of a hub in order to open up parts of a map and the activities it contains has become something of a mission template in Ubisoft's open-world games. Structurally hacking the server is not that different from hacking the radio towers in Far Cry 3 or synching with View Points in any Assassin's Creed game you care to mention. The results are the same, but in Watch Dogs, accomplishing this task involved a mixture of stealth and remote hacking that shows off how this game can change up mechanics and genres on a dime.

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You can pretty much play Watch Dogs any way you like - and it's quite refreshing to type that sentence without first having had it rammed into one's skull repeatedly in a press briefing. To wit, players can tackle Watch Dogs as a stealth game, sneaking about in cover and avoiding the AI's eye-line or they can go loud and engage in gun battles - although that's more difficult and it'll attract the cops.

As the game progresses, players can kit Aiden out with an increasing array of weapons, but if they wander around in public with his gun drawn, they'll spook civilians in their vicinity and someone will call the authorities. And then, of course, there's Aiden's wonderful phone.

We have no idea what network he's on or what his payment plan is, but we want Aiden's smartphone. Not only is this device his mission hub, his notepad, his map and, yes, his gaming arcade, but this baby can take control of cameras, deploy sleeping policemen, mess with traffic lights, open security gates and car doors and swipe data off the phones of passers-by.

This may sound like an unrealistic power trip, but the developers have assured us that every single hack in the game is possible in real life. Sure, a lot of them aren't as easy as hitting a combination on your smartphone - yet - but Watch Dogs provides a paranoia-inducing glimpse of the sort of vulnerabilities we've opened ourselves up to in a hyper-connected world.

"We have no idea what network he's on or what his payment plan is, but we want Aiden's smartphone."

It's an atmosphere Ubisoft seems inclined to push as evidenced by the We Are Data promotional site launched last year, which used social networks and publicly available data on urban infrastructure to render 3D maps of Berlin, Paris and London.

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Not that the publisher needs any help; the revelation last year by Edward Snowden that the NSA has been using its PRISM data mining program to collect information via ubiquitous applications from some of the world's biggest tech firms sounds like a Watch Dog plot point. Or it would - if we knew much more about the plot beyond the name of the protagonist and the fact that he's ranged against sinister forces who appear to be part of the upper-echelon of the city of Chicago.

It seems strange to be so close to a release date for Watch Dogs - still scheduled for Q2 this year, barring any more delays - and to know next to nothing about its story. Ubisoft has been content to reveal its mechanics, its structure, its multiplayer mode and its admittedly excellent rendering of the city of Chicago, but there's still no word on the plot that'll presumably drive the action in Watch Dogs.

The blackout on the narrative has been so complete that conspiracy theories have started to spring up. For example, Eagle-eyed players of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag have noticed that if you hack a certain terminal at Abstergo's offices, you'll find a document describing CtOS, the supercomputer that controls the flow of data in the open-city in Watch Dogs. Does this mean the two games inhabit the same universe or is that just an Easter Egg? And if it's a case of the former, what are players to make of the Abstergo Lab on the island in Far Cry 3?

In the absence of concrete story missions - aside from the mission revealed at E3 involving a character called T-Bone - we were faced with a couple of side-missions and then left to wander through the city of Chicago. And it was here where Watch Dogs started pricking our conscience.

Nearly every AI who wanders past Pearce carries a phone that can be hacked. With the touch of a button, players can dump the content of a civilian's phone onto Aiden's handset, helping themselves to call-logs, SMS streams and even secure data. This is fantastic for obtaining cash to purchase items; help yourself to a civilian's account numbers, hack an ATM and hey-presto: your wallet is filled. However, if you actually stop to read some of the data you've snatched - or even listen in on some of the phone calls in your vicinity - the AI drones around Pearce start taking on a searingly human depth.

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You'll see an social network post from young lady who has been stood up by her date. She's mildly annoyed, but feels it was probably for the best. You hear a call in which a lady tells a friend that she's worried about her nephew. His mother drinks too much, you see, and she doesn't think the boy is safe. You see an SMS chain in which a man worries about his finances - and you just helped yourself to five grand in his account. Was that the last of his cash? Are you putting this guy out in the street?

It's the first time in an open-world game where we've actually felt some sense of self-reproach for our treatment of the NPCs in our vicinity. Sure, we know deep down these are pixels and code, but the way they're presented makes them resonate as individuals. Watch Dogs is a game where bits and bytes register emotively, and we have to say, this makes Ubisoft's new IP a more intriguing prospect than ever before. In Watch Dogs, your sense of morality is constantly pricked. In this open-world, you're actions say more about you as a person than they do as a player of games.

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