When Watch Dogs was delayed back in November 2013 it single-handedly postponed next-gen gaming for many. Faces drooped, hearts sank, and there was a lingering question as to whether the hype machine had set the bar of expectation beyond even the game's makers' expectations. Ubisoft took a step back and made the decision to spend more time working on the game.
Six months later and we're in Paris with Ubisoft to deep-dive into four hours of gameplay on PlayStation 4. We've been given access to Watch Dogs in its debug build some seven weeks ahead of launch day. And like big kids we're giddily excited with anticipation. Has Watch Dogs been crafted into the true next-gen open-world game that we all want it to be?
Think open-world freedom like Grand Theft Auto 5; add a hint of the fluid motion from Assassin's Creed 4; combine some stealth elements similar to Metal Gear Solid 5 and that's a rough idea of the genre melting pot on our hands. Set that to the backdrop of a modern day cyber crime world and Watch Dogs quickly shapes up into something special.
It all kicks off with a bank heist intro delivered with Hollywood movie grandeur. The theme is familiar, but this is a heist with a difference: there are no guns, only the apparently invisible weapon of hacking. Sounds kind of cheesy, doesn't it? But Watch Dogs cleverly plugs into today's cyber security concerns. Its concept feels genuinely fresh and new for a game, despite playing it out in among many more familiar scenarios and dabbling in familiar genres.
You play Aiden Pierce, aka the hacking guy with the coat - seriously, he never takes that coat off, even in the hot Chicago sun - who is a man on a mission. After said heist goes bad, Aiden's family become a target. And when a guy is this good with a smartphone, he's not the right guy to piss off.
Hacking is Pierce's commodity; a skill to be tempered and expanded throughout the game and to the player's advantage. Much like Infamous: Second Son, a skill tree details future potential powers that can be acquired by spending skill points as you level-up. You'll progress from hacking cameras, to raising bollards into cars, opening gates, blowing up steam pipes and plenty more. How some of this can be "hacked", we have no idea, we must admit, but we'll play along.
Very early in the story you're thrown into grasping an understanding of how these abilities entwine in your capacity to avoid prying enemies, such as the cops when escaping from a football stadium. You'll dive into the first person points-of-view through cameras to see around corners, hack machinery, set off car alarms and other devices remotely to act as distractions, cause blackouts for improved stealth, among other skills.
Visually there's an essence of Grand Theft Auto that will be an undeniable comparison. But Watch Dogs is altogether less gung ho. At first you don't have bullets in order to grasp the necessity of stealth play - ducking and diving from cover is an essential part of play from what we've seen.
Just like in Metal Gear Solid you'll want to stay out of sight to avoid swathes of bad guys coming at you which, ultimately, is likely to lead to your demise. The way enemies are facing, how much light there is, how long you remain visible in plain sight and so forth all impact successful stealth play. Timing things right for that perfect take-down brings a punch of satisfaction to play as you thwap an enemy with a handheld baton. Pierce is accomplished with more than just text messaging, that's for sure.
But Watch Dogs is far from just a stealth game. There are guns. Lots of guns. And bombs. Oh, and grenades. Flails of bullets and explosions are all commonplace and if a mission goes wrong then you can try and shoot your way out of it. Just make sure to target the bad guys with the radios otherwise backup will come to continue whooping your ass.
Get outside and into one of the many vehicles on the streets and you'll be slip-slidin' around like a madman in no time too. Despite the cars often feeling like they're spinning over sheets of ice rather than tarmac, the destructible nature of the surroundings - here's where it's more similar to Grand Theft Auto - will see you happily mowing down fences, lamp posts and, most probably, pedestrians. Even once control is established you'll keep doing so for the sadistic fun factor.
Get your gun out by accident and people will run away, if someone calls the cops you can attempt to hack their phone within a given period of time to stop them. All of this adds a level of "realism" to the game. But Watch Dogs is so far removed from reality that it can be downright whacky.
Get rich through your ways and you can buy $35,000 "digital trips" - like an electronic high, sort of like playing a computer game we suppose - which, among other options, will see you commanding a giant metal spider tank, capable of climbing skyscrapers. A bit like a GTA "Rampage".
But this leads us to our biggest criticism: this lunacy throws the balance of the game out a bit for us. Not that we're out-and-out serious people, but we thought the undertone of a serious - even political - game was part of its sell. And the introduction of Saints Row oddness - for example, running down the road grabbing coins like a 3D-Pacman-cum-Mario in one featured mini game - pretty much throws the cyber security subtleties out the window.
It's fun, it's different, and it's certainly not dull. But it's Watch Dogs' core story and the interplay between the more believable "real life" hacking that enthralled us the most.
Now it's not a storyline that's going to win an Oscar. This isn't The Last of Us. Although the voice acting and motion capture is all top notch, the reliance on the usual movie motifs fails to crack open anything unique. Think 24 in cyber crime town. Or at least that's as much as we could gauge from 90-minutes of play one per cent into the game and another two and a half hours of play some 13 per cent into completion.
It's the theme and the way the game plays that makes it a unique proposition. Tap one key to open your hacking mode and the surrounding world becomes a series of threads superimposed over the live action like augmented reality. Follow trails to hack phones, investigate people in the world around you, find clues, solve issues, spy on unsuspecting people and steal their bank details. It's beautifully thought out and beautifully rendered in a visual style that never gets in the way of the action.
It's not complex to do or understand either; the hacking aspect just flows naturally while adding an additional layer to the gameplay. When hacking terminals, for example, you'll want to remain out of view otherwise there's every chance you'll be spotted and shot, all the while watching your own death via the very security camera you've just hacked into.
The right balance of simplicity, fluid controls and ability to navigate the open-world make Watch Dogs an accessible and compelling game. It's a little like a lot of other games we've played before, and yet it's unlike anything that we've ever played before either. Which is what makes it a success.
Some of the open-world elements - such as hacking gates, raising bollards or bridges - feel like fixed elements to get right in sequence. In a motorcycle racing side mission, for example, hacking the right objects at the right times to open the unfolding course was fun enough, but felt contrived. Hacking in Watch Dogs is less about the reality - the safety concerns and voyeurism images it might conjure - and more an excuse for a gameplay mechanic.
Get bored of the mainline plot? Then dip into online multi-player and further madness ensues. But playing online doesn't mean a sudden end to the action; it's not a case of heading back to the main menu and approaching the world as a different entity. It occurs in exactly the same pesudo-Chicago world as the main game, at any given time of your choosing (outside of a main mission). All it requires are other players wanting to take part. And we're sure there will be many.
Unlike the Grand Theft Auto Online game mode, Watch Dogs online takes a leaf out of first person shooters' books in some regards. You're teleported to designated "arenas" within the map, exceed these map limits for 12 seconds and it'll work against your cause, depending on which online mode you're playing.
In what is known as "Dogfight" you play in two teams of four, the goal being to possess a file for a given period of time in order to decrypt it. The file can be stolen by proximity hacking by the other team, but your team is there to help reacquire it and to defend when its in your possession. Carnage, death and most definitely respawning is all part and parcel of the online play experience. And it's quite brilliant.
One on one missions and racing make up some of the other online antics. Some other options were locked, while others we didn't get time to play - largely because the room of 20-or-so players in Paris were fixated on team battle.
We doubt that we would buy Watch Dogs solely to play online, but after failing to win three consecutive Dogfight matches, we couldn't help but keep playing until we had won one. And then another. And another. Four hours of play whizzed by so quickly that we more or less had to be pried from the machine we were playing on.
Despite many hours of play put into the game we left feeling as though we only scratched the surface. There's still the lingering question of just how well the story will play out and whether the initially exciting concept of camera hacking and beyond will quickly become laborious rather than refreshing. Only considerably more time in the final game will answer that.
After half a day roaming Paris following the gameplay event, it wasn't romance that was left on our mind: it was how much we were left looking forward to playing the game again. Watch Dogs has hacked into our minds and looks like it'll be leaving a lasting impression in 2014.
Watch Dogs is released 27 May on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. A Wii U version is due to follow later in the year.