Just before I was to see Ubisoft’s newly announced Watch Dogs, throngs of press and PR rushed in as the doors of the booth opened. As if the mob of people were TMZ paparazzi, camera shutters started to snap and video began to roll. “Mr. Miyamoto, Mr. Miyamoto,” someone called out, “what did you think of the game?” He paused, as if he had to think of something positive to say. After the brief moment, he gave a thumbs up and in the best English he could muster said, “it very good.” After seeing the game behind closed doors after him, I can firmly say that Mr. Miyamoto was right.
Watch Dogs was what closed out Ubisoft’s 2012 press conference, and with good reason. The game quickly became the talk of the show. Speculation of what hardware it was running on and what engine it was using was just as much of a question on the E3 showfloor as it was to those spectating at home online. Besides being a new IP, the game suggested and hinted to gameplay mechanics and multiplayer concepts not often seen in contempory game design. While a lot of the core mechanics present in Watch Dogs used the same visual vocabulary of other Ubisoft titles, Assassin’s Creed in particular, it nonetheless felt as if it had maintained its own voice and point of view. The new IP presented its world first, one where information has become privatized and commodified for the benefit of multinational corporations. The premise strikes a cord in contemporary culture, as it successfully reflects our online and connected culture – a feat that is the trade mark of good science fiction.
For the past decade and a half, open world games have had limitations. The scope of the games were limited to urban gang life and all that went with it. With it came a limitation on how a player can interact with their world in a gangland context. Some series have tried to get beyond that limitation, Saint’s Row in especially, but open world gameplay remains the same, more or less. To that end, Watch Dogs seems to be expanding what modern open world games can do by expanding the vocabulary of the player’s interaction. In the demonstration, the player hacked into phones, security cameras, stop lights, bridges – each a new way of interacting with the game’s sandbox. In any other open world game, Watch Dog’s car crash firefight would have been designed much different. Rather than giving the player the option to hack into intersection stop lights to disrupt a target as in Watch Dogs, the games of the genre would have either scripted the target AI to seek the player out from the start of the encounter or force an arbitrary chase scene. In rooting the game’s fiction in an information alarmist world and extrapolating mechanics based on that new world, the player is given more tools to interact with the sandbox – and that was what exciting about the private demonstration. The possibilities that Watch Dog promises in gameplay is unlike anything in the genre. Maybe that is why Miyamoto gave a thumbs up. Perhaps he was excited at the idea of open world games not being tied to the mechanical and tonal tropes of the genre. Perhaps he was being polite.
After all, Watch Dogs still manages to disappoint. Despite the fresh ideas in Watch Dogs, the game demo climaxed the same kind of way in nearly every other open world game. The protagonist, Aiden Pearce, started shooting a handgun and a rifle until all enemies were killed and then proceeded to run from the police. At that moment, it became just another open world game. Rather than presenting an alternative way of dispatching enemy NPCs, the game demo resorted to the tired trends of the genre. Sure the combat itself looks great. Animations going in and out of cover are well done as well, as is the audio design of weapon reports. The existence of the firefight itself, however, is what was disappointing. Watch Dogs positioned itself as a new way of thinking about an open world sandbox. In the end, however, it showed that while this new dog learned a few new tricks, it sure did not forget the old ones.