Computer hacking gives Watch Dogs a modern twist. Photo: Supplied
Platforms: PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows PC, Wii U
Release date: 27 May 2014, Wii U version late 2014
Previewed on: PS4
When Watch Dogs was revealed two years ago, it promised a genuinely new gaming experience; a living urban environment overlaid with digital pathways.
Now that publisher Ubisoft has allowed a preview of the game for the first time, reality has set in.
Playing it, the overriding impression is of Grand Theft Auto. For the most part, this is an action-driven game that takes place in a sprawling re-creation of Chicago, and there is a lot of driving, fighting and shooting.
Deeper down, however, there are systems very much like Ubisoft's popular Far Cry series. There are skill trees to progress through, and the player will be able to unlock activities in sections of the map by taking control of central command points.
The twist that makes this game stand out from the pack is its integrated hacking features. The game's near-future Chicago is intricately criss-crossed by a digital network called ctOS, which controls traffic lights, city utilities, and more. The game's anti-hero, Aiden Pearce, has acquired a powerful hacking program that allows him to take over ctOS functions at will.
There are many interesting ways this can be used in the game. One is video surveillance cameras: if you can see a camera, you can instantly hack into it and see whatever it sees. If that camera can see another camera, then you can hack into that one. That second camera may then be able to see a security terminal or a network server, continuing a daisy-chain of hacked electronics.
Things get really fun when you use the hacking functions during action sequences. For example, Chicago is one of several US cities that pipe boiling steam to homes and businesses for heating, and Aiden can hack into the steam control system and cause overloads. When he is being chased by a car full of angry drug dealers or anti-vigilante police, popping the cork on a steam pressure vent can flip the pursuing vehicle when correctly timed.
On foot, hacking can make stealth sequences and gunfights extremely interesting. If an enemy is using a roller-door for cover, Aiden may be able to trigger its opening mechanism, leaving the bad guy exposed. Similarly, forklifts and other industrial machinery can radically change the shape of the battlefield. Hacking into a camera during a fight can also give you a valuable sneak look at enemies who are trying to creep around your flank.
The game is packed to the brim with things to do. There are augmented-reality computer games, vigilante crime busts, victims of violent crime needing assistance and even underground poker tournaments, all in addition to what appears to be a lengthy main story. The large map is densely littered with icons marking locations and activities.
On top of that, there is integrated multiplayer, which is as diverse as the single-player. Among other events, it includes tense one-on-one stalking and hacking missions, chaotic street races in which every driver has access to exploding steam pipes and sudden traffic light changes and fast-paced tournaments in which teams of players try to keep hold of a precious data file.
One interesting twist is a free-to-play iPad game that integrates with the main game. iPad players will be able to take on the role of police and try to use roadblocks, police pursuit vehicles and more to take down players on console or PC. The free app has its own experience and progress system, with a range of new skills to unlock.
Three hours was nowhere near enough time to get a thorough feel for Watch Dogs. It is strongly reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry, with the addition of some Assassin's Creed-Lite free-running and urban exploration, and some Splinter Cell stealth.
It makes for a very satisfying package. It may not be the next-generation revolution we were promised but it feels like a natural evolution of the best this generation has to offer.
Watch Dogs will be released on 27 May for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PC, and later in the year on the Wii U.
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez