If you've been paying even the slightest bit of attention to Watch Dogs, you'll know there's one dominant theme that runs throughout Ubisoft's latest open-world action game: hacking. This is, after all, a story that concerns itself with our modern reliance on technology and all the ways one clever individual can exploit our personal information.
This focus on hacking extends beyond the narrative. Your ability to tap into Chicago's citywide security infrastructure is a central part of Watch Dogs' gameplay, in the way you deploy distractions to quietly sneak past security guards and tamper with traffic signals to evade police during a high-speed chase.
It's enough to make you wonder: is there anything in Watch Dogs that doesn't have to do with hacking? As it turns out, the answer is very much "yes." At a Watch Dogs preview event last week, I challenged myself to spend as much time as I could exploring the gameworld in search of missions and activities that had nothing to do with popping firewalls or bypassing mainframes...which I'm pretty sure are actual hacking terms.
At any rate, here's what I got up to.
Hitting the road
Within the first few minutes of Watch Dogs, you meet a character named Jordi Chin. Despite an eccentric personality and hair best described as adventurous, Jordi is a man who can help you get things done. He is, as they say, a fixer.
For the first few missions, you might call on Jordi to deliver you a boosted car when you're in a pinch, or set you up with black-market weaponry when the stuff you have access to just isn't cutting it. But in time, Jordi's connections open up a new series of missions outside the main storyline: driving contracts.
I challenged myself to spend as much time as I could exploring the gameworld in search of missions that had nothing to do with hacking.
These missions allow Aiden to earn some extra cash on the side by serving as the wheelman in a number of less-than-legal scenarios. They can be as simple as decoy missions, where you drive a hot car around town for long enough to keep the police distracted while your criminal pals do whatever it is they need to do.
More complex, however, are the getaway and showroom missions. Getaways have you picking up a car someone has ditched because things got too hot, while showroom missions have you breaking into luxury dealerships to make off with brand-new sports cars. In either scenario, you'll need to deal with tenacious police, giving you the opportunity to test out some of the interesting vehicular stealth mechanics Watch Dogs employs. Personally, I'm a fan of pulling into a garage, cutting the engine, and slinking down in the driver's seat with the hope that the police won't get close enough to see you through the window. It doesn't always work, but it's a neat twist on the standard technique of simply outrunning the cops. Plus you feel like Ryan Gosling from the opening scene of Drive, which is really the closest most of us will ever get to feeling like Ryan Gosling.
Games within the game
Watch Dogs can get pretty serious. Aiden Pearce is a talented hacker who pisses off the wrong people, and they make him pay for it by going after his family. The story that follows deals with the way people process grief while wrestling with feelings of helplessness.
But it's also quite silly at times, a fact most easily seen within the various in-game video games. Yes, Aiden's phone can be used for more than just hacking: it's how he unwinds after a long day of vigilante justice.
There are a couple of interesting augmented reality games to be found in Watch Dogs. NVZN is a wave-based arcade shooter where Aiden has to take on swarms of polygonal aliens, running around shooting enemies only he can see as pedestrians walk by and wonder who this absolute madman is. Then there's Cash Run, which tests your parkour abilities by spreading a trail of 8-bit-style gold coins across all manner of surfaces. This one's a time-based game where you need to free-run as quickly and nimbly as you can while avoiding nasty skull things that add time to the clock.
Far more interesting than that stuff, however, is a collection of elaborate transformations of Chicago called "digital trips." These are more or less a combination of video game and drug-induced hallucination. I say "drug-induced hallucination" because you acquire the games by strolling up to a sketchy man, selecting the one you want, and then tumbling to the ground while clutching your head as the screen begins to transform in a swirl of colors. So, you know, basically your standard trip to GameStop.
Anyway, digital trips are way bigger, way crazier games than those AR activities. The one I enjoyed most is called Tank. In this game, you control a giant robotic spider that can dash straight up skyscrapers and leap a few dozen feet into the air. It's pretty much just mindless destruction as the game throws different objectives your way, such as destroying four helicopters or demolishing three rooftop satellites. Think of it as a Japanese kaiju movie come to (virtual) life as you skitter along, laying waste to Chicago and earning skill points to further your destruction. It's especially interesting because the scope and sense of movement feel absolutely nothing like Watch Dogs--it's as if the development team borrowed the city layout and snuck an entirely different game in there.
Another digital trip I tried out was called Madness. This one transforms Chicago into a reddish hellscape, putting you behind the wheel of a nasty muscle car as you run over demons for their souls. It's...weird. The whole thing felt like a grindhouse version of Carmageddon, an interesting distraction from the very serious Watch Dogs storyline if nothing else.
A bit of street justice
Some of the other side missions you'll find in Watch Dogs include raiding gang hideouts and taking on heavily armored convoys. I'm cheating a little bit here because you have to profile civilians (hack their phones, basically) to find the location of these activities, but once you've found them, the missions themselves can be completed without any technical wizardry whatsoever.
Gang hideout missions are little combat sandboxes that present a large, well-fortified base and a simple goal: get to the gang leader by any means necessary. You can employ stealth or run around like a madman--it's up to you. But you have to take down the leader non-lethally, because simply killing him isn't part of your goal. You want to teach him a lesson, use him to show fellow gangs that somewhere in Chicago exists a mysterious man--let's call him Shmaiden Smearce--who isn’t going to take this anymore.
...it's as if the development team borrowed the city layout and snuck an entirely different game in there.
Convoy missions, on the other hand, require you to wipe out an armored car at the center of a fleet of vehicles and then take out the crew inside. If you're like me, your first instinct is probably to steal a fire truck and then plow those vehicles straight into Lake Michigan in one fell swoop. Turns out, my first instincts are pretty terrible. A more effective tactic is to craft remote explosives, plant a few on the road, and then wait for just the right moment before hitting the switch. It's not as exciting as the fire truck approach, but it gets the job done.
Both these types of missions can be found in various places throughout Chicago, and they all help you earn the experience points necessary to unlock new skills in what is a fairly elaborate upgrade tree. Some of those unlocks are pretty fascinating, like the ability to trigger a citywide blackout to flee from your pursuers, while other are a little more predictable, like Watch Dogs' take on the popular focus mechanic that lets you slow down time during a shootout. Still, there are a ton of new abilities to choose from, and it seems like you'll want to check out plenty of side missions to explore the full extent of that skill tree.
Odds and ends
Finally, we arrive at the odds and ends. What happens when Aiden is just strolling around Chicago looking to kill a little time, not embark on some dangerous gang raid or crazy hallucination? Well, you can always pop into a clothing store to choose from any number of new hats and trench coats to suit your vigilante lifestyle. Maybe brown isn't your color. Maybe you want a black trenchoat, or a snow white one, or the classiest shade leather known to man: magenta.
You can also swing into a coffee shop to play chess against fellow patrons, or simply buy a cup of joe to quickly refill your focus meter. If you'd prefer something a little more high-stakes, there are various bars throughout the city where you can engage in drinking games with strangers. These simple minigames boil down to moving an increasingly uncooperative reticle over an increasingly hazy target until you fail or your challenger drinks himself to sleep. But don't think you'll be able to drive drunk: Aiden has the metabolism of a superhero, sobering up pretty much immediately upon leaving the bar.
And of course, we haven't even touched on what happens when you're minding your own business and another player begins hacking you, invading your world and forcing you to search them out among a throng of nondescript civilians. Take them out quickly and you'll boost your online XP, unlocking online-specific combat perks. Freak out and start accusing every civilian on the street of being a hacker and you'll have tasted the sweet flavor of irony. Either way, you really should find that other player.
That's more or less what I was able to find during the handful of hours I played Watch Dogs. I'm sure I missed plenty of side missions--the map screen is absolutely crammed with mission icons--but hopefully this gives you an idea of what you can find in Watch Dogs when you take some time off from the main storyline and all the opportunities for hacking it provides.
For more on Watch Dogs, including more details on multiplayer and my thoughts on the story, be sure to check out GameSpot later this week.