Game Rant attended a preview presentation for Ubisoft’s for foray into the next-generation of gaming, the ambitious new IP, Watch_Dogs. We were given some background information on the game and its goals, followed by 30-minute gameplay demo played on the PlayStation 4 and its new DualShock controller.

As exemplified in its reveal video at E3 2012 and in the mysterious gameplay demos since, Watch_Dogs is built around the idea that everyone is connected. Social media, connected technology and a desire for citywide efficiency has led to what are known as smart cities. Watch_Dogs takes place in a near-future alternate version of Chicago which has its infrastructure, systems and services all operated by a central computer known as ctOS.

Who controls ctOS? Private corporations. This means that the everyday lives of citizens are constantly monitored and tracked. The system can essentially learn everything about someone since people are essentially data chunks on a grid. The information gathered therefore can be used to influence people and this idea is hinted at being central to the story of Watch_Dogs, a story we still know little about.

Watch Dogs_Police_Block_Traffic Light

Players take on the role of hacker extraordinaire Aiden Pearce whose shady activities in the past resulted in something bad happening to his family, something so bad that it’s changed his goals in life. He wants revenge and has become obsessed with his ability to engage in surveillance through hacking ctOS and the personal devices of everyday people. By doing so, Aiden is able to observe other daily crimes and bad happenings and this begins his vigilantism. What if he sees an innocent being mugged? Aiden (the player) can hero up and take action, can ignore it all together, or can take it too far by engaging with lethal force. All of these actions fall within the grey area of morality and player choice, and as such all have repercussions because in a connected world, a vigilante killer or a nonlethal vigilante like Batman would be spotlighted in mainstream and social media. That’s exactly what happens during Watch_Dogs and the people of Chicago react differently depending on the type of reputation Pearce earns throughout the game.

For the hands-off gameplay demo, we were intentionally not shown any missions as to not spoil the game or reveal details about its characters and story. Instead, we were told that the best way to see Watch_Dogs is to explore it without restraints or a guide. The demo began with Aiden walking in “The Wards” — the poorest and most crime-filled neighborhood in Chicago.

The player character can remain inconspicuous, throwing on a mask to cover his face and when a gun is drawn, positioning it behind his back or leg as to not alert passersby. “Dynamicism” was one of the core pillars of the demo session, an idea that represents natural moments and reactions, not scripted ones. In this example, Aiden can point his gun towards someone. They’ll freak out, one may get brave enough to call the police. Aiden can knock the phone out of their hand, hack to prevent the alerting of police or let the call go through. There are many other ways of dealing with the situation.

Watch Dogs Vigilante Wards Gang

The Wards

When the call goes through the police scanners appear on the map as they use the ctOS system to attempt to locate Aiden. Leaving the area to evade is one option, debugging to remove the scan is another, or if the cops have already arrived, attempting to get out of their line of site and engaging in stealth driving is another. In the latter section of the demo we were shown a bit of all these options, with the most time spent on an actual car chase to emphasize the gameplay features of hacking into traffic lights and road blocks to throw cars off course.

How does a player manage these abilities while in the midst of a high-speed chase or firefight? This is where the “Focus System” takes place. Think of it as a stamina bar that represents Aiden’s street smarts. With it, players can slow down time to look around the area for opportunities, hackable objects and plan a course of action. It can also be used in firefights to land precise shots.

Aiden has access to surveillance reports/police scanners that’ll add indicators to the map. These are instanced side-quests that can be entirely ignored. If the player is interested, they can walk up and find out what’s up or use Aiden’s abilities to monitor the situation through surveillance. But before these types of events or missions show up and before Aiden can walk the streets, hacking into anything and everything, the player must insert a “backdoor” into a ctOS control center for that area. This is where Watch_Dogs replicates the familiar tropes of their own sandbox franchises. The control centers are essentially the same as outposts in Far Cry 3 or towers in the Assassin’s Creed games and when they’re unlocked, players not only have access to the surveillance systems of that area, but the police’s crime prediction system as well.

A lot of the elements and mechanics at play may feel similarly familiar and that’s because they are. Driving cars, using cover, stealth movement, distracting or shooting enemies, using a phone as a mission hub or GPS system, playing music, etc. are not new. How they’re polished, fleshed out, weaved together and made more interesting with added layers in Watch_Dogs are why its core gameplay is so interesting and exciting.

Watch DogsTakedown Cop Dropping Door

Everything gamers expect from playing Grand Theft Auto and Sleeping Dogs, to Ubisoft’s own titles, is there. Any object, even moving cars, can be used as cover. Players unlock cars remotely without ever needing to break a window. Aiden can free-run right over similar obstacles and can even climb up on buildings, taking a note from the Assassin’s Creed playbook. If there’s a guard standing by an electronic fence, the player can activate it remotely to distract the target. The same goes for garage doors and road barriers, which players can activate on the fly while driving. Don’t like the music playing at a shop? Hack into it and replace it with your own song. Want more songs? Buy them with in-game cash on your phone through an app. Don’t want to pay for it? Hack it to get it. Want other apps? Get them.

We were told there will be apps for plenty of legal and illegal things, and players can expect many useful apps that we have in real life. As for the hacking, to exemplify how deep it can go, we watched a segment where Aiden was able to hack into a building’s free wi-fi, granting access to anyone using it inside the building. From there we were able to look inside of an apartment through someone’s laptop webcam and through it, could see someone on a couch and a tablet on a docking station. So we hacked the tablet and could now see through its camera, noticing a smartphone on the coffee table which contained pertinent license and registration info on that person’s car. We can now trade that intel, allowing car thieves to re-plate the car. This is just one facet of how the player can grow their own vehicle collection.

One of the most notable new features showcase during the demo was the Augmented Reality (AR) system. While walking downtown we noticed some odd looking NPCs. They looked that way because they were playing AR games on their smartphones, seeing and reacting to things we could not. As an example, we were shown an alien invasion game which added odd creatures falling from the sky attacking pedestrians that only we could see. It’s the player’s job to shoot them with imaginary weapons. Keep in mind, only Aiden (the player) can see it, so to others, it’s going to look odd. The smartphone is a hub of sorts and it can be expanded as players progress with added features, apps, etc.

Watch Dogs_Clara

Who is Clara?

We weren’t shown it in detail but players earn experience (XP) by playing the game and can unlock skills. This is just one element of progression that goes alongside increasing Aiden’s surveillance abilities, weapon and item acquisition, and reputation. There’s an economy at play so players will need to “earn” cash. Glove boxes of cars can be looted, and Aiden can hack into the back accounts of everyday people. He can then use that money in a variety of ways, from app purchases to spending it at shops. At pawn shops for instance, players can buy items that can be used for crafting, since Aiden’s also a bit of an engineer. At one point in the demo we saw Aiden use a crafted remote explosive and a distraction device. It’s also safe to assume from our conversation with the devs that players can customize the attire Aiden wears.

That brings us to the next big reveal: Watch_Dogs not only has a full single-player campaign, but it also features full open-world multiplayer in the very same city of Chicago. We weren’t shown gameplay of this but it was explained that in every demo of the game shown so far, including the E3 one, they’ve hinted at this reality by including a scene of someone watching Aiden through a security camera or showing another player entirely.

Details are being kept under wraps for the time being, but we do know there will be overlap from multiplayer to the single-player and that also bridging the seamless gap will be the game’s companion app that was shown briefly behind-closed-doors to us at last year’s E3. It will literally put the control of the city of Chicago in the players’ hands thanks to ctOS. Players will be able to build their own multiplayer character since we were told, guardedly, that there will never be two Aiden Pearces crossing paths.

We saw no multiplayer, no story missions, none of the supporting characters and we didn’t even hear Aiden have a conversation. We did see a highly polished third-person experience that draws inspiration from the best games of the genre, but thrown for an interesting twist and it assured us that Watch_Dogs, while still shrouded in secrecy, has the potential to distance itself from other games. Its timely themes and concepts couldn’t be more relevant as Watch Dogs reprsents Ubisoft’s first project developed with the next-gen in mind.

Watch_Dogs was known internally by the codename “Nexus” (its logo is still featured on Aiden’s scarf in-game) and has maintained its core 15-20 staff since it began development four-and-a-half years ago, growing to include five different Ubisoft studios. Because of this, despite the sheer size of the project and teams working on it, the core vision of the project has remained consistent since the outset.

The biggest takeaway of the demo is the realization that everything players feel they should be able to do as someone having the abilities and access Aiden does, they can actually do. At least from what we’ve seen in the limited reveals. The usual restrictions or gameplay limitations in third-person sandbox games aren’t evident and that – without even knowing the game’s mysterious story – is in itself, the most exciting prospect of the new IP. It learns from all the other games, takes all the best elements and aims to include them all, but better and different.

[Update: Read our interview with producer Dominic Guay about progression, customization, sequels and Blood Dragon style fun.]

Stay tuned for more on Watch_Dogs as E3 approaches.

Watch_Dogs releases November 19, 2013 for the PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U. It’ll also launch for the PS4 and next-gen Xbox.

Let me know on Twitter @rob_keyes if Watch_Dogs is on your watch list.