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Watch Dogs and the joys of hacking modern America

By James Jarvis on Monday 13th May 2013 at 5:28 PM UTC

Larry Monroe, a custodian and hospice care donor, has just murdered a man in a dark and wet Chicago alley-way, as revenge for raping his wife. The victim, Paul Carmichael, who has a sexual assault record, was shot in the head. You saw this all from a security camera feed.

In Watch Dogs, events like this happen all the time, but they aren't missions. They're scripted to appear as random events, and it's up to you whether to react to them or not. It gives you a chance to decide who you think is the most worthy of your help.

How you decide is up to you. You're given a brief piece of information like "Pigeon Fancier", "Frequently purchases porn", "Refuses to recycle" and a few seconds to make your choice. It's a powerful mechanic and one which forces you to make snap judgements of people - even if they might not be the right ones.

Rewind a couple of minutes, and our demo starts back on the main streets of Chicago, where Aiden Pearce - the game's main character - arrives at the Wards; a less desirable side of the city, but one that is no less detailed. Leaves flutter along the ground, shadows creep along the walls, steam rises out of man-holes.

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Walking along the street, Pearce pulls out a handgun but hides it behind his back. It's less densely populated here but there's no reason to alert the public. If you do decide to open fire here, someone will still call the police.

Yet being tapped into the city's networks has its benefits. If you do decide to open fire, you'll hear the emergency call being made and the destination of the caller will be marked on the mini map. If you're fast enough, you can find the person making the call and get them to hang up. The police won't come.

Later, we're tasked with hacking into one of the HQs that are dotted around the city (think outposts in Far Cry 3). These control almost every piece of the city's technology and hold key information on all of its residents.

As with everything in Watch Dogs you have a choice about how to go about this task. Deus Ex-style, you can go full stealth, full combat, or just sit back and hack your way in, all of which can be combined to suit your play style.

Upon entering a restricted area, your stance changes automatically into a stealth crouch, and in fact a lot of the animations are contextual which allows everything from taking cover to vaulting fences to flow naturally.

Once inside the HQ, you can use your hacking skills to open gates and activate a forklift, distracting guards and opening up a path for you to slip through. If things go bad, or if you prefer a louder approach, you have access to over thirty weapons, from pistols to machine guns. You can also activate the 'focus' ability, slowing down time when shooting or driving, and giving you that extra second to line up headshots or squeeze between two trucks on a highway.

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However, you don't have to do any of this, we're told. The main story missions, of which there are over 100, take a linear path but if you'd just prefer to wonder the city, you can.

While exploring, you have access to your smartphone that, as you'd expect, comes loaded with apps. There's an Augmented Reality game - which causes virtual purple aliens to appear in the city that you have to shoot for points and power ups. A music app called 'song sneak' - think Shazam - which can identify any music you find playing in the game and download it to your phone for playing later or even force onto another device.

Don't like the music the clothes store is playing? Change it for one you have on the phone by hacking the stereo. Added to this is the social stream 'talk feed' and tourist guides 'city hotspots', which can be used to help navigate the city.

The demo ended with a car chase through the city. Once the police are in pursuit, cop cars are identified and displayed on the mini map, with your five-stage 'heat level' showing how wanted you are.

Hacking is just as vital on the road as it is on foot. As the escape was taking place, we saw traffic lights hacked which caused an unsuspecting driver to hit a cop car head on, and barriers raised in the road causing the pursuing vehicles to end up in a tangled metal mess. Once away from the chase you'll need to lay low for a while, in this instance the car was dumped in an underground car park, before Aiden exited at street level for a successful escape.

Visually it looked astounding: the draw distance was huge, lights reflected off every car and the rain formed puddles on the tarmac. Which is ironic as Ubisoft compared the game's story to a painting; a piece of media that's created to be something that's open to interpretation. And although the main story path will guide you to a conclusion, it's the little stories that surround you that could be the star of the show.

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