E3 2012 was fairly underwhelming, many developers showed off games that everyone knew about and Nintendo trotted out their next-gen Wii U, but nothing had a visceral feel to it. Unlike prior iterations of the gaming conference, there seemed to be no true surprises. The current console cycle was entering its final hurrah and despite some impressive parting salvos from Sony, it was all games that had been talked about and seen before. There was one exception though and that came from Ubisoft. Among their new entries to popular franchises including Assassin’s Creed 3, they officially unveiled their new IP, Watch_Dogs. From the brilliant and startling introduction video that boldly claimed that “Data is interconnected” and the game’s tagline “everything is connected. connection is power” to the breath taking gameplay demo, Watch_Dogs was a startlingly pleasant surprise.
But isn’t the subject matter and tone different between Watch_Dogs and Assassin’s Creed 4? Yes and no. Yes, it is true that Assassin’s Creed has built its intrigue on exploring specific historical time periods while building this mythos of assassins and templars, but there has always been a modern component to the games that has always fell flat. With AC4, perhaps thanks to the events of Assassin’s Creed 3, Ubisoft will downplay the modern aspect with only brief intrusions of it into Edward Kenway’s story, but since he is still an ancestor of Desmond Miles, it is unlikely they will eschew it completely. Whatever the AC franchise is doing with the modern story beats, it seems that they are meant to play some larger significance at some future time, but until then, they just serve as dull and uninteresting intrusions into an otherwise compelling narrative. Thus with Watch_Dogs, which is a wholly modern story, it seems like this might be a way for Ubisoft to explore or test out an assassin game set in modernity and how that will work. Instead of a hidden blade, the modern day assassin would use a smartphone and technology as his main means of assassination. Make no mistake, while Aiden is labeled a vigilante in many of the gameplay teasers by the group monitoring him and the authorities, he is an assassin.
The E3 gameplay demo shows a mission where he is seeking out a man named Joseph DeMarco. Aiden heads to a fundraiser that DeMarco is throwing in Chicago, but he must find a way to sneak into the event. By using his trusty smartphone, he creates a distraction and slips into the event. It is a piece of stealth that seems way more functional than any of the hamfisted attempts that AC franchise employed. Once inside, Pearce meets up with a friendly-ish arms dealer, who figures out that Aiden is using himself as bait to lure DeMarco to the event. The man laughs and gives Aiden a gun and before leaving adds, “Good hunting”. Once he has the weapon, Aiden uses his technology to finds an employee of DeMarco in a crowd, who tells her boss that Aiden is there. She then informs security not to let him escape, but by then, Aiden is already heading for the door. Before a security guard can attempt to incapacitate Aiden, he has already disarmed him and has exited the building. Outside, he waits for DeMarco’s vehicle to arrive then messes with the traffic lights causing a multiple car collision that traps DeMarco’s car. DeMarco’s goons hop out and start a firefight with Aiden, but he ends up dispatching them by utilizing cover (despite many people running away, and those trapped in the cars end up as causalities of the stray bullets). With all of the hired thugs gone, Aiden pulls DeMarco out of the car, and before putting a bullet through his brain, Aiden tells him that he will send a message (the message being that his death means Aiden is coming for whomever he is working for or with).
Other gameplay footage has shown Pearce deftly running through the streets of Chicago to pursue a man attempting to hurt his ex-wife. With moves that would make Ezio proud, he jumps over tables blocking his way and scales fences with ease to catch the criminal. The hand-to-hand combat seems very reminiscent of Ubisoft’s AC franchise. A recent uninterrupted gameplay video for Watch_Dogs showed off the game’s impressive scale and open world mechanics. Aiden will be able to hack the many cameras around Chicago and use them as effective means of gathering intel, seeing enemy placement and finding items to hack to distract enemies. The video saw Aiden invading a heavily guarded compound by using cameras around the area to find the right guard with an access code and hacking his data. By hopping from camera to camera, Aiden finds the guard who has a proper access code, once he hacks the information, he sneaks into the compound. Once inside, he continues to use the cameras to scope the geography and enemy placement to find ways to distract the guards. For instance, Aiden hacks a nearby forklift to cause a guard to investigate then sidles up behind him and chokes him out until he dies. Eventually, once Aiden has dispatched enough guards, he begins opening fire and quickly does away with the rest of the enemies in the area. Finally, he gains control of the information he wants and casually walks away from the scene.
Now with the inclusion of guns to the AC formula, the gameplay in Watch_Dogs seem like a modern application of what makes the historical-based franchise so appealing. Can the market handle two games that have so many similarities especially when published by the same company? Or will Ubisoft eventually have to decide on which franchise or potential franchise to continue on during the PS4/Xbox 720 generation? Alternatively, if the market can handle two Ubisoft assassin games then what will the scheduling of these games be? Obviously pushing both each year will only lead to an inferior product, but could Ubisoft leverage the potential success of both AC4 and Watch_Dogs into an Activision-Call of Duty scenario? Where one year sees a Watch_Dogs game come out and the following year sees Assassin’s Creed similar to how Treyarch and Infinity Ward have been trading off on Call of Duty installments for the past few years? Would Assassin’s Creed benefit from some longer gestation allowing for Ubisoft Montreal to go to ground and create a more dynamic and interesting installment than simply releasing what may amount to AC3.5 this year? (With more development time, maybe an Assassin’s Creed game featuring a Chinese or Japanese assassin could happen). Perhaps, it is too early to say whether or not Watch_Dogs can make a successful franchise because since it has been in development since 2010, maybe the amount of good will it currently is receiving may wane significantly if it is forced to have a quick turnaround.