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Opinion: Ubisoft's  Watch Dogs  up against lofty expectations

Opinion: Ubisoft's Watch Dogs up against lofty expectations Exclusive

June 15, 2012 | By Colin Campbell

June 15, 2012 | By Colin Campbell
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

If this E3 had a "moment" it was when the always-charming Yves Guillemot introduced brand new intellectual property, Watch Dogs. He asked, "We have a question. Who is managing the world we are living in?"

After the demo was done -- it lasted about 14 minutes -- the audience response was genuinely heartfelt, a growing swell of applause and appreciation. E3 is always happy to see something new, that looks good, and that hangs on a cracking story.

Watch Dogs is Grand Theft Auto with a double-digit reading age. According to the early interviews, the game is inspired by our own growing paranoia about surveillance and privacy. It offers players the chance to play a hero who manipulates the system, a bad-ass with a thirst for vengeance and an ability to slice through firewalls.

Its environmental art is gorgeous, the character models we've seen so far are at video games' top-end, and the possibility of interacting with the secret lives of any passer-by is deeply fascinating. The usual talking heads in the media say that this is the game that "won E3" for Ubisoft. (My IGN colleague Rich George said it was his "game of the show.")

So it's completely fair, given how much credit Watch Dogs has taken, to wonder if the reality can live up to what are now, lofty expectations.

Of course a good place to start is Ubisoft Montreal, the game's developer (UK-based Ubisoft Reflections is also working on the game). It has an excellent pedigree including the Assassin's Creed and Far Cry games, a good place for Ubisoft to place its trust in the next generation. Creative director Jonathan Morin was lead level designer on Far Cry 2, which managed a Metacritic score of of 85.

"A lot of people have been asking us, what's the concept?" said Morin in an interview with Gamasutra. "Well, it's typical beer discussions about Facebook and information and what's happening in the world. Human beings are always reacting to technology in different ways. Today there are new ways for people to express themselves publicly. Some people don't like that. It gets harder to govern a society when people have access to so much information."

He added, "So we were talking about those things, and instead of talking about being a victim of that, we started to ask ourselves, wouldn't it be cool to be that guy? The guy who can tap into that information, and to reverse-engineer that conversation, and to make gameplay out of it. As soon as we tried it, it was pretty interesting."

Watch Dogs will unlikely be out until late in 2013, but there are already plenty of comparisons with that other modern-day crime sandbox game Grand Theft Auto. While one draws its inspiration from smart sci-fi of William Gibson and the technology issues of the day, the other is pure Scorsese, with a nod to overall themes of inequality and economic injustice.

It's interesting to think of these two cultural view-points going against one another, especially as one is from the New York/UK anglophone tradition of Rockstar, while the other is from the Montreal/French background of Ubisoft.

Touching gently on this, Morin says, "A lot of games will go and invite the player to just explore the environment. We're letting you explore human beings as well. Pierce [the game's main character] looks at the people around him in a different way. Every person is not a robot following a sidewalk. It's a human being, you can tap into his life, you can find new side quests, stories. So it's pretty much an action-adventure game, that pushes the limit of what it means to walk into a living, breathing city."

Watch Dogs is a game for this generation and for next. It straddles two eras and allows us to believe in the present and in the future. While there were many, many gorgeous games at E3, they were familiar in and of themselves -- we knew lots about them already -- and they were familiar as a class. Together they are 2012 -- richly textured, highly violent and yeah, ok, seen that.

How far Watch Dogs is truly innovative has yet to really be tested, and we have seen games before that didn't quite deliver on their much-heralded promise. Like LA Noire, it teases much in the way of inter-personal interaction, in the mechanic of playing people, of reading them. It is cinematic and grandiose. I was excited by LA Noire but, ultimately, I thought it was a poor experience.

Like the Grand Theft Auto series, it has an open-world explorative element that is instantly appealing. But, for me, GTA is one of those series that is amazing fun for a few hours, but which fades once the novelty wears off.

Ubisoft has proven itself adept at taking standard genres, like third-person adventures, music games and first-person shooters, and creating noteworthy work. Watch Dogs is giving us, and Rockstar, something to think about.

Colin Campbell writes for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx

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