Ubisoft's big open-world romp from earlier this year, Watch_Dogs is a game that tries to be many things. It uses an admittedly weak revenge plot to let you enter the world of cyber terrorism and advanced mobile hacking throughout a fictional Chicago...although it pretty regularly relies on good, old-fashioned gunplay and on-foot chases.
And, in an attempt to out-GTA GTA, it has more random missions, side quests and mini-games than I was able to count. I particularly enjoyed the chess challenges even if they seem completely out-of-place in this futuristic, tech-obsessed world.
Regardless, it does something else that caught my attention more than anything else, and that is its occasional tendency to offer stealthy ways to approach encounters. As a major fan of the Metal Gear and Splinter Cell series, I'm often unimpressed when other games attempt to add a "stealth" mechanic only to have it feel like a tacked-on, water-down afterthought instead of a nuanced gameplay hook. Watch_Dogs, though, made a substantially more valiant effort than most (even if it's not 100% perfect).
This really cemented for me when I accepted a mission that took me to a famous Chicago landmark: Navy Pier. The setup was fairly simple: sneak in past guards that were patrolling a particular outdoor garden area of the pier, access a computer in the middle of it, hack it to retrieve some valuable info, and sneak back out without getting noticed.
In the grand scheme of stealth games, this premise is pretty standard. It's cliché, even. But the reason it felt exciting and fresh in Watch_Dogs was simply because the game is too often unwilling to let you be stealthy. I mentioned earlier that it does grant you some opportunities sneak about, but it's not a game you can play entirely in a subversive manner. You're going to have to be an action hero a fair amount of the time, which perhaps makes these quieter, more calculated moments stand out that much more.
While you might read that and think it's not a bad thing because the scarcity of these moments means you'll appreciate them more—absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that jazz—the reality, for me at least, was that I wasn't feeling like I'd gotten nearly enough chances to play this game the way I wanted. And that's really too bad because the various hacking techniques at your disposal (hopping from camera to camera, messing with guards' equipment, setting off car alarms, etc.) are all really fun game mechanics.
But enough about the negatives, though; here was a mission that really let me get my James Bond on. Admittedly, I failed the first few times I tried to get past the first guard; but, then, isn't that really par for the course with stealth games? Once I changed my approach and found another way into the area, I really started having fun.
To start, I found a spot where only one guard stood near an entry point. Blending into the crowd walking up and down the pier, I hacked into some cameras to make sure there weren't any other guards waiting behind the entrance, but found the coast was clear. After waiting for the guard to move and then triggering a distraction, I quickly snuck into the complex and hid behind a decorative concrete planter.
From here, I was able to get vertical, and gain a better lay of the land, all while remaining out of sight. I could spot a few a patrol patterns, although it seemed like maybe they did a few random things, but I really didn't want to cause any suspicion by taking out guards. I could see where the computer was being housed, but it was in an area with (surprise) only way in and out, and a few guards nearby to make it a tough situation.
A few rounds of hacking from camera to camera to get a sense of everyone's locations and sight lines, and I started to plan my approach. The best stealth maneuvers play out like beautifully executed music: you plan, you know your timing and cues, you move to the rhythm, but you're ready to be spontaneous should the need arise.
I got one guard's attention with a remote distraction, waited for the next to turn his back, and then cautiously moved around the closest guard to the computer area. Tensions were high, but I made it in, which thankfully provided some solid cover. As I worked on hacking the terminal, a guard started to walk in to the area.
This hadn't happened before, so the game either had a routine to keep this part interesting...or I had just stumbled on a bit of randomly generated chaos.
Either way, it was time to improvise, so I stopped hacking so I could adjust my position to let the guard pass by me enough to be out of sight of the other guards before I silently knocked him out of commission.
Sigh of relief. Resume hacking.
With the file transfer completed, I needed to make my escape. Despite one guard being out of commission, my exit still required some fresh planning. The angles were all different now, and I wanted to make sure all my careful planning hadn't been a waste, so I took my time yet again to check and double-check my route.
As I started, a guard that I'd expected to keep walking away started turn back toward my direction sooner than anticipated, so I had to quickly duck behind another one of those planters. His suspicion level raised slightly (the game has an indicator for this), but I had quickly enough, that he chalked it up to "seeing things" and went along his merry way. A few more ducks, dodges, and quick runs from cover to cover, and I was poised to make my final exit.
That same guard I had distracted at the beginning was my final challenge, but I triggered a remote noise to shift his attention elsewhere while I slunk out behind him. Even so, the first hundred feet or so as I walked away from the area, trying not to run (I'm not even sure that mattered, but it felt like the right thing to do), was nerve-wracking, until the game told me the mission had been successfully completed.
This, I thought, was what Watch_Dogs needs to have more of in future iterations. The random crime stopping, the shootouts and chases, the chess games...they're all decent. They're all (mainly) entertaining. But they sure as hell weren't exciting the way my Navy Pier encounter was.
The funny thing about it was how simple it actually was, and how short a distance I covered in the totality of the encounter. Even writing about it doesn't fully capture the excitement I felt playing through it. And maybe that's something inherent to any stealth game because you can't fully recreate that tension and anxiety that's so key to the experience. It's possible I even overthought the mission and took way longer on it than the average player, or that you, dear reader, steadfastly hate the slowness of stealth gameplay and would point to everything I just wrote as reasons why the next Watch_Dogs shouldn't have any stealth.
For me, though, this was the definitive open-world hacking encounter I had really imagined when I first saw that E3 reveal for Ubisoft's big new franchise. The game as a whole hasn't lived up to this promise for me, but it has glimpses of greatness. Glimpses I hope sneak their way to the forefront of the inevitable sequel.