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Next-gen gaming starts with Watch Dogs

The next generation of gaming won't only be defined by flashy graphics. They'll need to offer something that current games can't.

Now playing: Watch this: Watch Dogs (trailer)

It's one thing to make a splash at a press conference, but following up that hype presents what's arguably a more difficult challenge.

That's what Ubisoft Montreal plans on accomplishing with Watch Dogs, the breakout hit that was first teased at last year's E3 expo in Los Angeles. In a show mostly filled with underwhelming software, Watch Dogs easily rose to the top for its simple, yet powerful idea -- a totally hackable world that you have unadulterated control of.

But since E3, Watch Dogs has stayed mostly quiet, only to resurface at the Sony PlayStation 4 event last February. At an affair dedicated to all things "next-gen," Watch Dogs was certainly being positioned as an example of the future of games.

This time around "next-gen" means something totally different than what it meant 10 years ago. If you're looking for next-gen visuals, go get a $1,000 graphics card. All of that technology currently exists today. Instead, "next-gen" now means an evolution to where videogames can go -- through unique gameplay and complex simulation. The first taste of such a march forward might lie within Watch Dogs.

Luckily enough the team was in New York to give an in-depth demo of the game. Here's what I learned.

Ubisoft Montreal

Watch Dogs takes place in a world where cities are run by a "ctOS" or central operating system -- a matrix of interconnected computers that govern everything from traffic lights and ATMs to mobile phone networks and public transit. Anything and everything around you is there for the taking -- if you have the access. These "smart cities" once relied on human intervention for their power grids and infrastructure, but now they are run by privatized companies.

In Watch Dogs, players will take control of Aiden Pearce, a vigilante hacker who takes the law into his own hands because, well, he can. His history of electronic thievery and deceit have afforded him the knowledge to use the ctOS that runs the city of Chicago against those who wish to inflict crime and punishment on the innocent.

To gain access to these devices and ultimately people, Aiden must gain access to ctOS points scattered around Chicago. Once infiltrated, all mobile activity within the immediate area becomes hackable. I watched as Aiden distracted guards by activating doors and construction equipment, and then sneaked in for a stealthy takedown. Aiden can also use security cameras to see other hackable items. The game seems to rely on a "if you can see it, you can hack it" mechanic where you're essentially leapfrogging electronics that have any kind of lens attached.

There's no wrong approach at penetrating these strongholds. Aiden can go in guns blazing, use stealth, force misdirection, or any combination he desires.

Ubisoft Montreal

Watch Dogs will follow a standard narrative campaign, but producer Dominic Guay teased the idea of a seamless multiplayer component. Details were vague, but it sounded like the team is hinting at the idea of spying on a player who's within their own campaign. It certainly sounds like some ambitious mechanics here, but we should know more about multiplayer later on, including potential cross-platform play. There's also the notion of an off-screen experience, where players will be able to connect to the game world from a mobile device.

Guay also explained that he felt current games overpromise on the concept of player choice. Instead of binary decisions like "save" or "kill," Watch Dogs tries to present a game world where there are many more gray areas -- just like real life.

Watch Dogs is built on a proprietary game engine called Disrupt, an in-house creation that lifts bits and pieces from other Ubisoft staples like Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. What this engine allows for is what Guay explains is dynamism. To better demonstrate, he used the example of Aiden's ability to control traffic lights. Here, the main character might change a light to cause an accident so he can escape or distract. But where current-generation games would have this happen as a scripted event, Guay says such a thing will happen more organically in Watch Dogs. "Sometimes there may not be an accident. Other times vehicles might swerve out of the way," he says.

For the purposes of the demo, Aiden was let loose in the Windy City to show off his other abilities. His universal car unlock remote comes in handy so that he doesn't need to break any windows when looking for a ride. Anything in the world can be used as cover, and Aiden also has a similar free running ability akin to what's possible in the Assassin's Creed games.

Ubisoft Montreal

When not engaged in conflict, flashing a weapon might draw some unwanted attention and cause pedestrians to call the police. Since almost anything and everything can be tampered with in the game, Aiden has a shocking amount of control within the city limits. We've seen he can manipulate the movement of trains, but he can also raise and lower street barricades and gates to help him lose a tail.

Aiden also possesses a "focus" ability which will allow for the slo-mo stylistic choreographing of gunfighting, hacking, and maneuvering. When pulled off in succession, it can make for a truly spectacular piece of cinematic eye candy.

Aiden's technical abilities can be upgraded and purchased using the game's currency system. Fresh out of cash? There's an app for that. Aiden can enter a mode where he can "listen" to the world around him, where he can see quick information about passersby. These quick pop-up text bios can tell Aiden a lot about a person, like "volunteers at a soup kitchen" and "convicted scam artist," or "hoarder." But they can also tell if someone has a vulnerable bank account.

Aiden will also have a reputation to worry about throughout the campaign. This will dictate the public's perception of him which can change the way he's portrayed in the game's internal social media and news coverage. There's even a small tech ecosystem built into Watch Dogs' Chicago. Aiden can buy apps, music, even play an augmented reality video game in this world -- and all this seems to just be the tip of the iceberg.

Ubisoft Montreal

On the graphics side of things, Watch Dogs would probably match up well against some of the high-end gaming PCs we're seeing today. The demo was played using a DualShock 4 controller on a "high-end PC with the approximate specs of a PS4." It's already been revealed that the game will be a PS4 launch title, and while it has not been confirmed by Ubisoft, it's logical to assume this will also be available on Microsoft's next Xbox. Watch Dogs is also confirmed for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC for a November 19 release.

Next-gen isn't necessarily something you can see or definitively characterize. Instead, it's more of a mentality. It's taking the current landscape of interactive entertainment and nudging it forward in a way we've yet to see. You can obligatorily toss around the nomenclature all you want, but for me, "next-gen" means I'm not just making trivial decisions. It means less moments are scripted and more action is randomized and chaotic. Ultimately, I hope it means Watch Dogs.

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