I wrote a long list of reasons why I didn’t like Watch_Dogs very much, and then at the end wrote briefly with caveats about why I liked its multiplayer mode. I thought that would be the end of it, but then a couple of times a week ever since – and it’s been a month now – I boot the game back up to have another couple hours of hacking into other people’s games. How am I going to explain this, I keep thinking. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I’ll try.
Here’s how it works, in case you don’t know. At any point while playing Watch_Dogs, you can bring up your phone and request an ‘Online Contract’. There are different types, but it’s Online Hacking and Online Tailing that I play. Pick one and its matchmaking will drop you into another person’s singleplayer world, without them knowing that you’re there.
I know that Dark Souls implemented this mechanic sometime ago, but I’m new to it. Is there anything more thrilling, more illicit, than arriving unbeknownst into someone else’s private world?
Yes, as it turns out: trying to maintain that illusion while accomplishing the objective of either of those modes. In Online Hacking, that’s stealing data from another play. You’ve got a few minutes to follow them around and then you have to trigger the hack. When you do so, they’re alerted that someone is hacking them and given a rough area that the hacker has to remain inside for the hack to continue.
Watch_Dogs open world is therefore transformed, as streets, alleyways and buildings that were previously only scenery and obstacles between you and your next objective, are suddenly turned into an arena for a deadly game of hide-and-seek. There is no real penalty for either party should they fail – you lose some XP, or gain some for winning – but the desire to find whoever is responsible, or remain hidden if that person is you, is instinctual. I play it again and again and every time I am flushed with nerves. I perspire. My hands tremble on the mouse when a searching target comes close to discovery.
And discovery is not the end. I love that there’s not a hard failure state; you don’t get spotted and instantly lose. The challenge then becomes a high speed chase, further warping Watch_Dogs otherwise stale (but pretty) open world Chicago into the scene of a thrilling pursuit.
Online Tailing sits somewhere between these two experiences. The purpose for the hacker is to keep their target within view at all times, without being spotted in the process. That means that neither player is tied to a particular geographical location, and the experience can be radically different each time. You might join a world where your target is milling around on foot, attempting to complete one of the puzzle-ish ctOS towers. Or you might join a world where the person you need to tail is speeding from one side of the city to the other in a dirt bike, forcing you to keep pace while praying the target doesn’t look behind them and think, “That NPC is driving awfully recklessly…”.
In other words, it’s an open-world Spy Party. It abandons its (literal) laser-focus on the subtleties of human behaviour, but the principle remain the same – one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong – and all the resulting terror and excitement and laughter comes from the same place. ‘Did that NPC just park? NPCs don’t park.‘
(Alternative: It’s PropHunt/BoxWar/CrateDM with humans and cars instead of ordinarily inanimate objects).
Of course, there are problems in the randomness and that’s what I criticised in my review. I stand by that. It’s frustrating to spawn in someone’s world and find yourself in the middle of nowhere, with no pedestrians to blend in with and no vehicles to give chase with. But I’ve been thinking about it for the past month with an eye towards writing this post, and I can’t think of a solution that doesn’t stifle some part of what makes the multiplayer so exciting. You need it to be able to happen anywhere, because that’s what makes it exciting and surprising. You need it to provide time limits, so that there’s mounting pressure pushing players towards one another. You need for it to work smoothly within Watch_Dogs’ other systems, without turning off police or pedestrian responses in pursuit of something more consistent and therefore flatter, more boring.
Watch_Dogs‘ multiplayer is a muddled, uneven experience. It also might be the most consistently thrilling and, in spite of its obvious inspirations, inventive multiplayer experience we get this year. I hope hope hope other developers are looking at it, learning from it, stealing from it, and that it plays an even larger role in future Ubigames to come.