Rene­gade Master

Ubisoft Mon­treal calls on the power of the crowd as Watch Dogs 2 heads out west to San Fran­cisco

EDGE - - GAMES SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

Ubisoft heads to San Fran­cisco and em­braces the power of the crowd in Watch Dogs 2

Ubisoft is rarely top­i­cal. This is a com­pany that prefers to safe­guard its fu­ture by bor­row­ing from the past, be it the his­tor­i­cal tourism of an As­sas­sin’s Creed or the pre­his­toric stylings of Far Cry Pri­mal. Where it does dip a toe in more mod­ern wa­ters, it ei­ther does so by es­cap­ing the trap­pings of 21st-cen­tury civil­i­sa­tion, as in Far Cry 3 and 4, or by sim­ply de­stroy­ing it, as in The Divi­sion. Yet in 2014’s Watch Dogs the com­pany was al­most achingly cur­rent, its tale of sur­veil­lance para­noia launch­ing mere months af­ter Ed­ward Snow­den had laid bare the shock­ing ex­tent to which mod­ern gov­ern­ments spy on their cit­i­zens. The in­ter­ven­ing two years have yielded the Panama Pa­pers, the mass shar­ing of celebrity photos that were meant to re­main pri­vate, and the re­birth of the Snooper’s Char­ter. Drone war­fare is ever more preva­lent, while the rise of the In­ter­net Of Things means that ev­ery­thing from smart­cars to chil­dren’s toys are sus­cep­ti­ble to at­tack. As our re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy be­comes ever closer and more com­plex, so too grows the like­li­hood of it be­ing ex­ploited. The more con­nected we are, the more vul­ner­a­ble.

“WE WANTED TO TAP A BIT I NTO SO­CIAL EN­GI­NEER­ING, WHERE YOU HACK I NTO I NFORMATION THAT SYS­TEMS GATHER ON PEO­PLE”

That’s ter­ri­ble news, per­haps, for the lud­dite won­der­ing how his new mi­crowave has just given away his credit card de­tails. But for the de­vel­oper of a game about a white-hat hacker us­ing their skills to de­fame the es­tab­lish­ment and re­turn power to the peo­ple, it’s a dream come true. Watch Dogs 2 is, as you’d ex­pect, big­ger and pret­tier, and boasts a suite of new fea­tures and improvements. But more im­por­tantly, it re­flects the con­nected world’s re­lent­less, ex­po­nen­tial ex­pan­sion. Sim­ply put, Watch Dogs 2’ s hack­ing is, like its sub­ject mat­ter, broader, deeper, and more per­sis­tent.

“In Watch Dogs, many of the hack­ing ac­tions were quite bi­nary,” re­turn­ing creative di­rec­tor Jonathan Morin ad­mits. “My favourite was hack­ing cam­eras; it was some­thing I was talk­ing about a lot to­wards the end of devel­op­ment. You were con­trol­ling some­thing from a dis­tance; it was more ana­logue. Now we have a lot more of those ana­logue in­puts, so hack­ing be­comes, re­ally, a form of ex­pres­sion – a way to solve prob­lems in a more creative way.”

Sur­veil­lance cam­eras stood apart in Watch Dogs’ hack­able Chicago, able to be panned, zoomed and jumped be­tween as you sought out threats, which could in turn be hacked so long as they were in the cam­era’s field of view. By con­trast, Chicago’s other tech­no­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties were es­sen­tially light switches: the steam pipe that blew up, the traf­fic sig­nal that turned from red to green, the bol­lard, bridge or plat­form that was raised or low­ered. Those days are gone, con­signed to his­tory like a phone with­out a web browser.

Now, when you aim at a hack­able ob­ject and tap a shoul­der but­ton, you per­form a quick, de­fault hack, to en­sure the pacy dy­namism of the first game’s hack­ing sys­tem is pre­served. But hold the but­ton down, and more op­tions can be se­lected with the face but­tons. Ve­hi­cles, for in­stance, will turn sharply to the right when quick-hacked, but a long press yields the op­tion to have it turn left, speed up, or slow down. A quick hack of a pedes­trian will, as in the first game, yield the con­tents of the tar­get’s bank ac­count or valu­able in­tel. But now you can dis­tract some­one – any­one – by mess­ing with their phone, a game-wide ex­pan­sion of a fea­ture that, in the first game, could only be per­formed on cer­tain tar­gets. You can call the po­lice on them, or alert an en­emy fac­tion to their pres­ence. The aim, Morin says, is not just for more flex­i­bil­ity, but less pre­dictable re­sults, too.

“We wanted to tap a bit into so­cial en­gi­neer­ing, where you hack into in­for­ma­tion that sys­tems gather on peo­ple,” he says. “You can change what they are to the sys­tem, then call the po­lice. The cops will show up and de­pend­ing on who that

A HERO COMES ALONG

New pro­tag­o­nist Mar­cus Hol­loway is moved to join up with Ded­sec af­ter he’s wrongly racially pro­filed and ac­cused of a crime he didn’t com­mit. It’s quite the de­par­ture from Ai­den Pearce’s fight to avenge the death of his niece and sub­se­quent kid­nap­ping of his sis­ter. The idea, se­nior writer Lu­cien Soul­ban tells us, is to put play­ers in con­trol of a pro­tag­o­nist whose prob­lems are be­liev­able, and that could hap­pen to any­one. “We wanted sunny and vi­brant as far as his per­son­al­ity was con­cerned, and we went for a hero who was fight­ing for the same things we hear and read about in our daily lives. And we made him charm­ing, so he could con­vince oth­ers to join him.”

He’s dif­fer­ent to Pearce on a phys­i­cal level too. Younger and fit­ter, he has a greater em­pha­sis on park­our skills than his fore­bear, whose mo­bil­ity was al­ways stymied by that bulky, ‘iconic’ rain­coat. Ubisoft Mon­treal re­searched home­made weapons when de­cid­ing how Hol­loway should fight, even­tu­ally set­tling on a bil­liard ball at­tached to a para­chute cord. Hard hit­ting and light­ning fast, it’s a com­pelling al­ter­na­tive to a non-lethal playthrough. All in, it’s quite the change, but the greater bat­tle will be tonal, some­thing that’s made clear by a char­ac­ter in­tro video show­ing our hero park­our-flip­ping over cas­cades of Win­dows 95 di­a­logue boxes. Nat­u­rally.

per­son is, they might flee, fight back, or just get ar­rested. If the cops ar­rive and there’s an op­pos­ing fac­tion, or other crim­i­nals around, it might go in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. It might start a bat­tle and even more po­lice show up. It’s pretty clear, when you press a but­ton, what it does – ‘I’m go­ing to call the cops on this guy to cre­ate a di­ver­sion’ – but you should be sur­prised by the outcome, forc­ing you to ad­just and think about the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Ev­ery­thing we do is fo­cused on that kind of con­trol: ei­ther you con­trol some­thing com­pletely from a dis­tance or, when you start some­thing, a chain of events might emerge from the sys­tems.”

Fur­ther­more, now your hack­ing toolset will im­prove. Hacks are per­formed by con­sum­ing Bot­net, a sort of mana bar that, at the be­gin­ning, will only let you hack two or three things at a time. As you progress, the bar ex­pands, and hacks them­selves will grow stronger – the cops show­ing up with a greater show of force, for in­stance. “I think that’s an in­ter­est­ing im­prove­ment from the first game, where as soon as you gained a new tool, its power was pretty much what you were go­ing to get un­til the end of the game,” Morin says. “In Watch Dogs 2, that’s not the case – you’ll start see­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for how you can use them, and com­bine them with each other, too.”

Your hack­ing toolset’s growth over the course of the game is all thanks to Ded­sec, the white-hat group – we’re des­per­ately try­ing to avoid the term ‘hack­tivist’ – fea­tured in the first game

“IT’S PRETTY CLEAR, WHEN YOU PRESS A BUT­TON, WHAT IT DOES BUT YOU SHOULD BE SUR­PRISED BY THE OUTCOME, FORC­ING YOU TO AD­JUST”

that sup­ported pro­tag­o­nist Ai­den Pearce in his bid to free Chicago from the grip of the ctOS sur­veil­lance sys­tem. Here Ded­sec is the fo­cus of the game, with you as its leader. New pro­tag­o­nist Mar­cus Hol­loway is a young, bril­liant, African-Amer­i­can hacker whose grudge against ctOS leads him to join Ded­sec, where his charm and wit see him quickly rise up the ranks to be­come the group’s leader. He sets about ex­pand­ing its mem­ber­ship, amass­ing new tech­niques from re­cruits while con­duct­ing op­er­a­tions to ex­pose Blume, the shad­owy cor­po­ra­tion be­hind ctOS, as the true pub­lic en­emy. Hang on. Charisma and wit? No one who played the first

Watch Dogs would as­so­ciate ei­ther of those per­son­al­ity traits with the gruff, griz­zled and thor­oughly un­sym­pa­thetic Pearce. Hol­loway alone would sug­gest quite the shift in tone, but Morin says the greater fac­tor in Watch Dogs 2’ s shift in at­mos­phere comes from its 2,000-mile, west­ward jump from the first game’s set­ting of Chicago. Set in and around San Fran­cisco – not just the city cen­tre but Marin County, Oak­land and, nat­u­rally, Sil­i­con Val­ley – the area, Morin be­lieves, nat­u­rally in­vites a lighter tone than that of its of­ten dour pre­de­ces­sor.

“Watch Dogs was in Chicago and was about sur­veil­lance, which mat­ters a lot there,” he tells us, a ref­er­ence to the fact that the Windy City has more sur­veil­lance cam­eras than any other conur­ba­tion in the US. “It’s a more op­pres­sive place, with lots of dark, nar­row al­leys. The tone of the first game was not only

“IT WAS QUITE OB­VI­OUS THAT THE STATE OF MIND IN THIS OPEN -MINDED PLACE RE­QUIRED A SHIFT IN TONE”

be­cause of Ai­den Pearce, but also the area. For Watch Dogs 2, we de­cided to jump into the Bay Area, and it was quite ob­vi­ous that the state of mind in this open-minded place, with all the cre­ativ­ity that’s hap­pen­ing there, re­quired a shift in tone. It’s slightly lighter, and more fo­cused on the at­ti­tude you would ex­pect from hacker cul­ture: it’s about peo­ple who see be­yond pre-con­ceived rules, who think out­side the box to solve prob­lems. What’s hap­pen­ing in San Fran­cisco in terms of econ­omy, in terms of devel­op­ment of tech­nol­ogy, is pushed for­ward by this kind of at­ti­tude.”

If Chicago was an ap­pro­pri­ate set­ting for a game about a so­ci­ety in the grip of sur­veil­lance, San Fran­cisco prom­ises to be a won­der­ful home for a se­quel about a group of coun­ter­cul­tural, anti-es­tab­lish­ment hack­ers. Where bet­ter to be tech­no­log­i­cally dis­rup­tive than in the most tech­no­log­i­cally dis­rup­tive city in the western world? But Ded­sec is not just the nar­ra­tive set dress­ing, there to tie to­gether set­ting and story. In push­ing the group to the fore, the devel­op­ment team has

RE­AL­ITY BYTES

Ubisoft’s pref­er­ence for the his­tor­i­cal is well doc­u­mented, and not with­out merit. There’s an in­her­ent peril in set­ting a game in the present day, as se­nior writer Lu­cien Soul­ban ex­plains. “You un­der­stand the cul­ture and the en­vi­ron­ment; you un­der­stand the lan­guage and the stakes,” he tells us. “There’s no dis­con­nect or dis­be­lief – but that’s a trap, right? Peo­ple are so fa­mil­iar with the set­ting that you have to be care­ful about [re-]telling them their own ex­pe­ri­ences. They have an opin­ion on what’s right and wrong, yet they need to un­der­stand and agree with the stakes as you’ve pre­sented them.”

There are le­gal con­cerns, too. Short of a defama­tion suit from a dis­tant de­scen­dent of Ro­drigo Bor­gia, this is not some­thing most Ubisoft stu­dios have to worry about. It’s cer­tainly never con­cerned Soul­ban, whose pre­vi­ous work in­cludes the the­mat­i­cally bonkers Far Cry 3:Blood Dragon. “We need to fic­tion­alise com­pa­nies and brands, be­cause how we use them in the game is rarely a true in­di­ca­tion of their ac­tual na­ture,” Soul­ban con­tin­ues. “The idea of cor­po­rate in­trigue and es­pi­onage is hugely at­trac­tive, but the re­al­ity is rarely as en­gag­ing.” That’s not to say you can’t hint at it, of course – one of the game’s Val­ley com­pa­nies has a bright, mul­ti­coloured logo, and is called Nu­dle.

com­pletely re­designed Watch Dogs’ struc­ture, in or­der to move away from the clas­sic shape of an open-world game, which Morin rather bluntly ad­mits typ­i­cally amounts to “just hav­ing a story and then some stuff on the side. We wanted to make sure the world would be more con­vinc­ing – that the world is made up of, and shaped from, lots of dif­fer­ent sto­ries.”

It means that ev­ery kind of mis­sion and ac­tiv­ity feeds into your over­all pro­gres­sion. Hol­loway’s aim is to grow Ded­sec’s num­bers and so ex­pand its in­flu­ence, and once cer­tain pop­u­la­tion mile­stones are reached, the story pro­gresses. In keep­ing with the de­sire to give the player more con­trol over how they in­ter­act with tech­nol­ogy to solve prob­lems, you’ll have a far greater level of free­dom in how you progress through the game. And, as a re­sult, Ubisoft Mon­treal will have a far greater level of free­dom in the sto­ries it can tell.

“Each op­er­a­tion rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent as­pect of our re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy,” Morin says. “It gives us the op­por­tu­nity to talk about the In­ter­net Of Things on one op­er­a­tion, ad­vance­ments in AI on another, so­cial me­dia, data gath­er­ing, be­havioural anal­y­sis… It gives a lot more per­spec­tive on the prob­lems that ex­ist in tech­nol­ogy today.”

Not ev­ery­thing will be so se­ri­ous, of course. San Fran­cisco is vi­brant in more than just colour pal­ette, af­ter all, and no game set in a city con­tain­ing, for in­stance, Haight-Ash­bury’s crin­kled Dead­heads and the Val­ley’s tech­bro star­tups could keep a straight face all the time. “Just wan­der­ing around in San Fran­cisco you can find colour­ful peo­ple,” Morin says, “and if you dig into that you might find sev­eral dif­fer­ent op­er­a­tions you can go into. Some are more im­por­tant than oth­ers in terms of the im­pact their themes have on so­ci­ety, but it cre­ates an in­ter­est­ing pool of op­er­a­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences that, I think, com­pletes the world a lot bet­ter than just hav­ing you fol­low the main arc of the nar­ra­tive.”

Flex­i­bil­ity is key, then, in in­di­vid­ual mis­sions, the shape of the game they com­prise and, thanks to the ex­panded toolset, the way you play, too. Morin says that play­ers will be able to

play through the game non-lethally if they choose, whether by stealth, dis­abling en­e­mies with Hol­loway’s Taser, or by hav­ing po­lice and crim­i­nal fac­tions do the dirty work. “Well,” he ad­mits with a chuckle, “it might be dif­fi­cult to avoid hit­ting any­one with a car.” Re­gard­less, the orig­i­nal game’s di­vi­sively weighty ve­hi­cle han­dling has been over­hauled and is now a good deal more re­spon­sive. Those in­tent on keep­ing blood off their hands, and front bumpers, will at least only have them­selves to blame this time if they un­der­steer into a bus stop.

As­sum­ing they’re be­hind the wheel, that is. Build­ing on the first game’s seam­less, am­bi­ent mul­ti­player – one of few parts of

Watch Dogs that didn’t di­vide pop­u­lar opin­ion – is co-op. Pitch up at a mis­sion and you might en­counter another player at the same point in the game, and then be able to ei­ther work to­gether or head off your sep­a­rate ways. Friends can be in­vited to co-op ses­sions through Hol­loway’s smart­phone, but you’ll be able to play through a sub­stan­tial chunk of Watch Dogs 2 with com­pany with­out need­ing to ac­tively seek it out. Some mis­sions are de­signed for lone wolves, but the less gre­gar­i­ous can play through all the ded­i­cated co-op mis­sions in sin­gle­player, while side op­er­a­tions can be played ei­ther solo or with com­pany. And be­cause of the new pro­gres­sion sys­tem, all of it has a bear­ing on your jour­ney to the end of the game.

Since Watch Dogs 2’ s pro­tag­o­nist is part of a col­lec­tive, co-op makes nar­ra­tive sense. So too do PVP in­va­sions, where ag­gres­sors are pre­sented as be­ing part of an op­pos­ing fac­tion (though in your op­po­nent’s game, roles are re­versed – you’re framed as the bad guy). As one of Watch Dogs’ more suc­cess­ful com­po­nents, PVP hasn’t been changed too much, though Morin and team have stream­lined things be­hind the scenes. “In Watch

Dogs, you were pro­posed a mul­ti­player ac­tiv­ity and, if you ac­cepted it, it loaded in. Now, if we’re propos­ing you some­thing it’s be­cause the player is al­ready here. No load­ing, no tele­port­ing, noth­ing. Just go do it.”

Yet while the fo­cus on Ded­sec solves a few po­ten­tially awk­ward ludonar­ra­tive co­nun­drums, plenty more re­main. Chief among them is the no­tion of a white-hat hack­ing group caus­ing pile­ups at in­ter­sec­tions so they can es­cape the gang bat­tle they just kicked off down the street. And this lot are the good guys?

Watch Dogs 2 is a game about wrest­ing con­trol of tech­nol­ogy back from the es­tab­lish­ment, yes, but is all that power re­ally bet­ter off in the hands of hack­ers?

“It’s a con­tra­dic­tion that I like a lot,” Morin says. “What’s im­por­tant is that the game will never judge how you play: you’ll never feel like you’ve done some­thing that the world says is wrong. It’s the op­po­site. We want Ded­sec to grow in power, and it’s up to the player to de­cide what’s mean­ing­fully jus­ti­fi­able. We want to make sure you have the tools avail­able to you, al­ways, to do as you see fit. Some­times emer­gence might change out­comes, but that’s kind of the point: mess­ing around with these things is dan­ger­ous.”

In­deed it is, but that hasn’t stopped Ubisoft Mon­treal throw­ing in ev­ery­thing from drones to RC cars, EMP blasts and 3D-printed grenade launch­ers. Giv­ing the player such de­struc­tive free­dom is hardly new in open-world games, but ab­solv­ing them of the con­se­quences is rather more rare – and in­creas­ingly im­por­tant in an era where open worlds just keep get­ting big­ger, more com­plex and more de­struc­tive. As tech­nol­ogy im­proves, de­vel­op­ers, just like the rest of us, must think care­fully about how it should be used. Morin be­lieves that the nar­ra­tive must give the player the same level of free­dom as the dis­crete sys­tems the story is meant to tie to­gether. “It’s a grow­ing chal­lenge,” he ad­mits. “I feel like Watch

Dogs 2 does a good job of try­ing to con­tain it and make it log­i­cal, but at the same time I think open worlds are all about giv­ing play­ers the right sets of sim­u­la­tions so they can make their own fun. As we try to tackle these things nar­ra­tively, we can’t slow down this abil­ity to [let play­ers] mess around with sim­u­la­tion more. Too many games right now are do­ing open worlds, but not giv­ing play­ers lit­tle toys that they can play around with in new ways.

“It’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant for us, be­cause that’s how I see a hacker. A hacker sees some­thing not for what it is, but what it might be, be­cause he un­der­stands how it works. I would love for peo­ple to play Watch Dogs 2 in the same way: not see­ing what’s been pre­con­ceived, but switch­ing things around, turn­ing things up­side down, then want­ing to share the re­sults with the world to show how smart they were. Maybe the en­tire plan fucked up and they had to im­pro­vise and had a lot of fun do­ing that, too. It has to be sur­pris­ing, has to of­fer some new kinds of in­puts in the world. Oth­er­wise, why bother? Why bother mak­ing open-world games where ev­ery­body is bust­ing their ass at do­ing the same me­chan­ics?”

It is easy – and, hon­estly, tempt­ing – to be scep­ti­cal of all this. Af­ter all, Watch Dogs was an early pi­o­neer of Ubisoft’s re­cent his­tory of over-promis­ing and un­der-de­liv­er­ing. Af­ter steal­ing the show at E3 2013, it suf­fered a six-month de­lay, and

“A HACKER SEES SOME­THING FOR WHAT IT MIGHT BE, BE­CAUSE HE UN­DER­STANDS HOW IT WORKS. I WOULD LOVE FOR PEO­PLE TO PLAY WATCH DOGS 2 IN THE SAME WAY”

in its fi­nal form didn’t ex­actly match up to the re­mark­able am­bi­tion on show at its un­veil­ing. Ubisoft is a lit­tle more cau­tious these days, and so Watch Dogs 2 has emerged, all but fully formed, just months ahead of its planned Novem­ber re­lease. This time it will make it, and just as well. This is sup­posed to be a com­men­tary on the prob­lems mod­ern tech­nol­ogy poses to the world at large, not just to Ubisoft.

Morin doesn’t be­lieve that the air of rel­a­tive se­crecy that has sur­rounded Watch Dogs 2’ s devel­op­ment has made the process any eas­ier this time. Ex­pe­ri­ence has done that. Watch

Dogs was a new IP that sought to do new things with its genre, run­ning on new con­sole hard­ware. Its devel­op­ment team faced a lot of prob­lems, and not all of them were solved.

“Dur­ing the mak­ing of Watch Dogs, we pro­gres­sively un­der­stood, bet­ter and bet­ter, what our fan­tasy was for it,” he says. “We had that un­der­stand­ing at the be­gin­ning of devel­op­ment on Watch Dogs 2. Now we can re­ally fo­cus on the fan­tasy of be­ing a hacker.” It’s hard not to think of the jump from As­sas­sin’s Creed to ACII, when a flawed set of ideas blos­somed into some­thing that fi­nally made good on all that prom­ise. No doubt it was kicked around a brand­ing meet­ing and dis­missed as too trite, but on this ev­i­dence the se­quel has earned the ti­tle Watch Dogs 2.0. Bugs have been squished, kinks ironed out, and new fea­tures wo­ven in; there’s a back­door vul­ner­a­bil­ity or two, sure, but that’s all part of the fun. This time, thank­fully, ev­ery­thing seems to be work­ing as in­tended.

Here Hol­loway shorts out the trans­former panel on the ground to draw the guard over, then hacks into the car and makes it re­verse, slam­ming the en­emy guard into the scenery. You may be able to play the en­tire game with­out killing any­one your­self, but that doesn’t mean no one will get hurt

In ad­di­tion to its uses as a re­mote hack­ing de­vice, Hol­loway’s drone can be flown in first­per­son view

Hol­loway’s Ded­sec clan are our big­gest con­cern at the mo­ment. How do you feel about spend­ing 50 hours in the com­pany of this lot?

WatchDogs2 creative di­rec­tor Jonathan Morin

Se­nior writer Lu­cien Soul­ban has writ­ing cred­its on FarCry 3 and Rain­bowSix:Ve­gas

Morin says the new driv­ing model is an ex­am­ple of how the team has paid heed to fan feed­back

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The game show­cases San Fran­cisco’s wealth, but it also plays out in ar­eas of poverty

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