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The Multiplayer Stealth Of 'Watch Dogs' Was Perfection In A Flawed Game

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The Multiplayer Stealth Of 'Watch Dogs' Was Perfection In A Flawed Game

Words: Jeremy Peel

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Stealth games have long shown off the best of what games can do. They give us opportunities to problem solve and play with AI behaviour. They're often dripping with atmosphere. And they let us inhabit a perspective on the periphery of the action - the sort of view you rarely get in action cinema.

They're also, fundamentally, based on a pretty flimsy idea: that hiding in shadow is the best way to go unnoticed. Can you imagine doing your rounds as a night-shift security guard and spotting a man, dressed in black, crouching behind the bins? There's absolutely no chance you'll go back to your patrol. "Probably rats"? My arse.

Acting casual in Assassin's Creed to fool the guards / Credit: Ubisoft, MobyGames
Acting casual in Assassin's Creed to fool the guards / Credit: Ubisoft, MobyGames
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For centuries, real-life intelligence agencies have instead relied on their ability to blend in, reasoning that disappearing into the crowd was more feasible than vanishing altogether. The CIA train their operatives to quickly change their appearance while passing through busy streets - removing a hat, changing a shirt, and losing a tail in the process.

It took until the mid '00s for game developers to catch on. With the advent of a new console generation, studios suddenly had the power to fill screens with NPCs, and Assassin's Creed took full advantage. "You're not hidden when you're in shadow or light," Jade Raymond told the crowd at E3 2006. "You're hidden when you're doing things that are socially acceptable."

Blending in with NPCs is vital in SpyParty / Credit: Chris Hecker
Blending in with NPCs is vital in SpyParty / Credit: Chris Hecker
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The implementation, however, wasn't so inspiring. Assassin's Creed's ideas for social stealth were oddly specific: locking step with a group of passing monks, or sitting between two strangers on a bench to dodge detection. In later iterations, these gimmicks were mostly phased out in favour of more traditional, cover-based evasion. Meanwhile, the Splinter Cell team gave up on its own attempt at social stealth, rebooting a project that became the action-focused Conviction.

In the decade afterwards, the idea of hiding in plain sight fell out of vogue. Hitman, a series that had focused on disguises, vanished for six years. Stealth hits like Dishonored thrust us back into the shadows. But the indies were onto something: programmer Chris Hecker tinkered away at SpyParty, a competitive game in which one player attempted to covertly plant a bug at a drinks reception, while the other tried to pick them off with a sniper rifle. As in Assassin's Creed, the goal of the spy was to blend in with NPCs - but this time, they knew a human eye was watching them, leading to more subtle and devious play.

Watch Dogs' Aiden Pearce uses his phone to hack more than other people's information / Credit: Ubisoft
Watch Dogs' Aiden Pearce uses his phone to hack more than other people's information / Credit: Ubisoft
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Ubisoft must have been watching, too, because social stealth finally returned to AAA on May 27th 2014 with Watch Dogs (happy birthday!). You might not have noticed at the time: most were understandably more focused on the game's single-player hacking and wonky car handling. But the game also launched with a multiplayer invasion mode, in which nobody was safe.

In a nod to the Dark Souls games, another player could walk into your campaign at any time and do you harm. But rather than hack at you with a sword, they used their phone instead: initiating a proximity hack to steal (fictional) data. As the invaded player, you were given a small radius to search, and the ability to uncover the hacker by focusing your own phone on them. A successful discovery triggered a chase, and the would-be thief either escaped or found themselves bludgeoned to bits by the game's psychopath protagonist, Aiden Pearce.

Another illustration of how the phone can be used in Watch Dogs / Credit: Ubisoft
Another illustration of how the phone can be used in Watch Dogs / Credit: Ubisoft
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As an invader, you had a couple of options. You could try to stay out of sight, finding an enclosed garden or quiet alleyway and hoping your opponent wouldn't happen upon you. But the sheer length of the encounter meant that was a hit-and-miss approach - the enemy had more than enough time to circle the entire search area at least once.

Better, then, to do what Ezio Auditore da Firenze would: join the crowd. Since invaders were automatically reskinned as civilians, they could pass for NPCs - so long as they behaved sufficiently like them. Where players jogged with purpose, making a beeline towards their goals, NPCs waddled slowly down Chicago's sidewalks, or stood chatting together in clumps. Mimicking them meant pulling back from the edge of the thumbstick's input and forcing your character into a nonchalant gait, or finding a scripted conversation you could hover in the vicinity of.

Picking an eye-catching car isn't the best tactic in Watch Dogs / Credit: Ubisoft
Picking an eye-catching car isn't the best tactic in Watch Dogs / Credit: Ubisoft

The roads allowed for another suite of possibilities. Players usually gravitated towards sports and muscle cars, the most desirable and speedy vehicles available. But when starting an invasion, it made more sense to plump for something innocuous: a battered old van, or family four-seater. Player eyes would naturally glide off vehicles like these, dismissing them as set dressing. If an invader could become part of that set dressing, they were halfway to victory.

There was a giddy glee that came from watching your hunter walk right by you as you trundled to a halt at the traffic lights, or strolled down a pier. And a unique tension to the moment when, upon reaching the edge of the hacking radius, you realised you'd have to turn the car around without breaking cover. The conceit worked better still in Watch Dogs 2, which introduced remote car hacking. A sudden screech of tyres proved the perfect way to distract a hunter getting too close to their target.

Today, multiplayer social stealth is a growing genre, home to Unspottable, and the fittingly titled Hidden in Plain Sight. But nothing quite touches Watch Dogs' invasions, thanks to their context as part of a wider open-world game. They wouldn't work nearly so well as a separate mode on dedicated maps, since they rely on the unknowing victim.

Some hackers, hacking, in 2016's Watch Dogs 2 / Credit: Ubisoft
Some hackers, hacking, in 2016's Watch Dogs 2 / Credit: Ubisoft

Recently, in the San Francisco of Watch Dogs 2, I followed a player through a backyard where an empty sedan was parked. I climbed inside, turned off the lights, and sunk low into the driver's seat before initiating the hack. Understandably, they didn't suspect a vehicle they'd already walked by - until I blasted full beam and drove away with the win.

Invasions haven't yet been mentioned in the promotion for Watch Dogs: Legion - the sell instead focusing on the new sequel's systemic world. But a game that allows you to play as any civilian in London instantly lends itself to sly social shenanigans. That old woman across the street? She might be walking to the grocers, or visiting her grandson. Or she might be readying the middle finger emote for when she sprints off into the distance with your data.

Follow the author on Twitter at @Jeremy_Peel, and GAMINGbible at @GAMINGbible.

Featured Image Credit: Ubisoft

Topics: Feature, watch dogs, Watch Dogs Legion, Ubisoft

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