As I wrote in our recent Watch Dogs preview, the game's online and multiplayer features are shaping up to be its key departures from obvious influences such as Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed. That's bad news for Ubisoft in some ways, however, because the strength of the online offering appears heavily reliant on secrecy, on rousing the player's curiosity. How on Earth, then, will the publisher preview this aspect of the experience without castrating it? I joined creative director Jonathan Morin for a dance on the PR tightrope.
Rather than simply bolting on a few leaderboards, the Montreal team have derived their approach to multiplayer from the same themes of connectivity and surveillance that guide the campaign. We've been privy only to carefully edited glimpses of the functionality so far, but the idea appears to be that you'll be able to invade another player's world as a supposed NPC, and monitor that player using the selfsame security systems that are key to single player progression. How exactly this manifests in practice is anybody's guess, however.
Intriguingly, online play may actually form part of the story in some regard. "We're definitely going to tell you more about exactly how it works and what kind of activity there is in the future," Morin explained. "But without giving away everything on the narrative side of things, there's definitely a lot that is open to interpretation."
Direct, indirect and accidental communication is possible with other players as you tour Chicago - much of it presumably facilitated by main character Aiden Pearce's smartphone, which is pre-loaded with a "TalkFeed" app for Twitter-style messaging and a "HotSpots" app which appears to offer Geo-tagging services, comparable to those of EA's SSX reboot. I'm told you'll also be able to use a Watch Dogs phone app in real life to "challenge players", though what exactly this amounts to remains, like everything else, to be seen.
A number of possible online personas appear in currently available gameplay footage, both male and female. Could it be, I suggested, that you'll occasionally stumble on another living, breathing human being while profiling members of a crowd with your smartphone, summoning up an Xbox Live Avatar headshot in place of the usual NPC bio? "There's some interesting stuff there," Morin observed with a grin. "It's not exactly that, but it's close. It's close to that."
If the idea of weaselling out features strikes you as too much work, or you're more interested in routine competitive blasting, fear not. "We have traditional multiplayer, but it's been 'Watch Dog-ified," said Morin. "I don't see it as being something that you've played exactly the same elsewhere. And that's just one layer of it, and afterwards it blends with the rest - and we'll have to stop there." Later in demo footage, three players are seen careening around in stolen vehicles - a formal race in progress, or the usual spontaneous drop-in co-op nonsense?
Ubisoft doesn't intend to give away everything ahead of release, as you'd expect. "I don't think we're ever going to go that far, just throwing out insights on how it's done and why it's that way," Morin cautioned me. "I think part of the pleasure of playing such an experience is igniting the sense of wonder of every player, so that they can bring their stuff to the table, exchange things. That's an exciting layer of what Watch Dogs can bring."
By my lights, the struggle to communicate the appeal of such features to audiences without sacrificing their mystique will be no less exciting. Another obvious point of comparison for Watch Dogs is Dark Souls, whose online offerings are tightly swathed in lore - it took me a solid 20 hours to really grasp their intricacies, which seems like rather a big ask. What do you think? Are you tempted by what Morin and his chums have given away so far? Or do you need to know more?