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Watch Dogs Primer: What You Need to Know

A government with no respect for its citizens' privacy. A population increasingly dependent on smartphones for everyday tasks. A hackable operating system with the power to control a whole city. "Watch Dogs," the latest open-world action game from Ubisoft, does not exactly take place in the real world, but it does provide an eerie picture of what modern society could become.

"Watch Dogs" hit shelves and downloadable services all around the world May 27, and it's the perfect time to explore what you need to know before diving into Aiden Pearce's journey through futuristic Chicago. From its basic premise to its surprising connections with another hit Ubisoft series, "Watch Dogs" is a big game, and there's a lot to know before you jump in.

What is "Watch Dogs"?

For those who have seen advertisements for "Watch Dogs" plastered everywhere but don't know much else about it, here are a few things you should know about the game.

"Watch Dogs" is an open-world action/stealth title, much like Ubisoft's blockbuster series "Assassin's Creed." But whereas "Assassin's Creed" focuses on historical action, "Watch Dogs" takes place in the near future.

"Watch Dogs" tells the story of Aiden Pearce, a vigilante hacker out to right a wrong from his past. To that end, he can use his smartphone to profile and manipulate just about every person and electronic device in Chicago.

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In this story, Chicago is controlled by the Central Operating System, or CtOS. This single piece of software is responsible for Chicago's municipal amenities, traffic patterns and even its security and surveillance. Because just about everyone in Chicago has a smartphone or a computer, everyone is a potential target for Aiden, whether he needs to hack a bank account for money or steal a car to evade the police.

As such, the gameplay is a fairly unique blend of simulated hacking, exploration, gunplay and stealth. You'll spend most of your time as Aiden, hacking citizens and city systems, traveling to new areas of Chicago, playing novel augmented-reality games and either evading or battling law enforcement and other dangerous hackers.

All the while, Aiden will unravel the mysteries of his own past and learn about how a connected population and an overbearing government can affect a major metropolis. If you were furious about the National Security Agency's Prism program and wanted to see the NSA's actions taken to their logical extremes, "Watch Dogs" is the game for you.

How does "Watch Dogs" connect to "Assassin's Creed?"

If you've been reading the description of "Watch Dogs" while thinking, "This sounds an awful lot like a modern-day 'Assassin's Creed,'" you're not alone. "Watch Dogs" has a lot in common with Ubisoft's time-hopping open-world series, and if you paid very close attention during "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag," you may know why.

In theory, "Watch Dogs" is essentially what you'd get if you brought the "Assassin's Creed" franchise into the present. Like the "Assassin's Creed" protagonists, Aiden explores a meticulously accurate city, securing individual neighborhoods and completing side missions as he goes. The game allows (and occasionally demands) parkour platforming, precise stealth and intense combat for a variety of plot missions and side quests. The setting is mostly realistic, while the story is steeped in conspiracy and intrigue.

The biggest "Assassin's Creed" connection, however, is right from one of the games. Although "Assassin's Creed IV" takes place mostly between 1715 and 1722, players also spend a bit of time in today's near future, exploring the offices of Abstergo, a puppet corporation controlled by the villainous Templars.

After completing the game's main story, players can hack into the computer of Olivier Garneau, one of Abstergo's higher-ups. Olivier receives a message from the Blume Corporation, offering to install the CtOS operating system at Abstergo's facilities.

Depending on Olivier's response, this could be the beginning of a strong connection between "Watch Dogs" and "Assassin's Creed." Either way, it's direct confirmation that the two games take place in the same fictional universe. If "Watch Dogs" becomes as successful a franchise as "Assassin's Creed," then expect to see more connections between the two series.

A final piece of food for thought: One of the primary themes of "Watch Dogs" is what happens when unethical, powerful collectives can track your location and movements at all times. The Observatory, sought by the Templar Laureano de Torres y Ayala in "Assassin's Creed IV," posed exactly the same question. Fans could discuss the parallels for years to come.

How realistic is "Watch Dogs"?

Aside from hoping for a good game, people who have been following "Watch Dogs" want to know: Could it really happen?

"Watch Dogs" is a safe, fictional way for modern-day technophiles to explore their fears about the far-reaching consequences of connectedness and surveillance, but whether it could happen in real life is another matter.

Tom's Guide is currently working on a detailed report about which aspects of "Watch Dogs" are totally make-believe and which are more realistic than we might like to believe. In general, though, "Watch Dogs" is unrealistic for one reason: the CtOS.

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While, in theory, a city could choose to link its water, power, traffic control and surveillance to a single system, there's no real benefit in doing so. In fact, as Aiden demonstrates aptly in the game, doing so poses a real threat if the system were to be accessed by a savvy hacker.

Right now, many municipal systems run on arcane or antiquated software. This is arguably a security risk in its own right, but it does mean that the most prevalent hacks for modern Windows and Mac systems will have little effect on, for example, the software that manages a city's water supply.

Furthermore, even if a hacker did manage to compromise a city's water supply, its power lines and law-enforcement technology would remain completely unaffected. Keeping municipal services compartmentalized is a safety precaution, and cities know it.

Having a clean, convenient, ubiquitous OS would make it much easier to run a city — until someone compromises it and plays havoc with an entire neighborhood rather than just a single system.

The scenarios in "Watch Dogs" are not completely impossible, but it's probably better to treat them as representations of society's technological fears, rather than harbingers of what's to come.

Follow Marshall Honorof @marshallhonorof and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

  • HEXiT
    watchdogs and assassins creed? thats an odd comparison. its more like GTA4/5 with hacking. also the claims of 300 hours of gameplay seem a little exaggerated. my mates son finished the campaign (single player on ps4) in a little less than 12 hours @58% complete. he reckons maybe another 8 to 10 to get the other 48%
  • Pailin
    I can see what Marshall is getting at, as to the gameplay time... would be a bit sad if a game of this potential could not captivate you for at least 12 days worth... lol

    Will find out when I eventually get it. Although to be fair I am the kinda guy who can make some impressive mountains out of the games I play and have a Lot of fun with them too :)
  • SessouXFX
    "Tom's Guide is currently working on a detailed report about which aspects of "Watch Dogs" are totally make-believe and which are more realistic than we might like to believe. In general, though, "Watch Dogs" is unrealistic for one reason: the CtOS."


    No it's not. When you consider today's government overreach into our personal lives, and businesses wanting to know if you have a facebook account, and things of that ilk, the CtOS isn't nearly as far fetched, as the city would be able to gain better control over your private life, without having to rely on the Federal government's involvement.

    We already have those damned traffic cameras set up everywhere. We know that in some instances, the cameras are manually controlled, and your daily travels are being monitored to some degree.

    I had an instance where a cop raced to my location, which ended up in a questioning of what I was doing and where I was going.

    The cop said I was driving aggressively (which is the norm for me, but hardly beyond the speed limit) and we weren't even on the same block (the cop was on another block coming over a bridge, a little over 1/4 of a mile from my location at the time.

    Said cop even knew something was going on with my home at the time after having my license in hand. To add to this, how did this cop know my vehicle was a black truck, to be able to identify me without actual visual contact?

    So how is the CtOS so far fetched, when those things are considered? if anything, it's closer to reality than anyone may want to admit.
  • SessouXFX,0,2219153,full.story

    Just to update this article, THIS changes everything we thought we knew.

    "The curled metal fixtures set to go up on a handful of Michigan Avenue light poles later this summer may look like delicate pieces of sculpture, but researchers say they'll provide a big step forward in the way Chicago understands itself by observing the city's people and surroundings.

    The smooth, perforated sheaths of metal are decorative, but their job is to protect and conceal a system of data-collection sensors that will measure air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation and wind. The sensors will also count people by measuring wireless signals on mobile devices.

    Some experts caution that efforts like the one launching here to collect data from people and their surroundings pose concerns of a Big Brother intrusion into personal privacy.

    In particular, sensors collecting cellphone data make privacy proponents nervous. But computer scientist Charlie Catlett said the planners have taken precautions to design their sensors to observe mobile devices and count contact with the signal rather than record the digital address of each device.

    Researchers have dubbed their effort the "Array of Things" project. Gathering and publishing such a broad swath of data will give scientists the tools to make Chicago a safer, more efficient and cleaner place to live, said Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, part of a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, near Lemont."

    UBIsoft has always done their homework when it comes to these things. You see it in their various of games like Ghost Recon Phantoms, which takes certain devices, items, and ideas, and brings them to reality. In Watchdogs, we can actually see the CtOS in these sensors in lamp posts, Now, in the story, it's only currently along a stretch of road in a particularly well secured area. But imagine those sensors all over the city. Isn't that CtOS in itself?