It might not quite win game of the show, what with Titanfall stomping all before it and sending journalists into frenzies not seen since, well, Watch Dogs. But Ubisoft's hacker's delight is still one of my most anticipated games the year, and this hands-on, while not totally flawless, hasn't dampened my expectations.
The Gamescom demo is an expanded version of what we saw at E3, and first (second? Well, first hands-on) impressions are good. As Aiden skulks around a poor industrial district, the engine shows off its power with a huge draw distance and great texture work, rendering a sprawling mass of low-income housing and dilapidated streets. Hands in pockets, head bowed and in full Terminator-style stalk mode, he cuts an imposing figure, and his mastery of the digital environment makes you feel fully in control of the world around you.
After entering a fortified CtOS compound (via a combination of hacking, distraction and infiltration, all executed with ease) to acquire some vital data, I'm off to nick a car and head into the city.
Riding from the poor area into the more affluent, downtown 'Loop' district shows off how well the game scales different environment types, as looming landmarks and twinkling skyscrapers shoot past. Driving is passable, if nothing special - generally it feels either a bit too weighty or too light, without a happy medium I could discern. Soon, I'm out for a little jog around the city streets, packed with civilians to hack, whether that be steal money or just take various personal data titbits: a currency in this world.
It's at this point that I've got to hack someone with credit card details to finance a future firearms purchase. Again, like the E3 demo another human player enters my game and hacks me while I'm at it, leading to a game of cat and mouse as I try and find the culprit.
Now, I probably wouldn't have found them without the help of the developer standing next to me, who himself looked so tired he probably wished for not only Gamescom to be over, but that all life on earth was as well. No matter, as the perp is pointed out and three quick shots across a traffic-packed intersection sees one clipping them in the head and putting them down. (Just to make sure, I then shot them in the back as well, which I'm not afraid to say drew some strange looks from the various dev and PR types. But hacking a mother's credit cards is fine, hey, Ubisoft?)
Anyway, your hacker isn't just standing around, wearing the same gear as you and cackling. They'll be disguised as a random NPC character, and you'll have to either get close to scan them, or get a bit more creative. Firing your AK-47 into the air, like one player apparently did, saw the NPCs scatter, potentially exposing the assailant, who may be busy playing it too cool.
After that it was my turn to hack another player, and it must be said that trying to blend in to get close to hack, and then either do the same or just leg it afterwards was loads of fun. Again, the city played its part, offering a superb playground to mess around in.
The demo ended with Aiden thwarting a robbery at the very same gun store he was going to all along (handy), where the difference between vigilante and murderer is nicely defined: killing the dude rather than taking him down gives you cred, but alerts the police. Just like real life, kids.
Between the ease (and CCTV camera-hopping flexibility) of hacking and tracking, the fear and anticipation of PvP, the solid shooting mechanics (Aiden opens his body up wide, so as not to obscure the over the shoulder view) and the impressive realisation of the world - and your power within it - Watch Dogs played as well as it looked.
Well, so far. I was worried beforehand that there would only be about three things to do in this Chicago, much like the original Assassin's Creed. Concerns are also raised by the fact that this was running on a massive PC with a PS4 pad attached. And while both of those are still sticking points, overall this was great introduction to the game and its world.
But wait. It didn't end there. As I was leaving I got to have a little go on the companion gameplay mode, here represented via an Android tablet. Another player took the reigns as Aiden on console, and I had to stop him escaping as the controller of CtOS and, by extension, the police.
The console player tries to slip the noose by passing through a series of checkpoints. GPS indicators link them on their screen, but on tablet you'll have to manually find the next one from the top-down view you have of the city.
Calling in helicopters to track Aiden (and then suffering mild panic when they escape your gaze), making steam shoot out of the sewer system, or raising traffic bollards and bridges to thwart your foe: each was as over-the top and engaging as the last. There's also a small strategy element - those playing as Aiden have to drive quickly to escape before time runs out, but killing civilians with dangerous driving gives the police more assets to throw at you.
It's a nice distraction, and the fact that it's remotely playable, gives experience points and other rewards to both players and is completely customisable doesn't hurt. But it's the main event that has me looking forward to November.