Imagine forcing a Red Line train to slam on its brakes at the tap of a button. Or leaving Chicago's finest in the dust during a thrilling chase on Wacker Drive by activating the Wells Street bridge.
It's a video game, yes, but the much hyped techno-thriller "Watch Dogs" -- finally hitting gaming consoles and PCs on May 27 -- doubles as a Chicagoan's wildest fantasy. In the shoes of a mysterious vigilante named Aiden Pearce, players are armed with a futuristic device that can hack into almost anything on the city's grid -- electrical systems, security cameras, even smartphones. Think of Pearce as Batman armed with a superpowered phone app.
Unlike Gotham City, however, Pearce's hometown is not a work of fiction. It's the most fully realized Chicago ever produced in gaming. Developer Ubisoft Montreal spent nearly five years building a world in which players can navigate their way through brick-by-brick virtual versions of real places like the Willis Tower, Navy Pier or Millennium Park. The Second City was chosen as the backdrop for the new open-world action franchise because of its rich history, sense of scale, and landmarks both natural and man-made, according to lead animation director Colin Graham.
"There are so many iconic landmarks and these great roads and bridges. Plus you've got the lakefront," Graham said. "It's really a location scout's dream."
Digitally reconstructing an urban area as dense and sprawling as Chicago was easier said than done. Ubisoft had the luxury of re-creating historic cities from centuries long past in its "Assassin's Creed" series -- some of the specifics easily could be fudged
"When you're dealing with a town 400 years old, you can say, `well, this place is on this street,' and most people don't know the difference," lead writer Kevin Shortt said. "This was different because people can look out walk out their door and see the real Chicago."
To help craft a believable facsimile, Ubisoft embedded a large team from Montreal for several weeks for a crash course in all things Chicago. The artists spent time learning the architecture and look of the city, while writers immersed themselves in the people and culture. They also hired roughly 60 local voice actors -- from well-known stage actors to a uniformed police officer -- to grant an added sense of authenticity to the game's 40,000-plus lines of dialogue.
"It was a big investment to have all the acting recorded in Chicago, but there's nothing more disconcerting than hearing the wrong accent," Graham said. "We knew we couldn't fake some things."
Working with locals also educated "Watch Dogs'" writers on Chicago's idiosyncrasies, such as the police department's unique crime reporting codes and regional slang.
"They'd say, `no, we don't say things that way, we do it this way. It's not the waterfront, it's the lakefront,' " Shortt said.
Ubisoft paid attention to some details more than others, however. The developers admit they took "creative liberties" for the sake of making "Watch Dogs" more fun. Some streets were widened from four to six lanes to make car chases easier. Neighborhoods outside of the Loop and River North either don't exist or have been hodgepodged together. Strangest of all: The entire metropolitan area is situated on an island.
"The game isn't trying to do a street-by-street representation of Chicago; what we wanted to do was have players come away with the vibe of Chicago, and I think we've pulled it off pretty well," Shortt said. "Chicagoans will probably play it and say, `This street doesn't turn off here and this neighborhood isn't there.' But I hope they like the game a lot. We certainly wanted to do justice; we love the city."