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Chicago 'Watch:' Chi-Town stars in video game 'Watch Dogs'

By Ryan Smith

For RedEye

6:16 PM CDT, June 21, 2012

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The star of the most anticipated video game of 2013 isn't Super Mario, Lara Croft or Nathan Drake. It's not a person at all, but a place.

Give up?

Chicago edged out a long list of other cities to take the starring role in "Watch Dogs," an open-world sci-fi action game unveiled for the first time earlier this month at the E3 Expo in L.A. Even in the game's early stages, developer Ubisoft Montreal seems to have recreated Chicago in a way that's never been done before in gaming.

From its landmarks, buildings and architecture down to its people and culture, the Chicago of "Watch Dogs" looks like the Chicago of reality. In the "Watch Dogs" demo shown at E3, mysterious hacker Aiden Pearce wanders the crowded streets of the Loop, leaps over "L" tracks and stealthily breaks into theater, called the Ambrose, that looks a lot like the Chicago Theatre.

To make sure the game properly captured the city and its traditions, not to mention its people and their accents, several Ubisoft Montreal teams took photos of the city, listened to Chicagoans talk and even sat down with Chicago police to ask them about local police work.

"We made very sure that when people see the game, they instantly recognize Chicago," "Watch Dogs" creative director Jonathan Morin said. "We did a focus group in the city and we didn't tell people where the game was set, and it took people two seconds and they were like, 'Oh my God, this is Chicago!' That was very important to us."

It's a long overdue video game appearance for the Second City, which often plays second fiddle to New York and L.A. in the video game world despite the fact that it's often tapped by Hollywood as the backdrop for gangster flicks or big budget action movies like "The Dark Knight" and "Transformers."

The last time Chicago played a major role in a game was the 1994 Super Nintendo title "Michael Jordan in Chaos in the Windy City," a cartoonish action game in which His Airness attacked robotic enemies with flaming basketballs.

"To us, it was surprising that Chicago isn't used in games more," Morin said. "It's interesting because part of the big reception and the excitement that we've gotten from the game so far is that people are saying, 'Finally, a game in Chicago!' It seems like a lot of people were waiting for that to happen."

Ubisoft said it chose Chicago based on a number of factors, most notably because the game's makers felt Chicago "has always been one of those avant garde cities," Morin said, and daring.

"From a game perspective, we were also looking for a city that was fun to drive in, fun to walk around in for sure. When we started digging deeper into each city, we found that Chicago had these narrow streets and canals; it's very dense and it has a very rich infrastructure and a rich story," Morin said. "We were looking at all of it saying, 'Wow, this is what a city is!'"

"Watch Dogs" is set in a near future world fueled by a sense of techno-paranoia about our society's overreliance on smartphones and centralized computer networks. Chicago plays a larger role in the story because, as Pearce, you gain access to the city's central operating hub, monitor surveillance cameras, control a stoplight on Clark Street or tamper with a bridge over the Chicago River. He also can hack into random Chicagoans' cellphones, listen to their conversations and decide whether or not to get involved with their lives.

"With most video games, you play as more of the man than the city in the story," Morin said. "But this game's a little bit special because you're playing [as] a guy who is monitoring a setting and chasing the digital shadows of a city."

Ubisoft Montreal hasn't offered a full list of Chicago neighborhoods that will be featured in the game, but hopes to release "Watch Dogs" sometime in 2013 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.