The Second Screen at Gamescom

By Richard Pilot

Towards the start of this generation, Nintendo unveiled its motion controlled technology that was integrated in the Wii. This became an incredible global hit and scored millions of sales for its console. Sony and Microsoft quickly rushed out to provide their own motion based offerings in the Move and Kinect respectively. Ultimately those never quite become the hit that either were hoping them to be, although both companies will be trying again with integrated solutions in the next-gen consoles. For the Wii's successor, the Wii U, Nintendo rolled out a gamepad with an integrated display to provide compelling secondary screen interactions and once again Sony and Microsoft have rolled out their own competing technologies; for Sony the PS Vita is the second screen offering games that switch between the PS4 to Vita and back again via Remote Play, as well as offering up a second screen using the Cross Controller feature. Not having a handheld device of their own, Microsoft are going down the app route providing mobile apps that are able to communicate with their consoles with SmartGlass. Not content with using the platform holder options, it seems that some third-party developers such as Ubisoft and Activision are going with their own proprietary mobile apps and are trying to offer some compelling gameplay features to go with them. This week at Gamescom, we took a look at second screen companions apps for arguably two of this year's biggest games, Assassin's Creed IV and Watch Dogs.

Not all companions are welcome, but the app is

Not all companions are welcome, but the app is

Both games appear to be using their own apps for Android and iOS rather than a single uPlay/Ubisoft app. The Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag companion app is primarily designed to ease the burden of menus and navigation on the screen by transferring those to the app. Players can set waypoints, zoom into their current location (where nearby enemies are highlighted), check the status of captured territories and more. The most integrated experience we saw was when we were in one of the game's big city locations. Looting the body of the corpse, we found ourselves a treasure map which appeared on the app (players without the app can still access it via menus). We were then able to decipher the rough drawings to identify a location within the city. Arriving there, we could see that a second sheet from the treasure map had a drawing of one perspective in the area with an indicator to show where the treasure was buried. Having both the treasure map and the game as separate screens really helped improve the experience and allowed us to find the item without going in and out of menus. Whilst not essential for the experience which will just work like any previous Assassin's Creed game without the companion app, having it available did bring an air of efficiency to the game, allowing us to speed up the process of some of the more tedious menu navigation that you would typically find in other console games. I should also mention that the entire experience was very highly polished featuring a look and feel that was bespoke for the game.

Later we saw Watch Dogs, and whilst the demonstration didn't cover the integrated map or menus, what we did see was a pretty compelling reason to get the companion app; an exclusive multiplayer mode. Players on the console take control of Aiden Pierce and must race through the city to get to a number of checkpoints. The play on the companion app represents the police trying to take him down. There are two parts to how this multiplayer works on the app. First the player will control the police helicopter and uses it to direct where the cops get mobilised; wherever the helicopter is centred, that's where police units head to. Secondly, the presence of the helicopter grants players access to the various parts of the "ctOS" system that controls the city. When items get into range players charge them up by tapping on them and waiting. Once charged, the item will then go off if the player is nearby. ctOS allows you to do a variety of different things to the city, like raising bridges to slow the player down or lifting bollards and overloading water mains to wreck their vehicle. We came away very impressed by the demo, besides a few touch issues, the demo was very slick and more importantly very enjoyable. It's clear a lot of work had gone into the app and Ubisoft appear to be keen to provide some unique and compelling experiences. We were told all versions of Watch Dogs will work with the companion app and we can't wait to get our hands on it at the game's release.

Actions on the tablet sync up to actions in-game for the other player

Actions on the tablet sync up to actions in-game for the other player

Whilst these were just two of the games we got to spend the time on at Gamescom, we spotted a few other titles across the show floor during the week that also supported this type of second screen implementation. During the Call of Duty: Ghosts reveal a couple of weeks ago, we found out about some of the features in the companion app, specifically, the ability to chose your loadouts on the go, check your experience and profile as well as the exclusive Clan Wars multiplayer mode that lets players form up into clans then fight in a series of multiplayer matches on the console in order to conquer territory. EA's Battlefield 4 has a similar app for setting up loadouts, and at Gamescom they were also demoing the ability to use a tablet to take on the role of the Commander. The companion app also offers the Battlelog features previously only available to PC players. Finally, another Ubisoft title, The Crew also had an that allowed us to select the next car, its body type and upgrades and the next track that would be played. We're unsure whether this was specifically for the show or something that will be released alongside the game.

It's clear that many of the big publishers are thinking about companion apps and how they can be utilised in their games, and even from these brief showings at Gamescom last week, we can certainly see the potential for this technology. There's reason to be excited by some of the uses that will be in your hands this Christmas with exclusive multiplayer modes, integrated menu and navigation systems, as well as user customisation whilst on the go.

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