Impressions: WATCH_DOGS (PS4)

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**Note: Sony has added a custom audio profile for this game in the Headset App for the Pulse Elite and Gold Wireless Headphones**

There’s been a lot of hate floating around about this one lately, and frankly, I can’t figure out why. It’s almost as if the delay from the original release date suddenly freaked anyone out that had pre-ordered the game, because a delay automatically means disaster? I’ve been playing it on PS4 all weekend, and so far I’m pretty happy with the result.

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WATCH_DOGS is an open-world game based in a near-future Chicago, and the entire city is bound together by the CTOS, an integrated system that includes surveillance cameras, facial recognition, and pretty-much any other technology available. Many in the city fear that those behind CTOS will overstep their bounds and pry into things that they shouldn’t, and hackers like our protagonist are making attempts to get into the system to prove that they are.

Chicago and its surrounding districts are massive, with suburbs reachable in almost every direction, including Lake Michigan via boat. There are a number of CTOS communication towers peppered throughout each area of the overall map, and until you hack those towers, some of your abilities won’t be available. As you tap into the features of the CTOS through your phone, you’ll be able to utilize live facial recognition and other communications as well. The facial recognition is crucial for something that’s become pretty addictive, hacking people’s phones. As you walk through the streets, aim at anyone else and a variety of personal information will appear. Sometimes you’ll even be able to hack that person for things like bank accounts, voicemails, text messages, and even listen-in on live phone calls. This information allows a variety of options such as getting hints about possible impending crimes and even grabbing cash from their bank accounts when you access an ATM. You can easily spend days just walking the streets and eavesdropping on everyone in your wake.

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But, there can be a price. There are agents (snitches) everywhere, and they have special software on their devices that tell them if they’ve been hacked. If the alarms go off, they immediately call it in, resulting in a contract being taken out on you. If you catch the agent before the call is complete, you can grab their phone and stop that from happening, but if not, you’ll probably be visited by another fixer within minutes, and what will surprise you is that it’s actually a real person. One of the primary goals of WATCH_DOGS was to blur the lines between offline and online play, and so far I believe that they’ve succeeded. Obviously, there aren’t many online yet, but that doesn’t seem to have affected things as much as you’d think.

As you walk or drive around the map, different side-opportunities will appear on the left side of the screen. Things like races, gang hideouts, random impending crimes, and contracts become available, and those contracts are the same as the ones taken out on you when you hack the wrong person. An alarm will sound when someone starts the process of accessing your files, and you’ll be given the username and shown a circle on your mini map where the fixer is located. You’ll need to quickly move your cursor over everyone you see to try and smoke that fixer out, and if you do, you’ll need to take him or her out before they get the files they need. It’s an interesting aside when this happens, and since that person can be above or below you, at times the search can be pretty harrowing. The only thing that annoyed me was that this once happened as I was making my way to the control box of a CTOS tower and I had no easy way to make my way back out in time to actually find this hacker. The CTOS towers aren’t setup as “missions” though, so this isn’t something that can be avoided. Once I realized that it was actually someone else online doing this to me though, I was impressed with how it was performed.

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With Open World games though, I usually play to simply finish the main campaign, then I worry about the side stuff later. I’m mostly doing that so far, but you actually need to do some of the side missions and objectives to be more effective in the campaign. My main goal is to unlock as many of the CTOS towers as possible, since they are required for full connectivity into the network, and that’s vital for many of the things that you’ll need to accomplish. Also, some of the random crimes that you encounter or are sent to will help you establish your credibility with the public. Reminiscent of the inFAMOUS series, you can affect your reputation, good or bad, based on some of the actions you take. This affects how the public reacts when they see you out in the wild, and it seems that it will affect some aspects of the campaign later in the game.

So, back to the campaign. It’s pretty good so far, with a great variety of mission types. The difficulty of the missions varies pretty well too, with a few requiring a lot of stealth and strategy. As you progress, you’ll need to hack into data centers in guarded buildings. Cameras will be littered throughout the city, and all can be hacked if within range. As you traverse from camera-to-camera, you can spot enemies and even hack devices and terminals. So sometimes, you don’t even need to make it all the way to the goal but instead you can do your work remotely. Also, there can be items close to your enemies that you can activate, either used to attract or distract, or even injure or kill them if they’re close enough to these items. It’s a game mechanic that at first may seem like a gimmick, but as you progress, it turns into a well-implemented experience different than any other game. Hacking these advanced systems is also different than what I feared would be a gimmick, but instead has been implemented as a puzzle, which gets more complex as you progress. Again, the puzzles are well done and can get pretty challenging.

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Your hacking skills will only get you so far though, so you’ll need to be adept in combat as well. No matter how much you want to be stealthy, it doesn’t seem to me that you’ll be able to avoid gun-play at certain times. The cover system is one of the best I’ve ever used. Get into cover by hitting X, then point to another spot and hit X again. To pull out of cover, simply move the opposite direction. It’s simple and pretty fantastic. Gun-play too is well implemented. Controls feel great, and combat has been tweaked quite well. You can even sneak up behind an enemy and hit Circle to take him or her out with a collapsing baton. Also, the transition from ground combat to car chases is great, and using your hacking abilities, you can be very slippery.

If you’re in a car chase, you’ll see all of your enemies on the mini map, but lucky for you and the fact that CTOS ties everything in the city into one network, you have a lot of weapons available to you. Many you’ve seen depicted in demo videos in the past, and with some practice, this stuff actually works. While being chased, I ripped through an intersection with stoplights. At a certain point, a blue cursor started flashing at the bottom of my screen, indicating that I could hit Square to hack the stoplights. If you time it correctly, you’ll make all four lights green and create a pile-up, resulting in one or more of the cars chasing you getting taken out. In one of my chases, I had cars and a chopper after me, and as I raced through the streets, I saw a garage door that I could open remotely. I did so, then closed it behind me, stopping my enemies in their tracks. I then switched cars and went out another door, which allowed me to lose the chopper as well. Oh also, you can open a skill to hack a chopper, taking it out of commission as it attempts to follow you with its spotlight. So, what I’m trying to say is that so far, this stuff isn’t merely a gimmick, it actually works, and it’s really fun!

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Thing is though, being someone that worked in Chicago for a few years, it just doesn’t “feel” like Chicago. Sure the Sears Tower is there (or whatever they call it now) but the city isn’t as accurate a depiction of the city as I expected. It feels like the developers haven’t really captured the soul of the city like Rockstar usually does with the GTA series. I mean, there are even tunnels heading into the northern suburbs and I have no idea where they got that from. Sure, the Navy Pier and some other notable locations are present, and you can even check into those spots via a FourSquare‘ish system, but many of the locations just seem kind of randomly dropped into the area. It probably won’t bother most people playing the game, but Chicago natives will probably experience some disappointment with this.

Lastly, the audio/visuals are very well done. Yes, you’ll see some draw-in pretty far out, but overall I like the presentation quite a bit. The lighting is all realtime, and it even seems that they’ve captured that “soft” feel that many games seem to miss. The framerate is solid and never falters, and I’m pretty sure that it’s locked at 30fps. Textures and colors are also detailed and vibrant, and character animation is also very well done. One thing that stands out though is the radio station selection when you get into a vehicle. I’m pretty sure the music is all licensed, but none of it is anything that you’ve ever heard. Most of it is pretty good, but if you’re expecting the variety and quality from GTA V, you’ll definitely be disappointed. I usually just turn the radio off, or find the talk station.

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I know that this is long enough to be a review, but even with the hours that I’ve put into WATCH_DOGS so far, I’ve barely passed 10% completion. I will say that I believe a lot of the Internet hate is unfounded. The hacking stuff is surprisingly fun and very well integrated into the game, and the seamless online mechanic is really good, as far as I’ve been able to try it so far. The story is compelling and the missions hold a great variety and challenge. I can’t wait to hook-up with my PSN friends to try more of the online offerings, and I hope that people give this one a chance. I just wish it had more of a “soul” at times.

* All screenshots used in this post were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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Written by Glenn Percival

Glenn Percival

Just a guy that loves games, movies, Golf, Football, and Baseball.

Podcast Co-Host, Editor-in-Chief, Video Producer, and whipping-boy

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  • IRISHJOE13

    Wish i had a PS4 for this(along with other games). I don’t want to play it on the PS3, i want the best experience that i can get(that’s not PC of course). Anyways, great job, Glenn

  • David Freeman

    PSN store not working … then can no longer sign in to PSN …. sigh when will Sony have a decent release day …

  • London Rhodes

    I’m surprised by how familiar the game feels. It’s like AC meets GTA (in all the best ways). Been having a blast so far.

  • I am glad to see its not just an Assassins Creed clone. That was my biggest fear with it. Only problem I have with the game (from seeing people play it and trailers) is the graphics seem rather flat too me. No detail. Will be getting it, but not until a price drop.

  • Joshua SmallArms Simpkins

    I just ordered the game off eBay. (Sorry I didn’t use the Amazon link, Glenn. It was substantially cheaper with eBay. $43 USD brand new!) I’m finishing up Far Cry 3 on PS3 right now (which I absolutely adore!) Vaas gives me alil stiffy, I’m not going to lie. But at any rate, I can’t wait to dive in on Watch Dogs and see how well it runs on my freshly upgraded PS4! (Installed a 250GB Samsung 840 EVO SSD)