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Release the Hounds - Hands-On with a Near Complete Watch Dogs
Post by Naren @ 08:30am 24/04/14 | Comments
AusGamers takes on the latest build of Watch Dogs on PS4, to see if those delays have made the wait worth it. Read on for our full thoughts...

Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs is about to let the world loose in its smart city version of Chicago. With two delays endured -- presumably to ensure delivery of the ultimate experience -- Aidan Pierce’s journey tasks combining elements of action, stealth and driving skills with the hacking heavy focus of the game. It’s this hacking, but perhaps more so how it’s combined with those other systems, that really creates a unique experience in the seemingly alive city of Chicago, complete with boundless unique interactive NPCs.

My hands-on preview drops me in a locker room in the thick of a dispute with another character, on the phone to a third offering guidance. The dispute is somewhat settled and I’m tasked with finding a way out of here before security finds me out. But not before a little exploring. Despite this being early on though, with little to interact with, it does show the detail that has gone into every little thing -- lockers, gloves, bats, a soda machine and much more are just a few stunningly recreated real-world objects that highlight the attention to detail Ubisoft has gone to, to recreate their version of Chicago.

The mission out of the building reveals that I am in fact in a fully packed arena that is equipped with a barrage of security which I need to find ways to bypass in various forms. The escapade offers a quick introductory course to some of the required systems all the while progressing towards the street. Without giving anything away, a few things happen that get me to where I need to be but also create a new urgency to flee the overall area and become hidden.

My pal on the phone encourages me to use a car that’s been hidden nearby, but I could flee by any means necessary at this stage, as this is where the world really opens up. I’m curious about the driving and evasion system though so I jump in the car and bust a move.

The driving system is very familiar in many ways but there are a few nuances that make it that little bit more visceral through control. The first thing I noticed is it’s easier to drift corners but in turn easier to oversteer or slip out at high speeds and on corners in any fast-paced evasion scenario. For some reason it’s not quite possible to do straight donuts though. Insignificant to some, perhaps, but fun nonetheless where possible (‘Straya - Ed.). On top of this there are a few viewpoint options when driving, so you’re not stuck in third-person view, which isn’t a problem for many, but the key here is that it’s a customised experience.

At the beginning of our hands-on with the PS4 build, it was announced that we are previewing “almost the final game”. I’m sure this still leaves room for a few tweaks before final code although it was concerning that when driving at high speeds the head on vehicle loading was significantly delayed. It never caused damage in my gameplay, but it did have me anticipating vehicles popping up in front of me at a split second as I tend to drive on the wrong side of the road a lot in these situations.

Needless to say, the evasion after detection by the cops was still not easy by any means. With only a few hacking skills early on there were a few city features at my disposal that merely offered speed humps to my pursuers. Once more hacking skills are unlocked, many more options opens up, as I saw when we were jumped forward a few acts later on. The Fixer Contracts, basically picking up and delivering a car unapprehended, offer plenty of opportunities to dodge the fuzz.

Once I shook the cops I was prompted get to my first of many hideouts, which for obvious reasons is not available mid mission. The hideouts give an opportunity for Aidan to rest, which not only improves his focus for hacking but also explores some components of the narrative. The hideouts also reset the heat you’ve accumulated with cops, save your game and the time used reflects on the time of day in game.

Now, to really explore the open world of Chicago! Out the door of my hideout and I need to hack my first NPC and use the Profiler, which at this stage is still basic but can be optimised using skill points on the Tech Tree as points are earned, mainly with XP. The object here is to find potential criminals and intervene at the right time. Once profiled, a potential criminal needs to be covertly tailed and, if a crime is committed, dealt with. More reward is offered for a non-lethal solution and depending on your surroundings this will also help in avoiding unwanted attention leading to police presence.

Hacking civilians doesn’t end with crime detection though. It’s essentially an access point to the looting system of the game, with rewards like bank accounts, new cars as well as new songs all discovered this way. And yet more pieces to the narrative delivery puzzle are the hundreds of phone calls that can be eavesdropped to piece together details of Aidan’s journey.

Skill Points, earned independently or through XP accrual, allow players to level up on the Tech Tree in four categories: hacking, crafting, driving and combat. While the driving and combat speak for themselves, the hacking upgrades improve the previously mentioned Profiler system as well as availability and detectability of city infrastructure hacks. These infrastructure hacks, all linked on the ctOS city network, progressively open up and really provide a combination of methods to approach and deal with the situations Aidan finds himself in. The crafting section is there to offer additional tools that crafting and combat may not offer. For instance the lure, which is a physical device thrown in an area that will attract a guard, opening up stealth, combat or hacking options. And then there’s Blackout... I’ll let you work that one out.

Working with those four systems and adding stealth possibilities, it really is about how a player combines all those elements in their own unique gameplay style. This preview gave me a great example of this experience when we jumped forward a few acts. With many of the skills and items now unlocked at this stage I was dropped into a typically action themed scenario. With Aidan being alone here, it was important to deal with a group of hostiles in the most efficient way possible. Therefore, choice of weapons, lures, use of hackable items in the environment, stealth and straight up combat all played significant roles in successfully handling the situation. But it was clear that it could be done in varying ways as well, using the same tools. So it really comes down to what a player can see and how they use what is at their disposal.

The city looks and feels great too. The layout of all the elements, especially the NPCs and cars, doesn’t feel overdone or forced in the game-rendered Chicago layout. Those features are accessible but not placed in ways that don’t make sense. Add the weather system, small details such as the occasional trash floating round with the wind and of course the interactive ctOS network offering interaction with many city features, and the city really does feel like it’s alive, an entity of its own, not just a map recreation. A sense of connectedness is present with the city and NPCs over what is usually a feeling of herding cattle in a static environment. Here you are able to actually tap into the matrix that is this open-world city and interact with a force that responds to your presence.

At first Aidan’s movement felt a little jolty, akin to older Assassin’s Creed character movement minus the parkour element. Some minor adjustments in sensitivity as well as time to calibrate to the elements of the environment and it may not be exactly how you want to move but running, snapping to cover, shooting, jumping and climbing all become intuitive early enough.

Aidan’s appearance is customisable in the many shops throughout, where other vendors provide small items to help maintain his focus for hacking. The hotspot check-ins throughout the world are also a nice bridge between worlds for those of us who are fans of FourSquare or other social media check-in apps. There are also many mini-games, such as poker and chess, placed throughout the world for those wanting to lighten the mood and take a brief breather.

Multiplayer games are accessible in Grid Mode which essentially sets up a game while you have the option to continue playing until it’s ready. The objectives in multiplayer consist of hacking another player without being detected, and vice versa, or the four vs four data capture mode. The first of these modes is confined to a set area for obvious reasons while the second mode utilises a bigger area of the map, implementing much more driving and bringing in combat. While the latter is fun for some time, it can easily become unbalanced, which raises the question that perhaps vehicles should have been left out of it, or at least limited in some way.

The companion app is actually a free game for iOS, Android and Kindle Fire. It links the tablet player with a console player -- friend or random -- and has them playing against each other. A tablet player assumes control of the ctOS city network and will set up a time trial, with checkpoints, for the other player to complete. The objective for the tablet player is to then use the city infrastructure and police vehicles at their disposal to track the other player and stop them. It follows its own game progression with unlocks such as police vehicles and city features. The console player, on the other hand, has to manoeuvre the course in the set time and avoid all obstacles thrown their way.

The hacking system alone speaks volumes about the foundation concept of the game, let alone the living city, combined systems and reactionary NPCs. Big Brother may be watching, but if we can hack in and have a peek to use the info for our own devices, why not make the most of it?

The delays look to have been worth the waiting pain players had to endure, and with a game this alive, and this tangible thanks to all those systems I mentioned, getting it right the first time is far more important. With a little more time left to make the final touches and pieces of polish needed, we’re almost set to step into yet another stellar Ubisoft original IP. You might want to get to know the name Aidan Pierce, I suspect he’ll be around for a while.
Read more about Watch Dogs on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!

Latest Comments
Posted 12:22pm 24/4/14
This game is looking really good, can't wait to play it
Posted 12:15pm 27/4/14
"despite not being able to do donuts in any of the cars" Ahahaha I know I'm reading an Aussie gaming page when this is said! Love it fellas.
Posted 10:37pm 27/4/14
Are you forced to walk everywhere? I noticed you said that the iOS, Android thingies can only connect with console players. That kinda sucks. I would have liked to have seen some sort of co-op mode. Perhaps a scenario where the ctos things are set to ultra-hard mode, so you and a buddy need to team up to take it down.
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