There’s a moment very early on in Watch Dogs 2 that epitomizes its tone. Wrench, a loud-mouthed engineer that has an emoting mask and voice modulator and one of your fellow Dedsec members, hails you over the phone to let Marcus know that a new trailer for a movie is out. The two freak out and shortly after Marcus was heading back to the Hackerspace – a domain for all Dedsec’s Robin Hood styled hacking escapades. Not for that moment though, as Marcus and Wrench used the multitude of televisions to enjoy their trailer in the perfect environment.
At its heart, this is what Watch Dogs 2 is all about. It’s shedding the skin of its serious, overbearing predecessor and throwing on a lighter, more colourful one. Watch Dogs 2 is a far more fun game, both mechanically and narratively, and its cast of likeable characters has a lot to do with that. Even if at times it struggles to shake some of the shackles it grew from, while also undercutting its narrative beats with confusing designs.
You play as Marcus Holloway, a notorious hacker who finds himself showing off for the San Francisco branch of Dedsec early in the game. Following the events of the first game (which, quite frankly, aren’t as important as you might think), ominous tech company Blume has widened the reach of their city controlling software, ctOS. That means more criminal profiling, data mining and targeted marketing based on billions of bits of information the system sucks from citizens with or without their knowledge. And it’s exactly what Marcus and his buddies are going after.
The narrative itself loosely ties things together with this central idea in mind, but it takes many liberties with the ways in which it approaches it. Marcus and Dedsec make dents in Blume and ctOS by rallying the public around them, using a variety of hacker-based publicity stunts to attract more followers. These followers are what drive the game forward, giving you points to throw into skill trees, unlocking new side missions and edging Dedsec one step closer to exposing the truth.
It’s a very tongue-in-cheek stab at the way society today hinges on a technological dependency, and plays around with the all too real fact of corporations feeding off all the data we obiviously send up into the air without a care. In that sense alone Watch Dogs 2 is incredibly self-aware, and its modern-day vigilantes are more captivating for it. They’re millennial fighters in every sense, who just as easily curse the broken system and argue about Aliens and Predators in the same sentence.
This more enthralling approach to the subject matter permeates into the world you’re surround by too, and Watch Dogs 2’s version of a condensed San Francisco becomes a playground from the get go. It’s segmented nicely, with the Golden Gate Bridge acting as a welcome landmark on the horizon as you explore smaller versions of Oakland, Silicon Valley and more. The technological status of this city integrates well enough into the game, giving plenty of contextual reason as to why some state of the art gadgetry is freely roaming the streets – and completely susceptible to Marcus and his smartphone.
Watch Dogs initially attempted to be all about hacking, but it’s really in this sequel that it’s fully realized. Marcus is a force to be reckoned with should he have his smartphone in hand, which gives you a powerful link to the city and its interconnected systems. You can still cause massive traffic pile ups by flicking on traffic lights, bring pursuits to a halt by triggering gas explosions and famously “camera hop” around guarded areas, but it’s the way these features have blossomed that really makes you feel fully in control of the city around you.
For example, security systems have different types of contingencies attached to them, making circumventing them a little trickier. Sometimes I’d have to camera hop around an area to pick up a digital key off a guard, or sneak in to bypass a physical junction in person. Other times these systems invoke a sort of pipe mini-game, where Marcus must route power to specific junctions to unlock them. These are the most involved of the three, and offered some light puzzling in tight sections that tested both my nerves and problem solving.
There’re also far more fun types of hacking to engage with. Booby trapping power boxes to explode when enemies pass nearby makes a return, but using remotely controlled vehicles to wreak all sorts of mayhem on enemy outposts is sometimes even more rewarding. You can also use these to completely bypass security entirely, and I no sooner started looking for cranes and scissor lifts before tagging guards when approaching a mission. Watch Dogs 2’s level design begs for experimentation in this regard, and offers more than a few ways to approach a situation if you have the patience to scope it out.
The design is also incredibly welcoming of Watch Dogs 2 most important pieces of tech – your drones. With your Jumper for the ground and a Quadcopter for the air, these drones give Marcus an almost unfair advantage in a fight. The Jumper, for example, can pick up and interact with most systems that would otherwise require Marcus to be there in person, while the Quadcopter can set traps, steal access keys and sneak through vents without a care in the world.
Levels are designed to offer more detailed paths for both, and often the most surprising (and rewarding) moments of gameplay come about when you use the two in tandem. There’s something magical about bringing down a entire enemy establishment with Marcus simply sitting on his laptop out front and not even stepping foot inside – a style of gameplay that is not only possible, but deeply encouraged.
Marcus doesn’t last long in a firefight, and that makes sense given that Watch Dogs 2 wants you to play from the shadows rather than the front lines. That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to have to get into the thick of things from time to time, and often it constitutes the weakest parts of the entire formula. Cover-based shooting is just average, with Marcus often sticking too tightly to spots after I’ve attempted to shift to another corner. Shooting is also underwhelming (and incredibly dissonant from the overall narrative), and I often steered as far away from it as I could.
There was just something not right about gunning down police officers as a protagonist who is seeking to save the public from technological slavery. In that instant Marcus and Dedsec become the very things they are seeking to dismantle – enemies of the everyday citizen.
San Francisco itself might also be visually striking (as is most of the game with its warm lighting and high levels of detail), but getting around the massive map was often a chore. Driving, as it was in the previous Watch Dogs, is uneventful, with vehicles lacking any real sense of speed or weight to them. Often, I’d pass the time hacking nearby cars and attempt to get them to swerve into one another, or embrace the robust library of music the on-demand player must offer. Anything to distract me from getting from A to B in such a monotonous manner.
But those sorts of caveats come with the territory in an open-world game, and even more so in a Ubisoft developed. title. What was surprising, however, was the depth of additional side content. Instead of littering the map with collect-athons and throw away content, Watch Dogs 2 offers compelling reasons to stray away from the beaten path. Whether it’s tagging San Francisco in Dedsec graffiti (which makes for compelling parkour challenges), making some extra money with an in-game version of Uber or tying up loose ends in some light narrative driven mission, Watch Dogs 2 makes it difficult to main line the story alone. And it’s something I haven’t really experienced in a Ubisoft title in sometime.
Sticking with distractions is multiplayer – which, if the analogy of the first game being a test is maintained, is just as such a leap forward as the rest of the game. That’s not to say it’s all good though, and one only must look at Ubisoft’s on-going woes with the seamless multiplayer as an indicator of that. Right now, public intrusions into your game are still limited, meaning you’re less likely to have a random player invade and make your life hell. It also means more dynamic Bounty Hunts (a new mode where you help cops capture another player) are also infrequent. A pity, if not for the fact that both aren’t nearly as good as they sound on paper.
Co-operative missions, however, fill this void nicely. Here you’re able to party up with a friend and tackle online specific missions, which usually follow a similar (if not watered down) mold of their single-player counterparts. Of the handful, I played, it usually involved sneaking into an area and collecting information off a laptop or server there, but the methods were greatly enhanced with another hacker at my side. Sneaking past guards while a player controlled drone wreaked havoc on guards and security systems in my path. With the proper co-ordination, it can feel like something out of a choreographed set-piece film sequence, while at other times it’s just a menagerie of errors. In either case, it’s incredible fun.
And if there is one thing you should take away from all of this, it is just that. Watch Dogs 2 at its most basic level is just an incredibly fun game to engage with, and all its systems that it lets you tinker with encourage experimentation to the highest order. It’s still not as revolutionary as you might have liked from the disappointing first title, but it’s a strong change of focus that only make me hopefully for the inevitable future of the franchise. If Watch Dogs as a franchise continues this path or iterative improvement, I seriously can’t imagine what could possibly come next.
Last Updated: November 24, 2016