Despite mostly positive reviews you would think Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs was a travesty.
Amidst cries of “downgraded” graphics, a rote campaign and an entirely too morose lead character, people seem to have forgotten that Watch Dogs was actually a pretty solid game. It controlled well, introduced a fun, easy to use hacking mechanic and a fresh approach to multiplayer. All in all, it was a solid foundation for Ubisoft to build upon for their sequel, Watch Dogs 2. Despite my enjoyment of the first game, there was definitely room for improvement and in most ways that count, Watch Dogs 2 delivers just that – even if not in a drastic way.
The most noticeable improvement is in the story. Not held down by a tragic murder of a child and a brooding protagonist, Watch Dogs 2 approaches things in the completely opposite way. Much more light-hearted, humorous and vibrant, it doesn’t take itself all that seriously, taking a page out of the GTA satire playbook by poking fun at Google, Facebook, Instagram and a host of other modern internet and pop culture pillars. Ubisoft even make fun of themselves in some really amusing ways; especially if you’ve followed the gaming news cycles for the past four Assassin’s Creed games.
Instead of Aiden Pierce, Watch Dogs 2 gives us Marcus Holloway. As a young, intelligent, and most importantly, charasmatic hacker, Marcus joins up with hacker group and Anonymous stand-in, DedSec, to take down Blume and their ctOS (Central Operating System) which uses everyone’s internet connection to gather information, influence and manipulate them. Blume’s CTO, Dusan, is a man-bun having, yoga doing d-bag who’s constantly trying to stop DedSec and serves as the perfect antagonist for the tone Watch Dogs 2 is going for. It’s all pretty ridiculous – save for a moment relatively early in the game which changes the tone drastically. It’s a bit jarring and for the hour or so after, it works, but eventually the game reverts back to its lighthearted tone. The game teeters into darker tonal shifts afterwards, and some side missions go to much more taboo places. It’s a bit uneven, but still enjoyable and far less predictable that the narrative in the first game. Marcus being an excellent lead character makes these shifts in tone much more palatable.
Adding to the overall lighter tone is the setting of the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Much brighter and more diverse than the drab grey pallette of Chicago, San Francisco is a much more fun and vibrant world to explore. From the city iconic hills of San Francisco to the laid back tech-obsessed Silicon Valley, there is always something to see and engage in if you’re looking. The city feels alive thanks to very clever – and often incredibly entertaining – NPC behaviour. I’ve witnessed jealous lovers smash their significant other’s car, gang warfare break out in the middle of the street, a streaker; I’ve even watched a stripper walk out of a strip club, topless and pull out her cellphone and continue down the street while men and women stopped conversations they were having to look at her and comment as she walked by without a care in the world. I even witnessed a man hit his girlfriend and as she ran away crying I used my phone to frame the man with a gang who drove up and shot him dead. Another neat little thing NPCs have done is stick up for their own. I punched a dude who mouthed off to me and immediately people can running up to shove and yell at me. It’s a small thing without any real consequence, but it went a long way to making the world feel alive and lived in.
All of the fun things I witnessed in Watch Dogs wouldn’t mean much if the game wasn’t fun to play and offered varied things to do. While Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t come close to matching the breadth of things one can do in Grand Theft Auto V, there is still plenty to enjoy and do in terms of gameplay. Between standard activities such as races, graffiti and finding collectibles, there are also side missions that expand as you interact with designated NPCs in the world. They, in turn, point you in a new direction that reveals itself to be much more expansive when you pursue this new line of activities. For example, hacking someone’s phone leads to finding out someone is using the DedSec name to SWAT people (calling the cops on people saying they’re dangerous when they’re not). Once you’ve completed the trail you have a chance to turn the tables.
Watch Dogs 2 employs a similar levelling mechanic to Watch Dogs, in that it gives you access to more abilities in combat and hacking such as steadier aim when using scoped weapons or being able to cause a black out, allowing you to move stealthily through an area heavily populated by enemies. Instead of traditional XP and skill points, you have to use “research points” to to acquire these new skills. Research points are earned by gathering followers, and can also be found in hidden locations around the world. The number of points you get increases as you level up, and followers are earned by completing missions, taking part in activities or by taking selfies at landmark locations and posting them to the in game social media app.
The more you level up, the more options are available to you for missions and encounters. From using a remote controlled “car” that can go into vents and hack terminals, to a mini-quadcopter drone that can hack high up ctOS towers and devices to calling in cops on enemies to have them arrested or give chase or just plain old blowing up the environment, there are a lot of ways to approach any situation. Personally, I preferred stealth, but in the beginning sections of the game, it was much more difficult, often turning into a situation where one man armed with only a stun gun has to survive a gauntlet of bad guys who shoot deadly bullets. Admittedly it wasn’t pretty, but when I started unlocking more abilities, I became a ninja that could get in and out of locations, mission accomplished, without ever being seen. Watch Dogs 2 does a really good job making me feel empowered through technology.
Of course there is still the ability to hack the city’s infrastructure during car chases, causing your pursuer to crash by changing a traffic light at the right time or causing a sewer to explode with a trap. There seem to be fewer options for this than in the previous game, but also unlike the previous game, driving feels great from the start; if you had a complaint about the driving in the first game, you’ll likely find Watch Dogs 2 much more enjoyable in that respect.
Navigation is also much improved on foot. By simply holding the right trigger as you approach a ledge or obstacle, you will leap over (or up/down) instantly and smoothly. The parkour aspect works really well, especially in high risk escapes and can lend to a great highlight reel.
In case you don’t want to drive or run everywhere, you can use the fast travel system that is open to you from the start of the game. While limited to locations like stores, bars, pawnshops and HQ, most missions are close enough to a local fast travel spot that it makes getting to mission starts much more pleasurable than in games like Mafia III which don’t offer any fast travel options. I can’t even begin to explain how relieved I was to have access to the entire map from the start of the game. I wish more open world games would employ this.
The multiplayer and co-op features are definitely worth a mention. Online multiplayer, despite its rocky (i.e. non-existent) launch, offers a similar experience, to Watch Dogs, allowing you to hack into others’ games and generally mess up their mojo. It’s a fun distraction from the main bulk of missions, although as in the first game it can get irritating if you’re midway through a task and suddenly get interrupted. Hey, such is the life of a hacker (but you can turn off online functionality if you’d prefer to just buckle down). The co-op, on the other hand, is a very nice addition to an otherwise stellar experience. Whilst not all missions can be completed with a fellow comrade, many of the side missions can – and running around San Francisco with a buddy in tow opens up new experiences, opportunities to play out some cunning double-team plans and just generally adds a new layer of entertainment to the game.
The presentation in Watch Dogs 2 is excellent as well. Visually well designed, animated and textured, the game looks gorgeous. Everything is highly detailed and vibrant. Cut scenes are well animated, acted and synced giving the characters a sense of realism that is welcome relief from the stiff and awkwardly dour first game. The sound is on another level, however, from the aforementioned voice acting to the ambient dialogue of the NPCs, to the stellar soundtrack, Watch Dogs 2 is a joy to listen to. My highlight is breaking into a campaign party while Erik B and Rakim’s ‘Don’t Sweat the Technique’ played. Another involved destroying rigged voter booths to CCR’s ‘Fortunate Son’. Great stuff.
It’s not all perfect, however; one decision really left a blemish on the game for me. The ability to “NetHack” allows you to hack cameras and see enemies through walls. The only problem is, when active, the world goes into a nigh colourless state with a static filter over it. At certain points it’s more viable to remain in this mode when trying to be stealthy, which takes away the vibrant detail of the world and animations. It’s certainly not a game-breaker, but took something of the experience away. I should also note that while it’s cool that you can 3D print guns, the lack of silenced sniper rifle was also a bummer.
Watch Dogs 2 is definitely a better game than its predecessor in nearly every way. It doesn’t feel like a leap ahead many have come to expect from Ubisoft sequels going all the way back to Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Rainbow Six Vegas, Assassin’s Creed 2 and Far Cry 3, but instead it’s a very good game that taps some of its potential. The tone shifts could leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths but overall, any negatives are minor and far outweighed by the sheer amount of fun that can be had in this vibrant and exciting world.