|Platforms||PC, PS4 (reviewed), XBO|
|Release Date||November 15, 2016|
Watch Dogs 2 is the open-world, hacking game sequel to 2014’s most overhyped game not called Destiny. Changing both setting and protagonist, this time we follow the adventures of hipster-hacker Marcus Holloway and the colourful cast of the San Francisco arm of DedSec. This hacking collective is on a mission to show the world just how messed up ctOS, the software that powers just about everything on the planet, actually is.
Watch Dogs 2 finds itself in the enviable position of being almost entirely free from hype. Its predecessor rode into stores on a crushing wave of marketing and hype so overblown that no single game could have lived up to the lofty expectations placed upon it. Even if it hadn’t come riddled with the problems that it did, it probably still would have been something of a letdown.
So let’s start with the biggest of those problems first – replacing the bland protagonist Aiden Pearce with the youthful and fresh-faced Marcus. The biggest improvement of Watch Dogs 2 is in its lively cast of characters. While Watch Dogs certainly had one or two interesting characters, its protagonist and his journey was incredibly dull and unengaging, taking a played out premise and having a main character who was boring, psychotic and intensely unlikeable.
Enter DedSec 2.0, who you’re acquainted with pretty quickly in one of the games best cutscenes. Watch Dogs 2 shakes off the stuffy, overly serious tones of the first game and replaces them with a sense of humour and fun that was sorely lacking last time around. I quickly grew to like each and every one of the main cast here. Their enjoyment in what they were doing felt infectious, and the way they littered their interactions with nerdy pop culture references won me over.
That’s not to say that I specifically need pop culture references to like a video game character. It certainly helps, but this is a likable cast of hacktivist misfits right from the get go, thanks to some generally solid writing and the very natural interactions they have with one another. And while the tone is generally light throughout, when the game goes for the drama it works because these are characters I like. It’s almost like Watch Dogs 2 has figured out some arcane secret that I will generally care more about likable characters than arseholes. Weird that.
Almost everything else in Watch Dogs 2 is fairly similar to the original, albeit improved across the board. The narrative is largely the same – hacktivists go on a mission to take down the evil corporation that has built the operating system that the smart city runs on. Except instead of going on a series of killing sprees avenging dead family members (and putting live family members in danger like a prick), Marcus and crew fight political corruption, corporate greed, cult-like religious movements and other boogeymen.
Watch Dogs 2’s narrative works a lot better because its characters are trying to do the right things for the right reasons, which is a heck of a lot easier to sympathise with. I mean, as long as you stick to nonlethal gameplay. You have the option of using guns and killing your enemies, but doing so feels strangely wrong. Going on murder sprees against gangs, private security and cops goes against the themes and message of the actual story. I get why the option exists, and I personally never actually used it (outside of testing the mechanics in one mission for reviewing purposes), but the game might have benefitted if the option were removed altogether.
The city of San Francisco almost doubles as another member of the main cast. As opposed to the setting of the original Watch Dogs (and other open-world games I could name) it’s bursting with life. The way NPCs will interact with you, each other and the world in general is a delight. Gangs will engage each other, and law enforcement, in combat if they encounter each other, doing so completely independently of whether you’re anywhere near them or not. I once saw two people start fighting on the street, got beaten up by a middle-aged woman for parking in the middle of the road and got photobombed while taking a selfie.
As this is a Ubisoft game, San Francisco is also bursting at the seams with things to do and collect. While it can get overwhelming, as in any open-world game from Ubi at this point, most everything you can do or collect matters. Side missions feel important thanks to being given almost equal footing with main missions. They have multiple parts to them, fully voiced cutscenes, self-contained narratives and fairly substantial rewards for completing them. And a lot of them are genuinely entertaining to play through in their own right.
The most satisfying part of Watch Dogs 2 is to be found in its core gameplay loop. It’s largely retained from the original, whose gameplay was pretty great, but with all the right tweaks and improvements to result in something excellent. At its most basic level this is still a third-person, cover-based game, but hacking is the main meat of the gameplay. Thanks to the proliferation of ctOS and San Francisco’s status as a smart city there are hacking opportunities all around you. Luckily, hacking is excellent.
Thanks to a robust game design, Watch Dogs 2 has multiple, genuinely different avenues of approach to its gameplay. The game helpfully segments these into three different play styles. There’s the action-heavy, all guns blazing Aggressor, the pure stealth Ghost and Trickster, which is all about manipulating the world around you to confuse enemies. These three play styles correspond to abilities you can unlock that help you tailor Marcus to your preferred type of play.
There are some great abilities available to you as you progress through the game. At first you’ll unlock basic skills, such as using enemies’ phones to momentarily distract them or being able to remotely control cars. By collecting Key Data hidden throughout San Francisco you’ll be able to unlock more advanced abilities which are even more fun to use, if a bit overpowered in some cases. Being able to unleash a mass distraction on every enemy in sight allowed me to run through otherwise challenging late game areas. My personal favourite: calling the cops on unsuspecting targets.
Marcus also has access to two incredibly useful gadgets – the RC Jumper and the Quadcopter (the latter of which you’ll need to purchase from a 3D printer at the DedSec home base). These are remote controlled gadgets that can reach places Marcus can’t, scout areas or sometimes be used entirely in Marcus’ stead to complete entire missions. The Jumper can hack physical ports, use vents and small spaces and be upgraded to taunt and distract enemies. The Quadcopter can give you an overview of any area and mark targets, as well as hack anything out of reach.
Also aiding Marcus in his quest is his very own style of detective vision. With a quick click of the analogue stick you’ll be able to switch to hacker vision, which helps highlight enemies and environmental objects that can be hacked. Driving also makes a return. It’s decent enough without every really feeling slick, though this isn’t a massive problem as you’ll spend most of your time fast travelling around the map. Cop chases are still as infuriating as they were previously, however, but there are mercifully few mandatory ones this time around.
All of this combines with the third-person gameplay to create a series of missions that are very much like self-contained puzzles. You approach an area and have to reach an objective that is surrounded by enemies and hackable environmental objects. Everything that happens in between is up to you and there is a huge amount of depth to the variety of ways you can tackle them. Each approach is legitimate and there’s no real weak link in the gameplay. Sneaking through a level completely unseen is just as much fun as going in guns blazing.
Watch Dogs 2 also comes packed with a Dark Souls-like multiplayer system, where you can invade other players games, or be invaded in turn. At any given moment you’ll be notified by one of your DedSec friends that your data is being hacked and you’ll need to find the attacking player, hidden amongst the NPCs around you, and neutralise them quickly. It’s a fun system that generally shakes things up, though it can be quite annoying to have to drop everything when you’re trying to solve a puzzle or complete a mission.
Watch Dogs 2 is a massive step forward for the series, as well as being a damn fine open-world game in its own right. It fixes the majority of the problems that plagued the original thanks to more robust gameplay, a better story that doesn’t take itself too seriously and a cast of incredibly likeable nerds. All play styles are catered for here, thanks to the myriad of potential approaches to any given situation and a levelling system designed around tailoring Marcus to however you want to play the game, and some excellent level design. As with all open-world Ubi games, the city is littered with things to do, see and collect, however very little feels superfluous. Side missions feel like they matter, the smaller chunks of side activities are fun and the open-world collectibles generally have actual impact on your character progression. All in all Watch Dogs 2 is an excellent game and a positive step forward for the franchise.
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