The original Watch Dogs was a polarising game. Personally, I thought it was fantastic, but it was massively crippled by Ubisoft’s antics and the fact that the main protagonist had as much personality as a wet piece of cardboard. The ideas were solid and the base for a wonderful franchise was strongly established. With Watch Dogs 2, Ubisoft took all of our criticisms into account and went to task creating a game that is equal parts interesting and captivating. We move from the dreary Chicago to the colourful streets of San Francisco in this instalment and the shift of setting also comes with a shift of tone.
Watch Dogs 2 follows the story of Marcus Holloway, a gifted hacker with the aim of changing how the world thinks about their technological overlords. He decides to join the hactivist group, Dedsec, who aims to expose the corruption and injustices of the world. Here is where we see the massive tonal shift that the game undergoes that sets it well apart from the original game. In the original, the story was driven by revenge with a gravelly voiced protagonist mumbling about justice and feeling sorry for himself. In Watch Dogs 2, however, the game is about a ragtag group of hackers that want to build a following by exposing various shadow organisations and corrupt individuals, and having fun while doing it. The game is extremely jovial. Marcus is a wonderful protagonist that is dripping with personality, flavour and charm. He genuinely feels like he’s enjoying what he does and believing in the cause that the hacker group wants to achieve. The other characters in your crew follow the same trajectory with them having their own distinct and interesting personalities. The bunch of them make jokes, talk about “nerdy” stuff and seem like they’re having a wonderful time while overthrowing huge international powers and seeking the truth.
[pullquote_right]The game has made me smile with some of its more kooky moments while also having some hard-hitting instances that break away from the lighter tone. [/pullquote_right]The narrative for the game is structured in a way where there isn’t one core story running throughout, but a number of smaller ones. Dedsec’s ultimate goal is to gain more followers that give them access to their processing power so that they can do more elaborate hacks. In order to do this, the team takes on a bunch of corporations, participate in smaller operations and find any way they can to get themselves into the public eye. At the start of the game, you just do a bunch of almost juvenile stunts and small operations, but as the game goes on, these operations become a lot more elaborate and some resistance to your efforts gets applied as well. Because of this, the game is absolutely full of wonderful moments and interesting setpieces. The game has made me smile with some of its more kooky moments while also having some hard-hitting instances that break away from the lighter tone. It is a brilliant equilibrium and one that makes for a fantastic experience. Not once in the game did I think that whatever task I was doing was dumb and pointless, or getting boring. Each mission was a new micro story to experience with captivating dialogue, tons of personality and fun moments.
The lighter tone goes along with San Francisco as a setting for the game. The city is colourful, it is eclectic and it is alive in more ways than one. You’ll find street gangs roaming more decrepit neighbourhoods and yuppy tech employees occupying the insufferably garishly colourful streets of Silicon Valley. The city has its own distinct personality that makes you want to roam around the various landmarks and take in the sights.
The only problem I had with the game’s story and overall feel is the incredible ludonarrative dissonance. I know those two words are a bit complicated to process and make me sound like a sour movie critic stirring his wine, but allow me to explain. The game is incredibly light and jovial, yet the things you do in missions are sometimes far from that, with the game not even acknowledging it in any way. Marcus can go up to a bunch of normal security guards and murder them in cold blood just to get a file from some server. Afterwards, you have a funny little chat with your team members about some pop culture thing and everyone is laughing and having a good time. Killing people in this game just felt wrong. Thankfully the game allows you to be more stealthy and tricky, but it could honestly have removed lethal guns from the game and be better for it. Guns feel like a lazy implementation that serve to stifle the creativity of the player and it doesn’t fit with the overall tone of the game whatsoever. This might be an overly personal thing and some won’t even care, but it really did sour the experience somewhat.
[pullquote_left]I have done entire missions with huge combat scenarios where I’ve just flown around with my drone and knocked people out or caused havoc through the hackable objects littered across the area.[/pullquote_left]Make no mistake, Watch Dogs 2 is still very much about hacking. However, they’ve changed things up quite considerably. In the original, hacking was mostly limited to single button presses and there wasn’t a lot that you could do in order to take advantage of your omniscient technological power. Watch Dogs 2, on the other hand, gives a lot more freedom in your choice of hacking. Each hackable object now has options attached to it. You can set up a proximity field on a hazard that will trigger when enemies step inside it, you can cause cars to drive in whichever cardinal direction you choose remotely and there are many more avenues that you can use within a scenario. There is also the inclusion of gadgets that give the game a whole new feel. You get a little RC car that you control that can hack into physical objects and scope out an area and, my personal favourite, a drone that you can fly around remotely. The drone, in particular, is incredibly powerful because you have the manoeuvrability to go into any area you want and remotely access devices via the drone. I have done entire missions with huge combat scenarios where I’ve just flown around with my drone and knocked people out or caused havoc through the hackable objects littered across the area. It’s a whole different ballgame when you hack a truck via a drone to barrel into a bunch of explosives that take out a cluster of enemies. And it’s always satisfying.
The thing about Watch Dogs 2’s gameplay is that it gives you options. You can go in guns blazing and just shoot the living hell out of everyone, you can try and knock everyone out and sneak through and if you’re skilled enough, you can even just sneak through an entire encounter unseen by just being clever. I once got through an entire scenario unscathed and unnoticed by hacking a crane, sitting on its platform, taking myself to the target area, distract a bunch of guards and getting what I needed. It’s that creativity that makes Watch Dogs 2‘s gameplay engaging. Each encounter plays out like a puzzle for you to solve. You see the avenues that are available to you, make a plan and execute it. In a way, it plays out like a premier stealth game such as Dishonored or Hitman where you need to read your environment and make decisions on the fly. You can burst in and shoot everyone, but it’s not how the game should be played if you want to enjoy it. Besides that, the gunplay in the game isn’t really that good to begin with. It feels dated and unsatisfying, which also lends further credence to my earlier statement that guns should have just been culled from the start.
The combat and scenarios do run the risk of being a little repetitive after a while. During some of the later missions, I felt like I was just going through the motions by doing strategies I have done before. It still remains interesting because each scenario plays out differently and in a new environment, but the methods used don’t change. You get upgrade points by completing missions and gaining followers and once you have a grand majority of skills, you aren’t inclined to be more creative with your approaches. However, the gameplay as a whole will keep you entertained for the duration of the game.
Wake me up in San Francisco
Since this is an open-world Ubisoft game, you can bet that there’s a ton to do in Watch Dogs 2. However, Ubisoft open-world games suffer the problem of being bloated with a bunch of fluff that’s not all too interesting to take part in. Watch Dogs 2 sets itself apart from the curse in some ways by making the activities completely optional. They aren’t necessary to progress and only serve to give you more followers to level up and money to buy new gear. Added to that, a lot of the “barrier” stuff that Ubisoft is known for isn’t around. There are no radio towers to scale to reveal the map or some dumb activities that you have to do in order to progress the story. Most of these activities are designed with the intention of just having fun. You can go race motocross bikes and go-karts, find hallmarks and take selfies in front of them, use the game’s version of Uber and do missions for some interesting characters or just walk around and hack people’s bank accounts. They’re a plethora of things that you can potentially do in the world and while some of them aren’t necessarily entertaining or engaging on the level of the main story, they are still welcome diversions.
You can also hop online if you want to cause mayhem with somebody else. There’s a bunch of modes and missions that you can potentially participate in. The game also has co-op now which can be a fun and goofy time where you take on missions with a buddy and do some interesting strategies. The multiplayer isn’t essential to the experience and you can play the game without even knowing it’s there, but it’s still a nice distraction that you can do. Unfortunately Ubisoft was still struggling with the seamless multiplayer during the time of this review so I cannot comment on the quality of that.
From a visual standpoint, Watch Dogs 2 is both sublime and confusing. The vistas, the saturated colours and the personality of San Francisco are a joy to behold. You will find yourself snapping pictures and marvelling as you explore the city. The confusing part is how some assets feel almost cartoony. The cars look like plastic and the weapons feel like Fisher-Price toys. Some character models aren’t the best and compared to some other open-world titles out there, Watch Dogs 2 looks somewhat inferior. It excels in its art direction, however, with the garish and silly art of Dedsec being beautifully crafted and the ambience of the city with the graffiti and bright colours making it a joy to look at.
Hacked itself right into my heart
Watch Dogs 2 can almost be seen as an homage to gamers and gaming in general. Ubisoft listened to the problems that people had with the original and endeavoured to make everything better. The game is centred around fun above all else. The characters are incredibly likeable with their millennial ways, funny quips and almost family-like reverence for each other. Marcus Holloway is in a different universe than Aiden Pierce in terms of personality and it’s a pleasure to be in his shoes as he hops around the beautifully weird San Francisco. It’s also the little touches that the game gets right. Marcus does elaborate parkour stunts on occasion as you climb around stuff just because it looks and feels cool. The tiny snippets of conversation between characters make you feel like you’re part of something wonderful and just. Each mission is a treasure trove of fantastic experiences and quaint moments. The gameplay makes you think creatively and out of the box. It has tremendous value for money with the main story being incredibly vast with the added side activities also keeping you around for longer.
It is, simply put, a great game.
It sometimes struggles with its messages being a little left-field and the “hacker culture” trope being a bit more exaggerated than it should have been, but that doesn’t really matter because you’ll be having such a great time playing it that it will fall into the background. You might even adjust to it and like it. I wanted Watch Dogs 2 to be a continuation of the great ideas they had in the original while making a better experience. My expectations were exceeded. This is definitely worth your time and money.