November 14, 2016
I hated the first Watch Dogs game - I found it derivative, soulless and boring. Every character was loathsome, the writing felt designed by committee and even the hacking side of things was pretty dull, really. Not a good start for a game about hacktivism, right? Luckily Watch Dogs 2 corrects all of those faults, and does it with a wry smile and a cheeky wink. Ubisoft’s newest effort is a self-aware romp through hacker life, pitching you (Marcus Holloway) and your DedSec pals against every culture and counterculture you’d expect an anarchist group like your ragtag bunch of friends to run into in real life.
Let’s start with the story - what starts off as a pretty light-hearted exploration of the cyber-side of San Francisco soon becomes a more sinister tale laced with threat and a pretty anti-globalist message. Marcus’ light-hearted approach to most things and his incessant banter takes the edge off of what could very easily have been another grim and serious tale about script kids-gone-wild - the few times the game does bust out the whole ‘omg we’re all sheeple’ sentiment, it’s done lightly. Watch Dogs 2 never tries to ram some kind of ideology down your throat, and that makes it immediately better than the prequel.
I was expecting to loathe the main cast, too: a quick look at them conjures up thoughts of all the most pretentious hipster berks you’d bump into around Camden or something… but they’re actually remarkably likable. Each member of the cast is rounded out wonderfully, their flaws as much a part of their makeup as their strengths, and the feeling of camaraderie and unity that’s imparted simply by their incidental dialogue is admirable.
I relished every opportunity I had to go back to our hackerspace(s) to meet up with Josh, Wrench, Horatio and Sitara because - simply - they were so fun. Every mission brief was riddled with jokes, every cutscene brimming with personality; whether it was Josh’s aloof comments or Wrench’s ridiculous (but goddamn endearing) emoji mask.
I had such a connection with this motley crew that when other characters started taking their personalities apart later on, I felt personally motivated to go take ‘em down - ‘no one talks about my friends like that!’. Game objective or not, I was on a rampage. Kudos to Ubisoft for scripting a cast I give that much of a shit about.
All the narrative japery is tied together with a very strong mechanical base, too: the hacking mechanics sit nicely at the centre of this game, and feel far, far more responsive than in the first title. They’re more intuitive, too - simply driving around and hitting L1/LB on context-sensitive vehicles will clear the road for you (if you get the timing right) and distracting/manipulating hostile forces becomes second nature after as little as an hour or two with the game.
A lot of the hacking mechanics are hidden behind a pretty severe level-up system - main operations will level you up quickly, and side ops are a little more grindy (especially at later levels). It’s a shame, because a lot of the game is locked behind some of these upgrade nodes: you can make your aerial drone and your RC drone mobile bomb deployment units… but not until much later. You can instigate gang wars or entrench the police against rival hacker blocs… but only later on.
The system is as good a motivation as any to progress, but sometimes I found myself wishing for a few more options than I had, especially early game. This might have been because I played through the whole thing non-lethal, though (Marcus just didn’t feel like a killer to me, you know?) - if I went into every firefight wielding the pretty extensive armory I had open to me, things might have been easier. But his personality was so well realised that I never wanted to break out of that character myself.
Consequently, there was a lot of sneaking about and remote hacking. Watch Dogs 2 places a lot of importance on stealth, but unfortunately doesn't pull it off too well… some AI patterns are outright weird, and I still frankly have no idea how line of sight actually works in the game (multiple times I was hiding in a door and a security officer was looking at me… but not seeing me).
That aside, the missions are at least designed well, and the pace at which the game introduces new tactics to you is satisfying - Watch Dogs 2 is a lot longer than we thought, and the breadth and depth of side missions on offer demonstrate great value for money, really. That’s the good thing about sandboxes: once they give you most of the tools you need to explore a world, you can just go off and entertain yourself. Watch Dogs 2 gives you ample opportunity to do that, and you know what? There’s not a single ‘Ubisoft tower’ in sight, either.
There are collectibles, though. They come in the form of upgrade points, too, which is… interesting. If you dedicate yourself to exploration and discovery, you could probably uncover enough points to level up quite early on… it’s just that every single one of these hidden caches is a real pain to find. Again, it shows off Ubisoft’s tenacity when it comes to keeping you busy, but I gave up on a number of these nodes after searching for a few minutes because I was getting frustrated. Locating, collecting or hacking each of these points is a mini-puzzle in and of itself, and it’s all designed to keep you busy if you want to venture from the main story.
It might distress some players to know the driving still isn't’ up to par with other open world games (name drop GTA and Saints Row here) and there’s still a lot of it between objectives, too. Upgrading your vehicular hacking skills offsets that somewhat, but it can be frustrating at times - especially when you end up in one of the smaller, less nippy cars that handles like a tugboat. I also found the gunplay and shooting pretty unsatisfying… until I levelled it up almost all the way.
When I did get into combat, I usually opted for deploying stun mines with my drones and stunning enemy forces before closing in: the game accommodates that tactic, but it’d also let you get up close and personal if you wanted, or entrench yourself in firefights. It’s impressive to see how each section of each level bends to all of these options, and possibly my favourite part of the game was getting to a new area and examining all the tools that would be at my disposal from hereon out.
Story missions usually end in some kind of hacking puzzle, too - increasingly complex setups that require you to reroute power from one place to another, twizzling junctions to make sure everything aligns. These are universally fantastic: sometimes you’re timed on them, and once you get over the initial ‘ahh!’ factor, the pressure is pretty exhilarating… maybe Marcus’ endless exuberance is rubbing off on us.
It’s worth mentioning that the multiplayer aspect of the game was taken offline for our review - but we did manage to get some time with it before it was severed. It adds a lot to the experience if you’ve got friends to play with, and occasional derailments to go and take out a hacker in your game are welcomed (especially since this all adds to your ‘follower count’, or level) but to be honest we see Watch Dogs 2 as a primarily single-player experience, anyway: the co-op elements are fun - especially for sandbox craziness - but the fact you can’t play through main story beats or do anything more than a few side objectives in multiplayer makes it more of a cool add-on than essential to the game.
Overall Watch Dogs 2 is a marked step-up from its predecessor; a deceptively deep game that throws out everything that didn’t work in the first game and replaces it with a much fresher, cooler aesthetic. Watch Dogs 2 is a colourful and upbeat game, a project that eases you through a campaign that seems so initially shapeless but tightens up so well that we’d be inclined to say this is the best Ubisoft game since Assassin’s Creed II: it demonstrates all the underlying creativity Ubisoft has always had, but without all the gumpf that has for so long been synonymous with Ubisoft open worlds… Watch Dogs 2 is a clean, focused game that - more than anything - seems bent on you having fun. And in the context of its world and ours, that’s massively important.
The soundtrack isn’t as varied or impressive as something like GTA, but driving is usually so stop-start you don’t get to appreciate the radios anyway. The voice cast is wonderful and believable, but it’s the game’s native OST that really blew me away - the minimalist electronic vibe really suits the whole undercover hacking aesthetic.
This is a pretty game, for the most part. A couple of textures were kinda buggy and we had a few pop-in glitches, but largely Watch Dogs 2 commits to an art style and carries it remarkably well. The motion-capture and facial animations deserve a special mention here, too.
I never tired of things to do in the game. Ever. Even towards the end of the game when I was barreling through the campaign, ignoring the side stuff, the pace and rhythm of the missions was varied enough to keep me on-board.
Some stunted progression concerns aside, the game works to keep your attention and give you things to do to make sure you don’t just wander off and forget about it. The phone-based UI is slick, the handling is massively improved since the last one, and the story is told excellently.
There are a couple of ‘100% completion’ style things in the list, but for the most part the trophies and achievements are inventive and fun - generous rewards for progressing through the story, and smart little bonuses for taking part in the online and side ops. Hope you like boat racing!
Watch Dogs 2 is a game that wants to take you on a whistlestop tour of San Francisco’s not-so-hidden underbelly. For a game with a central cast of disenfranchised youths, I found it oddly relatable and compelling. Every bone in my body ached for me to hate DedSec, but instead I totally fell in with them and everything they were about. Marcus Holloway is to Watch Dogs what Ezio Auditore was to Assassin’s Creed: the symbol of a new era, the mascot of a franchise that has proved it shouldn’t be judged on first impressions, that has proved it can move with the times. It’s a strong, smart game that never takes itself too seriously, and the result is pretty special.