Back in 2014, Ubisoft tried its hand at a more traditional Grant Theft Auto-style open-world title with Watch Dogs. For a first shot, it was a pretty good one. Two years later, Ubisoft Montreal is back, building on that foundation.
Watch Dogs 2 moves the action from the gloomy city of Chicago to the bright and sunny shores of San Francisco. It's not just the color scheme; the combined areas of San Francisco, Oakland, and Silicon Valley are topographically more interesting than Chicago was. Watch Dogs 2 also replaces the dour Aiden Pierce with the considerably more upbeat Marcus Holloway. Both of these are positive changes and in general the tone of the game is far more upbeat and youthful.
Early on, Marcus joins the hacker collective DedSec and part of Watch Dogs 2 is all about the tight-knit crew of Sitara, Wrench, Josh, and Horatio, pulling hacks and pranks to stick it to the man and raise the profile of DedSec. Their designs feel a bit too tryhard, but I warmed up to them rather quickly. There's a strong sense of camaraderie and curiosity in this new Watch Dogs, as the crew poke and prod at things that interest them, avoid the police, and have some fun.
Even the primary villain, Dusan Nemic, is a trip; a calm, collected CEO who does yoga and wears a man bun. You want to hate him, but the guy is just so damned chill. Watch Dogs 2's framing is simply more enjoyable than Aiden's quest of pure revenge. Since that was the worst part of the first game, I'm glad Ubisoft has addressed it.
In the name of fun, Ubisoft Montreal has also rejiggered what you could call the Ubisoft open-world formula. There are no towers to climb, no fog of war to slowly clear. You can fast travel to any of three DedSec headquarters and any shop around the map anytime you want with no penalty. The entire world is open to you right from the beginning.
Since you no longer open up the map, the mission structure of Watch Dogs 2 had to adjust to compensate. Main operations, missions related directly to the game's critical path, are given to you automatically. The same is true of the online operations, which are system-generated missions that can be completed by yourself or with a co-op partner. Then there are side operations, which you find out in the world by using Watch Dogs 2's Detective Vision, the NetHack view.
The real world is bright, but NetHack is grainy, grayscale view of the world that highlights useful objects in color. Blue objects are anything that you can hack, Red objects denote enemies and objects that are locked from hacking, and orange objects show you objectives and provide intel for new side missions. You can only use NetHack while on foot, so it pays to get out of the car when you ride into a new district of the city, just to see what's out there. Finishing missions increases the number of DedSec followers, which gives you Research Points to unlock new hacks.
Watch Dogs 2 is still an open-world collectathon and there are other things you can do around the city, but they're not shoved in your face. Free Research Points and Key Data, both needed to learn new hacking abilities, will pop up on your map when you drive by them. Likewise, Drone, Motocross, and Sailboat Race will make themselves apparent. There's even a series of small Uber-like mini-games that have to ferrying clients around or fulfilling their driving requests. It's all there if you want to tackle it to up your follower count, but I'm surprised and pleased at how much restraint Ubisoft Montreal is showing in not pushing them on the player.
Driving has also been vastly improved. It's a joy to drive around in Watch Dogs 2, providing you have a sufficiently fast car. Everything just handles so well. It feels like we're more on the arcade side of driving, instead of the hard simulation side. Marcus himself is also more mobile, far closer to the movement found in Assassin's Creed. No, he can't scale every surface, but he can run, jump, and parkour nearly as well.
It's a shame that certain other aspects don't match the quality of the game's traversal mechanics. Stealth is about as good as the first Watch Dogs, meaning it's simply passable. The cover-based stealth system could use another pass; I found sometimes I would stick to cover that I didn't want to and vice-versa. It's not bad, but given the improvements in driving, I would've liked to see the same here.
Shooting and melee combat don't feel great. Aiming a weapon feels floaty, the gun and melee combat lack impact. The melee impact problem comes down to sound design; a billiard ball hitting a body should sound more painful. The guns have the same issue, lacking an audible kick and the damage never feels all that meaty. Perhaps it's because I'm coming to Watch Dogs 2 from Mafia 3, which had much stronger gunplay than Watch Dogs or Grand Theft Auto V. In a post-Mafia 3 world, developers can and should do better with gun combat.
Given the fact that melee and gunplay lack weight, Watch Dogs 2 ends up being a slow burn of a game. Hacking is where the real meat of the game lies. The hacking has been beefed up with more hacking options and abilities, but many of those abilities are locked behind the Research Point leveling system. You can control fork lifts and cranes, but that has to be unlocked. The same is true for remotely driving cars, the automatic-takedown system, creating a distraction using cell phones, or calling gangs/police down upon your chosen target.
This removal of initial ability makes sense for two reasons. One, the new hacking system is somewhat complex; early on I found myself forgetting what a certain icon would do in the heat of a chase or combat. Two, the general range of your hacking abilities have improved. Like before, you can hack through cameras, but you also have the Jumper and Quadcopter, two drones that you can remote-control to gain access into certain areas. Frequently, red objects in NetHack view have to be physically hacked, requiring you to drive or fly a drone into a duct or some other inaccessible place. With the enhancements in Marcus' overall hacking range, the game had to slow the power curve somehow.
It's when you start unlocking more abilities that Watch Dogs 2 begins to take off. Slowly stealthing your way through a complex isn't as fun as turning power transformers into shocking proximity mines. Or calling the police on a guard as a distraction. Or driving the vehicle containing your objective calmly out of the danger zone. Or ending a chase by causing your target to run off the road remotely. Or, or, or.
It's the options that make Watch Dogs 2 fun. The more hacking abilities you have, the more ways that you can truly ruin someone's day. Unlocking abilities takes Watch Dogs 2 from a game that I thought was alright early in my playtime, to one that I really jam with.
Initially, Watch Dogs 2's core quintet of characters didn't really resonate with me. They just seemed like overly stylized, shallow caricatures driven by a superficial desire for self-promotion and notoriety; rebels without a cause, so to speak. What didn't help is that early missions feel more like stunts and pranks where you're making mischief almost for the sake of it. Sure, they're fun, but it made me wonder where the game's plot was leading me, and had me questioning the characters' motives.
However, as the story begins to unfold, and the cast's idiosyncrasies are fleshed out into engaging and likeable characteristics, the driving force behind DedSec comes into focus. The hacker collective is basically railing against San Francisco's new, upgraded ctOS system, a sinister spin on the Internet of Things that connects all technologies in the name of ease and convenience, but at a cost of individual privacy. Every activity facilitated by these technologies is logged and aggregated to create individual consumer behavioral profiles, and big corporations are using this data for nefarious means. It's a world not far from our own, and a scenario that gives rise to questions about Big Data and how it might impact our society and personal freedom.
These issues are explored through the characters' dialog, and via visually arresting, intermission videos that represent DedSec's statements on their actions, and the group's point of view on ctOS and its affects on the people that use it. These help give the game a cautionary theme on the potential evils of corporately-controlled, persistently-connected technology that was touched on in the original Watch Dogs, but not particularly well articulated. Beyond technology, Watch Dogs 2 also references such subjects as the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, and politicians leveraging social media to promote manipulated "truths." It sounds like heavy stuff, but for the most part, these issues are tackled in a good-natured and often satirical way, managing to strike the right balance between being thought-provoking, but not overly politicized.
However, while it brings up some interesting topical perspectives on technology and society, the game's main focus is on what can happen when huge corporations leverage personal data in pursuit of power and a boosted bottom line. It essentially positions big companies as the villains, and DedSec as a modern day equivalent of Robin Hood and his Merry Men; lowly underdogs fighting a just cause. It's a slow-burn story that takes its time to build momentum, but once it gets going, it becomes quite compelling, sucking you into a fanciful underground world filled with colorful characters and entertaining situations.
Watch Dogs 2's representation of the Bay Area is very well conceived and observed. Having been a resident of San Francisco for almost 20 years, I'm really impressed with the way that the game's expansive environment captures the city's essence. It's basically a composite of iconic San Francisco architecture, streets, and vistas, cleverly stitched together to create a map that's a lot of fun to explore. It doesn't always match the actual city in terms of its layout, but what it does do is consistently surprise me: I'll turn a corner and suddenly find myself staring at a clearly recognizable location.
The game uses the world well, filling it with a bevy of main and side missions, and a selection of supplemental driving-based minigames and activities. Many missions involve breaking into a guarded, restricted area in pursuit of a particular objective, and the game supports three basic playstyles as a means to that end. The Trickster approach has you hacking and manipulating the environment, setting traps to disable guards, or causing distractions to move them out of the way. More patient players will probably enjoy the stealth-oriented Ghost playstyle, which involves sneaking around from cover to cover, trying to get to your target unnoticed. And for those who lack subtlety and finesse, there's the Aggressor style of play, where you use a variety of firearms to kill everyone in sight.
Playing as a Ghost didn't really work that well for me. The cover mechanics are somewhat clumsy, and can make precisely moving from position to position a more challenging proposition than it should be. Sometimes I'd get stuck on an object, or wouldn't move exactly when I wanted to, causing frustration when I was discovered. In a pinch, the game's stealth mechanics are helpful when you need to move into a guarded location undetected. I just didn't find them finely-tuned enough for me to be able to use them as an effective means to complete missions.
Being a shooter fan, I've spent most of my time in the Aggressor role, but to be blunt, while it's been very effective, it hasn't made the game particularly enjoyable. First of all, it just feels way, way out of character. Protagonist Marcus Holloway is an intelligent, upbeat, likeable fellow. At no time during any cutscenes or conversations does he come across as a violent person, yet he can pick up a firearm and shoot his way into and out of a mission, remorselessly gunning down scores of people, be they guards, police, gang members, or FBI agents. It just seems completely at odds with the game's storyline and tone.
The other thing is that the gunplay doesn't feel particularly great. Aiming is a little vague, and doesn't work very well with the cover mechanics. As a consequence, you end up shuffling back and forth around corners and objects, popping off a few shots, and then ducking back to safety. It just makes firefights feel somewhat ponderous exercises in attrition – especially on later missions where the enemy combatants are heavily armored and require a lot of shots to take down.
Watch Dogs 2 is definitely at its best when you're a Trickster, and it also feels the most in-character way to play, giving you the chance to be creative and inventive with your hacking capabilities and pair of toys, the remote control jumper and quadcopter drone. From disrupting gas mains to set off explosions through taking control of a car remotely and using it to cause mayhem to calling the police on an enemy to create a major distraction, missions can be completed in a surprisingly wide variety of ways. Figuring out just how much you can manipulate the environment, and pushing the boundaries of what you can do in the game is really rewarding and fun – especially when your experiments actually pay off.
Playing as a Trickster ultimately delivers a gameplay experience that's interesting and challenging, and fits perfectly with the characters, plot, and overall tone. It really feels like the way the game is meant to be played - turning Watch Dogs 2 into an entertaining hacking adventure where the world becomes a playground filled with possibilities.
Packing a vibrant, immersive open world, likeable cast of characters, and an engaging plot, Watch Dogs 2 is a good-looking, entertaining hacking romp that's not afraid to make a statement on today's technology-obsessed society. Its missions can be tackled in a variety of ways: Combat is always an option, but the game really comes into its own when you're using your suite of technology-disrupting tools to creatively outwit the enemy. It's involving, rewarding, and a lot of fun.