E3 2016 | Electronic Entertainment Expo Feature

Watch Dogs 2 hands-on E3 impressions: A cause for tentative excitement

Despite the ever-so-slight revisionist recollection of the original Watch Dogs — rightfully brought about by developer Ubisoft’s pre/post-release shortcomings — it’s easy to forget that the open-world hacking adventure did indeed sell incredibly well for a new IP and was by-and-large warmly reviewed by critics. That’s not to say there wasn’t any caveats to that praise — quite the contrary in fact. There was little doubt, however, that the potential for engaging mechanics and an exploratory comment on technology was there. It just wasn’t realized in any sort of definable, distinct way.

So, perhaps the highest praise that can be leveled at Ubisoft’s first attempt at a sequel, the aptly-titled ‘Watch Dogs 2’, is just how far it embraces a tonal shift. By taking design and visual cues from the likes of Grand Theft Auto V and Infamous: Second Son, the game somewhat ironically manages to carve out its own specific niche; a self-referential diverse and layered world that revels in the millennial hacktivist attitude that it so overtly presents. It’s a fine line, too, because as was seen with the live-action trailer that announced the game to the public late last week it was entirely possible that the culture surrounding ‘DedSec’ could’ve gone overboard and fallen flat on its face.

The technological hub of San Francisco provides the perfect setting to house this sort of tone; Silicon Valley really is the optimum conduit to project the idea of interconnectivity amongst a general populace. The game world itself is two times larger than that the original Watch Dogs and also feels decidedly denser, with a lot more variety in the sort of locales afforded for traversal. From the Golden Gate Bridge to Oakland, players can lay witness to a whole manner of differing environmental options, and from what we’ve seen there doesn’t seem to be much bleed-over in the design philosophy between areas. Taking the narrative of interconnectivity and hacktivist culture a little further, what’ll prove most fascinating about the game — and what may well determine its critical success — is how the story will play out.

The game’s protagonist, Marcus Holloway, is a young idealist; a free-flowing juvenile who doesn’t seem to quite grasp the possible repercussions of DedSec’s activities. And that’s what needs to be hammered home by Watch Dogs 2; how you can get in over your head and just how badly things can go awry. The original Watch Dogs did of course try, and ultimately fail, to present a more linear and mature mannered narrative but if Ubisoft can meld the overtly upbeat presentation with some of the more darker and engaging elements of a coming-of-age story then we could be onto something exciting. Whether or not that comes to pass is entirely up in the air, however, as it’s just speculation at this point.

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It’s tough to gauge any narrative clues from the game’s revamped gameplay but it’s readily apparent that Watch Dogs 2’s hacking mechanics have been streamlined and built upon adequately. Hyperbolic proclamations aside, nearly everything in the game seems to be able to be manipulated in some form or another by your trusty mobile phone. Within the 20-minute demo we were privy to, the idea of playing how you want was really hammered home. Using the three-pronged template of ‘aggressor; ghost; trickster’, you get to decide in what way you tackle any given situation. Do you want to go in all guns blazing? Purely stealth and traversal? Or how about effectively taking over a building’s electronics to induce hysteria within its inhabitants? It’s up to you.

With a quick tap of R3, a hacking overlay, CtOS 2.0, presents itself within the world that serves to highlight points of interest that are nearby. Alongside that, a drone and a little RC car (that can seemingly jump around five feet high) are also present and serve to add malleability to the moment-to-moment gameplay. It’s worth mentioning that the hacking itself doesn’t go beyond the simple push of a button. It’s a double-edged sword, naturally, because while its accessibility is something to champion, there is a lingering thought that it could be a little more fleshed out. That said, though, given the ubiquity of these mechanics it’s no surprise that Ubisoft has chosen not to input some arbitrary mini-game each time you go to hack something. As it stands, the process while feeling a little surface level, is still probably the best route to go down.

Marcus’ general movement also feels a little more fluid, if at times over-animated. It makes sense in the grand scheme of traversal but finer motions leave a little to be desired. There’s a tendency for developers to now over-exaggerate how a character moves within an open space while the gradient for sharper turns when necessary isn’t as responsive as you’d hope. On the flip side, driving is certainly improved, in no small part due to the work of Ubisoft Reflections, the minds behind the likes of the Driver series and PS2’s Stuntman. It feels decidedly more arcade-like and again seems to draw inspiration from the likes of Grand Theft Auto V.

All things considered, there’s a lot to be positive about with Watch Dogs 2 in the months leading up to its November 15 release. Ubisoft has recognized just how badly audiences were burnt by the pre-release kerfuffle of the original game and seem intent on steadying the ship and building upon what was at the very least an interesting foundation. With not long to wait and an already polished experience afoot, a cause for tentative excitement is certainly here.