In the current climate, there’s something cathartic about Watch Dogs 2’s story of ethical hackers taking down the wealthy, the powerful, the corrupt, and the Internet slugs (metaphorical slugs of course, though that’d be something). The fact that it can be done in a non-violent, and often amusing manner is one of the game’s greatest strengths, but also part of its biggest problem.
The original Watch Dogs was a triumph of marketing over substance. Too much promise, notoriously glamorized pre-release footage, and boastful comparisons to the open world crime epic elephant in the room all combined for good sales and a reception that hovered between lukewarm and bitter disdain. The game ended up being remembered more for what it didn’t do, and how it didn’t look. Deservedly so, but that’s not to say there was nothing of note to work with in the future. For instance, the hacking was enjoyable, the online invasion mode worked well, and the game came close to making the city feel ‘alive’. Watch Dogs 2 builds on the strengths of its predecessor whilst removing the grim, dreary revenge stick from its behind and embracing a much sillier, warmer tone.
Your vessel for the sequel is mercifully not the oat paste made flesh, known as Aiden Pierce, this time. Instead, you are Marcus Holloway, a younger, cheerier, trendier hacker freshly-recruited to stylish hacktivist group DedSec operating out on the West Coast in the tech-junkie nirvana that is San Francisco. There’s an aspect of vengeance to Marcus’ story, he’s aggrieved at the data-manipulating program ctOS 2.0 (the newest version of the city-wide tech from the original that allows for all the hacking) for being used by a company called Blume to single people out as potential criminals (himself included) based on algorithms when they haven’t actually done anything (essentially it’s a more grounded Minority Report). Thankfully, rather than go on a killing spree to solve his problems, he organizes DedSec into action by staging elaborate tech pranks and political statements against the very people and organisations profiteering from the shady set up.
Watch Dogs 2 embraces the goofier, more modern side of hacking throughout the game’s characters, situations, setting and overall presentation. There are plentiful splashes of pixelated imagery, doused in neon and flavored with meme culture, giving the whole DedSec operation the touch of youth and relevance it needs to distance itself from the more gruffly serious overtones of its predecessor. This explosion of vivid color is hugely welcome because it takes a while to see the San Francisco setting as anything but bland and lifeless. Again, the city is colorful enough, there’s plenty of missions and trinkets to find, and there is stuff happening around you, but during the earlier points of the game it’s hard to see the vibrancy of the place beyond the sheen of sterility.
It does get better though, because the more you play as Marcus, and the more of his technological goodies you get to mess about with, the more tactile the city becomes. Marcus can hack most electrical items from the start with his phone. The basics are prank phone calls to distract people, nicking a bit of cash, or using the phones of others to restore charge to yours. Then there is the more useful skills that hack into fuse boxes, pipelines, traffic lights, bollards and the like. These hacks can be used to both evade and attack your enemies in various ways. For instance, fuse boxes can be made to lure an unsuspecting guard to investigate it, and you can set a shock trap for when they get within range, or blow it up and send the poor sap flying, or just simply use the time they spend gawping at the humming box to slip past undetected.
As Marcus progresses through the story, earning ‘followers’ (essentially XP), he’s able to upgrade his box of tricks while also adding new ones from fresh sources, such as his little RC buddies for ground and air that can scout areas for him and gain access to areas that would be near-lethal for their fleshy master. They basically work as extensions of Marcus’ phone, and good ones at that. Beyond that the phone hack skills become more and more grandiose and amusing. You can steer vehicles with it, crashing would-be pursuers and escapees alike into walls, other vehicles or even the sea if you wish (I have, multiple times). You can also call gangs and police onto anyone, a handy tool for mopping up hostile areas without having to fire a bullet yourself.
Being non-lethal seems to be the way that Ubisoft wants you to play Watch Dogs 2, and there’s plenty of tools to do just that, and Marcus as a character comes across as a pretty reasonable chap rather than an unhinged mass murderer. Obviously there has to be an option for some lethal combat as well, but given what I’ve just said about the message being relayed, there’s a little too much of it, and it comes off as wooly and annoying, which I suspect is partially by design to dissuade players from relying on it. Lethality can always be a last resort of course, and I’ve found on some later missions that no matter what hacking abilities Marcus possesses he ends up having to bring out a gun eventually, but even then it goes so massively against the grain of Marcus’ motivations and ethics that it just feels off.
There’s no impact on the story or the character if you go guns-a-blazing, and ordinarily you could roll your eyes and tut at this as being a mere oversight, but the story is showing a trouble-making group out to take down the establishment with brainpower. Meeting the members of DedSec, it’s hard to consider any of them wishing death on anyone, let alone killing anyone. As such, anytime you take out a gun or blow up a van full of policemen, it jarrs. I suppose the challenge is in trying to find the safest, least violent way to finish every task, but maybe don’t give the player so many instruments of death in the first place.
Outside of hacking and that combat dilemma/issue, Watch Dogs 2 handles well after a little time getting used to the slightly unorthodox control scheme. Marcus moves in a more fluid manner than Aiden Pierce did, but there’s still a hint of inconsistency in what he can and cannot traverse. The handling while driving is a touch lighter than it should be, but forgiving enough that it doesn’t become an annoyance. Sailing is interesting, giving you control of boat’s sails and a wind gauge to help position the boat for optimum speed. It’s different enough to make sailing something worth doing out of leisure rather than necessity.
Something that is a huge improvement on the first game is the story and the characters within it. I touched upon Watch Dogs 2 being a hell of a lot lighter in tone, even though it doesn’t have much meaningful depth to it, and a large portion of the tone change is down to the DedSec crew and their surprising likeability. Not all of the team get as fleshed out as they could, but there’s a lovely sense of family to the group all the same. Marcus is a charming, strong-willed lead who doesn’t rely on a deep and dark past to motivate him or personify him.
Josh is quietly sweet, and occasionally amusing for the right reasons. Sitara is very much the strong female archetype in some ways, but happily like Marcus, doesn’t fall into the troubled past cliche to justify it, she’s just street smart and again, pleasant with it. Wrench probably would have been the protagonist a few years ago, a screeching pop culture machine with an L.E.D. face mask and tonnes of ‘tude. Here, as a team member, I genuinely warmed to his goofy ways because they fit into the game’s style so perfectly. I was especially fond of one conversation on a long road trip where he debates Aliens vs Predator (not the films thankfully), and it unfurls into a discussion about other vs comic book battles they’d had with Judge Dredd, Batman, and Archie. It’s a surprisingly good nod to geek culture that doesn’t feel like a team of yes men have farted out, and moments like it occur with a pleasingly high frequency in the game world and within the story itself. Oh, and T. Bone is there from the first game, he’s a mentor-type to the young DedSeccers and still a fun character, even if he does look and sound like a cross between Bray Wyatt and Drexl Spivey.
There’s a nice variety to the flavor of missions, even if most do boil down to you solving a wire puzzle and keeping stealthy, they still have some fire to them that stops them feeling too repetitive. From taking down a Scientology-aping church, to nabbing and escaping in a car that is essentially K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider, there’s a sense of mirthful anarchy that skims the line between being ludicrous and normal. It’s not as gonzo as Saints Row, nor as violently insane as Grand Theft Auto, instead it grabs aspects of both, leaving behind much of the crudeness and violence to create a fun, nutty, selection of quests.
Now, I hear you wondering aloud why I haven’t mentioned any potential technical issues, something Ubisoft’s open worlds are somewhat infamous for that in recent years. Watch Dogs 2 does have some hitches, though nothing quite as bad as AC Unity, the odd visual glitch does happen, such as a single case of replicating NPCs. Outside that, any other problems may well be smoothed over in time, but they need addressing all the same. There’s been three crashes three cases of prolonged slowdown in my time with Watch Dogs 2 before the seamless online went..err, offline. Twice the slowdown was a minor, if avoidable, annoyance and went away within ten minutes, the third time it happened I was stuck with it for thirty minutes, by which point I had to restart the game as the motion was nausea-inducing and showed no signs of stopping. Now all three occurrences of slowdown happened in busy areas as did the crashing, but strangely not the busiest areas in the game. It could well be linked to the seamless online play (which hasn’t been switched back on at the time of writing) that had known slowdown and crashes. Cross-checking with other reviewers seems to all but confirm this.
But then, with the seamless online play offline, the game crashed four times in 5 hours recently, which can be highly irritating as mission checkpoints aren’t always that generous so you wind up starting further back when you come back to it. I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt for the online play as it still works (co-op missions mainly if you manually enter them, but the invasion side is out of action), but there’s no denying Watch Dogs 2 has launched incomplete, no matter how insignificant it is in the grand scheme of things.
Watch Dogs 2 is a marked step up from the original game however. More enjoyable, livelier, and operating without the massive stick that was stuck in the arse of Aiden Pearce’s adventure. You can also say it’s a tad shallow, delivers mixed messaging and has some familiar problems if you’re au fait with Ubisoft’s recent output. I want to love the game, but it’s been insistent it’s not ready to commit. Regardless, Watch Dogs 2 is the most fun I’ve had with a Ubisoft title for some time.