Fist bump me, Brotato Chip.
Released amid monumental amounts of hype, Watch Dogs crumbled under the weight of its unrealistic expectations. That isn’t to suggest it wasn’t a fun game (it was), but in the same vein as Assassin’s Creed there were some areas that clearly needed to be addressed in any sequel.
Well, that sequel is upon us, and much like it did with the Assassin’s Creed series, Ubisoft has tightened up a number of areas with the launch of Watch Dogs 2.
On foot you’ll encounter a mix of third-person, cover-based shooting, stealth and some pretty slick looking parkour. Shooting is reasonably precise and moving cover to cover works well, at least when you’re moving at a deliberate pace. The small reticule can sometimes be difficult to pick up, though the aim assist helps compensate for that (perhaps a little too much).
Stealth can be satisfying, especially when mixed with judicious hacking, such as causing a guard’s phone to go off and then slinking past them while they investigate. A meter above your head will fill as you’re being detected, which has come to be standard fare in these types of games. Parkour is automatically done when reaching various obstacles provided you have the trigger held down.
Of course, what separates Watch Dogs 2 from other similarly constructed open-world titles is the ability to hack just about everything: doors, traffic signals, explosive pipes, fuse boxes, people’s phones and so on. The issue is that when you can hack everything you target everything, and it’s not always easy to pinpoint what you want to interact with, particularly in combat or when driving.
Driving is probably the game’s weakest element with vehicles that just feel like they can lose control at the slightest hint of adjustment. Fortunately, outside of a handful of escapes, you’re not asked to do a lot behind the wheel, and the problems don’t extend to your deployable rover or drone, which handle quite well. You may get frustrated here and there, but for the most part playing is enjoyable.
Rather than model the in-game world on a real city and slap some one-off name on it, Watch Dogs 2 takes place in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. Companies are naturally rebranded (e.g., Google is Nudle), but this is a damn fine reworking with plenty of landmarks and recognizable features to be found. It feels packed and vibrant, which is something we really appreciated after Mafia III.
Character models are solid and move fluidly, particularly protagonist Marcus Holloway, who springs over objects with ease and flips to the ground from elevated spots. A pool ball on a bungee cord serves as his makeshift melee weapon, which looks silly since he can fell armoured foes with it when shotguns at pointblank range cannot. Cut scenes convey the story effectively.
Also playing heavily into the game’s ability to create a compelling narrative is a cast that breathes life into the various characters they portray, from Marcus on down. The soundtrack taps into current music but doesn’t match the heights of the Grand Theft Auto series at seamlessly working it in; in GTA we’d switch the radio on every time we got in a car, here we didn’t even notice the radio.
You are Marcus Holloway, a rebellious hacker that has been flagged by ctOS, the operating system that monitors citizens’ every move, as a threat to commit crimes. Marcus is none too happy about this, and he infiltrates Blume, the company behind ctOS, to wipe the slate clean. In the process he ends up latching on with the hacker group DedSec for the shared purpose of taking down Blume.
Backed by CTO Dusan Nemec, Blume is too powerful to go after directly, so DedSec must orchestrate a number of cyber attacks to sway public opinion and gain a following among the masses. Within this, Watch Dogs 2 is able to take some jabs at real-life events, such as Martin Shkreli’s infamous drug price hike (and legendary Wu-Tang Clan album) and the Church of Scientology.
Gaining followers doubles as the game’s upgrade system, granting research points that can be used to unlock new and/or improved skills: such as better weapon handling, the ability to hack into more types of machines, identifying targets for gang or police interest and more. These are needed, too, as Marcus will be doing the vast majority of the leg work for DedSec.
Missions possess a decent variety and most offer more than one way to proceed. The general tone of the game suggests an approach of misdirection and stealth is preferred, but sometimes action seems like the easier way to go. That brings us to one of our biggest problems with the game: Marcus, who’s portrayed as laid back and happy, can be played as a stone killer.
It’s a weird tonal disconnect to watch Marcus kill a dozen security personnel and then engage in some playful banter with his DedSec buddies. In games like Grand Theft Auto at least the protagonists are criminals. Marcus is just a hacker that’s trying to expose injustice. It feels like he shouldn’t be okay with killing regular people.
That odd smattering of dark subject matter also extends to the world and story of Watch Dogs 2, as eventually a series of mostly lighthearted missions is interrupted by something much more grisly. We also came across arguing couples in the open world leading to men slapping women to the ground and hacked texts referencing abortion. There’s no obvious reason for it.
Outside of those missteps (and the enemy’s infuriating ability to summon a nearly endless supply of reinforcements) it’s mostly smooth sailing for Watch Dogs 2, which packs loads of secondary content and an always-on multiplayer element onto the strong storyline.
Watch Dogs 2 is a significant leap forward over its predecessor, creating an enjoyable blend of stealth, action and hacking despite its handful of tonal inconsistencies.