We’re a bit late on our Watch Dogs 2 review, but there’s no denying that it’s had a rough, albeit short, lead up to launch. Largely due to the failings and false promises made about its predecessor. In a time where dark and gritty is the “in” thing, who wouldn’t love a masked dude taking on the system, right? Well; they were wrong. Aidan was a bland character and the city of Chicago lacked any kind of appeal, however accurately it may have been portrayed. With Watch Dogs 2, Marcus takes the reigns. A black protagonist in San Francisco known for his technical expertise. From the very beginning, featuring a brief tutorial that also couples with Marcus’ Dedsec initiation, Watch Dogs 2 adds levity to the franchise.
Many make the point of this being “Assassin’s Creed 1 to Assassin’s Creed 2”. I disagree. I feel it’s more Assassin’s Creed 4 compared to Assassin’s Creed 3: it’s about making a tired experience enjoyable. Adding engaging mechanics to the open-world sandbox. Telling a contained story rather than milking an unsatisfying tale over three games. Yes; Marcus is our Edward Kenway and Watch Dogs 2 is the ship we’re happy to sail upon. For our full thoughts, read the review. Or scroll to the bottom. Your choice.
Look and Feel
In comparison to the original Watch Dogs’ obsession with grey, the city of San Francisco pops with colour. The people that populate the world are more lively (with some even having scripted moments of crazy). They’ll pose with you for pictures on your phone. Granted; with less detailed faces than that of Marcus but it’s fine. The point is that this city feels alive in the way that Chicago never had a chance to. Their conversations go from ordinary to the height of “hipster” and it suits the narrative of the game: where there’s money, there’s douche-baggery.
I can’t speak to how accurate the world design is. Ubisoft went to great lengths to model San Francisco as best as it could whilst maintaining practicality. From what I hear, this has resulted in sections of the real life city being far closer to each other in-game. Nevertheless, the many San Francisco based podcasts I listen to have vouched for its authenticity and I’m inclined to believe them.
Solid Performance with Slight Issues
The majority of the game ran smoothly for me. Occasionally the audio from a cut-scene would be out of sync with the video. That aside, it’s all pretty good. I’m especially impressed with how well the camera works given that third-person games sometimes have that jank to them. Transitions from RC car, Quad-copter and Marcus himself are all pretty smooth. I don’t have many complaints about the performance.
The biggest improvement to the Watch Dogs formula is the tone it sets. Watch Dogs 2 opts for light-hearted hipster hacker humour over the grim, “fear-the-overlord” style of its predecessor. It wasn;t without its emotional moments, which didn’t quite hit home, but it told a decent story and the performances of the main cast were all solid. Especially Marcus himself.
Brief Plot Overview: Hackers Take on the Backers
Marcus Holloway (codename: Retr0) is a young hacker from Oakland. Having admired the work of Dedsec – a regional hacker group bringing the “truth” to the people – he is given the chance to join them. In the opening moments, Marcus hacks a server farm and deletes every trace of himself from the ctOS system, making him effectively “invisible”. As he escapes, triumphant, Marcus is “kidnapped” by DedSec’s four San Francisco-based hackers and brough in to the fold.
Their target is Blume: a tech company with heavy backing from both the authorities and popular social media giants, amongst others. Blume is hiding a lot of shady dealings and DedSec have every intent of revealing their dirty secrets.
Marcus undertakes various missions with Sitara, Wrench, Horatio and Josh to undermine Blume and take them out. Blume, however, are more savvy than they seem. Who will win!? YOU DECIDE! Well, no. It’s scripted. Still; somebody might win. Go play it.
Emotional Moments with Nothing to Back Them Up
Assuming you play the game as I did; main-lining the story then hitting up some side-missions, there’s a lot left to the imagination for Marcus’ past. A past that he alludes to when conversing with a government official he used to know. I expected a follow-up to this, or some sort of investment, but neither occurred. The character just kind of fades out of existence.
In a more aggregious error from my perspective, an important moment that could have been emotionally resonant is given about 30 minutes overall, including the mission itself. The game takes stabs at some heavier material but appears to be afraid of wading in that mud for too long, so it jarringly jolts back to the happy-go-lucky hacker famil much quicker than it should, given the situation.
On a positive note, the game sets up an antagonist that made me want to strangle him in the best way. He’s also formidable enough to make his threats believable. The balancing of Marcus to Blume’s task-master is well done.
Watch Dogs 2 is an open world game that places an emphasis on hacking objects with the click of a shoulder button. Though the game allows you to engage enemies guns-blazing, it often behooves the player to play with stealth, as no reinforcements turn up and the shooting mechanics aren’t great.
Marcus gains “Followers” on social media which act as experience points. By gaining experience points, Marcus can unlock new abilities. Most abilities lend expand the hacking capabilities, but there are a few quality of life improvements (more Botnet resources to spend on special hacks) as well as firearm handling upgrades.
It meets many of the usual open world expectations: a reasonably sized map, plenty of vehicles (cars, SUVs, bikes, sail-boats, speed-boats etc) and lots of collectibles to find, many of which unlock barred upgrades.
Mission Structure: Moment to Moment
Most missions have Marcus tasked with finding points of interest in a highlighted area (usually restricted). Often guarded by security, there are locks to bypass, computers to hack and elevators to go up and down. Fortunately, most of this can be done at the click and/or hold of a button.
3D-Print Your Way to Happiness
Using the 3D Printer in your hacker-space, gadgets and weapons can be purchased. Weapons come in lethal and non-lethal varieties (including grenade launchers!) but the shooting itself is a little weak. Get to close to an enemy and you’ll shoot straight past them. Your health is pretty difficult to determine too, so fighting enemies is usually a bad time.
Without a doubt, the best aspect of gameplay in Watch Dogs 2 is the ability to control an RC car and a quad-copter (or “drone”). The car “Jumper” lives up to its name by being able to jump around, allowing it to navigate areas with less risk of detection than Marcus. The RC car can pick up cash / objects and interact with most things in the world, meaning Marcus barely has to lift a finger for all but the most important tasks.
For recon work, the quad-copter can be upgrade to allow its hack-net mode (pressing R3 as Marcus at any time) to scan the area and red outline the enemies within a fairly large radius. The range on both of the RC gadgets is more than fair and the prep work with the quad-copter is smooth and, more importantly, fun. Fun is what Watch Dogs needed and it didn’t have it. These two gadgets offer more fun than anything in the first game.
They only get better when you upgrade to dropping bombs with them and activating them from a safe distance. Floating above unsuspecting enemies in a quad-copter before they get blown away is incredibly satisfying. Also I’m a terrible person.
A Different Kind of Stealth
I’m used to stealth games. Dishonored 2, arguably the pinnacle, made me a very happy man. Watch Dogs 2 handles stealth in its own, unique way. Enemies are quick to detect you, from distance within a wide field of view. It’s shocking just how perceptive the enemies are, but maybe they should be. Maybe trained guards shouldn’t be clueless about a random dude in a beanie hat playing with RC cars in a restricted area.
It took me a while to adapt to. I’m used to being able to correct my mistakes without sounding the alarm, but all too often did Watch Dogs 2 drop me long before I could course-correct. It wasn’t until I started using the most basic of hacking abilities frequently that I realised the way to deal with the game. By pressing L1 you’ll access a default ability depending on who the camera is aimed at, provided they’re within the line-of-sight of Marcus or one of his devices (including hacked camera). The basic personal hack makes a person’s phone ring. By doing this to guards, they become oblivious to your presence for a few seconds. That’s the window to move. If I’d realised this earlier, I’d have had a much easier time in the beginning.
Keeping You Busy Long After the Story
Along with the 15 main missions, Watch Dogs 2 packs a hefty amount of side missions, races and the seamless multiplayer (which was broken at launch but works fine now) to keep you occupied. Whether you’re hunting other hackers or hanging out with DedSec for a while longer, if you’re okay with the repetition, Watch Dogs 2 has your back.
Watch Dogs 2 is a lot of fun. The hacking abilities aren’t enough to topple the more prominent open world contenders, but this game is a good sign for the future of the franchise. A little more depth to the narrative and some more interesting gadgets would go a long way for Watch Dogs 3, but for now, Marcus’ journey with DedSec and Blume served to satisfy my wants for the sequel to an underwhelming experience. I hope to see this cast of characters again, but I don’t want them to be the focus. That’s the future though. This is now. Enjoy sandbox San Francisco; it’s a great bit of fun.