Reviewed on PS4, copy supplied by Ubisoft.
Kicking off with a retro interface and 80s music, one thing is pretty clear when you boot up Watch Dogs 2, it’s nothing like the overly serious and gloomy original. The predictable story of Aiden Pearce has been replaced with a tongue in cheek look at hacking, and it’s something that the series sorely needed to regain favour of the public.
The original Watch Dogs was an ambitious title, yet the boring and predictable main character, and a distinct difference from what was shown at E3, left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. Prior to the launch of Watch Dogs 2 I personally had zero interest in the game because of a perceived loathing of the original. However in my playtime with the sequel I found myself reminiscing about the first quite a lot. Public opinion can really influence memories, and the fallout following the first Watch Dogs perhaps made the game seem worse than it was in hindsight, but this still generated quite an obstacle for Watch Dogs 2 to overcome.
The new protagonist, Marcus Holloway, is drastically different from Aiden Pierce, he has a sense of humour, is portrayed as an idealistic hacktivist, and he knows when to throw out a Star Wars reference. All in all he’s the ideal vessel for a game like Watch Dogs, there’s no grand and dark plot to avenge murdered family members, it’s just good old fashioned hacking and mass property destruction from the perspective of a goofy and fun loving character.
Your goal throughout the narrative is pretty simple, you work with hacker group DedSec, who are fighting against the oppressive corporations that control San Francisco through the smart city tech cTOS 2.0. cTOS is operated by the Blume corporation, who are your run of the mill Orwell style arseholes who destroy public privacy for self gain and a greater good. To beat the baddies, DedSec need to gain followers for their cause, which requires completing stunts that show off their hacking skills and unveil the sinister nature of cTOS and the companies who take advantage of it.
The characters that make up DedSec are hard to warm up to, they are essentially a manifestation of what baby boomers fear about millennials. They are loud, obnoxious, know too much about technology, and their priories are straight up fucked. Yes I understand that gaining followers is necessary to stop the evil corporation in the context of this game, however when one of DedSec‘s stunts involves remotely controlling a car and speeding in a highly populated city, where several fatalities are caused directly by the stunt, the means and the end don’t exactly line up. Essentially DedSec are dangerous hipsters who lean more towards the terrorist camp than the freedom fighter camp, but hey, at least they can spit out some sweet pop culture references.
Despite the fact you’ll be spending most of your time destroying the city you’re trying to save, San Francisco looks and feels amazing in Watch Dogs 2. A real strength is the inhabitants, who you can spy on for your amusement, because who doesn’t love being a hypocrite? Every NPC in the game feels like they have a purpose, they walk dogs (side note: YOU CAN PAT THE DOGS), they talk and text to friends, and they will take selfies with you. The city itself has a ton of content scattered around it, with side missions, random events, and collectibles. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but I suppose too much content is hardly a negative point.
Much like in the first game, Watch Dogs 2 isn’t solely a single player experience, there is an online competitive mode, where sneaky players will infiltrate your game and try to hack you. Personally it isn’t my cup of tea as online components go, but I’m sure some people like it. Using your hacker vision (your regular dose of detective vision/Witcher sense) to track the hacker before hunting them down can be fun, but when the mode interrupts a mission and throws you off it can be frustrating as fuck. Aside from murdering/stealing from other hackers, you can join them in co-op play and even help police track down especially naughty players. For those that don’t care for being distracted mid-mission, the online components can be turned off entirely.
Interacting with the world around you is a mix of sandbox staples bolstered with the addition of hacking mechanics. Using your phone to hack traffic lights is a relatively simple way to distance yourself from cops quickly, but you could alternatively destroy the entire street by detonating the water pipes underneath it, which is something I seem to accidentally do all the time. As you drive around San Fran you’ll be able to steal money and battery power from virtually everyone, which coincidentally is achieved with the same control combination as the one that makes you explode the ground. So yeah, when you start to zone out on a drive expect to accidentally murder a ton of people.
Aside from hacking and accidental terrorism, you can also control drones in Watch Dogs 2, which are tools that help you hack those hard to reach spots. You can also use them to scout locations, which is something you’ll be wanting to do no matter what your approach to a mission is. And yes, you can take a guns blazing approach or go for stealth depending on your play style and the level of immersion you want. When I say immersion I mean that the guns blazing approach seems to be a bit extreme and out of content… unless you want to live in a reality where hacktivists will happily murder hundreds of underpaid security guards to gain Twitter followers. Oh, and for the record, the melee weapon Marcus uses in stealth mode has to be some sort of dog toy, right? It looks a lot like one…
As you go about your hacking lifestyle you can dress Marcus in a wide range of clothes using your stolen funds. There’s plenty to go on and the styles available are a lot more varied that Aiden’s long coat and low cap clothing range. Of course clothing isn’t the only thing you can customise, weapons can be printed on a 3D printer at base, and skill points can be used to research various moves and skills.
Technically speaking I haven’t encountered any bugs in Watch Dogs 2, aside from the multiplayer being offline for a week post launch. That being said, I have read about and seen some pretty awful glitches, but hey, it’s an open world game. Visually the game is impressive, but not absolutely breathtaking, especially when compared to other sandbox games on the market.