James Stephanie Sterling
Watch Dogs 2 Review – No Hack Job
Developer: Ubisoft Publisher: Ubisoft Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One Released: November 15, 2016 Copy provided by publisher
Historical public opinion has not been kind to the original Watch Dogs. A game propelled by unreasonable levels of hype and buoyed by controversially unrepresentative promotional footage, it’s not the most fondly looked upon game in these cultural circles.
Despite its reputation and its housing of one of the least likable protagonists in all of videogames, I loved Watch Dogs, perhaps more than a vast majority of people.
Watch Dogs 2 enters the world without either of the original’s glaring problems hanging over its head.
Expectations have been significantly lowered, and the detestable Aiden Pierce has been replaced by the instantly more entertaining Marcus Holloway.
Marcus is the first clue that Watch Dogs 2 will be an entertaining romp. He’s not a generic Ubisoft protagonist avenging yet another dead family member, he’s positioned as a strong part of hacker culture with the ability to crack a smile.
He’s a pop culture nerd, a cocky asshole, and an overly idealistic hacktivist. In short, he’s the exact kind of protagonist Watch Dogs needed from the start.
Watch Dogs 2‘s narrative is similarly more enthralling than the original’s, throwing in some light social commentary about such things as “big brother” culture, gentrification, and the importance of information.
In a San Francisco where every gadget, building, and vehicle is integrated into a ruling operating system, Marcus and his colorful buddies from DeadSEC conspire to disrupt the system and cause chaos.
Their aim is to win followers and earn both the fame and resources required to take down Blume – a ruling corporation exploiting the “smart city” of San Fran for its own typically evil ends.
Hacking culture is affectionately spoofed, and while the writing can be a little wince-inducing at times, the giddy movie references, satirical plot arcs, and excitable character banter make for a game that is often genuinely amusing.
San Francisco itself feels remarkably alive. Pedestrians love interacting with Marcus, whether they’re getting out of their cars to yell at a player blocking traffic, or photobombing Marcus as he takes pics.
It’s a reactive city, and one that I just love wandering around in. Plus of course, you can hack anybody’s phone to find out random facts, eavesdrop on correspondence, or steal some quick cash.
Watch Dogs 2 is absolutely drenched in things to do to the point where it can be overwhelming. As is typical of Ubisoft games at this point, San Francisco is practically bloated with content – from missions and sudden events to collectibles to landmarks where Marcus can take selfies.
Hell, the game even has a Shazam-style app that lets you save music whenever you hear it.
The main missions are well structured and pit DeadSEC up against some interesting adversaries.
Ubisoft has learned from the original Watch Dogs where the fight against Deadmau5 parody DEFALT was the best part. Now, almost every mission offers exaggerated opponents or colorful scenarios, and it’s all the better for it.
Side missions occur regularly, sometimes needing to be found in the city by hacking phones or talking to random people. There are also “Driver SF” missions where Marcus ferries people about town, as well as a robust online mode.
Like the first Watch Dogs, WD2 can be played with a persistent online connection that allows for players to “invade” each other. You never know when a player might turn up in your city and attempt to hack your data, hiding among NPCs and needing to be sniffed out.
Hacked players can use Marcus’ “detective vision” (games love it!) to highlight potential attackers in purple, hoping to find their opponent before it’s too late. If discovered before the download is complete, the hacker can try to escape, initiating a fun competitive chase.
The cat-and-mouse gameplay has always been great fun, and has been given more emphasis in the sequel.
While at times it can be annoying to get hacked in the middle of a mission, I’ve almost always loved the sudden diversion and I delight in hunting down and eliminating enemy players.
Outside of sneaky hackery, players can help the cops chase down real players or engage in a series of cooperative objectives. All of these sidelines contribute to the overall goal of earning followers and unlocking research points that Marcus can use to improve his gear.
If the online interruptions get too irritating, they can be switched off, so you only ever have to screw around with others when you want.
Much of Watch Dogs‘ gameplay has been retained. Fundamentally a standard open-world action game, things are given a shot in the arm by Marcus’ ability to hack the “CTOS” powered devices around him.
Players can cause distractions by triggering phone alarms, shut down power around him, and create traps or lures by tinkering with electrical devices.
There’s a ton of stuff players can take advantage of, moreso than the first game, and things again risk overwhelming the player as they drown in options.
It certainly takes time to get to grips with everything Watch Dogs 2 offers, and some of the toys require experimentation before their practical usage becomes apparent.
All that said, there’s room for distinct play styles and things go from an overloard to a fantastic laugh once a player finds their own flavor.
Setting traps to stun and kill enemies, charging in with 3D-printed assault rifles, sneaking about like a ghost, there are lots of ways to approach an objective, and nobody ever has to be tied to one style.
Let me also just reemphasize that you 3D print assault rifles. Weapons and gadgets are all 3D-printed. Because of course they are.
The biggest additions to the game are the RC Jumper and Quad Copter. These remote controlled devices can infiltrate places ahead of Marcus, sometimes accessing places he can’t reach.
The Jumper is great for sneaking and hacking physical data ports in Marcus’ stead, using vents and small spaces to scuttle about safely. It can also pick up cash or hidden research points, and be upgraded to taunt NPCs so they’ll follow it into traps.
The Quad is a terrific surveillance device, with upgrades that let it detect and mark enemies more efficiently. It gives a good overview of any area, finds online opponents efficiently, and can remotely hack out-of-reach areas.
It would look stupid for Aiden “Iconic” Pierce to use these things since he’s such a po-faced wanker, but they’re both fun toys that fit Marcus’ personality, and incredibly useful tactical devices.
Watch Dogs 2 has its fair share of glitches, as one sadly has to expect these days.
I’ve had some framerate stuttering, NPCs behaving bizarrely and getting into weird places, and one stunning experience where all the DeadSEC members’ character models spawned maybe forty times each in the same room, all trapped in weird poses.
At the very least it was interesting and funny, even if I did need to reload the game. Certainly one of the strangest bugs I’ve seen outside of Steam’s barrel bottom.
While the “looser” aspects of the game can get in the way, they’re not too frequent to damage the overall experience and WD2 is great at perpetually autosaving so I’ve lost no progress as a result of anything.
Outside of such errors, the game looks pleasant even if it isn’t graphically stunning, with more attention given to creating a stylish looking city and filling it with believable, interactively satisfying NPCs.
The one thing Aiden had going for him was his cool coat, and while Marcus doesn’t sport such attire himself, he can buy and discover tons of clothing for all one’s customization needs.
There are lots of fun aesthetic options and I found myself constantly playing with my protagonist’s look. The only grating part is the “Premium” store section that, while not currently featuring anything but preorder bonus items, hints at future exploitation.
As one of the first Watch Dogs‘ few long-standing fans, I was hoping for an expanded version of the original game with more playthings and a better hero, which is exactly what I got.
There are still lots of typically “Ubi” moments in the game, and the issue of nebulous, sometimes repeated content is hard to avoid, but overall this is one of the best open-world Ubisoft games out there.
Missions are varied and hugely fun, traditional combat and driving are enjoyable, while all the hacking is a delight – traffic lights to turn off, sewer openings to explode, cars to steer out of control, and opposing players to troll.
Lots to do, and a vast load of it’s a trip.
Most importantly, Watch Dogs 2 offers a sense of humor running through it that the series badly needed. You don’t need miserable family death stories in a ludicrous game about “smart cities” and cartoony hackers.
You need writing that leans into the silliness, that has a laugh at its own expense, which is exactly what this game gets.
It has its serious and its sad moments, absolutely, but it also has Short Circuit 2 quotes, a charming Aliens versus Predator debate, and the theft of a parody Knight Rider car.
Watch Dogs 2 is a great game as a rock solid action title, but being unafraid of its own nonsense is what makes it a truly pleasurable experience.
Oh, and I kind of love Wrench, DeadSEC’s masked, toaster-smashing geek. He’s just the right sort of cringe and I really want that mask.
It’s better than an “iconic baseball cap“, at any rate.