Watch Dogs 2 Review
Unlike a lot of other reviewers out there, I walked away from the original Watch Dogs with a sour taste in my mouth. Granted, part of that can be attributed to the game’s subpar launch on PC (which was riddled with technical issues), but as much as I appreciated attempt to tackle the esoteric world of hacking, Watch Dogs failed more often than not.
Moving forward, I had no idea what to think about Watch Dogs 2, which was revealed earlier this year. Sporting a new setting and playable character, the series seemed to be going in a wildly different direction, which immediately conjured up comparisons between Far Cry 3 and its weird and wacky offshoot, Blood Dragon. Having now gone hands-on with the final game, I’m glad to report that Watch Dogs 2 has taken the Blood Dragon approach, eschewing the more serious tone of the original for something infinitely more charming and inviting.
Though there’s a slew of new characters to get to know, the real star of the show is the city of San Francisco itself. While other games are simply content with dropping you in the middle of a metropolitan area upon which you can wreak havoc, Watch Dogs 2 paints a different picture of San Francisco, one that showcases both sides of the city. I spent a couple of hours exploring Ubisoft’s virtual metropolis without taking on any missions or story objectives, and there’s a staggering amount of detail and liveliness that’s been packed in; whether it be listening in on a bickering couple, or watching a brawl break out between two pedestrians. Eventually, I found myself in the city’s homeless ‘district,’ complete with a few instances of entirely nude characters.
San Francisco is a much more interesting city to explore, and this extends to the game’s characters, which are a far cry from Aiden Pearce, the wholly unlikeable protagonist (if you can call him that) from the original game. Instead, Watch Dogs 2 places you in the shoes of Marcus Holloway, an up-and-coming hacker who was originally labelled as a criminal by the ctOS, a city-wide operating system that gathers large amounts of information on its citizens in order to passively control and manipulate them. Having been mislabeled as a criminal by the system, Marcus hacks into the system, deletes his profile and joins DedSec, an underground hacking group that is trying to expose ctOS, and the company responsible for it, the Blume Corporation.
Unlike Aiden’s more personal motives, Marcus comes off as a do-gooder as opposed to a vigilante, thanks in part to DedSec’s goal of informing the public of ctOS’ malicious intent. As opposed to stringing campaign missions together, Watch Dogs 2 takes a more freeform approach to how you go about accomplishing your goal.
Rather than attempting to track down a Blume Corporation head-honcho, DedSec’s main goal is to accumulate more ‘followers’ to DedSec, which not only will help spread the good word, but allows them to pool processing resources (from people’s phones and computers). By completing ‘story’ missions, side quests, and a handful of other activities, Marcus will recruit more followers to the cause, and in turn unlock new abilities and gadgets to tinker around with.
As I mentioned before, Watch Dogs 2 reminds me of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon’s irreverent humor, and this design choice shines through in the game’s characters and missions. Ubisoft is not afraid to single-out and ridicule entire groups of people, as one mission tasks you with taking down a religious cult which bears some striking resemblances to the Church of Scientology.
Another mission revolves around publicly ridiculing a CEO of a pharmaceutical company who bought and raised the prices of a life-saving drug (Martin Shkreli anyone?). These nods and references are bound to resonate with the 20-somethings that the game seems to be targeting, and the same goes for the wide cast of characters.
While I’ve felt so for years, I’m finally taking the time to commend Ubisoft for featuring a varied and interesting cast of characters. Not only is there some great banter between Marcus and his many friends and associates, but there’s a diverse group of people to interact with, whether that come in the form of different races, gender types, or those who fall on the side of neuro-atypical.
In fact, this attention to diversity extends to the minute-to-minute gameplay, allowing players to tackle their objectives as they see fit. The game even goes so far as to distinctly label these playstyles for you, and organizes its upgrade tree according to how you might want to play. Those who prefer subterfuge and stealth can choose to focus on upgrades that allow you to disable security systems and sneak by unnoticed. Personally, I chose to focus on a playstyle that places an emphasis on distractions, which usually take the form of hacking nearby items in order to confuse and subdue your enemy. Of course, you can choose a more brute-force method if you want to focus on gunplay, but the less-than-stellar shooting controls, coupled with a low health pool and aggressive enemies makes for some difficult shootouts.
During my initial few hours, I was frustrated with the few missions I had undertaken, mostly because of the lack of tools at my disposal. Regardless of what kind of playstyle you choose to adopt, you’ll have to be flexible during the game’s opening hours, as it can be difficult to adhere to a non-lethal playstyle (for example). Unless you’re willing to continually reset missions, at some point or another, you’ll probably find yourself in a shootout or two, and don’t be surprised if you die a few times, even on easier difficulties.
That being said, after you amass a few research points and begin to upgrade your arsenal, Watch Dogs 2 begins to shine. Most infiltration missions are designed in such a way that you can tackle it from a few different angles, and it’s a real treat to be able to plan out a mission, and slowly execute it through some well-timed hacks and movements.
While plenty of the same hacking abilities from the first game make a reappearance, there’s also a lot of new tricks at your disposal this time around. Initially, you’ll be able to lay proximity traps which can lethally (or non-lethally) take out enemies, and distract guards should you need to slip by quickly. Once you’ve dug into the upgrade system, you’ll be able to remotely control cars, blackout portions of the city, and disrupt traffic with ease.
Marcus also has two new gadgets at his disposal: a pilotable RC car and a quadcopter drone. Both ‘vehicles’ can be used to infiltrate areas which are off limits, and as you might imagine, these gadgets are outfitted with the ability to hack items and tap into camera feeds. While some missions will require Marcus to do the infiltrating on his own, I was surprised to see how some missions are fully completable with just these two gadgets. One early one, which required me to rescue a kidnapped celebrity, allowed me to sneak in and free the defamed actor without Marcus having to move an inch.
As much as I enjoyed the missions that focused on breaking into specific areas and making off with valuable intel or some other item, the missions that necessitate driving and gunplay can be quite infuriating, mostly due to the game’s controls/handling. Firearms feel stiff and heavy when aiming and firing, and having come off playing games like Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2, it’s saddening to see a lack of control options and tweakable settings.
Driving on the other hand is more fast and loose, and while I do appreciate a less realistic feel, I ended up crashing into nearby walls and cars more often than I would have liked. While I eventually found a vehicle that felt right, most of the game’s cars accelerate and travel far too fast, and the handbrake is far too effective, making it all too easy to drift into a pedestrian or oncoming traffic. These shortcomings don’t ruin the experience by any means, but they are noticeable.
Control issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Watch Dogs 2, and that mostly comes down to the vibrant and lovingly crafted world that Ubisoft has on display. There’s plenty of secrets and cool moments to experience throughout San Francisco, and while an odd glitch or low-res texture might pop up here and there, it’s hard to fault Ubisoft when it comes to their ability to craft virtual cities. With an emphasis on choosing your own playstyle, and a colorful city and cast of characters, Watch Dogs 2 stands out from the crowd in a holiday season that’s packed full of shooters, but strangely devoid of open-world games.
Author’s Note: Due to some technical issues, the game’s seamless multiplayer has been disabled indefinitely. We’ll update this review with our thoughts on the mode once we can test it out for ourselves. As of now, this review is only based on the single player.
Watch Dogs 2 is everything the original should have been, complete with an interesting cast of characters, a vibrant city to explore, and the freedom to tackle missions as you see fit.