Watch Dogs 2 is an exercise that shows how mistakes can be fixed and made golden. It can also be deemed as a specimen that shoved away its identity, tries to gain a new one, but in the end, confuses itself up more than it was. Although Ubisoft’s first attempt at the cyber-hacking, open-world franchise went haywire, this second chance makes them all the more better. Watch Dogs 2 is a game that highlights the best of the first game, adding spice and color, while making things less edgy and serious.
Hacking In San Francisco
Watch Dogs 2 shoves the player into the well-fit pants of Marcus Holloway, a very talented hacktivist. The initial part of the game welcomes Marcus into an elite group of hackers known as DedSec. From there, he works together with the team to uncover the injustices brought upon by the digital age, some of which include spying on the private lives of citizens, corporate espionage, and control. With a large arsenal of weapons, tools, and skills, Marcus must navigate across the streets of San Francisco to further his group’s goal and uncover the secrets that brood over the citizens of great ‘ol USA.
The story starts of a bit slow. Watch Dogs 2’s hacking agenda is not as inclusive or as engaging as other open-world games. It jokes around and I can’t help but think that the problem they’re facing is nothing but a pastime for them. I also found it hard to relate with Marcus as he fights for internet freedom and other social justices using means that they are ideologically against. DedSec hacks private files so that others’ private files won’t be hacked. The group starts with some digital trolling, opposite to the heavy-handed approach of the first Watch Dogs, with this I found killing NPCs to be unjustified (at first). Kind of hard to wrap your head around it if you’re affected by morality even in video games. Also, the theme is not an immediate grave threat like an invasion of a foreign enemy, or a doomsday device waiting to happen, or other world-ending scenarios.
However, once one of their team meets a very serious accident, the stakes then go up and everything takes off. Watch Dogs 2 starts to become more mature in how it tackles things from then on, something that could’ve been better if it was done during the initial stages.
I also found that while it did improve in removing the emo-ish approach of its predecessor, the jokes thrown are somewhat forced and often times missing the mark. The comedy mostly involve nerd culture and movie/game references, yet most sound like something forced into the basket instead of a natural response. Yet, some make it into the target.
As an open-world game, Watch Dogs 2 offers the standard serving. We have a 3rd-person view of the main character that can climb, sprint, swim, and do other activities, in a wide-open city. The player can drive cars and boats; no planes or helicopters here. Quests are offered across the whole map comprised of compressed representations of San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Oakland, and Marin.
Believe me when I say it that Watch Dogs 2 is chock-full of content. It feels more alive and breathing, not like a dreary slum of automatons. Exploring the city, one can see NPCs talk and do things other than being fodder and meat shields. There’re so many things to do, although they are in the form of sidequests rather than genuine distractions such as those in GTA V. Shops are very abundant across the map. Sadly, clothes are limited only to Marcus’ specific dress code. The player can also buy cars that can be delivered instantaneously around the player’s immediate vicinity. If money is not a concern, “original” weapons and gadgetry can be bought inside the player’s homebase.
True to its theme, San Francisco and its neighboring counties are now using digital methods to streamline city traffic and surveillance. Marcus can use his tools to hack and manipulate these devices to further his goals. Should the player will it, Marcus can create havoc by blowing gas pipes underneath roads, crash generators, or remotely control cars and vehicles, all of which can be done using his humble smartphone.
Driving is more diverse and is better than what I thought it would. Each car has its own strengths and weaknesses and it’s likely for the player to find one that fits the taste.
Aggressor, Ghost, or Trickster
Watch Dogs 2 also boasts a good deal of skill choices. The player can choose to append points to a specific tree once Marcus gains enough “experience”. Skills are split in three categories: Aggressor, Ghost, and Trickster. As their name imply, all have varying advantages dependent on the player’s playstyle.
What good are choices if the game just forces you to play one path, eh? No, Watch Dogs 2 does not force feed the player into playing a specific way, unlike the one mission in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (stealth builds forced to fight). Multiple avenues are open for the player to take advantage of in every mission. For example, a room is outfitted with different means to get in. If the player prefers stealth, Marcus can hack some bots as distractions or beeline the controls for easy traversal. If not, the player can still go inside using the old-fashioned way: guns ablazing.
The Colors of West Coast
Graphics are definitely better than the first one. The colors of San Francisco bay are livelier than the dreary set of the Windy City. To further authenticate, Ubisoft also inserted some known locations into the game, like the famous suspension bridge, the Golden Gate. It also feels more optimized than the first, running smoothly and without erratic pauses.
Music is more on techno to fit the game’s theme. Although the built-in radio is also home to several tunes that are likely unknown (but definitely good), absent are DJs that add personality to these fake stations.
Should You Buy It?
Short Answer: Yes.
Here’s the long answer: Watch Dogs 2 is leaps ahead of its first brother, a fact which I indirectly mentioned a few paragraphs before. It’s better in terms of everything but the story. Digital hacktivism isn’t as down to earth as the concerns of the first Watch Dogs. The previous game dealt with a revenge story that slowly veered and affected the protagonist’s beloved family (consequently, it made things too dramatic). In Watch Dogs 2, nothing of such importance is at stake.
Marcus just mentions that what he’s fighting for is the right thing to do and goes off prancing around, trolling people and stunning them with his stun gun and ridiculous bola. Some concerns that he tackles in the game are definitely concerns, but they lack immediacy or something that would spur and inspire actions. There’re no impending threats and I am surprised that despite their actions (i.e. killing guards, defaming people, destroying government property, etc.) nothing serious is thrown at them. While playing the game, I was expecting something more impactful and it begrudgingly arrived at the latter parts. From the start until that segment, it made Marcus and his gang look like jokers that just took advantage of their computer skills.
Regrettably, the curse of GTA V still lingers around. We’ve had the taste of a good open-world and it’s quite natural to compare gameplay elements despite the differences in themes. Why are there no choppers or planes in this world? Why can’t I have businesses or something which I can call my own? Why can’t I customize my car’s innards? So many questions, no answers…
On to the greener side. Counterbalancing the story are fun gameplay features. Missions are incredibly varied and the locations are scattered across the great expanse. Once a new mission has arrived, I did find myself looking forward to it as it was an opportunity to test out and challenge my character build (Ghost/Trickster). Stealth is very satisfying and navigating across a well-guarded fort without triggering an alarm is already a reward on its own. It’s a mistake not to explore the map and slowly unveil the secrets that Watch Dogs 2 has in store. Distractions are abundant and so are things you could do with the tools contained in Marcus’ smartphone.
Another noteworthy thing is that Ubisoft managed to make the digital tinkering of devices more enjoyable. Blazing across the streets of SF with policemen or rival gangs at my tail were scenes reminiscent of old action movies that have unlimited budget for explosions and totaled cars. Creating chaos and havoc is good, and relishing it in Watch Dogs 2 is a must-do experience.
Summary: Story is bleh, gameplay is great. This game is something you should play if you love open-world games or would just prefer to explore well-detailed digital urbanity. The strengths do outweigh the weaknesses and again, it’s a game where mistakes were fixed (mostly), to create something befitting of your time. Do take note that this review was done without having touched the multiplayer as the feature during that time was unavailable. Don’t get mad at Ubisoft for it, Rockstar also did the same. We just pray that it’ll be something that can make everyone play it regularly.
I reviewed the game using a Sony PS4. The framerates are quite stable and I did not experience any chugs or slowdowns. This experience is consistent with Digital Foundry’s comparison between runs using the Xbox One and Sony PS4.