Before fiery forums and contemptuous comment sections damned No Man’s Sky as the poster boy for Overhyped Disappointment, that distinction belonged to Watch Dogs. With showstopping E3 demonstrations years before its actual release and a marketing campaign that inflated the game’s reputation into the next-gen second coming, Ubisoft’s open-world title had expectations stacked to the moon.
But Watch Dogs wasn’t the crowbar to GTA’s knee it was gassed up to be. And it certainly wasn’t the next-generation tour de force of 2014 that displayed the sheer computational power of our eighth generation consoles. It was a bog standard open-world crime game, compounded by a weak story centered on one of gaming’s worst leading men. The one concept that separated it from its peers – the ability to hack parts of the environment to your advantage – felt more like a shallow distraction than a tantamount feature. Shit, Watch Dogs isn’t even the best open-world game with “Dogs” in its title. Despite huge out-of-the-gate sales, Watch Dogs became the cornerstone of Gamestop’s $9.99 bins.
That’s why Watch Dogs 2 is such a huge surprise. Ubisoft has made a herculean effort of addressing the original game’s biggest problems. We’ve ditched the dreary reinterpretation of Chicago for a lively, sometimes uncannily accurate recreation of San Francisco. Aiden’s half-baked revenge quest has been traded up for a lighter toned but more resonant tale of rebellion against a voyeuristic big brother. We’re given a cast of characters that matter, headed up by a charming, cocksure protagonist who’s instantly likable. Watch Dogs 2 is a vast improvement over its predecessor. It’s the biggest turnaround in quality an Ubisoft sequel has managed since Assassin’s Creed II.
You’ll control Marcus Holloway, a self-styled “hacktivist” that goes by the name ‘Retr0’. The game opens on a daring heist (of sorts) that sees Marcus breaking into a Blume server farm in order to expunge an unfairly earned criminal record. If you don’t remember from the first game (beyond understandable if not), Blume is the looming corporate evil that’s trying to proliferate ‘Smart Cities’ – metropolises constantly run and monitored by their ctOS systems. They sell it as ‘security’ when it’s really just ‘control,’ with citizen’s personal data often sold to the highest bidder.
In the opening smash and hack, we’re introduced to Watch Dogs’ prevalent conceits: parkour-like maneuverability (that has you hopping railings and scaling up rooftops), sneaking around armed security guards, and hacking the hell out of anything that’ll distract, daze, or kill your pursuers. To that last point, you’re given more options to “hack the world.” It’s all contextually activated like the first game, but now when you highlight, say, an electrical box, it’s your choice whether you want to make it spark, luring in an enemy away from you or simply make it explode in his face, knocking him out. I prefer setting a proximity trigger on it and leaving the box be, letting fate (and enemy patterns) decide whose face will explode. Saves you a hacking node, too, since you have to ration its uses.
The stealth experience is way looser than you might find in other Ubisoft games – you know, the ones starring hooded assailants that like jumping into bales of hay. The bare bones are in place: you can crouch behind corners, move from cover to cover, and activate a sort of sonar vision (a requisite in stealth games since Batman: Arkham Asylum). Marcus isn’t much for fisticuffs, but he does have an adequate takedown maneuver that puts enemies out cold. If you need some range, you start the game with a stun gun that’ll put them to sleep instead for a short amount of time– though they usually wake up and freak out, putting bases on high alert.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
If you wish, you can go analog and tackle most encounters this way. But Marcus’ squishiness should dissuade most from going full aggro: it typically takes three or so hits before he’s pushing digital daisies and you’re forced to sit through the game’s over long loading times. Besides that, you’d be doing yourself a disservice since utilizing Marcus’ range of hacking tools and tricks is when Watch Dogs 2 is at its best.
An extensive upgrade tree maps provides you new ways to cause havoc, running the gamut from immediately useful, like controlling cars remotely, to hilarious, like planting evidence on an unsuspecting passerby that causes SFPD to swarm them like a horde of bees. You can embrace your inner voyeur, just as in the original, and spy on people’s texts or phone conversation, or help yourself to a few bucks from their bank accounts. The feature is less throwaway (and pervy) this time around now that you can recharge your hacking modules by invading NPC’s privacy.
Very early on, you come across two of your greatest weapons. No, it isn’t any of the 3D printed guns available at your “hackerspaces.” It’s actually an RC car and a little drone quadcopter. Just as you can storm into gang hideouts guns drawn, you can complete entire missions just using your remote control duo. And the latter is so much more fun. The RC car can zip behind enemy lines and interact with the environment in Marcus’ stead. Hack terminals, unlock passageways, set off traps, you name it. Upgrade it and you can have it shout insults at guards to draw their eyes away from Marcus. Or just shout insults for the hell of it. Up to you.
The quadcopter serves as your eyes in the sky. It can’t interact with hackable points like the RC can, but its role becomes invaluable, especially in densely guarded fortresses (and by “fortress” I do mean Oakland villas overlooking the bay). The quadcopter can spot and tag enemies from afar, provide a heightened vantage point, and help you scout out climbable throughways you couldn’t see from ground level. Some of the best thrills I had came from using both devices in conjunction, slipping in to snatch (or hack) my objective, and distracting enemies long enough to make a clean getaway.
THE DEDSEC SECT
Though you spend most of the game fighting a giant, faceless conglomerate, the story wisely pulls back its scope to focus on your Dedsec team. Impressed by Marcus’ hacking prowess, he’s soon invited into the fold of the San Francisco chapter of Dedsec. You meet Sitara, a graphic artist that sees the merit in spreading the group’s reach through social channels; Horatio, the group’s intelligence man; Josh, a computer wizard whose skills are as strong as his social ineptitude; and Wrench, an eccentric engineer that perpetually wears a spiked mask with LED emotes.
This ensemble shouldn’t work as well as it does. They’re a gaggle of meme loving, pop culture reference spewing millennials obsessed with technology. If the writing were clumsier, I’m sure people would have hated Dedsec SF. But they have style and humor. The writing is sharp – early Whedon sharp. I loved Marcus and Wrench’s budding bromance, where they recite dumb movie lines together or argue whether Alien or Predator would win in a straight fight. Josh’s feeble but earnest attempts to ingratiate himself with the rest of the group are surprisingly heartfelt. It got to a point where I was glad to revisit the hackerspace just to see another scene play out between these characters.
Their MO isn’t surgical strikes against their opposition. Instead, you’ll be tasked to perform public pranks, often to the embarrassment of in-game analogs for companies like Google and Facebook, just to accrue a following so that Dedsec’s message can be shared. The story falters whenever it strays from this Fight-The-Man narrative in order to try its hand at real gravitas. There’s an especially glaring moment when a (spoiler) character dies that felt so left-field and undeserved. We are talking about a game where the main antagonist is a filthy rich, man-bunned hipster after all. What keeps the whole proceeding from buckling during these dips is the charisma of Marcus and his Dedsec crew. If you’re not won over by Marcus’ recital of the “Los Locos” mantra from Short Circuit 2, well, I don’t want to meet you.
THE CITY BY THE BAY
The standout character in Watch Dogs 2, however, is Frisco herself. Ubisoft has done a fantastic job at virtualizing not just its geography but its culture, too. You can visit boutique stores and adorn yourself in garish, hipster threads. You can overhear passerby ranting about their Silicon Valley struggles or hear them complain about their exorbitant rent. It’s playful satire that doesn’t rip apart its subject like Rockstar might find too hard to pass up.
Your typical smorgasbord of open-world bells and whistles are still at play: stealing cars, ramping off highways, the works. Beyond that, there’s a generous smattering of ridiculous activities to take part in like go-kart and yacht races. This go around, Ubi has refrained from pumping an inordinate amount of collectibles into the world. Your pickups are now limited to Research Points that feel useful since they let you unlock even more hacking abilities to screw around with.
Finding them, however, is way more interesting than just poking your nose behind a trash can. Sometimes you’ll have to put in the leg work and use Marcus’ parkour skills to navigate buildings they’re hiding atop. Sometimes you’ll have to lean on your hacking muscles to solve matching puzzles. And, sometimes, you’ll just have to take the easy way out and hack a scaffolding over to your cause. Don’t expect every Research Point to lie waiting in the open; some will be tucked way behind guarded lines, turning your treasure hunt into a full-on encounter.
Of course, this being your sandbox, you can cause chaos as you see fit. The cops will come down on you with righteous retribution but even simple car chases are way more interesting than usual since you can hack traffic lights, gas mains beneath the street, and the very cruisers they’re trying to run you down in.
Discovering the city isn’t limited to your personal time, either. Several missions have you hitting landmarks and utilizing spaces the Dedsec way. From graffiti tagging the Golden State Bridge to outrunning police battalions in the tomb of Alcatraz, the game gives players a pretty extensive tour during its runtime.
The game’s “seamless online experience” wasn’t working at launch but has since been patched, opening up a few multiplayer modes for players. The first mode is a riff on cops and robbers where you’re either a bounty hunter or the bounty. There’s an obvious dissonance between the game’s campy narrative and the violence it allows you to inflict, and this mode just underlines that divide. The quickest way to end these engagements is to either kill or be killed, which totally dismisses the craftier elements of the main game’s hacking. Bounty Hunt is short, brutal, and usually not worth the prolonged waits you face when trying to hop into a session.
The second mode, a sort of hide n’ hack game, has you attempting to download info from an unsuspecting player. If you’re caught, you can try to run off but practically every encounter ended with the other player gunning me down. This mode at least plays on the game’s central conceit but I doubt many will play past the single Trophy it unlocks.
The final, and best, way to hop online are through co-op missions that see two players working together to hack or destroy objectives in the middle of enemy bases. It’s essentially what you’re used to doing in the campaign, but with a buddy (or a stranger). Your enjoyment here will probably be measured by how tolerant you are of your partner’s mistakes. If they get spotted, it isn’t long before things devolve into a shootout. Given that the best compliment I can give combat is that it’s serviceable, I predict many will dabble, but fail to stick with Watch Dogs 2 online.
There’s so much to like about Watch Dogs 2. It’s a kinetic playground littered with clever design and likable characters. It doesn’t reinvent the genre by any stretch of the imagination – besides the keynote hacking, there’s very little here we haven’t seen before in other open-worlders. But just because you know the song, it doesn’t mean the song isn’t played well.
Ubisoft deftly balances agency and story to a degree that, when one stumbles, the other picks up the slack. Their tech obsessed rendition of San Francisco is an inviting playground that I suspect this series will struggle to top. Marcus Holloway is a unique entry point for this type of game: he isn’t a sociopathic career criminal nor a mute canvas for players to project on. He’s a charismatic youth in revolt. The prototypical underdog you can’t help but root for.
My biggest complaint stems from having Marcus’ mentality affect me. I felt genuine discomfort committing the atrocities that have become standard fare in games like GTA and Saints Row. It’s a shame that later levels crank up the difficulty so much that going the non-lethal route feels punishing. It speaks volumes of our medium’s maturity when going on a shotgunning rampage is an easier means to attain our goals than not. Ubisoft needed a better reason to include firearms than “the other guys do it, so we did it too.” Watch Dogs 2 is a fundamentally better experience when you’re challenged to subvert the opposition using your wits and the environment. Should a third game get commissioned – the fifteen different Assassin’s Creed sequels and spin-offs give me a glimmer of hope that it just might – Ubisoft would be wise to take the best elements from this game and dig deeper.
Watch Dogs 2, developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft, is available for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC.