It’s been a couple of years since the launch of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs, and though the first game sold incredibly well, the critical reception was mixed. Roll on to the present day and we finally have sequel – set in a new location with new characters – but it still focusses on the core hacking-flavoured open world gameplay that defined the original back in 2014.
The first game was a rather serious affair, but that outlook has been ditched altogether in favour of a more relaxed and occasionally silly tone. This more light-hearted approach is a better fit for the open world genre, and it pulls the Watch Dogs franchise closer to the likes of early Saints Row games, which many will be happy about. However, this shift also removes what was arguably one of the key points of difference for the franchise, and I personally prefer the more sober approach taken in the first game.
Your crew, operating under the alias of Dedsec, are a bunch of misfits and social rejects who pride themselves on their technical wizardry. They’re certainly more likeable than the dour thug that was Aiden Pearce, but also don’t go beyond the tired clichés of nerdy kids who live their whole lives in front of computers. There are a few interesting secondary characters scattered throughout the game, and the CEO of the invasive Blume Corporation certainly has his moments, but what's here doesn't rival any of the better Rockstar scripts.
What did get me rolling my eyes on occasion was the hypocrisy exhibited by our well-meaning gang. Blume's constant invasion of privacy and misuse of personal information makes American governmental agencies look like saints by comparison, and yet the retaliatory actions taken by Dedsec are often of a similar nature, complemented by a vicious vindictiveness towards anyone unwise enough to slight them. That said, this complete lack of self-awareness is arguably a commentary on the mindset of such groups – both in the game and out.
Watch Dogs 2 is set in a cropped rendition of the San Francisco Bay Area, with plenty of iconic landmarks dotting the map. The city itself is competently constructed with plenty of unique details that ensure it isn’t a repetitive sprawl, and while the game world isn’t the largest sandbox ever, it contains very little filler. Instead, it's filled to the brim with normal people going about their daily lives and, err... not so normal people trying their best to do the same.
There’s so much to do it can be a little overwhelming at first. There are a very respectable number of main story and secondary missions, and despite the quantity, most of them feel fresh and unique – a commendable achievement for an open world game. As always, there’s also a huge number of collectibles and incidental events littered throughout the map: in a move that will surprise no-one, Ubisoft has gone a bit overboard here. If you’re a collect-‘em-all kind of gamer, then believe me: you have your work cut out for you.
The true strength of Watch Dogs 2 is found in its hacking mechanics, which best those of the first game in every way. The defining feature of the franchise, hacking is woven tightly into all facets of the game. Almost every object that has a computer chip inside can be accessed to some extent using your smartphone, from the personal devices and vehicles of NPCs to the city infrastructure itself. And not only have the original perks and systems been refined, but the new additions up the ante further.
Vehicle hacking in particular is a master stroke of genius, allowing players to control any road vehicle in the game world with simple directional commands. You can zoom through crowded streets by running everyone else off the road in front of you, or spring surprises on enemies by running them over when they walk behind parked cars.
Ubisoft has also chucked in a couple of powerful RC drones to spice things up in the form of a buggy and a quadcopter. Both of these can be upgraded with progressively more powerful abilities, and can eventually even be equipped with weapons. The buggy is essential for many of the main missions and collectibles, but it’s the quadcopter that really shines. Once it’s up in the air, it’s remarkably easy to scout out an entire restricted complex from a safe position, and then leave it hovering overhead as you infiltrate.
These powerful aids effectively make the use of traditional weapons obsolete, as the combination of drones and hacking easily gets you through many missions without firing a shot. In a way these tools are too powerful: you can steal a van in a particular story chapter and drive it out through multiple gates remotely, all without even entering the mission area. This lack of challenge is further compounded by none-too-bright AI, who will watch said van driving out the gate without batting an eyelid.
Should you decide to take a more confrontational stance, there is a taser that can put enemies temporarily out of action while keeping your conscience clear. They will eventually wake up and raise the alarm, but speed and a steely nerve will see you through most sticky situations. If all else fails, the game's sizeable arsenal of death-dealing firearms make short work of everything from pedestrians to armoured SWAT vans.
Watch Dogs 2 does have some technical problems, some more critical than others. The loading times are terrible, particularly when booting the game up for the first time after start-up. Dying repeatedly in a few of the harder sections pushed my patience to the very limit in this regard. There’s also very noticeable graphical pop-in, and the vehicle physics feel off – much like they did in the original game. The NPC AI is a bit ditzy too, but I let this slide as it more often than not leads to some form of unintentional hilarity.
Then there's the multiplayer, which was brought online just over a week after the game hit shelves. It’s not quite a GTA Online-type experience, but in theory it is supposed to seamlessly mix several multiplayer modes into the solo game. As in the first game, you can hack into the games of other players and steal from them, but there are co-op missions available now too. Players will randomly connect to one another when they are in the same area of the game world, with the game determining whether they are friend or foe.
Frankly, these random encounters are an annoyance. You’ll be in the middle of climbing to find a collectible or on route to an objective, and suddenly some random NPC will morph into another player like they’re Agent Smith from The Matrix. At best they’ll try to hack you and you’ll then have the option of hunting them down, but all too often they’ll ignore the hacking objective altogether and just kill you instead. Even players who appear in your game as allies do their best to make your life hell, which usually involves running you over with whatever vehicle they can lay their hands on.
To be clear though, none of the above is a deal-breaker for those wanting to play alone, as all direct player interaction can be turned off in the options menu – something that isn’t a bad idea if you’re playing through the story missions for the first time. For those who may have been looking at this game purely for it’s multiplayer component, it's really only an enhancement to the offline mode, and doesn't stand up on its own the way GTA Online does.
Even so, Watch Dogs 2 is a big step forward in many areas, and is particularly rewarding for imaginative players who enjoy silly antics in the possibility spaces open world games provide. The story is a little weak in places, and the multiplayer still feels like it needs to be split into it’s own separate experience or at least revised from its current form. But when all is said and done, Watch Dogs 2 is one of the best open world games to be released in recent times, and should be on most people’s wish list for Santa this year.