Watch_Dogs 2: Join the 1337 h4x0r5.

The original Watch_Dogs was in many ways a success for Ubisoft Montreal, ticking all the required boxes for it to meet the standard of a AAA open world title. However the hype that built up around it, specifically from that one E3 video, led many to be disappointed with the final product. To their credit Ubisoft remained committed to the franchise and has spent the following 2 years developing Watch_Dogs sequel. Whilst at a base game level this sequel features many of the mechanics that made the original great the tone and feel of the game is radically different. That combined with improvements in some of the original’s more glaring issues makes Watch_Dogs 2 a notable improvement over its predecessor.

Watch_Dogs 2 takes place in San Francisco, the next city to install the ctOS system which integrates all city subsystems into one giant interconnected grid. You’ll play as Marcus Holloway, a young hacker who’s been targeted by ctOS for a crime he didn’t commit. Because of this he decides to join Dedsec, the hacktivist group responsible for wrecking havoc and exposing corruption. What follows is a story of Dedsec’s crusade against ctOS, the people in power who use it and any of the numerous corporations who would seek to exploit the citizens of San Francisco.

The original Watch_Dogs was criticised for failing to live up to the visuals that were seen in its E3 demo and Watch_Dogs 2 goes a long way to closing that gap. The environments are far more detailed with more cars, people and interactive objects scattered across the San Francisco backdrop. There’s notable improvements to the lighting engine, draw distances and other modern post-processing techniques like motion blur.  Taking into consideration that open world games tend towards the lower end of the graphical spectrum (due to their scale) Watch_Dogs 2 is certainly one of the better looking titles in this genre. It’s still a hair shy of that fated demo, however.

As I mentioned before the core game of Watch_Dogs 2 hasn’t changed much from its predecessor, staying true to the open world norms with the inclusion of their trademark hacking mechanics. The progression mechanics have been reworked to focus around you gaining “followers” to help boost your cause, most of which you’ll gain through Watch_Dog 2’s main and side missions. The online components have been reworked significantly and are far more seamless than they used to be; the transition between offline and online play a much smoother experience. Driving has been improved significantly, no longer feeling like you’re trying to drive a boat through a sea of molasses. The stealth mechanics are also retained however there’s a little less variety in what you can hack, something which is made up for in a few new choice abilities which can cause all sorts of mayhem. Overall Watch_Dogs 2 improves on the original in nearly every respect something which Ubisoft Montreal should take some pride in.

Combat feels largely the same, still following the same two stage formula that its predecessor did. Whilst you can likely complete every mission with just hacking alone it’s very likely you’ll do something to be detected, forcing you into combat. Interestingly there doesn’t seem to be any downside to killing anyone and everyone in your path but there is a very notable downside to taking the non-lethal approach. Enemies downed in that way will eventually get back up and will alert everyone else to your presence when they do. This does add an extra element of challenge if you want to go full non-lethal, stealth based approach but without additional rewards it doesn’t seem like there’s any reason to. Indeed by the end I’d just end up using my vast hacking abilities to simply run past everyone, forgoing any notion of stealth or even non-lethal attacks.

The hacking powers are a little more interesting this time around, especially some of the end-game abilities which allow you to affect everything in the area around you. It didn’t take me long to max out the powers I wanted to get and I spent most of the game with 20 or so research points ready to spend should the need arise. Some are simple quality of life improvements (like the car unlocking one) whilst others don’t have much of a purpose other than causing a bit of mayhem here or there. Probably my favourite out of the lot was the ability to call the police on a target NPC, something which can be used to great effect when you need to get into a restricted area. If I had one complaint it’s that all the higher end powers require you to go and find another item to unlock them which becomes a bit of a chore when you have to do it for the 10th time.

The driving is thankfully much improved over its predecessor, making it actually fun to drive around rather than fast travelling. Watch_Dogs 2 also reduces the number of car chases you’ll find yourself in so you won’t be spending hours trying to escape from the endless supply of police. There also appears to a be a larger number of vehicles to choose from including my favourite: the single person electric car that seems to be as fast as any of the sports cars. The NPC drivers though still seem to suffer from random fits of craziness every so often with cars just randomly running off the road or into each other, even when I hadn’t gone near them. That could very well be intentional, to give the city a more lively feel, but I do wonder if it’s just an errant part of the AI.

The multiplayer aspects are far better done than its predecessor was. I can remember trying to do some of the online activities in the original with most of them failing to even connect to other players. Watch_Dogs 2 by comparison (by default, you can change this) drops you in and out of other player’s games on a whim. It can be pretty awesome when you’re just driving around and a bounty hunter challenge comes up, putting you alongside law enforcement to chase down a rogue enemy player. Some of the other, hacking focused games are a little one sided, being incredibly hard for the hacker to actually successfully hack someone and get away with it (especially if the other player is armed in any way). Still they’re a fun distraction, one that I hope Ubisoft explores even further in future releases.

Watch_Dogs 2 drops the serious tone of its predecessor in favour of a more kitschy, light-hearted take. The characters are stereotypes or satires of particular hacker tropes with the overriding them following the hacktivist ideas that have been popularised by the various real world incarnations of other -sec entities. Weirdly, whilst the game has the usual disclaimer about it being a work of fiction unrelated to the real world, numerous events are carbon copies of their real world counterparts (like Martin Shrekli buying an exclusive Wu Tang album). The pacing and character development is weirdly out of step, seemingly moving at a faster pace than what the missions would imply. This might be because I was mostly doing campaign missions but surely that’s where you want the bulk of your character development to occur. Realistically I don’t think you’re supposed to read much into Watch_Dogs 2’s story but it’s disjointed nature mirror’s some of the mistakes that its predecessor made.

Watch_Dogs 2 is a solid improvement over the original, addressing many of the concerns that players had whilst retaining the core mechanics that made it worth playing. It may not be a revolutionary instalment in the series but the incremental improvements go a long way to making Watch_Dogs 2 the game that many were hoping the original would be. It’s not perfect, with some of the previous issues rearing their ugly heads again, but it definitely feels closer to what the original should have been. For fans of the open world genre there’s a lot to love in Watch_Dogs 2 and is most certainly worth checking out.

Rating: 9.0/10

Watch_Dogs 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $60.95, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 18 hours of total play time and 51% of the achievements unlocked.

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