written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
The world can be a scary place, scarier now in a world of high tech gadgets and the fear of malicious hackers looming over ever corner of the interwebs. Watch Dogs 2 (stylized as WATCH_DOGS2) is the hotly anticipated follow-up to 2014’s Watch Dogs, Though the predecessor faced some controversy upon release, the game did sell well enough to warrant a sequel. Personally, I enjoyed Watch Dogs for what it was with only a few gripes, in Jay Hammon’s review of the first game, he said “we should all be excited for the sequel” and in pretty much every one of his main points I agreed with him. Watch Dogs was full of innovation for the open world/third person genre, but much of what made the game frustrating kept me from considering it a paramount game for the generation. So does Watch Dogs 2 fix much of what bugged me about the first game?
Following the exploits of Aiden Pearce and his one man hack-a-thon against crime and city wide surveillance, we jump to the beating heart of tech… San Francisco and much of the Bay Area. While Watch Dogs was a story of revenge and retribution, Watch Dogs 2 is instead a cautionary tale about trusting your tech too much. You control Marcus Halloway, a street smart self-taught hacker with a bone to pick with ctOS and Blume. After being arrested for a high tech burglary he did not commit, he decides to turn the tables on big brother by exposing the corruption underneath the code. Recruited by DedSec from the get go, the game opens up with the hacker group running Marcus through a try-out of sorts… the goal being erasing his digital footprint from ctOS.
Between the events of Watch Dogs and the opening of Watch Dogs 2, ctOS has evolved into a very different beast. Blume, the tech conglomerate behind ctOS2.0 illegally monitors citizens and sells their data to major players in the public and private sector. From having your insurance premiums automatically raised because you make frequent visits to fast food restaurants… to predictive algorithms that determine how likely you will commit a crime. Everyone has their hands in Blume’s cookie jar. DedSec’s role in Watch Dogs 2 differs a bit than it did in Watch Dogs. Despite Aiden working with DedSec, he was never a full-fledged member; Aiden even refused to give DedSec access to the ctOS systems at the end of the first game.
As Marcus “retr0” Halloway, you are just as much DedSec as the rest of your supporting team. Realizing they will need a ridiculous amount of processing power to take down Blume, DedSec completes tasks across the city that gain followers on social media and urge people to download the DedSec app. The group is all about transparency and they tell their users up front that the app allows the hacktivists to pool the collective processing power of everyone’s devices to act as a makeshift super computer to use against ctOS2.0 and most importantly, Blume.
Your core team will be your ride or die companions through the game’s narrative. Sitara is the talented artist of the group… using her extensive graphic design background to give DedSec a face, Josh is the brains of the operation… one of the best code monkeys in DedSec’s arsenal, Horatio is your man on the street… by day he works for Nudle (this world’s Google) and by night he’s focusing on exposing the corruption in Silicon Valley, and then there’s Wrench… he gives DedSec teeth and claws, plus he’s got a wicked cool mask that displays his emotions with ascii emoticons.
Gameplay is similar to its predecessor, you control the tech around you with various hacks via your handy-dandy smart phone. Much of Aiden’s arsenal is also available to Marcus, you complete your missions by hacking the world around you. While you can jump in guns blazing, the core gameplay does favor stealth over hails of bullets. So much so that loud and proud gunplay makes the game far more difficult than the stealth engagements. To better diversify your arsenal, Marcus is given a few more toys. An RC car and Quadcopter give Marcus more options than just hacking into the numerous camera systems.Thanks to ctOS2.0, DedSec is able to better weaponize this technology beyond just causing distractions or blowing transformers. Depending on how much chaos you choose to cause, you can also issue a forged APB on a target or send an anonymous tip to one of the city’s gangs that you found a snitch. Most of the time, going the boys in blue route leads to less casualties… though if you want to incite a massive gang war… you can just tell one of the gang’s who you want them to kill. It’s all about options eh?
Movement is dramatically improved from the first game. Maybe it’s because Aiden wasn’t as spry as Marcus, but I remember being frustrated by how slow Aiden moved.From running, jumping, and traversing warehouses full of Russian mobsters; Marcus controls much better than Aiden ever did. One of the improvements I was hoping for was better character movement, so that’s a plus in my book. But of course, some things ended up more of the same. Driving was a mixed bag for me in Watch Dogs 2. I absolutely hated driving cars. Everything from mini vans to sports cars just felt so damn heavy. What I did enjoy was driving motorcycles, in all of their failings in creating a fun driving mechanic for their cars… they did succeed in motorcycles, so at least it’s half right I guess?
As I mentioned earlier, despite giving the player a plethora of options to engage… the core game feels like it heavily skews to the stealthier approach. This created a slightly uneven take on combat. While the stealthier aspects of the game are by far some of the best executed in the entire package, the moments you do want to go in guns blazing feel clunky and to be honest at times not fun. Despite its flaws, the first game balanced the two dramatically better than in Watch Dogs 2. This doesn’t suck mind you, the inclusion of new tricks and toys made being stealthy exponentially more fun. Using the quadcopter to scan a hot zone for threats or using the RC car to get a more in-depth look at your objectives creates some interesting problem solving mechanics to an already solid game.
Helping along the way is your handy dandy 3D printer. As you fatten your bank account you can “print” various pieces of your arsenal from a silenced pistol to a launcher that sends out a burst of non-lethal rounds. Armed with a stun gun, how you take down your marks can vary… knock em out for a little while or put them down with an up close and personal melee attack.
Outside the main game, you can utilize the various sidequests to better increase DedSec’s followers and also better augment your abilities. Watch Dogs 2 utilizes a seamless multiplayer aspect to some of the side missions. When you first hacked into Blume, you pick an avatar for your online exploits. While you will always look like Marcus in your game, your multiplayer partners or adversaries will be that avatar picked during the game’s first mission. As a duo, you team up with a fellow DedSec member to achieve various objectives made to be more difficult for single players. Communication is key as you both have to work together to better survive an encounter. The multiplayer hacking mission where you either get hacked or have to hack a rival hacker return as well, from the player’s perspective you will always be DedSec’s Marcus but your opponent will be a member of rival hacker group “Prime_Eight,” a group of hackers that factor into the game’s narrative and act as one of the many rival gangs in the city. These missions were fun and broke up much of the game’s monotony., though the lack of diverse missions made much of the multiplayer get old fairly quickly.
Visually, the game looks stunning and runs relatively well. As big of a world as this game is, the varying locations (all based on real locales in the Bay Area) give the world of Watch Dogs 2 a character all its own. Though there is a slight difference between in-game visuals and the visuals in cinematics, it’s subtle enough to not be a defining reason to drop points. I do wish more of the locations you participated in sidequests varied a bit. While there are a few that leave a memorable mark, there are some water front buildings and warehouse assets that pretty much copy and pasted in various locations in the city. You don’t notice it at first, but when the feeling of deja vu hits ya more times in a game than you expect, you start to see that the same attention to detail the game’s core missions were given were not applied to the side missions.
When the game is all said and done, what truly matters is the story… and here is where I feel I need to be a bit more critical of it. Aiden had a clear goal in Watch Dogs, despite being a flawed game… it did have a gripping story that rivaled the best action-thrillers in theaters. The focus on internet justice from a group of hacktivists that by large were not the central focus in the first game did end up leaving me wanting. I really loved the cast of characters, I felt Marcus was a fantastic addition to the overarching Watch Dogs universe, and this game showed us how the ambitious mechanics of the first game could be improved. The thing is, I found myself not caring as much for Marcus and DedSec’s mission as I did for Aiden Pearce and his one man vigilantism in the first game. While I get that they wanted to make this story all about Marcus and his crusade, I felt they missed a very clear chance to include Aiden. While there was a dinky ass side mission that had you assist Aiden, that was all you really got from the first game’s protagonist.
If Ubisoft hopes to build a strong franchise out of Watch Dogs as they did with Assassin’s Creed, they are going to have to find a common denominator between their games. While the AC series has the Templars and the hunt for Pieces of Eden, the only common thread that I felt held Watch Dogs as a series is ctOS and Blume. While sleazy tech industrialists can make for great villains, there has to be more to them to really make them feel sinister. While Aiden Pearce has aging gangster Lucky Quinn, the big bad of Watch Dogs 2 was a douchy man-bun sporting tech industrialist. You could barely put the two side by side and I felt that they missed a chance to really make Dusan Nemic a good villain.
While not perfect, Watch Dogs 2 managed to rectify much of what made the first game flawed. Combat was better, your tech more diverse, and movement felt more fluid. While Marcus was far from the parkour loving Assassin type, he did move better than Aiden did. The driving mechanic still needs work and despite improving on much of where the first game failed, the overarching narrative was not as interesting as I hoped. Overall a solid title and one that leaves me with high hopes for the series. Here’s hoping Watch Dogs 3 can leave a more memorable mark.
+ Improved movement
+ New toys and skills
+ Great cast of characters
- Driving still sucks
- Narrative lacking excitement