The premise of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs (2014), the first entry in the French company’s open-world-hacking-Grand-Theft-Auto-Assassin’s-Creed-Lite-hybrid, was truly fascinating. It put you in the shoes of a master hacker, vigilante and justice bringing hero. The game offered a multitude of vehicles, weapons, gadgets, and a massive open world to explore. It had a strong, yet dark, plot and a somewhat likeable lead character. Most of all, it had heart. Sadly, Watch Dogs (2014) ultimately fell into a repetitive struggle to maintain it’s “hacking” premise, while hoping you would “shoot everything in sight” in a world that was severely underpopulated and poorly realised. People did not take kindly to it. Now Watch Dogs 2 (2016) has arrived, but how does it fair?
Ubisoft has clearly learnt from its past mistakes, and took the time to completely rethink the gameplay mechanics of its intriguing Intellectual Property (IP). From the moment the game starts, it is eye-openingly clear that Ubisoft went back to the drawing board for Watch Dogs 2 (2016). The sequel is one in name only, and improves on absolutely every single thing that its predecessor attempted to offer.
Just like the first game, Watch Dogs 2 offers a near-seamless “hacking” experience within an open-world. One that is filled with thugs, gangs, police, civilians and a variety of unique and interesting locations. The game has aptly been described as Grand Theft Auto with Hacking. Having said this, the ability to hack is actually a very small part of the game. Similar to the first game, you portray the role of a vigilante hacker in Watch Dogs 2 (2016). Someone who is able to find flaws in electronic systems and use them to your advantage.
Watch Dogs 2 puts you in the shoes of a young and talented man named Marcus Holloway, who was unfairly accused of being a suspect in a high tech robbery. As the protagonist, he is a super cool, smart and well-to-do young man. In fact, he is smart enough to receive a scholarship from MIT, but does not do so because he has the uncanny ability to hack into city-wide Connected Systems (ctOS – the operating system that connects everything) and is thus able to live a decent life on his hacking abilities alone. He is also a far cry from Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pearce. Unlike Aiden, Marcus is a much less serious and far more fun and chilled guy who knows how to take a joke; and this shines through in the campaign. When Marcus is having fun, you are having fun.
Where the first game had extremely dark undertones of sexual abuse, human trafficking, and murder; Watch Dogs 2 instead aims for a much more light hearted and fun campaign. It is a roller-coaster ride filled with tongue-in-cheek references to Silicon Valley and the technology industry of today. It also makes no effort to hide the fact that it is a game for the geeks, and includes many references to science-fiction classics like Alien, Hackers, and Knight Rider, which are plastered all over the world to find and geek over. Unlike the first game, Watch Dogs 2 replaces the need to force players into empathising with the protagonist from an emotional standpoint [AKA “murdered niece” aspect from the original game] and instead gives the player an ensemble of characters to befriend. This way, everyone can relate much more naturally with Marcus, his adventures and final cause. With that said, the game is not without its flaws — most of which, interestingly, stem from the original game that this sequel is based on.
Story? Yeah I can dig that
Similarly to the previous game, the overarching narrative in Watch Dogs 2 can, at first, be really hard to follow. Once you are done with the initial “tutorial” mission, the game throws a myriad of things at you at once. It opens with two side quests and a main mission right from the get-go.
At the start, Marcus is roped into working with a hacking group called DedSec, a group of “hacktivists” that are clearly based on the real world’s Anonymous. Together with this group, Marcus helps to: exploit personal home security systems for what they really are [expensive jokes]; expose corrupt government officials; hijack fully autonomous vehicles, and, among others, take down fake religious cults.
As you take down these various groups, gamers will notice that the story is interesting and varied enough to take them from locale to locale around the fictional ‘San Francisco’, without issue or inconvenience. In one instance, it jumps from a movie studio through to the Scientology-based cult that owns it, and eventually on to the security systems that they use. Granted, the story is not that easy to follow at the start. Rather, it feels like it gives you small pieces of a puzzle that you cannot yet complete. Then, as the story hits its first “oh man” moment, it suddenly shows you a glimpse of the complete puzzle and how to get there.
One of the best parts of Watch Dogs 2, and a supreme improvement over the original, is how the game’s missions manage to stay vibrant and alive. This is due in part to the look and feel that Ubisoft decided to give the game, one that is wonderfully bright and inviting – much better than the doom and gloom of its predecessor. However, the true standout feature of the game is the world itself. Simply put, it feels ‘alive’, and is always teeming with colourful, weird, likeable, funny and interesting non-playable characters. There is always someone talking or doing something; like fighting in the streets, hugging “old” friends, and even calling up their booty calls. It is one of the most immersive open-world games I have had the pleasure of enjoying.
Although the world is like a character on its own, the other stars of the show are the characters that Marcus befriends along the way. When Marcus is alone on a mission, he is in constant contact with his friends. When he is with them, you get a glimpse into the wonderfully wacky “no-fuss” world of ‘teenage’ and ‘young adult’ hackers. Similarly, the missions that are given by any one of Marcus’ DedSec friends all have their own personality. Each mission feels unique and harbours characteristics based on the character who initially gives Marcus the task to complete. Despite you ‘playing alone’, Marcus is always in touch with someone.
The walls are seeping with colours and memes
Before I continue with the characters Marcus meets in the game, I must mention the absolute ridiculousness of the game itself. As I started to play, I became overly irritated by the overbearing number of memes riddled throughout the cutscenes, and do not even get me started on the dumb mask the character called “Wrench” wears. It all felt rather inane, ridiculous, and just a bit too much… and then things changed.
Strangely enough, after a few more hours of gameplay, I felt myself slowly growing to absolutely adore the characters that Ubisoft’s team of writers thought up and brought to life. The characters are more complex than I originally gave them credit for. Wrench, for example, is actually quite awesome once you get to know him better (even with the mask).
The character Sitara is the resident female of the group and is an artistic wonder. She handles the artwork and colours that populate the “hackerspaces” that you hang out in. Then there is Wrench. As mentioned above, he is an extremely likeable dude; although he can be a bit awkward. Wrench’s mask covers his entire face, but the visor can emote according to how Wrench feels or what he thinks.
Together with those two, Marcus is also introduced to Horatio and Josh; two gentlemen with polar opposite characteristics. Horatio is a young man who works for Nudle, one of the bigger corporations in Watch Dogs 2’s San Fransisco. It is not exactly clear what Nudle does, but the maps app in Marcus’ phone is called Nudle Maps, which leads me to believe that it is based on Google. Horatio is the resident tactical coordinator. he identifies key intel that Marcus must retrieve in his missions. Josh, on the other hand, is a socially awkward teen with Aspergers. He is the one that writes most of the code for the team and can break into just about any security system. He is shown to be less receptive to social queues and triggers, but ends up being a loveable asset that no one wants to lose.
Over the course of the game, you meet a few more colourful individuals who I will not name since they are integral to some of the main missions towards the end of the game [#NoSpoilers – but you can get a glimpse of one of them in the official story trailer for Watch Dogs 2]. Even with the extreme amount of “playfulness” the game exudes, it has a refreshing air about it that does not drown you in overbearing lore or inane tasks. It is a light-hearted journey that pulls you in and plucks at your heart when something bad happens to the DedSec crew.
Wait! First let me take a selfie
Watch Dogs 2 took a page out of the good old Grand Theft Auto playbook and introduced a large variety of shops and points of interest that can be interacted with. It features different clothing stores with unique styles, coffee houses, and even pawn shops! My version of Marcus was anything but ‘hippy’, sporting leather, shades and an all around vibe of “cool”.
Contrary to the original game, Watch Dogs 2 does away with ‘side content’ that is locked until certain criteria is met. Instead, the game simply requires you to download a few apps from the in-game Appstore, drive by a point of interest, and whatever side content was hidden, is now unlocked! In terms of missions, there are two apps in particular: Driver SF and ScoutX.
While Driver SF is a clear reference to Ubisoft’s 2011 game, Driver: San Francisco, the app is a bit different. It allows Marcus to pick up clients and drive them to their destinations, much like Uber and Lyft. The twist here is that you actually do crazy things for the clients you pick up. ScoutX, on the other hand, acts as a successor to the City Hotspots app from the first game. It is an Instagram-like photo service that rewards Marcus with followers for every landmark he photographs.
Other apps include the Car On Demand App, the Camera, and obviously the Media Player app. This is my opportunity to voice how awesome the licensed music is in Watch Dogs 2. I hardly ever found myself running around without any music playing. In the first game, there was one particular radio station I listened to, and it was not a lot either.
Marcus is not only a master of parkour and sneaking, but he is also the proud owner of two 3D printed drones! One of them is a Remote Controlled three-wheeled ground drone, and another is a robust quadcopter that can stay in the air for what feels like an eternity. The drones are a huge part of the “sneaking” aspect of the gameplay. In fact, there are multiple missions where Marcus just sits on the sidelines while his drones do all of the work!
The ground drone is the heavy lifter of the two. It is not only the first drone you get in the game, but it is the only one capable of hacking into systems and retrieving items. It can be upgraded with a speaker and higher jumping capabilities later on in order to distract guards.
The quadcopter may not be able to pick things up and hack into stuff, but it has an amazing ability: flight (no way, dude!). The quadcopter makes it possible to scope out entire zones and mark every single hostile in the area. It also allows for remote hacking into phones and communication systems in order to keep enemies off Marcus’ back. This drone is also the most helpful in situations where you need to unlock a security system via the hacking minigame.
Where Watch Dogs 2 absolutely shines is the level design. Thanks to the addition of drones, Ubisoft went crazy with some phenomenal maze-like levels. This includes apartment buildings and warehouses, all whilst still maintaining the ‘San Fran’ look and feel on the outside.
Guns… WTF is this?
Where Watch Dogs 2 disappoints, however, is in the gunplay mechanics. Just like its predecessor, Watch Dogs 2 does not bar you from shooting your way through enemies and zones like the cyber vigilante that you are. Just like its predecessor, however, doing so is a chore because aiming has its issues, and so does the cover system. They work well for stealth, but not so much for direct action. Now, about that direct action.
In the first game, gamers got upset that Aiden Pearce killed without remorse. The entire premise of the original game was about Aiden trying to find justice for his murdered niece – hence the issue of rampaging through the streets killing everyone. In Watch Dogs 2, Marcus does not look like a killer. At all. As such, Ubisoft has placed a much heavier emphasis on being stealthy versus brute force. The aspect of stealth is something I personally enjoy, and I am thankful that the game encourages this sort of gameplay – although it may not be suited to every player. As such, Watch Dogs 2 not only has guns, but it also equips Marcus with a stun gun.
Thanks to that, players can go through the entire game and hardly ever kill a soul. Heck, you can even go so far as to not even put Marcus anywhere near the places he has to infiltrate; by simply leaving the dirty work to his drone – as long as you can keep them from being seen. Not only will noticed drones bar you from being the “perfect ghost”, but it will also alert enemies and make them patrol with more ferocity. As mentioned above, it is best to avoid any gun fights.
Marcus, you’re very much of a ghost presence
When it comes to the multiplayer in Watch Dogs 2, it seems to rely heavily on the patience a person is willing to bring to the table. Watch Dogs 2 takes what was good about the multiplayer in Watch Dogs, and improves on it in just about every way.
Players can “invade” each other’s games “seamlessly” and attempt to hack and retrieve some of their data without being profiled. Watch Dogs 2 also adds new cooperative missions for two or more players to complete together; as well as a new “bounty hunter” mode where “invaders” must hunt down players who cause too much trouble in the open world. This last mode pits you against a rival player, with the police at your side. Hunt down and stop the troublemaker at any cost!
In my 15-odd hours with the game so far, I have been invaded and hacked only once. Similarly, I managed to enter the world of another player only once. That was before I got kicked due to a “server error”. On top of that, I cannot tell if it is my region, but the multiplayer hardly ever connects to games. I would waste around 10 minutes every night, trying to find cooperative partners or invasion opportunities, but to no avail.
As such, I cannot speak too much for multiplayer until I have managed a few more hours online. I will update this section accordingly if I ever manage to connect properly. If it is anything like the first game, it is sure to inspire a heck of a lot of fun.
It’s the end of the line, bub… (Conclusion)
Watch Dogs 2’s unique and meme-heavy world will not warrant the game ageing very well. In five years from now, people will look back and call it a cringe fest of outdated memes and somewhat annoying teenage tropes. However, it will forever be remembered as the definitive Watch Dogs experience. I cannot say how many games there will be in this franchise, but this will undoubtedly be regarded as a start of a new era for this Ubisoft IP. Watch Dogs 2 does a great job at keeping the gameplay fresh and unique. It keeps you from thinking “oh, this is just another GTA” or just another “Assassin’s Creed”. It is set in the beautiful locale that is San Francisco — something that Ubisoft rendered perfectly.
Even if the first few missions leave you with a confused feeling, you know it is best to just continue along. Not because it promises a possible reward, but rather because you want to. One of the best parts of Watch Dogs 2 is how you will genuinely start to fit into the role of Marcus and care for him and his DedSec crew [shoutout to the #VCrewZA].
The main story took me roughly 15 hours to complete, which is excellent for a modern big-budget title. Even so, I know for a fact that I have barely scratched the surface of what is possible to do in this open-world sandbox that the game provides! Although quite large in scope, the game has an uncanny ability to make you feel like you have earned a massive pay off with every completed task. Really, I mean this sincerely. There is a morbid fascination and fulfilment of a “peeping Tom” curiosity when doing menial things like listening to phone calls and snooping on text messages. It really is amazing. Not only does the latter tie into two side missions, but the former opens up the world around you by making you feel like you are actually living in it. Before I got my hands on the game, Hans assured me that I would end up feeling like I was a part of the living world that is Watch Dogs 2’s digital San Francisco. He could not have been more correct. Watch Dogs 2 is an incredible game that is very well polished. Not only does the game manage to draw you into its unbelievable world, but it also makes you care about the characters that live in it. There is a particular mission nearing the end of the game where I almost shed a tear. A tear! For a game! I might have my ‘man-card’ revoked if I am not careful.
I know that reading is not for everyone. As such, here is my tldr: Watch Dogs 2 is a game that is also an amazing work of art. It is a very current game that may not age all that well, but that does not impact the joy and fun that can be had playing it. In several years time, this game will still be regarded as one of the 21st century’s greatest gifts to the open-world, sandbox genre. At least, to me it will.
|Time Played||15 hours|
|Acquisition||Review copy courtesy of Megarom Interactive|