The first thing I remember feeling about Watch Dogs five hours in was how much of a douche Aiden Pearce was, and how I wish I could play as anyone but him.
Here was fictionalised Chicago, oppressed by advanced surveillance systems straight out of our worst nightmares of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was as ripe an open-world setting as ever to live the dream of hacker extraordinaire … and I was running around as a disturbed loner with a wannabe Batman voice, not to mention a complete lack of logic in every action he partook in. Hacking and causing chaos with a omnipresent Big Brother superintendent was an enthralling concept, but not when walking in the steps of an unsympathetic killer who also happened to be a master hacker.
Watch Dogs 2 can’t be more different in narrative or tone, and is honestly the game about hacking I wanted back in 2013. All that original game needed was a better main lead.
Marcus Holloway is a breath of fresh air when it comes to video game protagonists. A ‘hacktivist’ with a chip on his shoulder after surveillance-engulfed society casts him out, he isn’t some brooding anti-social cybercriminal, but a geeky 20-something from Oakland with some serious hacking skills. The opening mission introduces you to him breaking into the ctOS 2.0 facility in San Francisco — the intrusive information network taking over America — in his quest to erase his logged file and join DedSec upon completion. He isn’t looking to avenge his family; he’s just a young black guy who wants his privacy and to not be stereotyped, which the ctOS system does by flagging him as a suspect based on his race. He also has a sense of humour, despite waging a serious war against Big Brother. Finally, he isn’t a senseless murderer; his arsenal consists of a non-lethal taser and a yoyo with weight attached to the end. While you can use guns, you’re strongly encouraged to play it pacifist, something not enough games do.
The San Francisco DedSec crew is just as interesting, consisting of an autistic genius, a brilliant graphics artist with money issues, a masked weirdo straight out of Anonymous, and a headstrong young leader tying them altogether. They may offer an overly Californian-hipster take on the fictional hacker scene in America, but they are immediately more entertaining and interesting than just another self-righteous vigilante crew, which we got in the first game. Josh, Sitara, Wrench and Horatio just want to bring down the establishment to gain some semblance of privacy back, get some followers in the process and have fun geeking out to cheesy films and video games in the meantime. The entire game’s main story mission structure and open-world sandbox of the Bay Area accommodates this mantra, and connects you to the new crew very well.
The main missions in Watch Dogs 2 set Marcus to work in improving DedSec’s reputation across San Francisco. He does this by gaining followers — via social media, of course — for larger support and a bigger network to conduct more sophisticated hacks against ctOS and Blume, the company behind it all. It’s a serious journey, but one balanced with a lot of banter, nerdy references and heaps of varied objectives. One of the first missions has Marcus doing the walk of shame out of a girl’s house to buy himself some new pants, introducing the large number of clothing customisation options available to the player. Another puts Marcus in charge of taking down a Hollywood film’s shameful take on the hacking scene by digitally hijacking its star character, a self-aware talking car with a cheesy action-star driver (a clear parody of Knight Rider) and tricking San Francisco into thinking a surprise race around town is a film stunt. Another has the DedSec crew saving their favourite television star from the clutches of New Dawn (an amusing parody of the Church of Scientology), and using his celebrity status to denounce both New Dawn and Blume, whose systems they used to imprison him in a rehabilitation camp.
It was all utterly ridiculous, interspersed with some seriously grim moments about the current state of society, but I found myself hooked with the variety it offered. Spread out across several stages, I experienced on-foot action gameplay by breaking into the film set forcibly with melee takedowns; then a stealthy infiltration into the car yard using Marcus’s hacking prowess to distract the employed security guards with fake 911 calls; racing in the hijacked Knight Rider wannabe hacking street lights to cause traffic mayhem for the pursuing cops; and driving with my little RC car into vents to get past New Dawn security, before hacking into their mainframe remotely while taunting them with the RC’s in-built speaker. None of it felt like busy-work, and the cutscenes to accompany them were both well-animated and full of well-acted dialogue. The voice actors definitely deserve major props into breathing life into their roles as slightly hipster but well-meaning hacktivists in defiance of Silicon Valley.
The side missions in Watch Dogs 2 are equally as fun, and feel less like typical Ubisoft busy-work (the infamous comparison to Ubisoft Towers, anyone?) and more like something Marcus would do in the meantime. His in-game smartphone and its downloadable apps act as hubs for the different activities players can partake in; the DedSec app keeps track of your main goals, SongSneak lets you unlock new tracks while exploring, NudleMaps acts as the waypoint navigator and world map, ScoutX is Ubisoft’s take on Google Maps and Pokemon Go with unlockables for taking selfies at landmarks, and the ./Research app acts as the character progression screen, similar to the original with branching paths for upgrading combat skills and hacking abilities. Finally, the Multiplayer app lets you engage in online co-op or PvP against friends and randoms in three game modes: Online Co-op, Bounty Hunter and Hacking Invasion. Playing before launch, I was unfortunately unable to test it out extensively, but the encounters I had with hostile players and racing to hack them first before they escaped was just as enthralling as the first game, which was arguably its main strength. The online co-op with another person I met online was equally as solid as GTA V’s free-roam mode, with plenty of destructive shenanigans and missions to partake in with a friend.
San Francisco itself is also a much more interesting setting than the first game’s take on Chicago, and I found myself getting lost around town during the main missions. Sunny, colourful and full of recognisable landmarks and distinct neighbourhoods (Marin, Oakland, Silicon Valley), the developers clearly put a lot more effort into the world. The NPCs especially are more lively, constantly interacting with each other with inane conversations and encounters; I once saw a couple argue over the husband’s refusal to ask for directions in the middle of nowhere, while a drunken hobo started a fight with a dog owner, and a woman in the park argued with her husband over the phone about searching for explicit adult material. While many are clearly scripted, some nasty civilians assaulted protesters during a main mission story, which definitely wasn’t planned, and I enjoyed just watching the A.I. create emergent moments like this. My favourite is when I use the in-game camera function to take selfies around San Francisco, and passersby sometimes photobomb Marcus’s attempts.
It’s just a shame the A.I. governing your enemies isn’t as sophisticated; many of the security guards Marcus tends to run into can magically see through walls or use military grade explosives on a trespassing kid. This is amusing, considering many are 9-to-5 workers, according to their personal descriptions when hacking their phones. It’s bizarre and took me out of my immersion slightly, but otherwise they’re improved from the first game, actually using cover and tactics across a wide radius to flush him out.
Visually, Watch Dogs 2 is a clear step ahead of its predecessor, with a colourful aesthetic complemented with a heavy use of retro pixel-art, street graffiti and heavily stylised memes to create the feel of playing as part of a defiant Millennial hacktivist outfit. Environmental models and character models vary in quality, with the main cast and settings well-detailed, but several muddy textures across town and a ton of recycled NPC faces, which look so dull and lifeless. The PlayStation Pro now being available wwill spruce things up to checkerboard 4K resolution and stabler frame-rates, but playing on the regular PS4 the game was, for the most part, pretty to look at. I just have to re-iterate how great San Francisco looks; a lot more sun and beach does wonders for an open-world setting, it seems. I can’t say the same about the soundtrack: There’s a lot of dull generic sounding electronica interspersed between and during missions, but thankfully the licensed songs playing on the radio and unlockable in the world are great – particularly the hip-hop soundtrack, which suits the Bay Area setting nicely.
Multiplayer in Watch Dogs 2 is extremely fun – when it works. Ubisoft disabled seamless multiplayer functionality before and during the launch period to combat the dreaded frame-rate drops many of us encountered when it was enabled (in my experience, it went down as low as 10 frames per second). When it did work, it was glorious mayhem. Seamless multiplayer is how classic Watch Dogs invasions occur, where fellow players appear as hackers in your ‘world’, or the other way around – civilians ripe for hacking – and neither party knows who the invader is.
I had a few invaders attempt to steal my Marcus’s data while in the middle of side missions or exploration of San Francisco, and it added several adrenaline-filled moments of fun as I attempted to hunt down my cyber-attacker in the middle of massive crowds, killing them at the last second. Equally enthralling was when I was the incognito invader, jumping across rooftops to my poor victim’s confusion as they sprayed random pedestrians to no success.
Online co-op is also great fun; you can manually join friends in their ‘world’ or yours to wreak havoc around San Francisco and take on numerous multiplayer activities, such as Bounty Hunter missions where you face off against other players as either the bounty or hunter. There’s numerous multiplayer-focused activities marked in purple around the map, too, involving several types of missions, like freeing NPC DedSec prisoners, or taking over gang hideouts of hostile groups such as the Sons of Ragnarok. You can do these activities alone, but it was more fun stealthing my way through a warehouse to steal back DedSec data with a friend.
Random co-op is possible, but during most of the review period and a few days after launch, unfortunately does not work as advertised. It’s activated by choosing multiplayer modes via Marcus’s in-game phone or visiting marked locations on the map, but for now Ubisoft’s servers aren’t pairing anyone up together, which is a big shame – as from what I experienced prior to seamless MP being turned off, Watch Dogs 2 offers up fun in spades when it comes to co-op and PvP fun.
The Final Verdict
Watch Dogs 2 is a much stronger open-world hacking sandbox experience than the first. While not to the same level as Assassin’s Creed 2 which accomplished much for its similarly divisive first entry, this game’s more varied mission structure and lighter-hearted tone elevates it to a must play this holiday. Marcus Holloway and the San Francisco DeadSec crew are genuinely fun to watch and interact with, and combined with a more interesting main villain and solid side-activities, Watch Dogs 2 is a nice surprise to cap off the end of a year full of disappointing ‘triple AAA’ efforts, even with a few A.I. disappointments and some wonky driving mechanics.