In May 2014, Ubisoft released the first iteration of Watch_Dogs to the awaiting masses; it was quite possibly the most anticipated new IP of recent times. Sadly for many it failed to meet the expectations many gamers had set for the title, with many critical of the lead protagonist’s humdrum personality and repetitive missions – yet praising of the game’s open-world Chicago setting. Fast-forward to November 2016 and we have Watch_Dogs 2. The newest iteration in the Watch Dogs universe which is set in a new city and featuring a new lead character. It’s apparent that Ubisoft have taken all feedback from the original on board, as Watch Dogs 2 elevates the series into the upper echelon of AAA gaming in both storytelling and gameplay.
DedSec – San Francisco style
Watch Dogs 2 is set in the progressive-technological hub Californian Bay Area city of San Francisco, which has become the latest city to utilise the dubious ctOS (central operating system), however several updates have been made to the system since the events in Chicago, and a newer and more intrusive version of the system is in use. The narrative centres on the exploits of a hipster-ragtag group of young but talented hackers known as DedSec (San Francisco division), and each member has their own distinct boons that they bring to the jovial hacker group both in terms of personality and abilities. You play as the flamboyant Marcus Holloway, and this time around there is no lusting for vengeance – instead the game’s overarching message is to bring down the establishment and secure the cities citizens’ digital privacy and freedom. This is an element that Ubisoft have nailed this time around; not only is Holloway a highly likeable character, but the entire DedSec crew and their occasional hipster repartee and techno-talk leave a positive impression.
DedSec’s main nemesis in this operation is Blume’s CTO, Dusan Nemec, who despite wearing the same tracksuit in every cutscene, is every bit the high-ranking megalomaniac he is written to be. His grand vision for Blume and the ctOS network has been sold to several powerful corporations, with the accumulated personal data being on-sold to the highest bidder. In an attempt to neutralise this abhorrent invasion of privacy, DedSec wages a public campaign against Blume and its clients in an attempt to recruit members and reveal the true colours of both Blume and Nemec through means such as highly colourful and persuasive propaganda videos (one of the game’s most engaging sequences). Despite some early pacing issues, the main narrative is for the most part an engrossing affair, and I never felt like one mission was one mission too many.
Marcus Holloway leaves the citizens of San Francisco stunned
You can either go full Sam Fisher mode and stealth your way through missions without ever really being in physical harm’s way. Or you can go in guns and gadgets blazing, shooting and blowing up everyone in sight. However the most enjoyable method I found was an amalgamation of the two
The campaign’s missions are predominantly the same design as its predecessor, however this time you have choice in the way you complete your directives thanks to the introduction of an RC car and the Quadcopter (a drone-type device). You can either go full Sam Fisher mode and stealth your way through missions (there are a few objectives which must be completed by Marcus personally – such as placing a virus-laden component inside a device, meaning infiltration is compulsory) without ever really being in physical harm’s way. Or you can go in guns and gadgets blazing, shooting and blowing up everyone in sight. However the most enjoyable method I found was an amalgamation of the two. Much like in the original Watch Dogs you’ll be tasked with hacking your way through networks, which involves a series of mini-games of sending the signal throughout the network chain in order to gain access to your desired network and/or device.
Controlling Marcus is relatively the same as the control scheme from the original. The main differences being with the abilities available through hacking objects. You can still hack people’s bank accounts and cause them telephonic grief, however newer abilities allow you to turn a seemingly innocent bystander into the SFPD’s most wanted (which takes the heat off Marcus). Another intuitive hack feature is the ability to move vehicles at your will. You can now sends cars forwards, backwards or sideways with a simple push of a button on his smartphone, allowing you to send a carload of SFPD back the way they came. The gunplay feels slightly refined, but is still largely your stock-standard third-person shooter mechanics, and there is a decent array of weaponry at Marcus’ disposal (all of which must be printed in DedSec’s high-tech 3D printer). The biggest gameplay improvement is in the driving mechanics, and although they remain arcadey in nature, it feels as if greater control has been given to the driver. The only downside here is I found it rather difficult to hack on-the-go, as I was seemingly magnetised to every car in the street.
A hacker’s dream
The dapper nightrider
Holloway and DedSec’s operations take them all across the Bay Area, with the richly detailed San Francisco a hacker’s playground. The game’s open-world stretches to the Silicon Valley, the city of Oakland (go Raiders), Marin and of course San Francisco itself. There’s an odd lack of foot traffic in these areas though and the some areas can feel a little desolate. There are several iconic attractions such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Castro Theatre, Stanford University and Alcatraz (which amazingly lifelike) to wrap your eyeballs around too. Aside from the campaign’s 15 missions, San Francisco’s open world is littered with side objectives (there are 22 in total) and additional content. Some of the side missions add extra depth to the story, while others are more for fun such as hacking the Ubisoft offices. Holloway can also get behind the wheel as a ride-share service driver and assist San Fran’s citizens in finding their lost companions or complete quasi-treasure hunts. Location finding is still here – however in true digital age style, completing these requires checking in with a photo through the game’s social media app (ScoutX), which thanks to the game’s ‘selfie mode’ is somewhat addictive. You can also compete in drone races, motorbike time trials and other vehicular racing competitions. All of these can be found via apps on your smartphone, and completing missions and side objectives will give Marcus research points and DedSec a bigger social following. Research points are your run-of-the-mill skill points that can be used on various upgradable skill trees categories. All in all completing the game’s campaign and various side missions took roughly about 30-35 hours. There were times where my mission time was elongated because of my desire to complete it a certain way.
Sadly, part of Watch Dogs 2’s online aspect was marred with technical issues for a week after launch. Players could free roam and complete co-op missions via invite, but the seamless online component was incommunicado. This mode promised to let players assist the SFPD in taking down a rogue hacker and hack one another’s game and leave in a root-and-boot type scenario, but was taken offline in the days leading up to launch in an effort to eradicate the associated issue. Thankfully the game is now in full working order and we’ve had a chance to get an ample hands-on with Watch Dogs 2’s online experience.
Watch Dogs 2 builds on its predecessor’s online modes to give players a bit more variety, and just like in the single player, successfully completing online objectives will yield experience and research points. The in-game hacking invasion remains a staple of the Watch Dogs online experience. It is as satisfying as ever to invade a stranger’s game and rip their data from right under their noses while they run around searching for you like Jason Statham in Crank. Most of the time I got cocky and ended up blowing my cover and perishing, however even though I often finished up empty handed it was a still a fun experience. In Watch Dogs 2, Ubisoft have put a different spin on the invasion mode with an additional mode called ‘Bounty Hunter’. In Bounty Hunter you join the SFPD in pursuing a scallywag hacker in an attempt to neutralise them before the fuzz do. While this is a ton of fun, the frustrating part is actually finding a target. It seems that most people are waiting for other players to break the law instead of committing acts of villainy themselves.
Free-roam is as it sounds and players can group up and take to the streets of San Francisco to cause as much digital and physical chaos as possible. Events called DedSec Events will become available randomly and players can meet up with other hackers to complete minor objectives such as hacking a gang leader’s phone. Players can also complete Cooperative Operations – which are randomly generated missions that take place in several areas across the Bay Area. Cooperative Operations usually follow the same formula: hack or destroy three items and then escape the area. Although they’re fun to complete at first, the lack of operation variety means the enjoyment starts to wane after a handful of operations. Missions and events can all be completed solo for those that like to lone wolf it.
Placing the series’ two entries side by side it’s clear that the hacker universe of Watch Dogs excels when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite some early hiccups, Watch Dogs 2’s online component is solid fun, but it’s the passenger in the Watch Dogs 2 vehicle, with the single player campaign driving the series forward. With the addition of likeable characters, fun gameplay mechanics and an engaging narrative, Ubisoft may have given the Watch Dogs franchise a new lease on life.
Reviewed on PS4