Watch Dogs 2 Review

Let’s be real people, Watch Dogs was a bit of a disappointment. The initial reveal trailer at E3 2012 had such promise. Aside from looking absolutely stunning, the idea of being able to hack the whole damn world was tantalising. Of course then we got the game and we discovered the graphics were a great deal more limited, the hacking was nowhere near as revolutionary and as expansive as we thought it’d be, and while it had all sorts of clever ideas, the implementation wasn’t all that great. The storyline was also a rather dull revenge tale with a more or less unpleasant protagonist. But here comes Watch Dogs 2, ready to put things right. And while it’s not at the level of Assassin’s Creed 2, which we can all agree was a tremendous jump over its flawed but ambitious predecessor, it makes some major improvements over the previous game.

Firstly, the plot. That was something I felt was a big issue in Watch Dogs 1. Aiden Pearce wasn’t a likeable protagonist. He was a career criminal who wanted bloody vengeance upon those responsible for the death of his niece. He was gruff, dismissive, and not particularly charismatic a lead. While he eventually developed something of a conscience, he wasn’t a nice person at all. He inhabited a grim and gritty Chicago rife with crime. He battled the most murderous and brutal of criminals, and did things like break up slavery and sex trafficking rings. It was dark, morose, and actually pretty depressing.

Watch Dogs 2 does away with almost all of that. The new protagonist is Marcus Holloway, a friendly and likeable chap who’s part of a roguish Hacktivist group called DedSec. While he’s got a bone to pick with the system, he and his friends are planning on trolling major corporations and exposing corruption and conspiracy in flashy and amusing fashions for the benefit of the public. Instead of the windswept and grey urban jungle of Chicago, it’s the sunny and picturesque San Francisco. Instead of stopping slavers, he’s pranking parodies of Martin Shkreli or the Church of Scientology. It’s fun, it’s colourful, it’s flashy, and while some missions take a darker turn into vengeance – which is rather tonally derailing – for the most part it’s amusing shenanigans. Of course there is some preaching about the issues of consumerism, big data, surveillance, and modern society, but for the most part it’s framed in a fun way. Big business controlling everything? Well get ready to hijack their satellite and hack stuff IN SPAAACE!  It’s more than slightly ridiculous, and while they mock the ideas of Hollywood hacking in several missions in the game itself, with a team of geeky yet charismatic leads who are all delightfully quirky in their own way, performing all manner of ridiculous feats, it’s clear that Ubisoft’s own inspiration were delightfully bad hacker movies as well. Hell, they even get a 1980’s style montage or two.

Gameplay wise it’s improved over the previous game. Aside from vastly improved driving, and a more varied and fun mission structure, you get more hacking abilities and it’s implemented in a more meaningful way. Aside from being to mess with enemies, cause all sorts of environmental traps, or just generally steal money and listen in on people, it’s also used for a variety of puzzle solving. In missions and in free roam, there are often obstacles that require a bit of thinking and some clever hacking to pull off. Have to reach a target on a rooftop? Hop into a scissor life and hack it so you can reach the rooftop. It’s behind a locked gate? Search for a handy vent and deploy your RC drone and try to find a way to unlock it on the other side. This kind of environmental puzzle solving was actually one of the more satisfying and enthralling parts of the game. However, when it comes to sheer perverse amusement, nothing was quite as fun as the gang war/police arrest hacking mechanic. You can unlock a skill that allows you to call in a cop car or a gangster hit squad to take out targets. I found it hilarious and exploited it as much as possible.

However skills like that lead to a very strange disconnect. There’s no morality system or anything like it in the game. You can do whatever you like. So despite Marcus Holloway being a hacktivist and a nice guy intent on helping people getting screwed over by the system, you can be as murderous as you’d like. I want to grab a bag of cash that’s in a restricted area guarded by police forces? No worries, start a massive firefight between gangsters and cops, get a bunch of folks killed, then swoop in like vulture and pick at the remains. As for the combat? Much of the game requires stealth. Marcus is fairly fragile, and your opponents will outnumber you, call in reinforcements, have lots of guns, and often wear body armour. Extended firefights are ill-advised to downright impossible depending on the mission. So you can use a combination of stealth takedowns, sneaking around, and hacking environmental hazards to put your enemies down. You have the option of lethal and non-lethal. and the non-lethal takedowns are temporary. Enemies will get back up or can be revived by their compatriots, and it’s not like you can hide the bodies either. So after a brief attempt at trying to be strictly non-lethal because Marcus Holloway is a good guy, I decided to hell with it and started shooting everyone with silenced guns, causing gang wars for fun and profit, and using my RC Drones to drop explosives everywhere.

In terms of presentation, Watch Dogs 2 looks and sounds great. While there were some performance issues, they’ve largely been fixed with patches. The result is a rather gorgeous city to explore. San Francisco is colourful and vivid, and while I haven’t been so I can’t really verify, by all accounts it’s a marvellous recreation of the San Francisco Bay Area. The characters are all well designed, with some very distinctive looks. The choice of music for the radio is acceptable, if not particularly noteworthy, however the voice acting is excellent, even if some of the lines they’re working with are occasionally cringe-inducing. While some might find the protagonists to be unbearable, being a bunch of “edgy and cool” hackers who dress like hipsters and complain like leftist uni students, I thought their roguish ways were hilarious, and some of the inane banter between the characters was brilliant. I’ve always considered natural and humorous character interaction to be a good indicator of writing and voice acting quality. Watch Dogs 2 has that in spades. Particular conversations that stood out were a passionate and nerdy argument about who would win with Aliens battling Predators, not counting the movies named Aliens vs Predator, and an agreement between the members of DedSec that Stingrays sucked because of what they did to the late great Crocodile Hunter.

Assuming you’re not turned off by the faintly ridiculous cast of characters and the new change in tone towards the irreverent, Watch Dogs 2 is great. With a bunch of wacky characters performing activism/vandalism/petty mischief, deeper hacking and gameplay elements, and a beautiful city to play around with, Watch Dogs 2 is a fun, enjoyable, open world game.

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