The original Watch Dogs is a game viewed harshly by history. Several factors contributed to this and to be fair a good number of these were Ubisoft’s own stupid fault. The pressures of a ridiculous level of hype, being one of the first major releases for the current console generation, an obnoxious ad campaign (iconic hat etc) and a direct attempt to position itself against GTA V, a contest it could never have possibly won, conspired to have Watch Dogs remembered as a bad game. The thing is, I don’t think it was a bad game. Sure, people were tired of the Ubisoft formula by this point and the story was pretty dire, but the core mechanics and concept were strong. Many, including myself, predicted that a sequel to Watch Dogs could build upon this solid foundation and potentially provide a similar leap to what was seen in the jump from Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed II. Rather surprisingly, it’s an even bigger leap. Watch Dogs 2 is possibly my game of the year and my favourite Ubisoft open world game since Black Flag.
Watch Dogs 2 swaps out it’s drab Chicago setting and utterly unlikeable and uncharismatic protagonist for the sunny and metropolitan San Francisco and the even sunnier dispositioned Marcus Holloway. After the events of the first game, Blume Corporation took it’s hit but has still managed to spread it’s CTOS city operating system around the world. Marcus is a young hacker who, at the beginning of the game joins DedSec, a Hacker collective with a slick marketing campaign to spread their message of dissent against those in Silicon Valley who seek to control and manipulate the populace. Marcus and a small group of odd-ball hacker pals start targeting major businesses with clear analogues to Facebook, Google, SpaceX etc. and soon draw the attention of Blume’s CTO Dusan Nemec, who seeks to crush DedSec any way he can.
The actual plot of Watch Dogs 2 is fine. It’s a bit amorphous as Ubisoft open world games generally are by design and the Silicon Valley parody stuff is more cute than actually perceptive, perhaps excepting a brilliant commentary on the thinly veiled racism that can plague tech communities. It’s functional and enjoyable and flows naturally, a basic expectation which frankly hasn’t been seen in a Ubisoft open world game since…Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood maybe? There is a bizarre shift into darker territory which is introduced and abandoned in the space of about 45 minutes, with the rest of the game holding a breezy and irreverent turn. This section is something of a blight on this game, feeling like a distasteful reminder of Aiden Pierce’s grim story of the original. The reason I enjoyed Watch Dogs 2’s story so much are the characters. Marcus is the best Ubisoft protagonist since Ezio; his seemingly unrelenting positivity is infectious and his unconditional and enthusiastic support for his friends is unbelievably endearing. He’s impossible not to root for. The same goes for the supporting cast, with Ubisoft going a long way to prove how important diversity is in creating an interesting narrative. When your core cast are all from different places and have different lived experiences, their interactions become more nuanced and complex. It’s pretty basic really. I came to love all of the core DedSec crew, from Sitara the acerbic but loyal brand manager for DedSec, to Josh the hacking prodigy who is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum, to Horatio the laid back and calming leader of the outfit. The star has to be Wrench, who wears a mask at all times which display emojis to show his feelings. I know it sounds awful, but he’s a massively endearing character. Yes, he’s the constantly wisecracking comic relief but there’s a lot more to him than that and he’s involved in a few of the story’s most heartfelt moments. These characters and more are brilliantly written and presented with nuance and a fantastic voice acting performance; this is BioWare levels of characterisation, seen for the first time from Ubisoft.
Although Watch Dogs 2 has a funny and light tone (mostly) throughout, it still shows a startling willingness to tackle more serious issues, particularly racism. Marcus is an African-American and I had in all honesty expected Ubisoft to simply avoid the addressing the elephant in the room; this is a story with all sort of elements which intersect with racism in America but I honestly didn’t think they’d have the bravery to explore it directly. Marcus is a positive and optimistic person, dealing with the racism around him with a sort of world weary sardonic humour, but there’s a current of anger running through him which is electrifying to watch. A lot of this comes from his relationship with Horatio, who is also black, with scenes following only the two showing how differently they have been forced to view their surroundings to others around them, particularly in the predominantly white Silicon Valley. I’m a white guy in England; I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America, but Watch Dogs 2 makes a stab at helping me understand and that’s a noble goal for game development if ever I’ve heard one.
So, enough harping on about the story. Watch Dogs 2’s core gameplay loop is fairly simple; drive to a place and hack into it somehow, usually requiring a physical presence from the player at some point. You have a huge range of options at your disposal, with a genuinely open approach to the game design. Compare this to Assassin’s Creed which has increasingly about following one ‘correct’ path, Watch Dogs 2 is content to let you approach objectives with remarkable freedom. All of your phone hacking abilities from the first game are back, so you’ll be hacking security cameras, blowing up fuse boxes to incapacitate guards and manipulating vehicles and machinery. Added to your arsenal are a little RC car which can be used to complete ‘physical hacks’ but is extremely vulnerable if spotted as well as a drone which can be used to scan the environment and used as a platform from which to launch more powerful hacks. Alongside Marcus himself, you essentially have three player characters in operation at any one time. In this sense, Watch Dogs 2 actually surpasses GTA V; I liked the three-character structure there, but it was mostly narrative and missions which genuinely took advantage of it were pretty rare. In Watch Dogs 2, this multi-part structure is essential. If you use the RC car well, there are many missions where you need never enter the area at all. When you do need to get your hands dirty, there are a lot of weapons available but I didn’t ever use any but the trusty stun gun. Sure, you have your requisite heavy weaponry, but the game is so much more fun when treated as a stealth experience and dishing out mass murder with grenade launchers just feels wrong and completely out of synch with the Marcus we know. It is clear that Ubisoft inserted these weapons into Watch Dogs 2 because it’s an open world game and that’s just what you do, but they’re not fun to use and an expansion of non-lethal options would have been a better use of resources. There is a levelling up system, which is fine and works pretty much as you’d expect.
Watch Dogs 2 is a generous game, with a lengthy and exciting main campaign which switches things up regularly to keep everything fresh. Watch Dogs 2 also has the best side content in a Ubisoft game for years. There are loads of cool side missions, each multi-part with their own stories, fully voice acted and generally approached with almost the same care as the main missions. There’re definitely far fewer side tasks in Watch Dogs 2 to the last game, but what is here is significantly better. Alongside that you have a whole load of other activities, pretty much all of which (sailboat racing aside) are fun. Rather than traditional city races, you instead complete stunt courses showcasing areas of the environment you may otherwise miss and these are genuinely the most fun I’ve ever had with driving side missions in an open world game. Drone races are fun too, again mostly serving to show off the environment. Even the collectibles, which provide points for the upgrade system, are usually hidden behind a cool hacking puzzle. I didn’t have the time to 100% Watch Dogs 2, but I wish I did because Watch Dogs 2 bats one of the highest averages for quality to quantity I’ve seen in an open world game.
Watch Dogs 2 got some flack on release for excessive texture pop in on a standard PS4 (as opposed to a PS4 Pro). Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but Watch Dogs 2 has put in a technically excellent performance for me. It looks lovely, particularly the wonderful character models, and the frame rate was solid throughout. Other games I’m currently playing are clearly struggling on the PS4 hardware (more to follow on those soon), but I genuinely didn’t feel that way in Watch Dogs 2. San Francisco is a great setting and it’s fun to take in its hipster atmosphere. There are all sorts of lovely hidden details in this game, such as a bad poetry competition to be found in the game’s parody of Burning Man, or random passers-by photobombing you as you take selfies. Considering that this was an inevitable game churned out by a corporate AAA machine, there’s a surprising amount of love poured into Watch Dogs 2.
Watch Dogs 2 didn’t sell particularly well, probably for a few reasons, such as proximity to major releases like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Final Fantasy XV, but in part it is surely a reaction to the disappointing first game. I get it, Watch Dogs was an unlikeable experience. It’s a bit different to Assassin’s Creed because whilst the first game was deeply flawed, the potential was obvious and experience generally likeable despite that. Watch Dogs just wasn’t charming or exciting the way Assassin’s Creed was, but don’t let that put you off Watch Dogs 2. This is a game where it feels like Ubisoft have learnt the lessons of their flawed open world design and rectified the majority of those problems; I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next and hoping poor sales don’t put Ubisoft off Watch Dogs 3.