Ubisoft came under fire for the characterisation (or lack of) in the 2014 release of Watch Dogs with Aiden Pearce the main character being somewhat dull and uninspiring across the game’s Chicago setting. So, rather than continue Aiden’s campaign has readdressed the balanced and made a new game with a fresh cast of characters against the hipster backdrop of San Francisco. Cue Marcus Holloway and the DedSec group of hackers in Watch Dogs 2 as they fight to bring down corruption from an impending big brother state being unwittingly rolled out across the city from an unsuspecting public. It’s a veritable playground for some goofy action laced with a slight smidgen of seriousness as Marcus and chums sneak, fight, shoot and hack their way into America’s prolific and highly satirised companies. The question is, how is this game and is it worth your time and energy in this busy period of releases?
It’s pretty much business as usual in Watch Dogs 2 in terms of its open world city based core gameplay compared to the original except it feels a little more refined this time. San Fran easily replaces Chicago and you’ve got lots of interactions with the environment as before with a bit of parkour thrown in for good measure – although this isn’t as fully realised as Assassin’s Creed games. You can hack the civies as you walk around to gain insight into their daily lives or steal cash, but there’s much more this time taking the game direction into realms of the sublime. The NPC AI offers a bit more variety in terms of their actions which means if you insult anyone you might find you spark a provocation which escalates into something far greater. Skirmishes break out amongst the populace regardless of your input and there’s generally more animations to stumble across including same sex couples embracing each other such is the hipster nature of this game. There’s no denying the recreation of the city is very good and enticing to a degree but after so many hours playing you’ll have seen most of what’s on offer here.
As a member of hacker group DedSec you’re able to undertake various missions across the city which allow players to stealth it, or go in guns-a-blazing (sometimes putting the parkour to good use). There’s a variety of weapons which can be 3D printed back a the DedSec HQ but in some ways the use of grenade launchers and rifles seems to put the hackers in the realms of militants rather than keyboard warriors which is at odds with how they are presented for the most part. The stealth itself is a mixed bag though and whilst it’s possible to distract or eliminate foes stealthily, the level design makes it pretty tough to enter a restricted area and come out the other side unscathed. It’s too difficult to prevent all hell breaking loose when spotted as the enemy calling for reinforcements always cowers out of reach to be hacked. It also highlights the game’s awkward targeting system which doesn’t always point to where you want it which can be cause for unintentional hilarious results. In fact, in all honesty when the poop hits the fan it’s quite enjoyable to just roll with it and go rogue using melee attacks or Marcus’ stun gun. That said, stealth purists can still hack cameras and recon areas before moving in and if you’re mischievous then taking out entire areas of guards via camera and other tools is feasible. A favourite has to be calling in the cops to arrest suspects after falsely framing them as terrorists or murderers. Gang members will always instigate a firefight here but security forces or civilians get carted away. You’re also free to intervene if the cops seem to be losing the battle which is a nice feature.
In a nutshell the gameplay feels polished whether you’re sneaking into buildings or controlled areas, free-roaming the city streets or escaping from a crime scene in a vehicle. The puzzles make a return and perhaps hamper the flow of main missions on occasion especially as they are mandatory for mission completion. However, there’s quite a number of side objectives that can be dipped into at any time which provide more meat on the bone including off-road scramble bike racing, boat racing and hacking into the nefarious activities of select individuals. As with any open world game you’re not going to get bored even after prolonged play.
Where the game really shines though is in its divisive story which is much more digestible this time even if it completely removes the dark undertone of the first game. The organisation of DedSec comes across as a parody of real life hacker groups or at least the anti-establishment visions of them and provides bountiful comedic moments with its oddball cast of characters where leading man Marcus seems determined yet quite normal in comparison. There’s a lot of stereotyping at play here but it’s designed to be lauded and laughed at rather than taken seriously. The game is wrapped up in some excellent script writing and how it intertwines with the missions themselves makes for a quality experience even if the overall tone might convey itself a little too hipster for its own good at times. Characters like Wrench who wears a voice changing studded mask complete with 8-bit display for eyes is perhaps the best and most memorable of the bunch and in many ways could have been the main star of the game – until his mask is removed that is and the mystery of the character ruined. Note to developers: Much like Judge Dredd in the 2000AD comics, never reveal the person’s face if it’s covered every time you see them. It adds to the mystery and is sacrilegious once the person inside is revealed like they did in the subsequent movie versions of the comic book character.
Digressions aside though, DedSec are a likeable bunch who are easily related to especially as they go up against the likes of Google – or Nudle as the game calls them and companies such as Insight. Players will recognise the satirical digs at our own modern societies and how we are mere sheep as they snoop our daily lives.
Visually, Watch Dogs 2 looks great with some neat attention to detail across the San Francisco Bay area and beyond. You’ve got some excellent and well known landmarks to admire and a whole lot more bathed in real time lighting and other effects. Whilst the game detail might fall short of games such as The Division or even Assassin’s Creed games it still looks pretty convincing although it’s hard to tell if the game’s visuals have been improved over the original aside from better usage of colours. In terms of performance the game runs well on Xbox One although there’s some noticeable slow-down during fast driving scenes when turning at speed or dashing along the straights. There’s little to complain about overall aside from the odd NPC glitch here and there which are par de la cors for open world games.
Audio is of a high standard with solid performances from the wide range of characters against a slew of tunes to either rock on to or mute entirely. Take your pick. Sometimes it’s just the ambience of the city which is pleasant to listen to even if it devolves into a wide range of profanities and too much information at times from the NPCs.
Players can sink quite the number of hours into any open world game and get their monies worth and Watch Dogs 2 is no exception. Whilst the singleplayer game can eat up your time way beyond double figures there’s a return of online co-op and PVP options to mess around with as well should you feel the need to dive in. These can actually be disabled in the options if you’re preferring an undisturbed single player experience. Whilst the online modes are welcome additions they aren’t as robust as the single player game which is where your time is mostly going to be spent – although it is neat being able to drop in and out of the multiplayer game, or get hacked by another player on the fly.
Watch Dogs 2 is a welcome game and in many ways an improvement over the original despite sharing many similarities. For some, losing the serious tone is perhaps going to grate and can be seen as a negative, but if you can overlook that there’s a fun game here which doesn’t stray too far over-the-top because it avoids taking itself too seriously. You’ve got varied options of how to play, a lot more interactivity with the city and its inhabitants and a pretty easy game to kick back and get into even if the hipster content is turned up beyond 10. If you’re looking for a game which offers hours of unbridled entertainment then this is one to look out for.
Xbox One review code supplied by Microsoft Xbox.