We are all connected. With heads tilted down, eyes glued to phones, we go about our days reading Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… and ignoring the world around us. Many stare at screens at work all day; even our cars and homes are networked in one way or another. Virtually every waking moment of our lives we’re connected to a system. The first iteration of Watch Dogs brought us a strong statement about our connected nature and with that neatly tied in a new mechanic to the open world genre: the ability to manipulate technology.
Whilst well received amongst critics, the original Watch Dogs was still hampered with poor vehicle handling and a dull protagonist, was visually disappointing when compared to its first trailer, and — in this critic’s opinion — fairly limited hacking abilities that restricted tactical freedom.
In true Ubisoft form, the feedback received from fans and critics alike has not fallen on deaf ears. Watch Dogs 2 is a significant improvement, addressing everything that held the first game back.
CtOS, the same city-wide operating system that ran throughout Chicago has been implemented all over the world, connecting every conceivable electronic device from mobile phones, power grids and everything in between. Marcus “Retr0” Holloway is a San Francisco local. Having grown up in the technology hub of the western world, he’s a skilled hacker and a new recruit to DedSec. A rag tag gang of hipster hackers building a movement against data theft and privacy invasion at the hands corporate monster Blume, creators of CtOS.
In complete contrast to Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pierce, Marcus is very much a likeable character. He’s a casual guy, loves cheesy action films, cracks jokes that will warrant a genuine chuckle and swears just the right amount. Relatable to anyone under the age of 30, it’s easy to empathise with him very early on.
The same applies to the other members of DedSec. Dialogue loaded with real world pop culture references and jokes that — if not for the well-developed friendships between characters — would stretch the boundaries of decency makes these hackers easy to connect with (pardon the pun). It’s the force behind this character driven narrative and, while not always necessarily funny, Watch Dogs 2 contains some of the most fun dialogue since we met Trevor in GTAV.
Keeping up with today’s gamer culture and the prospect of success being measured by Twitter or Instagram followers, DedSec’s focus is to build their fan base so they can combine the processing power of their fans devices to help bring down Blume. Simply put, followers equals XP. More followers are (of course) gained by completing missions, and rather than generic task with an arbitrary reward, the missions themselves are specifically geared towards building your fan base, making each one an important step towards your primary goal. As you progress through the campaign and DedSec grows, followers on occasion (and to a small degree) provide a quick briefing on locations and mission goals. It’s the sum of many separate components that blend together to make one fun and entertaining package.
Side missions are genuinely fun, offering plenty of original concepts and one off game mechanics. Each manages to keep things fresh and collectively are much more than singular fetch quests. Each side mission is closely related to the story and the majority are far from time-consuming filler, a rarity in recent open world games.
Playability wise, Watch Dogs 2 is a vast improvement on its predecessor. All the previous staple hacking abilities have returned and at their base level they perform in the exact same manner as in the original. These have been further developed and refined, with added capabilities offered up to broaden your tactical options. You can now apply a proximity trigger to objects such as fuse boxes which will cause them to explode when an enemy steps within range.
If you prefer to take a less violent approach, you might taunt a guard with your two-wheeled RC Jumper. That’ll cause him to chase the device to another area; from there, you can send a meme to his mobile to distract him, allowing you to sneak past. Hacking vehicles is a personal favourite and with the added ability to pick the vehicle’s direction, you’re given a tactical advantage against unsuspecting enemies with often hilarious results. There’s a massive number of ways to combine Marcus’ hacking capabilities and being creative is the key to success. The best bit is that once you’ve unlocked them all, you’re free to go about each mission any way you like, with plenty of different available options.
Due to the huge number of hacking abilities, Watch Dogs 2‘s control system can be a little daunting to pick up at first. In the early hours I found myself accidentally setting off the wrong ability and blowing my cover, but eventually some consistency emerges in the control scheme and you’ll be able to rely on muscle memory to trigger a specific hack with little to no thought necessary.
You can focus on one of three play styles: Ghost, Aggressor and Trickster. Abilities are categorised according to play style and, while technically speaking, you certainly could pick a style and play that way throughout the campaign, the stealthy approach is clearly the preferred and most satisfying method. Nothing is really stopping you from channelling your inner Bruce Willis and shooting your way through a mission, but Marcus ain’t no action hero and will byte the big one (get it?) after absorbing just a few bullets. Playing the Aggressor is much more challenging (not to mention that it doesn’t fall in line with Marcus’ personality). He’s the funny, easy-going hipster type who’s just trying to do the right thing by the people of his city. Violently killing police and security guards just doing their job seems out of character for him. Even after major story arcs that give rise to a grumpier version of “Retr0”.
Playing as stealth naturally requires the use of a cover scheme which works really well. Snapping into and switching between covers is fluid as is vaulting over objects in an almost Assassins Creed style of play. Enemies have a believable vision cones and can spot you from a fair distance away. They’ll flank you out of nowhere, try to force you out of cover and work together to take you out, often successfully with the medium difficulty offering a fair challenge without driving you mad.
Driving has been vastly improved from the previous game. At first vehicles feel a little like they’re built from cardboard but mastering e-brake turns happens quickly and vastly improves the fun to be had on the road. Vehicles themselves are a bit limited in variety though and after completing a mission and returning to the spot where you left your car to find it gone can be frustrating. Eventually you’ll earn the ability to have a car brought to your location but if you’re evenly spreading your ability unlocks across all skill trees the car delivery perk unlocks very late in the game.
Watch Dogs 2 has a seamless integration of Dark Souls-like invasion multiplayer. At any given time you can find another player in your game either as a bounty hunter, helping the police take you out after you’ve committed a crime or an invading hacker attempting to steal your data incognito. These events always come as a complete surprise with no clear indicator that someone is joining your game until they’re already there. During our play through the seamless component of multiplayer was brought offline briefly for maintenance. However the time we had with it was full of moments that began with elevated heart rates and ended in either tears or cheers.
While the overall game is great when looking at game play, abilities, character development and narrative, the crowning achievement of Watch Dogs 2 is most certainly the city in which it is set. Ubisoft’s version of San Francisco is a sight to behold. Of course the city has been built to support game play so it’s certainly not a one-to-one recreation with obscenely wide roads and no traffic congestion, but well known tourist attractions such as Coit Tower (as seen in several game play demos), Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge and others have been recreated magnificently supporting the argument that video games are an art form.
To add to the realism, the developers have taken a commendable approach to diversity in Watch Dogs 2. In real-world San Francisco the percentage of people that identify as LGBT is higher than any other US city. This is accurately reflected within the game with many references to same sex couples, drag queens and the campaign even includes a transgender character in a position of significant power. The best bit is the matter of diversity doesn’t appear to have been purposefully included with the intention to say “Hey look what we’ve done! We’re PC!”. It’s simply a true (and respectful) representation of this amazing city and adds to the believably of the whole experience.
The graphical quality in WD2 overall is much closer to that trailer for the first game that never came to fruition with detailed textures, objects blowing around in the wind and dynamic weather but it’s not quite there just yet. It’s close, and the visuals are absolutely of a high standard but some frame loss was experienced when driving at high speed through built up areas and there were rare occasions of clipping bugs. Explosions also seemed a little underwhelming visually.
At the risk of being too critical, the game’s menu interface needs to be addressed. Keeping in line with the games commentary of our always connected lifestyle, menus are accessed via Marcus’ smart phone which stores a series of apps for various tasks. Selecting missions will sometimes automatically set navigation routs for you and will sometimes not. When the phone itself is being used the display takes up about 40% of your screen and you’ll forever have an annoying little symbol on your mini map telling you there’s new content in your phone but this will almost always be a newly discovered song that you would prefer to ignore rather than an unlocked mission or experience point that you actually care about.
Changing radio stations whilst driving requires holding down the DualShock 4 touchpad and left or right on the right thumb stick to skip between stations. This takes away your ability to steer. The most frustrating point to be made on this issue is that whilst driving the left and right buttons on the D-pad are not used for anything.
If you’re the type of player that settles for nothing less than complete lack of detection during stealth games it’s natural that you’ll want to manually restart at checkpoints often. To do so in Watch Dogs 2 requires that you open up your phone, navigate to the Game Settings app and then select the restart option. A total of eleven button presses when it should be no more than three.
We also experienced a few minor audio bugs as well with certain effects in cut scenes falling out of sequence, audio filters not switching off when they should, music playing intermittently and sometimes over the top of dialogue, and single gunshots becoming stuck in an infinite loop. These were all few and far between and are no more than minor annoyances. During our time with Watch Dogs 2 there have already been a number of updates so rest assured Ubisoft are working to have all issues fixed by the time you buy this at launch.
And buy it you should. Watch Dogs 2 is the game that the first one should have been and is a shining example of Ubisoft’s already proven ability to respond well to feedback. It offers true freedom and creativity to play the way you want, laugh out loud moments found in scripted events and self-made fun in a virtual city that needs to be seen to be believed. Starring characters that you’ll genuinely care about the more you get to know them you’ll have no trouble finding motivation to see this one through to the end. Put this one on your Christmas list.
Watch Dogs 2 was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.