By Andy Humphreys
Watch Dogs 2 is fun. We know this because it has you doing things like stealing a robot car from a movie production or impersonating a hip-hop artist to trick a pharmaceuticals magnate into giving a hefty chunk of his money to charity. It also has an achievement for having your in-game selfies photobombed.
Because like I say. Fun!
Developers Ubisoft Montreal are clearly eager to emphasize this breezy tone, and with good reason: The first Watch Dogs suffered from a chronic sense of humor deficiency. That game’s protagonist, Aiden Pearce, and his fraught journey of revenge and retribution, couldn’t be further from the starting point we have with Watch Dogs 2. And that is, for the most part, to the game’s immense benefit.
Here we’re presented with Marcus Holloway, another gifted hacker, but one without any particular issues or horribly tragic past. He’s just an intelligent guy with principles, and as we join the game, he’s about to hook up with a bunch of like-minded individuals after falling victim to the nefarious Blume Corporation, the returning big-bad tech-giant from the previous game.
Also returning is hacker collective DedSec, but they’ve undergone somewhat of a makeover since Watch Dogs. Rather than something akin to the tech-minded terrorist cell, this version of DedSec is depicted as a sort of a happy-go-lucky band of Robin Hood-types who simply love sticking it to The Man, but can just as often be found Xeroxing posters in their secret hideout in the back of a board-game store in downtown San Francisco.
Yes, the action has been transplanted from the genuinely miserable depiction of Chicago from the first game to the sunnier climes of The City By The Bay, a move once again demonstrative of the developers’ desire shift to a more fun, playful tone.
The move is an unmitigated success. Watch Dogs 2’s depiction of San Francisco is beautifully realized, with every square mile of the city buzzing with life, vibrancy, and character. Although not strictly anatomically correct (some connective areas are somewhat truncated) this version of San Francisco nonetheless captures the feel of this unique city, and above all else, succeeds wildly in being somewhere you want to spend time. It’s a great technical achievement in a game which isn’t exactly brimming with graphical prowess, with character models and facial animation in particular noticeably behind other games similar in scope. The city really is Watch Dog 2’s focus, and it’s paid off.
San Francisco’s DedSec, with Marcus as their newly minted recruit, have a plan; to take down Blume and ctOS 2.0, the ultra-invasive city-running software that threatens to rob our privacy and absorb our personality into that unholy Internet-Of-Things. The way to do this is by gaining widespread support through followers, who then download DedSec’s app, thus adding their collective computing power to the massive Franken-server the good guys want to use to pull-off the biggest hack in history.
If ‘Do stuff to get followers’ seems like a particularly wafer-thin excuse to throw the player into some hi-jinx, you’d be right, but it does at least poke a little fun at our social media obsessed culture. Because who out there with a social media account hasn’t done at least one thing to attract followers? Watch Dogs 2 seems to be aware that its central plot isn’t its strongest suit, and is wise enough to know that as long as the characters you’re going to be regularly engaging with are strong, the story’s flimsiness won’t matter one bit.
And it gets this part spot-on. It’s not easy to create characters that feel plausibly counter-culture in a mainstream property. Here they feel brilliantly fleshed-out, partly due to a great script that is chock-full of insider, tech-literate dialogue that brings you into the hackers’ world without being impenetrable or sounding hollow to the ear. There are mercifully few moments of cringe-worthy faux-cool chat, and at times it’s even genuinely funny, which is always a welcome surprise with any game.
The disparate characters that make up the core crew — conscientious, dedicated leader Horatio, unpredictable hacktivist Wrench, brilliant artist Sitara, and prodigious but introverted Josh — feel believable and, gratefully, stereotype-free, in no small part due to the performances by the excellent voice cast. Ubisoft Montreal’s decision to go with less well-known actors over celebrity talent pays huge dividends here. The actors sell the fun atmosphere with their mixture of naturalistic banter and sincere delivery when needed. I’d go as far as saying this is the most engaging and likable group of leading characters I’ve experienced in a long while.
Once Marcus has quickly bonded with his new crew, it’s into the action, and if the overall plot is a little wispy, the individual missions are meaty, varied and suitably intense enough to keep you engaged. As in the first game, you’re encouraged to use your hacking skillset to accomplish each assignment creatively. Marcus can use his phone to remotely hack any connected electronic item, with the results varying greatly depending on what you hack and how much time you’ve spent leveling up an individual branch of the skill tree.
Yes, using points accumulated through completing certain missions, you can increase and develop Marcus’ abilities in one (or a combination) of the game’s three core play-styles — Ghost, Aggressor and Trickster. Ghost, has you infiltrating your objective swiftly and silently without being detected. Trickster places the emphasis firmly on gadgetry and has you carrying out the mission in the most tech-heavy and flamboyant method possible. The Aggressor style is probably the one most familiar to those who’ve played a lot of open-world games. Traditional weapons take precedence in this more reckless and chaos-wreaking approach.
It’s a testament to the mission design that this ‘play how you want’ mantra does hold up — every mission can indeed be approached and completed in a variety of ways. An early assignment, for example, has you stealing a script from a closed movie set. You could use the cameras to observe the patrol routes of the numerous guards and production crew, then hack one of the on-set cars to drive itself into the scenery at just the right moment to create the distraction you need to sneak in, retrieve the script, and then get out of there without being seen. Or, you could use the Jumper, your little 3D-printed RC car, to enter the building through the vents and steal the prize without you ever having to set foot in the area. Alternatively, you could steal the biggest truck you can find, smash right through the front entrance, then pull out your assault rifle and go to town, grabbing the script once every poor unfortunate employee’s body has hit the ground.
Although any approach is possible, there seems to be a definite leaning towards smash and grab, a more lethal sort of play-through. It’s pretty hard to justify sneaking around and eliminating enemies non-lethally when even your basic security guard is not only armed but seems perfectly willing to take you down with extreme prejudice simply for (for all they know) straying through the wrong door.
This type of enemy behavior is a clear holdover from the previous game, and indeed most other games in this genre. But here, rather than a hardened felon, or a cop taking down organized criminals, you’re a young idealist who just wants to steal a movie script to make a fake trailer to get a few people on the internet excited.
It just doesn’t scan. The traditional gun-heavy gameplay of an open-world action game is now at odds with the new tone that the developer is trying to establish here. Although it’s admirable that Ubisoft Montreal wanted to satisfy all tastes (and were likely concerned about losing the portion of their fanbase that love this run-and-gun gameplay), murdering fundamentally innocent NPCs is no longer consistent with the motivations of the characters we’ve invested in. This DedSec crew is portrayed as strongly idealistic, sure, but far from a bunch of thoughtless, cold-blooded killers. The idea that these plucky guys would be at one moment chilling at their hideout watching TV and cracking friendly jokes, and at the next gunning down police left and right on their quest to get followers is pretty hard to swallow.
It all serves to give the feeling that the game has an identity crisis of sorts, that it would rather be this quirky, cerebral, hack-focused adventure game, but can’t quite free itself from its open-world obligations.
Which is a shame because the gameplay itself is so mechanically sound that it deserves a game that is not so at odds with itself. It feels incredibly thrilling as you experiment with new, fun hacking combinations to complete each mission. It feels challenging, but in a signature of great design, the game also makes you feel powerful enough to overcome those challenges — and feel damn stylish doing so. Of course, aside from the main missions, there’s the usual array of side-missions, taxi jobs, driving challenges, and all those other pastimes we’ve come to expect from this type of game. My personal favorite distraction is using your phone’s camera to take selfies with all of San Francisco’s most recognizable landmarks, which each photo shared giving a boost to your follower count.
It’s also great that this is very much a game with something on its mind. Rather than the original, which used the hacking angle as a means to tell a more personal story, here tech culture is intrinsic to Watch Dogs 2’s DNA, and it has something to say about the subject. Through the main plot and side missions, a point is very deftly made about the connected nature of our technologically-dependent lives, and what that means for a future where our information is, in the words of the game, more valuable than we are. NPCs, too, often reveal their concerns about living a connected, mid-2010s life. I overheard a fascinating conversation on the merits of streaming, binge watching and digital delivery from a couple of men idly fishing in the Bay. In keeping with the game as a whole, these moments don’t take themselves too seriously, but it’s nice to know that rather than simply being window dressing, the concept of our relationship with technology is very much at the forefront of Watch Dogs this time around.
Before launch, Ubisoft had talked up Watch Dogs 2’s ‘seamless’ multiplayer aspect, which, in a unique take on drop-in drop-out play for a predominantly single player game, has random players jumping into your game world from their own. From launch, and at the time of writing, this feature is broken, so I’m unable to test out exactly how seamless and potentially revolutionary it really is. The multiplayer that is available is a more traditional invite-to-join type experience, which includes co-op mission-based play, and competitive modes including the return of Online Invasion, which has players secretly introducing a virus into their rival’s DedSec system to steal cash and information. It’s all amiable enough, but not much more than a brief distraction from the real substance of the single player experience.
In many ways, Watch Dogs 2 seems like the game Ubisoft Montreal were shooting for the first time around. The playful, lighthearted tone is a huge step in the right direction despite some inconsistency, and as for the setting…well doesn’t it just feel logical to bring the action to the birthplace of the tech revolution? San Francisco is used to great effect, and, even when the plot gets a little bogged down in banality, you’ll still feel right at home just hanging around in a city that’s cheerful, vital, and a joy to experience. The slightly uneven plot and current technical difficulties with the multiplayer are more than made up for by the innovative gameplay and engaging characters that make Watch Dogs 2 easy to recommend to any open world junkie looking for a new (and very fun!) place to explore.