I didn’t really like Watch Dogs. The story was drab and the protagonist, Aiden Pearce, was one of the dullest characters I’ve ever had the misfortune of playing as. The gameplay was alright but nothing to shout about. It was essentially what we’ve played a thousand times before but with the added benefit of being able to press square to hack objects. I finished Watch Dogs, but I didn’t really enjoy it. It was a chore, basically, and I bloody despise chores.
I’m happy to say, then, that Watch Dogs 2 is a massive u-turn for the franchise. Just about everything has been reworked and repurposed to give you, the player, the freedom to play as you like. That’s not an exaggeration by the way, it really does let you take on whatever the game throws at you in any way you see fit. Want to run around like Rambo? Go for it, just make sure you’ve got enough firepower to back you up. Want to sneak around like a sneaky hipster hacker? Do it, you’ve got the tools and gadgets to keep yourself out of harms way. It’s refreshing to not be stuck to one style of play, and for me that’s the real highlight of Watch Dogs 2.
But let’s rewind a little so I can ease you in a bit. You play the role of Marcus Holloway. Marcus is a black hipster hacker dude who at first seems like a total bellend. I’ll be honest, the opening sequence of the game didn’t instill me with confidence in our leading man. I’m sorry, but anyone who could be classified as a “hipster” is not someone I want to spend a lot of time with. Or so I thought.
Once I got past the goofy glasses, the nerdy-yet-cool demeanor and the hacker jokes that completely flew over my head, I actually quite liked our loveable rogue of a hero. Watching him and his rag-tag group of friends – who are San Francisco’s faction of DedSec – is genuinely fun; the writing is spot-on for the most part and the characters are all voiced beautifully, and that includes the dude with a robotic voice and a face masked with emoticons. Yeah, Marcus’ buddies are a little weird and although I probably wouldn’t mingle with these kinds of people in real life, I think me and Marcus would get on alright. Or so I like to think. I’m probably not cool enough…
The gameplay and narrative weave within one another really well. You’re not confined to hitting the story beats if you don’t feel like it. There’s plenty of side-missions and activities to partake in. Because of course there is, it’s a Ubisoft game… That comes across as negative but in truth this is probably the best example from within the publisher’s portfolio of how to do filler content the right way. It’s not perfect by any means and there’s still plenty of repetition in the side stuff, but it’s improvement and credit has to be given where it’s due.
Your goal throughout Watch Dogs 2 is to amass as many followers as possible in order to take a slice of their processing power which in turn helps you beat the big boss, Blume and their evil ctos system. That’s it in a nutshell. Sounds a bit daft when you read it, doesn’t it? It’s not, though some aspects are. You gain followers by doing various missions and performing various actions. Fair enough, though sometimes you gain followers for truly stupid stuff; early on in the game you’ll amass the numbers of a small cult just for buying some pants…
DedSec is in all-out war against Blume, the corporation that handles the big data collected from the smart city ctos system, but they aren’t the only ones in DedSec’s crosshairs. The New Dawn organisation – a parody of The Church of Scientology – among others, are in for a rude awakening from those pesky millennials and their smartphones. The story is actually really well done and is infused with some much-needed humour, attitude, and charm that the first game ditched in favour of moody vibes and depression. It once again touches on the touchy subject of big data and what corporations do with all the information they collect and whether you’re actually worth anything in comparison to the data you provide. It’s a little depressing to think about it, really, because even though the game aims high for the light-hearted approach, you still know that its subject matter is a very real thing. The irony is that Ubisoft itself could be classed as one of the “bad guys” by Watch Dogs 2’s premise. No spoilers here, but it’s a decent tale and it’s fitting in its setting of San Francisco: a city where it’s OK to be a hobo with a laptop; a city where the disillusioned youth can picket all they like; a city where all the weirdos can hang out in peace.
How about the gameplay? It’s frickin’ sweet, or at least it is most of the time. The first thing that hit me was character control. The camera has been pulled further back and now you’ve got yourself a nice view of your surroundings while being able to move much more fluidly. It’s a cheap comparison to make, but it’s a little bit Assassin’s Creed in terms of moving around the world – except the cars. As far as I know Ezio never drove a car. He’d have loved it, though.
Marcus is slick as hell and running around the city, parkouring over walls, up structures and all the rest of it just feels brilliant. There’s no awkward stiffness in getting Marcus to do what you want and it makes playing the game that much more enjoyable. I hated how Aiden moved and I’d regularly throw him in front of trucks out of disgust. I tried to off myself in Watch Dogs 2 by jumping from a sizeable drop that would have killed the old protagonist, yet lo-and-behold this agile hipster simply did a backflip and landed into a roll. Cool dude indeed.
Depending on how you choose to play Watch Dogs 2, the gunplay improvements might not matter all that much to you. For me they were essential as I’m not all that patient and when the option is there to shoot someone, you can bet your life I’m going to take it. There’s a fair amount of weapons to make and use, as well as gadgets and tools. Yes, you actually make your own weapons in Watch Dogs 2 by using the 3D printer at DedSec HQ. Cool, no? There’s still a progression system of sorts that you’ll need to spend a bit of time with but it’s fairly easy to use. Research points are used to improve your various skills whether they be mad hacking skills, mad shooting skills, mad stealing ski – you get the idea.
One of the biggest improvements in Watch Dogs 2 is how you go about hacking the connected world around you. It’s no longer a simple case of pressing square at the right time and being done with it. There’s also fewer tedious hacking mini-games, though they’re still in the game, sure, but they’re actually not that bad. Dare I say that I was actually having fun while doing one? Sod it, I live to dare. I had fun while doing a hacking puzzle. How? Well, instead of the puzzle taking place inside a computer or whatever, the puzzles take place in the world. A good example was a few hours into the game where I had to hack into something or other and I’d alerted the bad guys to my presence by shooting one of them in the face. Naturally, the posse came to town and tried to take me out. So while I was doing the puzzle, I was also switching back to Marcus to shoot the guys running to the door, estimating how much time I have before the next guards make their way up the stairs, then going back into the puzzle, moving the bits around, and so on. It was a thrill and I had fun. Sue me.
It’s not just the puzzles that have been overhauled, it’s literally the entire concept of hacking as a gameplay tool. You’ll still use your trusty smartphone to peep into the lives of everyday citizens, steal their money from their bank accounts, and maybe activate the grenades on a bad guys belt, but there’s more to it. Environmental hazards that can be triggered now how more depth and options. Instead of waiting for that guard to make his way over to the gas pipe on his patrol, you can hold L1 then press the circle button to attract him to it before pressing square to set it off. Or perhaps you just want a trap ready without you needing to be keeping an eye on it? That’s cool. With just a couple of button taps you can hack whatever hazard you want to only detonate when a guard is in close proximity. It’s really well done and it works with just about every hackable object in the game.
However, as much as I laud praise on the general hacking, there’s one particular feature that had me in fits of giggles: car hacking. You can unlock the ability to hack other cars and cause them to swerve left and right, or move a stationary car forward and backwards. It’s a tool that can be used for mischief but it’s also a life-saver when you’re being chased by those do-gooder cops. For example, I was on the lam from the law and belting down a highway at full speed. The cops didn’t relent and they were constantly on my tail, nudging my rear end and giving me a hard time. So I forced one of them to turn left and the chaos that ensued afterwards was pure bliss and I got away free. I died minutes later when my car exploded, but that’s neither here nor there.
While I may have gotten my rocks off playing the puzzles and teasing the po-po, the real fun was in the city of San Francisco itself. It’s gorgeous. I’ve got another cheap comparison coming up, so prepare yourself. Watch Dogs 2 looks the part and plays the part of a big city of life, and no more so is it obvious when you’re just cruising around the city, hopping out and heading into different establishments. There’s an abundance of detail to the game world, something akin to – WARNING: cheap comparison incoming – GTA V. I know it seems like a quick way of saying the game looks great, but there were genuine times when I was driving through the hills when I reckoned that if the HUD was gone and I was told it was GTA V, I’d probably believe it, though I’d argue it looks a little better.
Car handling is greatly improved, and although you can easily quick-travel from within the map, I actually didn’t mind going on the long drives across the city. It was nice just to put on some tunes and enjoy the sights. Oh I’m a mushy one, aren’t I? But in all seriousness, this is a world apart from the first outing. This is a game that has been made purely for next-gen consoles and hasn’t been held back by the rusty old PS3/Xbox 360. It’s a joy to look at and it’s a joy to play, put simply.
Now it’s not all positive, I’m afraid, as Watch Dogs 2 does have some technical problems that seriously dented the fun in my puzzle orgies. They were that fun, guys, really. I’ve already written about the frame rate problems, but for those who’ve not read the piece, seen the videos, and have no intention of clicking through to the article, I’ll do a quick recap here.
As is normal these days, the game’s frame rate doesn’t stay locked at the desired 30FPS the studio was aiming for. It’s not the end of the world for me. I’m not one of those people who will spend hours obsessing over single frames being dropped, or very specific moments in a game where it’ll drop. I’m not that bothered as long as it doesn’t ruin the gameplay. What does bother me is when the frame rate falls face first into the low-twenties/late-teens. That’s when it gets noticeable, and that’s when it ruins the fun. Now I should point out that it’s not a constant thing. In fact, it seems to be quite random and I could go hours without it happening. It’s also worth noting that Ubisoft has posted a message on the game’s main menu saying that the game’s seamless multiplayer has been causing lag for players and that it has been disabled until the problem is fixed. As far as I can tell, the frame rate bomb is a nasty bug that’s triggered by the game during certain moments, and not just the multiplayer. It’s likely that Ubisoft will push out a fix on or around release day, but as it stands with version 1.02, there’s a nasty bug that can only be gotten rid of by closing the game and opening it again.
Aside from the bug mentioned above and the usual anomalies that come with open-world games – dodgy physics and weird clipping at times – Watch Dogs 2 is easily a world apart from its predecessor, but it’s not fair to just compare it against a mediocre game. It stands tall in its own right and I applaud the developers for taking a risk by casting us into the world of idealist hipsters and hackers. It’s a solid game that deserves a chance, just so long as Ubisoft gets its crap together and fixes the few technical problems in an otherwise superb game.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a physical version of the game bought at retail at the expense of the reviewer. It was reviewed with the latest patch available (1.02) and was played on a PS4 Slim.
Note: The official review embargo is November 14th. We did not get our copy of the game from Ubisoft so we’re under no obligation to adhere to the embargo or any other conditions placed upon those who agreed to Ubisoft’s terms. This does not affect the content of the review or the final score awarded.