No matter how you feel about the first Watch Dogs, I think everyone’s in agreement that it took itself a little too seriously. Its protagonist, Aiden Pearce, was a sullen, angry potato in a massive jacket. Its Chicago setting was an overcast metropolis tinged in grey. Its story was… I can’t even remember what happened there. One of Watch Dogs’ main issues, though, was that it lacked character. Watch Dogs 2 aims to rectify this.
“I think a lot of things brought us there,” Watch Dogs 2 producer Dominic Guay tells me during a preview event. “First was I think the team’s need to balance the mood and go maybe with something a little bit lighter, more balanced, especially with the amount of time you spend in a game like this – developing it, but also as a player playing it.
Video: Watch Dogs 2 preview
“We all enjoy making more of a noir type of storyline, but we felt like – for a game that was going to hopefully give a very long experience to the player – a more balanced tone is going to bring a mood to better help you enjoy the game. Some of our subject matters are very serious, but having that lighter tone allowed us to explore them without becoming grim, which never was our intention.”
The first thing to lift the mood is the game’s new protagonist, Marcus Holloway. Marcus is a hacker, but he’s not out looking for revenge over a family death. All Marcus wants is to be free, so you start the game breaking into a CTOS facility. This immoral security company collects data from civilians, and ranks them by threat – how likely they are to commit a crime based on their background, browsing history, etc. Marcus is here to wipe his file.
For this mission, Marcus goes in armed only with a taser and the thunder ball, a loose chain with a weight on the end that he flails around like a mace/yoyo hybrid. Those melee finishers may look brutal, but it’s the game’s canon for Marcus to not be a killer. There are plenty of tools which allow you to play this way, too, from hacked electronics to gadgets and weaponry.
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Later in the demo, I 3D printed a stun launcher – perfect for non-lethal crowd control. Of course, you can 3D print pistols, assault rifles and even grenade launchers. It’s up to you, but, crucially, no matter how you decide to play, stealth and combat still feel satisfying. However, the game does gently push you towards playing stealthily or using more of a trickster style – jumping between security camera feeds and manipulating the environment to rig booby traps – because open combat is unforgiving. However you decide to play, you'll need to play clever.
Luckily, the game encourages experimentation, thanks to expanded hacking options and an extra layer of control over your interactions. The levels feel like they’ve had more thought put into them, too, and they now exist as a seamless part of the open-world.
One mission tasks me with stealing a car from a flatbed lorry in a heavily-guarded car park. There’s seemingly only one entrance – through the front. I scan the perimeter to make sure and I notice a white van parked around the back. I get in and reverse it up to the wall, get out, clamber onto the van’s roof and jump across to a nearby rooftop overlooking my prize. Then it’s a simple case of dropping in and speeding out as the guards scratch their heads.
“We realised when we finished the first game that some of our best missions were the ones where we opened up the level design, where instead of funnelling the player down a series of pre-defined paths we said ‘this is a problem, so solve it’,” explains Guay. “You have all those tools, so have fun with it.
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“It kind of brings forward the best part of hacking too – being creative, making a plan – so we wanted to exploit that, and we wanted to connect the mission layouts with the rest of the open world. So if there’s a mission layout and there’s a street gang nearby, they’re on, their AI is on. You can use them, bring them into the mission and start a fight with the security guards there. So we made more value of our open-world and our systems by opening up the level design.”
The Watch Dogs team realised that the best hack in the first games was the simple camera takeover. Why? Because the player has full control – they can manipulate the camera feeds to plot their route through an area, and they can jump freely between cameras, even using them to get to another hackable object. In Watch Dogs 2, maintenance elevators can be hacked, along with forklifts and other industrial machinery. You can ride on top of them and drive around the city, using them to boost you up to any rooftop they can reach. It makes you feel clever when you use this trick to circumvent a tough area filled with goons.
Another massive area of improvement is the city. San Francisco Bay is sprawling and gorgeous, with a personality that was missing from the first game’s Chicago setting. To the north of the map sits Marin, a little boating district peppered with docks and scenic lookout points. Take the bridge south and you’ll end up in San Francisco proper, all urban metropolis, filled with towering skyscrapers, shops and bustling with people. Keep travelling and you end up in the open countryside, before coming up on Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world. It’s like Shoreditch for computer nerds. Travel east across the bridge and you can explore Oakland. Like I said, it’s huge, and each district feels distinct.
Walking around at street level you can interact with NPCs, choosing emotes from a selection wheel and causing them to react. Honestly, I didn’t know you could flip someone off in so many different ways. The NPCs all interact with each other too, chatting about current events or just general small talk.
At one point, I stumble upon a man smashing a car up with a baseball bat, shouting about a cheating spouse. After seeing this behaviour, another NPC starts to push them, causing them to drop their bat. This was just one of the many scripted events that can occur as you explore, though the interruption from the other NPC was entirely unscripted. It’s just another example of how Watch Dogs 2 uses its open-world setting to create emergent moments.
“There are two different layers to this,” Guay tells me. “The first thing we do we said ‘characters in the city should react to each other and they should be fully systemic stimuli in the city’, instead of the player being the main stimuli. Our characters react to each other, so one can notice that person breaking a car window and call the police on them. The police will arrest that person and you’re just there looking at it, you don’t have to involve yourself. We did a lot of rework of our core AI systems to allow those connections.
“Then what we said is that’s great, let’s layer it with other cool little events that can be popping up in the city - it can happen anywhere, completely at random. These are quite rare, so you can play for 12 hours and never see it, or you could maybe see it twice. Completely random. I think that’s cool, because if players are going to spend 40, 50, 60, 100 hours in an open-world, it’s cool that they still find little surprises.”
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If you like little surprises, Watch Dogs 2 is shaping up to be full of them. I went into the preview event cautiously optimistic, but I came out with Watch Dogs 2 being one of my most anticipated games this year. Driving around the city feels great, stealth is massively improved, the tone is just right, the city is gorgeous, your abilities are interesting and it’s filled with a cast of likeable characters. It even has dogs in it. Watch Dogs 2, then, is one to, well, watch.