Taking place a few years after the original, Watch Dogs 2 puts you in the role of hactivist Marcus Holloway. There's still plenty of hacking to be done, but it will all take place in sunny San Francisco this time around, instead of on the dreary streets of Chicago.
And from our experience with the game thus far, it seems Watch Dogs 2 is poised to be bigger and better than its predecessor in almost every way. There are new ways to hack, explore, and deceive enemies, plus a bigger focus on money this time. Since Marcus isn't a vigilante like the previous protagonist Aiden Pearce, he'll have to find some ingenious ways of making cash to craft new equipment.
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It appears the majority of San Francisco will be ripe for hacking, allowing you take control of any nearby vehicle, camera or fancy gadget at your disposal. It's brilliant to see Watch Dogs 2 escape the dull clutches of its predecessor with a colourful setting and its young, over-the-top range of characters.
Ubisoft has confirmed that the San Francisco setting is roughly twice as large as the environments found in the first game, meaning we'll have plenty of sunny beaches, bustling streets and gorgeous high-rises to explore. Hopefully, Ubisoft doesn't go too over the top with its meme-inspired sense of humour this time around, something that tended to be a little jarring in the original.
Watch Dogs 2 will follow the same basic gameplay template as its predecessor, with developer Ubisoft Montreal adding plenty of cool new features and improvements to the experience. In the original Watch Dogs, your hacking abilities were limited to a select number of objects in the world. Now it seems the possibilities for electrical madness are almost limitless.
You'll be able to hack any nearby vehicle, camera or appliance and bend it to your will. These can be used to distract, eliminate and terrify your enemies. You can also use them to cause endless havoc in the open-world, annoying the citizens of San Francisco as they go about their business.
Melee combat has been overhauled, placing a larger emphasis on player speed and DIY weapon customisation. Your primary weapon is a billiard ball attached to a rope, which is both brutal and silly in its execution. Vehicles are also more varied, with Ferraris, dirt bikes, dune buggies and even helicopters making an appearance thus far.
Watch Dogs 2 has had a much-needed injection of personality. Ubisoft has made a big effort to craft a more vibrant, exciting sequel to what was a dull and disappointing game.
There are more entertaining, light-hearted characters, alongside a splash of colour and a sense of being in a technology-ridden playground – all controllable from your phone. However, after spending a couple of hours in San Francisco, I’m still trying to work out if Watch Dogs 2’s new attitude makes it more fun.
Ubisoft plonked me a decent chunk of the way through Watch Dogs 2’s main campaign at the start of a two-hour demo, with many of its toys and gizmos already unlocked. While it was an exciting prospect to have so many hacking tools available from the off, it did take a long time to work out what exactly everything did.
After being given a brief demonstration from a developer about the controls and gadgets available to Marcus Holloway, Watch Dogs 2’s lead protagonist, I was let loose on San Francisco, free to cause as much hacktivist mayhem as possible. But with so much information to take in, much of it was quickly forgotten, and thus I began pressing all the buttons to see what happened, often with hilarious consequences.
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As with Watch Dogs, the world is your oyster, all via an in-game smartphone. Marcus is able to find out the most intimate information about anyone from the tap of a touchscreen. Within seconds I can discover whether the man at the bus stop is in huge debt, the woman walking her dog is a drug addict, or the beggar stood outside the coffee shop is wanted for robbery.
There are also a few more tools available. As well as being able to distract people with prank calls, I can call the cops on them for a more elaborate distraction. Or I can call a gang hit on them – but this feels like an incredibly sinister thing to do to an innocent old lady. I’ll just pillage her bank account instead. For now.
As part of this new fun approach to the world of hacking, Marcus can emote to the citizens of San Francisco with a press of the D-pad. He can insult, pacify, flirt and even dance with anybody on the streets, and they can react positively or negatively. These manifest as real-life emojis – Marcus is a true millennial. The physical emojis feel incredibly superfluous, but when combined with other tools the pay-off can be amazing.
While strolling through a lovely path in the hills, I saw a couple on a hike arguing. The wife was yelling at the husband for losing his way, despite “swearing he had GPS on his phone”. To calm the situation, I called the cops, and the husband was now wanted for assault with a deadly weapon.
The boys in blue arrived after a few seconds, and swiftly began to arrest the man. So of course, I immediately began flirting with his wife. She was very receptive, demanding me to “come here, you sexy thing”. Unfortunately, it was at this point where the second cop rugby-tackled the woman, and took both into custody.
This is a perfect example of Watch Dogs 2’s new, more comedic approach. While it carries the “stick it to the man!” attitude at heart, it’s done without the dull, grey coating of its predecessor.
This is helped further by the members of DeadSec, the hacktivist group of which Marcus is a member. While a little on the nose in the "rebel" archetypes, they’re certainly more fun, and interactions feel natural.
They’re almost like the teen movie versions of Mr. Robot characters. Take Wrench, the guy in the Deadmau5-style mask – he'd fit perfectly as the gadget man in any superhero movie. He has a certain charm that means interactions are always interesting, and he quickly became the darling of the group.
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However, there are still many sins that linger. While the city of San Francisco is certainly a more welcoming and vibrant one than Chicago, it suffers from an incredible lack of detail. Textures look flat and environments can feel bland. It’s a shame that a place seemingly teeming with activity quickly becomes stale up-close.
Cars also continue to handle like Tesco trollies with a dodgy wheel. The floaty controls and consistent understeer through every corner make it a chore, and missions with car chases become laborious. Also, every car I jumped into was kitted with nitrous oxide, but this didn’t make the motors move any faster; it simply made the screen shimmer to create the illusion of speed. This illusion was easily broken, since it took an age to overtake even the slowest of cars.
But the longer I played Watch Dogs 2, the more I enjoyed it, and it's certainly an improvement over its predecessor, warts and all.
There was only one main mission available, Haum Sweet Haum, which comprises four separate parts. The first involved breaking into a compound on a pier and stealing a truck, supposedly holding a key set of parts for Wretch to begin working with. At this point I still hadn’t played the game for that long, and was getting used to all the bells and whistles. The consequence of that was that I was becoming increasingly frustrated at the supposed lack of options.
The new drone and RC car are pretty much how you begin every mission – using a combination of both to scout the terrain – and they're incredibly useful. Both are capable of all the hacking abilities and even picking up items as Marcus – how? I have no idea – so using them to get around the compound and potentially take out a few tertiary guards makes the infiltration much simpler.
Using the drone, a really cool new trick up Watch Dogs 2’s sleeve is the ability to booby-trap tech. In Watch Dogs you had to watch CCTV, wait for a guard to walk nearby something that could be detonated – or cause it to make a sound and alert them – and then set it off manually. Now, you can rig any device to blow when a guard comes within a certain radius, leaving you free to carry on hacking or sneaking your way around.
The one issue with this trick is that the device can blow at any time, which of course will alert every guard in the area, and you may well be out in the open when this happens, completely changing the gameplan. You have to think carefully about the approach before turning a compound into a minefield.
I decided at first to go loud – I called in a hit squad to attack the guards at the gate, and rigged devices all around the place to blow. Once the gang arrived and started shooting, I joined in. Explosions could be heard in the distance as guards attempted to join the fight but detonated my explosives. I pulled out an assault rifle and tried picking off enemies from behind a barricade. However, it’s at this time I realised Marcus isn’t exactly bulletproof, and within seconds of the fight kicking off he was already dead.
Also, Watch Dogs 2’s combat lacks the finesse of Ubisoft’s other shooters, such as The Division. Marcus is cumbersome and clumsily fumbles his way from cover to cover. It isn't great for all-out action when the odds are stacked against you, and can feel frustrating.
My second attempt was more stealthy – swimming to the point in the pier where the truck sits. I sent a drone to hack the security key needed to open the gates, jumped in and drove off, without harming a soul. Bullets began flying, but after hacking a few traffic lights and using the new hacking tools that make cars around you turn sharply left or right, or even stop suddenly, I was home free.
The driving still proved annoying, but when combined with hacking, the slower pace of the cars made sense; it gave me time to look around for opportunities to distract.
Once I got to grips with all the hacking devices available to me, Watch Dogs 2 felt like a step up from its predecessor. It’s certainly a more enjoyable experience and you feel like you have "toys" at your disposal.
However, while the world has benefited from a splash of colour, it still suffers from a lack of detail. Combat and driving can still frustrate, and these issues irked me throughout my time with the game.
It’s an improvement over Watch Dogs, certainly, but has it done enough to fulfil the potential we saw all the way back in 2012? I’m not so sure.