Available on Xbox One, PS4 (version tested), PC
Nine years ago Ubisoft released a game that was supposed to define a console generation. It looked astonishing, had sky-high production values and was packed with strong ideas. All the same, Assassin’s Creed wasn’t all that we had hoped for. It had a dour, unengaging hero, a repetitive structure, samey missions, flaws in the combat and controls. Two years later Ubisoft released a sequel that fixed nearly all these issues and gave us a hero and a story we could care about. Assassin’s Creed 2 was the redemption of Assassin’s Creed.
Can history repeat? Around two and a half years ago Ubisoft released another game that seemed set to define a console generation. It looked astonishing, had sky-high production values and was packed with strong ideas, but it was also saddled with a dour, unengaging and downright dislikeable hero, a repetitive structure, samey missions and flaws in the combat and controls.
By now, you can probably see where I’m going with this, and while I wouldn’t like you to think that Watch Dogs 2 was a triumph of the scale of Assassin’s Creed 2, it’s a much more vibrant, entertaining and enjoyable game than the original Watch Dogs. Like so many recent Ubi games it suffers from a host of annoying niggles and a sense of overfamiliarity, but just as Assassin’s Creed found its identity with Ezio Auditore di Firenze, so Watch Dogs has found the same with Marcus Holloway and his hacking crew.
Watch: What you need to know about Watch Dogs 2
With Aiden Pearce ditched as lead the action now centres on Holloway, a gifted young hacker and the latest recruit for DedSec, a hacking collective operating in a near-future San Francisco. DeadSec is at war with Blume, the corporation behind the revamped ctOS networked city operating system, plus a range of other bodies in which Blume has interests, including technology companies, movie studios and a scientology-style church. To win, DeadSec needs to expose Blume and its allies, build a massive following and set up a massive botnet formed from millions of smartphones and devices. It’s the only way to take CtOS 2.0 and Blume down for good.
While Marcus is your sole protagonist, he’s no loner, with each of the three other core Deadsec members getting their own specialities. Sitara handles the visual design and branding, the perma-masked Wrench is an engineer and gadget fiend, while Josh is the resident coding genius and general rocket scientist. And what does Marcus bring to the party? Well, like Aiden he’s the guy on the ground, breaking into corporate facilities, hacking systems and discovering their dirty secrets, whatever they are.
Marcus’s basic toolkit is much the same as Aiden’s, though he spends more time working on a laptop than on some super-magic-uber-smartphone. He doesn’t have the parkour capabilities of an assassin, but he makes up for it with the ability to hack nearby devices at a tap of the L1 button, opening doors, siphoning data from computers, controlling window-cleaning lifts, fork-lifts and elevating platforms, not to mention taking over security camera networks, extending his grasp beyond his physical reach. Like Aiden, Marcus can also prime handy bits of infrastructure to work as lethal or non-lethal traps, transforming an electric fuseboard into a proximity stun-mine or a gas pipe into an explosive device.
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Beyond that, Marcus has a selection of other gadgets. A hard ball on a rope works as his basic melee weapon, while a 3D printer back at DedSec HQ can print a range of stun pistols, handguns, shotguns, assault rifles and SMGs, the selection growing as DeadSec hoovers up more cash. And in the best new addition, Watch Dogs 2 throws in the RC Jumper, a two-wheeled drone that Marcus can send under direct control into enemy strongholds, where it can travel through vents and hack into systems on Marcus’s behalf. It’s extending claw is particularly adorable, making RC Jumper the year’s best robot buddy after Titanfall 2’s BT.
Now, this is another big Ubisoft open world game, so you can take for granted that it’s stuffed with systems, side-missions and a wealth of activities, ranging from motorcross races to hacking challenges to numerous collectibles to Drivr: San Francisco; a whole stream of lunatic driving escapades where you’ll drive clients around performing whatever weird and wonderful tasks they ask for.
In a way, that’s emblematic of what Watch Dogs 2 gets right, embracing the anarchic, out for laughs culture of the hacking community and parodying attitudes to technology and social networking rather than taking the more serious, social justice-led approach of its forebear. As a result, the sequel’s side activities sit a lot more comfortably than those of the original game, where they either felt generic or a distraction from Aiden Pearce’s vengeance-fuelled crusade.
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Yet it’s also clear that Ubisoft is listening to the criticisms of recent Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed games. Watch Dogs 2 studiously avoids the usual climb the tower/discover missions/complete missions/conquer the area structure in favour of something more modular, free-flowing and narrative-driven, where your focus is on defeating another of Blume’s plans and gaining more followers, one mission at a time. In a way, this actually makes Watch Dogs 2 feel closer to a hacker-themed GTA – even a high-tech Saints Row – yet if the move makes for a less repetitive, more entertaining game, who’s complaining?
The balance of the gameplay has also shifted. At times, Watch Dogs felt too combat-oriented, almost encouraging you to go loud if you were struggling to stay quiet. In Watch Dogs 2 violence feels much more of a last resort, though frustration with the stealth can still push you into a gunfight from time to time. Driving, meanwhile, is more about optional racing than about the original’s frustrating set-piece chase sequences, where merciless police forces ground you down. Even the sneaking around is generally more flexible, giving you the tools you need – like RC Jumper and an aerial drone – to try a range of options and find out what works.
Even the mission design seems stronger. Sure, there’s a lot of slow infiltration, camera-hopping and, that old chestnut, car or freight-truck theft, but with San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture in the foreground, there’s more variety in the locations, more opportunity to explore the coast and back-country and some more interesting objectives too. Vehicles seem to handle better this time around, making any missions with driving in a lot more enjoyable. It’s even funny, throwing in skits on Knight Rider, eighties movie stars, smug high-tech corporations and intrusive IoT pioneers and social media companies, both parodied here more effectively than in GTA V. The result is a game that doesn’t grow boring all too quickly and where there’s a sense of excitement every time a mission starts.
On top of all this, Watch Dogs 2 should have seamless, drop-in, drop-out multiplayer, where you can invite friends in for co-op action or duel with rival hackers, invading each other’s games, stealing data through subterfuge, or even taking on 3vs1 bounty hunt missions against most players who’ve been causing too much chaos on the streets. I say ‘should have’ because, pre-launch, the seamless multiplayer isn’t working. I’ll return and cover it in more detail when Ubisoft issues a fix.
So, is this the game where the Watch Dogs franchise secures a golden future? Yes and no. On the one hand, it’s great-looking, colourful and vibrant, with beautiful, highly-detailed visuals and an inspired use of hacker iconography. Like Sunset Overdrive or inFamous: First Light, it can be a riot of neon-light and colour.
On the other hand, and for all the good stuff mentioned above, there’s a lot of other stuff that still isn’t perfect. Enemy AI, for a start, is pretty lacklustre. Guards patrolling predictable routes is a staple of the genre, but those here seem spectacularly dumb, and even more so when engaged in combat, where they’ll happily flood towards a room to be gunned down as they come through a doorway, the corpses literally piling up. And while it’s good to have a less aggressive police force and fewer chases, some of the original’s sense of fugitive paranoia has gone with it. You can literally slaughter every guard in a building then stroll out of the front door, hop on a moped and ride to freedom, unbothered. It’s only later in the game that you feel the forces of justice really closing in.
The way movement and traversal are handled also has its irritations; because the game infers what you want to do when you’re squeezing the right-trigger it has a nasty habit of deciding that, rather than, say, jumping into a window-cleaner’s crane lift, you’d rather jump onto one guardrail, then the opposite guard rail, then dive heroically off onto the street six floors below.
It can also feel bitty. While the plot comes together and the villains raise the stakes around eight hours in, Watch Dogs 2 can feel like a disparate set of missions clinging on to a central thread. There are a lot of great ideas here, but they don’t always come together as one experience. What’s more, there are some not-so-great ideas in play. I’d just about got used to a repeated puzzle-based hacking element, where you have to rotate switches to create circuits to work around security, when the game threw in a horrific hacking competition at a desert festival that practically stopped my game in its tracks. Moving around and manipulating the switches is tough enough, but doing it against the stiff time limit soon gets infuriating.
But most of all, Watch Dogs 2 faces one obstacle good old Ezio didn’t have to contend with; over-familiarity. We’ve had a lot of urban open-world games in the last seven years or so, many of them from Ubisoft and many of them with a very similar style and feel. We’re getting to the point where you have to really push the boundaries or introduce something dramatically new to shake things up. I’m not sure Watch Dogs 2 does enough.
In short, this isn’t one of your all-time-greats. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be very good indeed. By daring to be bright, colourful, sometimes silly and – above all else – fun, Watch Dogs 2 should win over even those who felt let down by the original. By letting go of some of its self-important seriousness, the Watch Dogs series has earned a second chance.
Watch Dogs 2 is no great leap forward, but it sees the series headed in the right direction with more colour, more flair and a real sense of fun. The action’s solid and the mission design much less generic, while Ubisoft Montreal has given you a great set of tools and the freedom to use them as you will. If the original Watch Dogs was a mean-looking hound, all bark, no bite, the sequel’s a more playful pooch that’s all about having a good time – and it’s all the better for it.