We gamers can be a rather salty bunch. It’s not always without merit, though, in the case of many furores that now seem to arise daily in our age of early-access stuff ups and Kickstarter fraud. When the first Watch Dogs grabbed gamers’ attention, it teased the possibilities of a new generation of consoles with impressive visuals and animation, as well as a seemingly different power fantasy. Compared to the final product, however, the demo was a bit of a lie. It was a lot prettier, and the final product, for some, was altogether too similar to other Ubisoft open-world action games built around the same basic gameplay hook of capturing outposts to unlock new missions. To my mind, it was pretty damned solid, but a bit lacking in character. Watch Dogs 2, as it turns out, is stuffed with character, almost choking on it, even. With a new, brighter and more colourful setting and tone, this is the kind of game Ubisoft Montreal should have made in the first place, but that doesn’t diminish what they’ve achieved here. Watch Dogs 2 the best digital playground to come out of Ubisoft since Assassin’s Creed IV.
Taking place in the San Francisco Bay area, Watch Dogs 2 starts off an altogether less serious note than its predecessor. The nefarious Blume Corporation is still installing its ‘smart city’ technology wherever it can, but this time you’re not pursuing some ham-fisted revenge plot in the skin of a total jerk. The former game’s protagonist was a 30-sumthink Aryan stereotype who sounded like he ate his own throat ulcers for breakfast each day. Here the player assumes the brightly coloured sneakers of Marcus Holloway, a 24-year-old hacker from Oakland who has been the victim of ‘pre-emptive’ criminal prosecution based on his ethnicity and programming skills, which has only been made possible through the deployment of CTOS in his home city. Marcus goes through an initiation gauntlet for joining the Bay area chapter of DedSec in the opening mission where he must delete his CTOS profile, after which he joins a most merry band of misfits at a beach party and promptly gets wasted and harps on about injustice. It’s a level of self-awareness and playfulness that the game’s story maintains throughout, and it gives gravitas to more serious moments that occur sparingly throughout the plot. The characters’ grievances and attitudes toward the ‘system’ are given further weight by the presence of an arch-villain, the indubitably named Dusan Nemec (pronounced douche-an, heh) CTO of Blume as they wage an information war against him, his corporate and political allies, and injustice wherever they find it.
Now, I am for all intents and purposes, grossly uncool. I am addled with a toilet brush in lieu of what most people would refer to as “hair,” a mangy collection of decorative scrotum-fungus under my neck and chin that most often has people asking me when I decided to leave the Amish commune. Most people smirk or clutch their children when they pass me in the street. I say this because Watch Dogs 2 and its hipster-geek heroes are cool, or at least cool in a way that appeals to a dweeb like me. They are young, hedonistic, self-righteous and idealistic, but they are also resourceful, funny and empathetic towards one another. They also run the spectrum of nerd-culture diversity rainbow pretty well, each bringing their unique skills and style. The gang consists of street artist and Asian-American woman Sitara, Anarchist and aspiring dildo-gun engineer Wrench, high-functioning autistic Josh, fellow brother to Marcus’ Oakland fold Horatio, and generation X-er T-bone returning from the first game to round things out. Marcus himself is more of an all-rounder – he’s funny, occasionally suave and a little showy, but is still a bit of a dork who loves to debate old chestnuts of nerd-culture (Aliens or Predator?) and dispel trivia (mostly about Alcatraz prison). He becomes a unifying force in between characters that are mostly independent and goes through plenty of trouble to keep them together in their struggle against the megalithic tech companies of the new economy and the forces of the establishment. Sometimes, as Watch Dogs 2 would have it, if you want to keep the band together, you’ve gotta go to burning man and take a bunch of LSD-soaked psilocybin mushrooms. There is a notable shcizm in the narrative, however; Marcus is such an affable guy that it feels more than a bit wrong when you kill someone or jack a car. You will end up killing people no matter how careful you are, but it never managed to feel appropriate for the character. As a result, I tried as often as I could to taking a non-lethal approach, largely with the use of a taser.
So while the story and characters don’t make you jump through any hoops to enjoy their presence, the gameplay gives you absolute freedom from the outset. Well, almost. Immediately following the tutorial, Marcus finds himself in a stranger’s bedroom, hungover and dressed in an unflattering pair of pink shorts. Once he grabs himself some new threads and meets up with his newly adoptive hacker brethren, he is set loose upon the world of the bay area. It is at this point, a significant swell of relief of any long-time Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry fan will feel flood over them; there aren’t any outposts or towers in Watch Dogs 2. You are free to play any of the side content from the get go, leading missions are dealt out sequentially, and side missions are found through investigation of the world through the use of NetHack vision, the obligatory alternative vision mode found in every Ubisoft action game. Every completed activity gains attention from the public, and feeds your follower count, an XP bar of sorts that ties into the narrative quite nicely. In order to overwhelm the servers of Blume Corp with a DDoS attack, Dedsec needs followers to volunteer their devices to the hacker groups’ botnet in a large enough number to be effective. This primary objective is there from the beginning of the game proper; when the bar fills, the game rewards you with ‘research points’ with which to purchase various upgrades like you might expect from an open-world Ubisoft game. These points come in two varieties, basic and ‘key intel’ versions, and can be found in difficult to reach areas out in the world. With the use of forklifts, cranes and parkour, the game encourages an enjoyable mixture of platforming and puzzling to make the most of its location.
These upgrades feed into the typical trifecta of playstyles games like Ghost Recon, Assassins’s Creed and Splinter Cell all now have in common; ‘Ghost’ for those who like to avoid trouble, ‘Aggressor’ for those who like explosions and ‘Trickster’ for those who fall between those extremes. The abilities themselves will give you access to new abilities for your remote surveillance drones (a quadcopter and an RC car), improve your efficiency with firearms, allow you to craft lethal or non-lethal explosives, as well as social manipulation hacks. Some of these hacks were present in the first game, like the use of city-wide blackouts or mass communication disruption for escapes, but here in Watch Dogs 2 are an additional set of hacks more useful for smaller scale interference on individuals. If invested in with enough points, Marcus can draw the attention of Law Enforcement or gangsters to a targeted individual to create chaos or minute distractions. Continuing the theme of more granular interaction, Marcus can mess with cars from a distance as well. Ambushing enemies with an explosive-laden car from a distance is always a satisfying way of eliminating the lion’s share of trouble hanging around the objective marker. The previously mentioned drones also change up the expected sneaking and sabotage in a big way. On more than one occasion I managed to successfully infiltrate a heavily guarded compound with nothing more than my RC car drone. But really, it’s all up to you.
Freedom of approach is well and truly Watch Dogs 2’s greatest strength, but don’t expect to be able to take a single approach to combat all the time. Most of the game’s missions follow a similar pattern; reach a destination, get inside the building, steal some information or a vehicle, then get out. Going in guns blazing will swiftly lead you to much butthurt, so stealth and surveillance are vital, but when and how you do so is a matter of choice, but expect your plan to change frequently due to the amount of pressure your enemies will put you under. The AI that governs the various hostile factions you’ll encounter, ranging from private security and law enforcement officers to a variety of different criminal gangs, is tough to take on. Even smaller missions will have Marcus grossly outnumbered and out-gunned, and if made aware of his presence the AI will quickly call in re-enforcements and limit his access to electronic systems. Some of the heavier adversary types, clad in heavy body armour and equipped with machine guns or shotguns, are total bullet sponges and are best to avoid. Only fully upgraded weapons will deal with them effectively, but you’re still likely to reduced to mincemeat if you try. Marcus is not a soldier, and has no body armour of any kind, so bullets will hastily bring his and DedSec’s gallant crusade to an end. Using the drones and the security cameras that are liberally peppered throughout every location is all but vital towards your success in WD2, and yes, you can still quickly bunny-hop from camera to camera or any other electronic device within view. This device hopping extends to electrical transformers, underground cabling, gas pipes and utility vehicles, further enriching your options for remotely activated traps. Improvising your approach will exponentially improve your likelihood of avoiding being turned into Swiss cheese, even if you do get your enemy’s attention off the bat.
It’s during the moments where the it hit the fan, in which Watch Dogs 2 felt like it had come into its own. Often, I’d get pretty far sneaking my way through a compound, a guard I didn’t account for sneaked up behind/flanked behind me, or a dog heard me jumping off the roof of a nearby garage and caused the guards to investigate. I’d suddenly have to shift gears from “silent super-spy” to “screw it” and start tearing the place a new one. Once I’d escaped in a hail of dust and bullets, I knew that this was where Watch Dogs 2 felt best. Ubisoft have cultivated this sort of rubber-band gameplay dynamic over a multitude of franchises because it’s always fun to think on your feet. Adding to this sense of aloofness and cleverness are the visual logic puzzles, back from the first game, now used more liberally here in more ambitious (or devilish, if you will) ways than before. They’re often placed on MASSIVE pieces of architecture and can take a fair bit of time to complete, but as in the first game, they’re an effective palate cleanser that helps make the player feel smart in between all the sneaking and shooting. These disparate elements all add up to a gameplay style that is fundamentally familiar, but maintains it’s appeal through a broad range of granular tactical choices that are vital to the players’ success due to Marcus’ level of squishiness. That being said, the final couple of chapters are a definite but not unexpected gaffe in this respect, where a ridiculous number of enemies and a limited number of paths to escape will cause a few frustrating and unnecessary deaths. It’s a sad blemish on an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Being cynical about Ubisoft action games is easy. It would be a shame to be so about Watch Dogs 2. As enjoyable as the gameplay and characters are, there are really uplifting moments that come from the script that are just pure social justice porn, and they will just make your day. Screwing over a Martin Shkrelli allegory by fooling him into sending millions to charity. Eliminating a Trump-alike from the election race while rocking out to CCR. There’s even a bit where you control a giant spider-bot in an awesome DOOM homage in reverse. This game has enough small touches and playful surprises that my faith is restored in Ubisoft Montreal as a developer. That’s not even mentioning the great randomised co-op scenarios, the satisfaction of trolling invaders in the shared world multiplayer aspects or the brilliant use of licensed music to accentuate the themes of important story set pieces. Watch Dogs 2 is one of the best games Ubisoft has made in a long time. Yeah, it has a ridiculous season pass with a questionable amount of side-content and a ridiculous price, the lighting can be a bit iffy at times (at least on Xbox One), but the base game is bloody excellent.