Title: Watch Dogs 2
Alternative Title: Watch Dogs II, WATCH_DOGS2
Genre: Action-adventure, Stealth
Format: PS4 (reviewed), X1, PC
Release: November 15th, 2016
Age Rating: 18 (PEGI), Mature (ESRB)
“ENTER the hackers’ world”
Despite what the majority of the video game industry’s history would remember of it, I pretty much loved the 2014 original Watch Dogs and its genuinely entertaining doses of stupid, fun action. Despite my harsh views on its uninspired story, I really, really loved the Chicago-based adventure, even if Aiden was a terribly boring protagonist.
Watch Dogs 2 only makes me love this growing franchise more. Detached from graphical controversies and cross-gen ports, I anticipated Watch Dogs 2 and its insanely contrasting style in comparison to the original.
While I had my doubts over the product’s eventual quality, especially after Ubisoft Montreal’s awfully bland Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, somewhere within myself I thought this would be the game that could break away from the now-standard Ubisoft format.
I’m glad I was right.
Story & Setting
We are out and away from the gloomy city of Chicago and unto the much sunnier and livelier San Francisco area. SF becomes one of the new cities to gain the mega-corporation Blume’s ctOS 2.0 system, a smart software that secretly eavesdrops on the entire population and has access to all sort of electronic objects. Said system has quite a few oppositors, including leading hacking group DedSec, who will not stop until Blume is exposed.
Enter Marcus Holloway, a notorious hacker who goes by the moniker Retr0 and joins DedSec as one of its core members after the ctOS 2.0 marked him as a suspect with a high possibility of committing crimes. And he’s super pissed at both Blume and their ctOS system.
The most obvious change in Watch Dogs 2 over its predecessor is without a shadow of doubt – its tone. Lovingly cartoonish, amusingly easygoing and endlessly upbeat, Watch Dogs 2 is a huge departure over the 2014 original’s grim and overly serious direction. The beautiful but lifeless Chicago has been replaced by vivid and energetic San Francisco, and the wooden Aiden Pearce has left the scene for the younger and more colorful Marcus to take controls over the series.
The city and its hilarious anti-hero bring a much needed change to the young franchise, with humor and lightness that wasn’t present in the original. It sure has its darker and more serious moments, but despite this the game keeps on a very pleasantly cheerful romp throughout.
While the overarching narrative centers on Marcus making DedSec into a cyber force to be reckoned with while taking on Blume’s higher ups and associates, Watch Dogs 2 shines through its mockery of modern technology and society, dramatized portrayal of cyber communities and satirical tributes to pop culture. Sometimes this can get a little too out-of-hand and the game gets a bit too wackier, but overall this remains a fun little journey, with tons of references and shout-outs to timeless classics and recent trends.
One can clearly see how Ubisoft has learnt from its past games that repetitive revenge quests, melodramatic revelations and apathetic protagonists have grown incredibly stale, exhausting and downright boring. The developers obviously took notes from Rockstar’s acclaimed Grand Theft Auto V and Volition’s hilarious Saints Row games to create a more fitting atmosphere, to varying levels of success, but still a huge leap forward.
Sure, it’s not the most emotional or thought-provoking type of story. But it’s still a pretty good satire romp through modern society. I can’t help but to constantly laugh due to the countless parodies, jokes and criticisms running down the characters’ throats.
The people Marcus encounters throughout are quirky and often memorable, particularly his DedSec teammates who each possesses some sarcastic streak, funny dialogues, relatable problems and a hidden, more vulnerable side to them. There is something very tragic and poetic about many fellas here – especially some more comically-relief characters – who more often than not cover their painful scars and wounded honor with a gleeful demeanor. Most notably is DedSec’s muscle and brawn Wrench, a zany and wild masked berserker with a massive talent for trouble-making.
Oh yeah, and T-Bone returns. He would’ve gone unmentioned if not for trailers revealing his existence. I mostly love his relationships with the DedSec members, the cynicalism reeking from him contrasts the naive idealism of Marcus, Sitara and the rest. His mentorship is far more apparent in the sequel, and in comparison to the first game, he’s become far more determined and involving.
DedSec’s slew of adversaries is quite colorful. From a psychotic cult, to a ruthless rival hacker team, to huge mega corps in the Silicon Valley, and even the FBI and NASA, Marcus sure attracts some dangerous and influential enemies. It’s such a shame, however, that those collective groups lack any strong and independent individual antagonists.
The original Watch Dogs’ deliciously vicious and colorful villains were one of the game’s highlights, and the sequel flatters in this regard. That said, almost all of them pale in comparison to main antagonist Dušan Nemec; the calm, soft-spoken CEO of Blume with an uncomfortable level of composure and certainty. He almost always one step ahead of Marcus, and makes it a habit of his to irritate the hacker at any given opportunity.
While the general tone of the game is pleasant and a welcome departure from the last game, it becomes clearer as you progress the game that the individual parts and arcs of it are significantly stronger than the sum of the entire journey.
It’s a problem also inspected in 2012’s Dishonored, where most agreed that the separated arcs within the story were better than the overarching, rather incoherent, plot itself, and that’s the case here, too.
Marcus ventures from mission to mission with little connection or sense of flow between them, with the grand plan of stopping Blume being sidelined by what some may say a ‘filler’ mission. There is very little seamlessness between smaller arcs, particularly in the middle act of the game. And characters sometimes tend to ignore and forget past incidents beyond optional conversations.
Don’t get me wrong; the individual parts tend to be decently written and masterfully paced with DedSec often having to face a new form of obstacle, but several of these missions feel disjointed and out of place in the grander scale of things.
This can in turn cause some jarring and inconsistent moments between the characters. Meaningful development to characters such as Wrench and Sitara is cut short, completely forgotten or poorly executed through the campaign due to the disrupted flow of the missions. A particular sub-plot for example is the unexplained tension between Sitara and T-Bone over Marcus; it gets built up as the story develops, but eventually blown out the window with little resolve.
In spite of that, the final third of the game becomes increasingly more and more focused in the main protagonists’ ultimate goals and stakes go incredibly higher. All this, while keeping on the lighthearted and comical approach to the premise.
Gameplay & Design
The fundamental template for Watch Dogs was what can be best described as a Grand Theft Auto-esque game world and design married with tweaked Assassin’s Creed mechanics, alongside other Ubisoft games. The major difference was the inclusion of the hacking mechanic.
But whereas the first Watch Dogs used hacking as just another weapon amongst all the guns and rifles Aiden could carry, Watch Dogs 2 turns it into Marcus’ central piece of action.
Through hacking, Marcus can take control over cameras to extend his point of view, elevators and cranes to reach over new places, explode generators and pipes to either paralyze or outright kill guards, and a new addition – controlling cars towards every direction you’d like.
Such activities consume Marcus’ energy in the form of “botnet” units, which will either slowly recharge or hacked from NPCs. Those units may be upgraded through a skill tree.
Watch Dogs 2 possesses a far more richer and rewarding skill tree than other open world games with RPG-like elements, ranging from things as small as additional botnets to taking out helicopters and mark enemies as gang targets. And all those skills are payed with Research Points that can be either earned through leveling up or collecting through the city of San Francisco.
Not to mention the need to obtain precise Research Points scattered around to unlock them.
Watch Dogs 2’s open-ended San Francisco and the Bay Area are densely packed and gorgeously realized, but unlike many other recent Ubisoft offerings, it’s also one of the better open worlds to come out by the company since 2012’s Far Cry 3 and 2013’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
While it does suffer from some repetitive content, Ubisoft manages to keep Watch Dogs 2 thoroughly refreshing and engaging thanks to rich side-missions and toys to plays with, not to mention how good the city’s design can be.
Both the main and secondary missions – dubbed “Operations” – involve Marcus strengthening his DedSec team through assaults on the hacking community’s many enemies and foes. Nearly every operation DedSec has to offer is bizarre, over the top and entertaining to both Marcus and the player.
Design and accessibility is where Watch Dogs 2 shines the most.
Watch Dogs’ newest toys come in the form of RC vehicles, the land-ridden Jumper and the flexible Quadcopter. With multiple paths, intricate areas and countless holes, Watch Dogs 2 gives the player a decent amount of freedom, allowing Marcus to become a ghostly thief and a feared shadow without even stepping into the mission zone.
Seemingly impossible odds challenge the player’s out-of the box thinking and encourage them to analyze and consider different routes and actions. As a stealth game, Watch Dogs 2 is a delightful experience with so many toys and flexibility to tackle.
Alongside the RC toys, Marcus is also armed with a taser gun and a “thunder ball” melee weapon in case things need to get dirtier. While the stun gun is generally faster its effects are worn off after several minutes whereas the thunder ball deals a more permanent damage at the cost of being riskier and slower in its animation.
Then… there are lethal guns… there are lethal guns…
The original Watch Dogs had relatively solid shooting mechanics even if its arsenal was disappointingly limited. But it was a solid action game with stealth elements that fused together almost seamlessly.
In comparison, Watch Dogs 2 more… “ruthless” approach is somewhat tedious and even jarring.
Aiming feels heavy and clunky, and the guns presented to Marcus are generic and forgettable despite the much higher quantity. This doesn’t help the fact that Marcus’ health is surprisingly below average (even if it makes sense.) Not to mention the contrast between the lethality of those weapons in comparison to Marcus’ personality.
Should things escalate, shooting becomes almost like a chore rather than a genuine alternative to the player. I’m saying this as someone who has played more than a few shooter games: Watch Dogs 2 left me tired and frustrated whenever it encouraged a more direct response, and obviously not in a good way.
In a way it makes sense considering Watch Dogs 2’s slower pace and friendlier protagonist, but as much as I love the majority of Watch Dogs 2, its supposedly other approach is almost nothing but an annoying bore.
This doesn’t make Watch Dogs 2 itself a bore, however, and the game is filled with creative and enormous set-pieces and situations that go hand in hand with the silliness of the narrative.
It could tweak the AI a little, though; it is common for hostile NPCs to stop and freeze when attempting to lure them, but in general it is an impressive showcase of intelligent enemies, and players should be careful else they might get surrounded with no way to escape.
Loading times can be quite a pain and require almost a minute of waiting, at least on the PS4 console.
With a healthy amount of varied missions, the story mode could last over 14 hours to players, which is a fair length for open world games nowadays. With the vibrant and dense map of the Bay Area, Watch Dogs 2 can offer a lot of more hours and stuff to do.
Watch Dogs 2 also features a multiplayer-type gameplay akin to Ubisoft’s ongoing project to seamlessly merge solo and multi play-styles.
For the most part, it’s fun.
I will admit that I am not a big fan of multiplayer, and while I do not consider Watch Dogs 2’s competitive mode an essential part of the package, it’s definitely an entertaining distraction and mostly harmless addition to the game.
Players can find themselves in cat-and-mouse chases between each other, cooperate to execute DedSec operations together or just hunt the fellow hacker to the dirt. It can get annoying to some points with multiple pop-ups and notifications of nearby events of sudden attacks, but that can be negated through disabling the online functions.
In comparison to other recent games by the company such as The Crew or For Honor, Watch Dogs 2 also offers a far more consistent and polished online experience, and it’s clear the developers poured a lot of heart to make it work.
Also, I think we can all agree that Watch Dogs 2 also fixed one of the original Watch Dogs’ worst features: the driving.
Ubisoft, thank you for not making us drive fucking dog-sized trucks again!
Visuals & Sound
Watch Dogs 2 is very pretty even though it is far from being a hardware showcase like the 2012 reveal of its predecessor attempted to be. The graphics might feel slightly (very slightly) dated in comparison to 2015’s Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate with less detailed character models or realistic landscapes, but when it comes to style or personality, Watch Dogs 2 definitely wins.
San Francisco is gorgeous – moreso than the gloomy Chicago of the first game. It’s bright, vibrant and colorful, married to lovely landscapes and memorable neighborhoods, with fittingly cartoonish and exaggerated art direction that shows the zanier side of the game.
And the particular highlight might be the DedSec videos shown after almost every main operation, with its clever cuts and bizarre imagery that show how insane and ridiculous this game is. And this is even spread to loading screens and interface.
Voice acting is generally great with a strong team consisting (newcomer to video games) Ruffin Prentiss as Marcus, Tasya Teles (who is better known as a TV actress) as Sitara and Outlast star Shawn Baichoo as Wrench among the cast. We also get to see the welcome return of John Tench as T-Bone, with his slightly gruff but calm performance, and welcome Christopher Jacot as the main antagonist Dušan, who does an incredible work.
When it comes to music, the soundtrack for Watch Dogs 2 is quite the energetic one, with electric tunes, addicting pulses and even some minimal usage of drums. It fits the game’s youthful, modern setting and characters, with its rather rebellious and unpredictable combination of instruments and styles.
The licensed music is also pretty good, may I add, with a generous variety of songs and pieces to find ranging from rock and pop to even classical music. I mean, you can basically sneak your way through while listening to Mozart.
Watch Dogs 2 is the type of sequel that builds upon and evolves the formula of the original game, and in the now-growing Watch Dogs franchise, Ubisoft Montreal took on the challenge and turned the hacking mechanic from a mere gimmick in the first game to the centerpiece and core of the second.
Its story is a stark difference from Watch Dogs 1, and its satirical appetite and silly shenanigans are a step above the bleak revenge story of the 2014 original. This is the type of game that knows how to take it easy and let the player have some ridiculous fun on the way.
I adored my time with Watch Dogs 2 even when the story felt a little disjoint and the shooting mechanics were sloppy. Watch Dogs 2 is a lovely time of stealth and hacking in a beautiful setting packed with fun characters, and it’s one of Ubisoft’s best games of the PS4 and X1 generation.
For my alternate recommendations if you’ve loved Watch Dogs 2, I present you with two options:
- My first one would an obvious choice: Grand Theft Auto V, which Watch Dogs 2 seems to have been partially inspired by, at least in terms of overall attitude and atmosphere. It’s a huge open world game taking place in a recreation of California, with similarly vibrant locations and sharp satire. You can either purchase the PS3/X360 version, or he enhanced version for the PS4/X1 and PC. Either way, you’ll have a blast.
- My second pick would be another open world game, which is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, by Hideo Kojima and (arrgh…) Konami. Similarly to Watch Dogs 2 it is an open world game that puts more focus on stealth rather than direct action, and it also boasts a very large environment and tons of gadgets and toys to play with. Just be warned that this game is far bleaker and depressing than ‘Dogs 2.
- Fun, likable characters and a decent, zany story set in a beautiful and vibrant San Francisco with much needed color and identity
- Hacking has evolved tremendously from the first game, featuring multiple styles and approaches with tons of new toys
- One of the best open world environments from Ubisoft since Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag
- Story and character development sometimes feel disjoint and disconnected due to the narrative’s structure
- Firearms seem generally unnecessary and shooting mechanics are a step-back from the previous game
& The Ugly:
- Some of the hacking descriptions of San Francisco’s citizens will make you feel unclean