You are being watched. The Blume Corporation has activated the new version of their Orwellian surveillance program, ctOS 2.o, and everyone’s right to privacy is under siege. Dedsec is back to stand in their way however, their hacktivist members waging a secret war against those who would surrender the rights and freedoms of the people in order to maintain security. Instead of fearing the system, they will turn the implacable resources of ctOS against its creators, using Blume’s own tools to destroy them.
Back in 2012, the announcement trailer for WATCH_DOGS was our first glimpse of a new gaming generation, long before the public knew about the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. WATCH_DOGS looked fantastic, and promised an interesting view into the near future of surveillance and privacy rights. Featuring graphics and mechanics that set it beyond Grand Theft Auto, many were looking to WATCH_DOGS to revolutionize the sandbox action game. When the game finally made it to consoles, WATCH_DOGS noticeable graphical downgrade immediately put it at a disadvantage with its audience. The downgrade controversy plus its grim tone and bland main character left many underwhelmed by WATCH_DOGS, but the game still went on to be Ubisoft’s biggest new IP launch, with sales of over 10 million copies.
It has been two and a half years now, and Ubisoft understands that their first hurdle in marketing WATCH_DOGS 2 is to separate itself from the dour grit of its predecessor. Right from the beginning of the game, you can tell that they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that you don’t forget how far they have come, and with good reason. For those of you who were concerned about WATCH_DOGS 2, or worse didn’t even have it on their radar because of the quality of the first game, I want to be up front with the following statement.
WATCH_DOGS 2 is unquestionably an improvement over the first game in every way.
Moving from the “grimdark” environs of the Greater Chicago area, WATCH_DOGS 2 cleverly transposes the action to San Francisco and also replaces the angsty vigilante Aiden Pearce for a new main character, Marcus Holloway (aka. Retr0), a brilliant young hacker who has grown up in the heart of US technological development. Profiled by ctOS as a potential criminal, he found his way to Dedsec to clear his name, ironically by actually committing many of the crimes of which he had been wrongfully accused.
His supporting characters in Dedsec are about as far from the Clara / Aiden relationship as possible, bringing memorable, unique characters with distinct personalities into the story, and almost demanding that you care about them. When you are first introduced to Sitara, Horatio, Wrench, and Josh, the glaring difference in tone and characterization from the first game is almost grating… at first, anyhow. My first fear was that Ubisoft was slathering superficial cheese over their cookie cutter, one dimensional stereotypes in order to fool me into believing that they could be entertaining. Very quickly however, I realized that the writers’ enthusiasm came from a genuine place, producing characters that are not only interesting but likeable. Even Wrench with his absurd LED emoticon mask grew on me, turning what should have been a ridiculous, immersion breaking affectation into a character building device that actually humanized his character in surprising ways. It didn’t hurt that he had a surprisingly well thought out opinion on how many Aliens it would take to give a Predator a fair fight, or his childlike glee in the schlockfest movie Cyberdriver. The story and cutscenes are well written, and backed up by talented voice acting, making you legitimately care about these characters and their struggles, unlike Aiden Pearce for whom I could not name one fact.
In terms of gameplay, the controls are tighter and more responsive, particularly the driving which was a common issue that many cited with the first game. The vehicles feel like they have weight without sacrificing gameplay for realism, including a vehicle hack that acts as a turbo boost to increase speed. Like the first game, Marcus can hack barricades, steam pipes, and traffic lights to create obstacles, but with a much greater ease. Marcus can actually hack other vehicles directly, putting another powerful weapon into his arsenal. You can still hack helicopters to get them off your tail, but now you can also hack police cars to put them in reverse, or force them to swerve into oncoming traffic, making escaping from the police far more effective. Far more fast travel locations are provided as well, not only to major locations and missions, but also to many random locations around the map, ensuring that you’re spending less of your time wasting time and more enjoying the San Francisco cityscape. Climbing and traversal is more fluid, with more unique and varied animations that keep movement from looking stale. Granted, occasionally backflipping off a roof seemed unnecessary at times, it’s in line with the tone of the game so it didn’t bother me for long.
While on foot, Marcus has access to an arsenal of weapons that he can 3D print at any of the Hackerspaces he has access to, but also can unlock stun mines or explosives that can be thrown as a grenade, used as a lure, and either detonated remotely or set to go off when an enemy moves into its proximity. Further upgrades can also be purchased to allow you to deploy these mines from your RC vehicles as well, improving your flexibility in approaching dangerous situations. Using your Nethack ability, you can tag enemies so that you can track them or identify hackable objects easily, even if they are behind walls or other obstacles. You can find objects in the world like electrical panels or gas lines to hack, causing enemies to be knocked out or killed without laying a finger on them. You can also use an enemy’s cell phone against them, triggering it to act as a distraction while you sneak up behind them and choke them out. By hacking cameras Marcus can bounce from camera to camera, further extending his hacking capability, or when no cameras are available he can make use of his RC Jumper or Quadcopter to survey the area. The Quadcopter in particular is a welcome addition to the game, allowing you to get a birds eye view of any area and tag all of your enemies in a large area before you begin your approach, even sometimes allowing you to achieve certain hacks remotely, eliminating the need to enter restricted areas entirely.
For the most part, a stealthy approach is favored, with Marcus quickly being perforated in a direct firefight. Which makes it even stranger that certain expected stealth mechanics aren’t present in the game. You can’t lure enemies over to your location in order to take them out silently in a remote location, like you might in a game like Metal Gear Solid V or Mafia III. While you can unlock the ability to use the Jumper to taunt an enemy and attract their attention, you have to swap control back and forth making the process more complicated than it needs to be, where it would be one button to knock or whistle in other games. Neither can you pick up and move an unconscious or dead enemy to hide their body from discovery. And make no mistake, enemies will react to bodies and enter a state of heightened alert, so you have to consider where you are when you bring an enemy down, because if they drop in a high traffic area, you’re certain to bring attention on yourself. It does not take long for an enemy to react to your presence either, and usually by the time you see the indicator that an enemy can see you, it’s already too late to reach a hiding spot before they move to full alert. Reinforcements are frequent and numerous, and the level of their response is strident to say the least. I may not be current on current law enforcement techniques, but I’m fairly certain that a proportionate response to trespassing does not include grenades.
When you do get into a firefight, the guns feel weighty and effective, with a full upgrade tree dedicated to improving your efficacy in combat. Don’t expect to take as much damage as you dish out however, as Marcus is a glass cannon. If you find yourself flanked or unable to find cover, you will quickly be ventilated by the many enemies that will descend on your position, so watch your surroundings and make enemies calling for reinforcements a priority target. Use your environment and hacking abilities to turn the tide in your favor, but when that fails be ready to back it up with an automatic shotgun. You can try to split the difference between stealth and slaughter by using suppressed weapons, assuming you’re not squeamish about murder, but it usually felt dissonant to me. Its a testament to the characterization that I never felt fully comfortable going weapons hot with Marcus, instead preferring to stun or choke out enemies in order to keep true to the character (even though to be fair, a lot of those melee animations looked super fatal, I choose to believe they’re just unconscious). Though the gunplay is well executed, it is another odd omission that you do not have the option to fire blind while behind cover.
Also absent is the crafting of the first game, instead your mines are on a cooldown timer, slowly building back up to your maximum capacity which can be improved through your upgrade trees. The ability to jam comms or blackout the city, return as well, each also on its own cooldown timer. This streamlines the process significantly without losing much in the way of functionality, making this a welcome change. Another major change is the removal of the district capture system that is a frequent feature of Ubisoft games. It was a kind of neat feature in the first WATCH_DOGS that you had to find the ctOS substation in each area, and infiltrate it using just your natural talents before being able to hack it and exert your influence over hackable objects in the district. In WATCH_DOGS 2, you always have access to your ability to hack ctOS no matter where you are in the city, and that never changes. Thematically, I liked that mechanic, but it wasn’t a necessary component, and I can understand why it was removed for the sequel. It streamlines the experience, and never makes you feel like anything less than an all-powerful hacking god.
Mission structure in WATCH_DOGS 2 has also changed, offering a ton of content in easily digestible chunks. There are a huge number of operations, each one consisting of five to ten individual missions, allowing you to advance operations asynchronously if you decide you want a change of pace or a mission is kicking your ass. Each operation has its own story arc, and every step feels like it contributes to the overall objective. You can choose your own path through the operations, with major story operations unlocking as you hit certain milestones. There are also a substantial number of races and activities to act as diversions, all of which will provide money and experience, but none of which are required for completion or trophies/achievements. In fact, WATCH_DOGS 2 is one of the most respectful Ubisoft games I’ve ever played when it comes to collectibles. Key Data is the only collectible that is tied to a trophy, and it is tied to your upgrade tree making them worthwhile anyhow to collect, and they give you the location of the data on the map at the touch of a button. This is a major improvement from the massive scour-fest that I ground through at the end of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
Graphically, the game sets a decent bar, offering a significant amount of detail in San Francisco and its inhabitants in an open world, without sacrificing frame rate or fidelity. I played the game for about ten hours on a PlayStation 4 before continuing on a PlayStation 4 Pro, and in both versions was consistently impressed by how good the game looked while still running smoothly, and with very few loading screens to interrupt the action. Especially with the day/night cycle, it became enjoyable just exploring the world and sight-seeing. Though it is on a much smaller scale, San Francisco’s landmarks are easily recognizable even at a distance. Luckily you will be rewarded for your explorations, with many research points and money bags available for pick up (optionally), allowing you to benefit even while enjoying the environment.
By the end of my 40+ hours with WATCH_DOGS 2 I found myself eager for more, be it in the form of a sequel or DLC, whatever format would give me additional time with these characters that I had grown fond of. Striking a nice tonal middle ground between Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, WATCH_DOGS 2 provides a fun and engaging sandbox that lets you approach missions with whatever strategy you feel most comfortable with, putting a whole host of tools at your disposal to do just that. WATCH_DOGS 2 offers a ton of activities and missions for your dollar, without overstaying its welcome and becoming tiresome.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
[UPDATE: 11/25]: Ubisoft has re-enabled the seamless multiplayer available in the game, allowing players to take on co-op missions with friends, or invade them in order to make their games more “interesting”. While some online multiplayer is necessary if you’re looking for trophy/achievement completion, the requirements aren’t punishing and don’t take very long to accomplish. In addition to the interaction with your friends, you can also queue up for Bounty Hunting or Hacking missions against a random target. Bounty Hunting pits you against a live player who is currently on the run from the police, adding a human element to their efforts to escape capture. Or turn the tables and invite bounty hunters to hunt you. In either case, its kill or be killed because there’s no prize for second place. Actually, there is a prize for second place, but it’s one third as much, so you might as well try to win. Hacking on the other hand favors stealth. Steal your target’s data and make your escape before they detect you, but don’t leave the area or you’ll have to start again. Choose your moment to strike wisely, because once the hack starts, it only stops when you’re done or they catch you.
Once again, the WATCH_DOGS style of multiplayer offers an additional layer of asymmetric strategy, allowing you to completely opt out if you wish, but enriching the game in unexpected ways if you choose to participate. The rewards for which provide a substantial bonus on top of your normal play, with nothing to lose except a slight increase of difficulty that comes with the challenge of a real human being trying to interfere with your efforts. It even thematically dovetails into the storyline of the game, making it truly a seamless experience. I would highly recommend leaving it on while you play, because even your bonuses for failure give you a nice bump for your trouble.