I rather liked and enjoyed the first Watch Dogs game from Ubisoft, it was their first attempt a real open world game similar to GTA and it was able to create a shared universe with their popular game series Assassin’s Creed. However it suffered harsh criticism over a downgrade in promised visuals, poor driving mechanics and a main character in Aiden Pearce who was seen as dull and one sided. Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, this sequel was keen to address those criticisms and refine the experience as the action is moved to San Francisco and introduces us to a new hero, Marcus Holloway.
Watch Dogs 2 opens up with Marcus Holloway, known by his Hacker name Retr0, attempting to break into a ctOS facility as an initiation test for the Hackivist group DedSEC. His task is to hack into the ctOS network and delete his online profile, something no other hacker has been able to do. His skills quickly impress the members of DedSEC and Marcus is accepted into the group who are on a mission to unveil the truth about ctOS and its creator company Blume.
What is immediate from the very start is that Ubisoft Montreal has injected a lot of colour and fun into the new cast of characters. Marcus is a vibrant and confident young hero with impressive hacking and fighting skills who is joined by a diverse team with Sitara, the artist of the team, Wrench who is a Rorschach from Watchmen inspired character who wears a mask to hide his face but uses digital eyes to express his emotions, Horatio the inside man at Blume and Josh, an autistic character with a talent for navigating computer networks. Instead of just being the angry crusade of one loner looking for revenge which Aiden Pearce was in the first game, by using a team of hackers this time, Watch Dogs 2 now has a full spectrum of personalities and motivations for why the group is looking to take down Blume and the ctOS.
Now you may be wondering how the villains of the first game, Blume, are still operating and up to the same level of no good once again. The introduction does a great job of explaining that despite Aiden Pearce taking down the ctOS program in the first game, the company behind it in Blume, simply moved to a new city which adopted ctOS, San Francisco. Blume has set up shop once again, with all major companies and city infrastructure using ctOS 2.0, upgraded with lessons learned from the experiences in the first game. Marcus himself becomes a victim of the new ctOS as it uses a crime categorizing algorithm to identify potential criminal activity and marks him as a suspect for a crime he did not commit.
By focusing on the motives of a hacking group rather than just the lead character, Watch Dogs 2 is able to broaden the story telling and really highlight the dangers of the ctOS 2.0 system through the eyes of different characters. DedSEC wants to be seen as a true hackivist group rather then just a bunch of script kiddies, which gives an extra meaning to why Marcus has to be successful in the missions he undertakes. Successfully completing a mission leads to DedSEC gaining more followers on social media, all of which have downloaded their app to their mobile devices. By downloading the app they are happily allowing those devices to be used to boost the processing power available to the group allowing for more advanced hacking abilities which Marcus can upgrade in his skill tree throughout the game. Now the fun you can have with hacking skills is vastly improved from the first game. The ability to hack into security cameras to navigate building networks to scan an area or access devices returns as does the ability to hack individual phones to gain information such as listening to phone calls, text message conversations or stealing money from their bank accounts.
Hacking can also be used in combat far more than before with devices being used to distract, setting up traps and helping to escape from situations. The city itself can be hacked up with traffic lights, gates and doors and water mains under roads all hackable to aid Marcus. I enjoyed some amazing police car chases where using hacking tricks helped me escape. These talents can also be used for causing chaos and mischief in the world as they grow such as hacking a stranger’s phone and using it to forge a wanted status on them leading to the police charging in to arrest them. Marcus can also use two remote controlled gadgets, a jumper car and quadro-copter drone to assist him in reaching difficult to reach objectives or as distractions in enemy rich environments. Hacking has never been more of a fun tool in the world as well as a vital tool when it comes to completing objectives and in combat.
Objectives come in the form of main and side missions which become available during the game. These missions are often multi part in nature but all of which blend together into the main story arch to the game, so completing each one feels as though it is worth it and helping the big fight against Blume and ctOS 2.0. Watch Dogs 2 has a lot of gameplay to work through and they are varied enough to prevent the feeling of repetition creeping in that use both hacking and action to drive the experience. Some are full of pop culture references and similar to how GTA will parody real life companies, Watch Dogs 2 has its own take on Google and Scientology with Nudle and New Dawn. There are also references to other Ubisoft games and Ubisoft itself even has an office in the city, following on from the nod to themselves within The Division, and it also has a fun link to the first game’s hero Aiden Pearce in a suprising side mission.
The combat can feel a little over the top at times with Marcus being completely comfortable with taking a life or ten in some missions. Hacking is all harmless fun at times, but the way in which the hero characters are so nonchalant about killing is a little troubling set against their motives of social justice. That said, there are times where you do have to go all guns blazing which again goes against the notion that you can hack your way to complete the missions. You have a stun gun as a default weapon, allowing you to put enemies to sleep though they will wake up after a time and can be woken up if discovered by other enemies. You can use melee attacks using Marcus’s unique eight ball on a rope weapon, but even the melee takedowns feel far more brutal if they are to be considered as a soft non lethal option. Enemies increase in difficulty as the story progresses with light armoured and heavily armoured versions appearing with ever increasing damage dealing weapons forcing the player to also pack more powerful weapons which somehow all fit into his very tiny laptop carrying messenger bag.
Perhaps the biggest issue for me with Watch Dogs 2 comes down to the failing of the online element which was so much fun in the first game but since release has only spoiled the experience here. I began my review playthrough the day after the global release and so had the same retail updates as everyone else playing. On the main menu there is a message from Ubisoft saying that the ‘Seamless Online” has been turned off due to issues on launch. A week later and this message remains and as a result, many of the integrated online features for Watch Dogs 2 remain unavailable and even worse, caused crashing of the game for me which almost made it unplayable at times. The game features online co-op missions but currently these only work if you invite another player to join you, though the game will actively search for someone to join your game, it will fail leading to a big on screen message telling you the game session has closed. These missions can be completed solo but they serve as a constant reminder that the online is severely broken at the time of writing this review. Features such as invasion where you can invade another players game and in return they can invade yours just as in the first game are simply not working at all. This all tarnishes what is otherwise a really solid sequel and is just a real shame that yet again an Ubisoft game suffers issues with its online elements.
Overall Watch Dogs 2 is an impressive sequel which successfully improves upon much of the criticisms players had with the first game. It was great to see more colour and humour adding by making DedSEC a more relevant cast of characters with main story and side missions building on their relationships and bringing fun to the gameplay. The vast improvements to vehicle driving make it a fluid element to the game and a much wider customisation range for Marcus in terms of clothing and in both weapon and vehicle skins. The story flows nicely throughout the main and side missions and there is plenty of fun to have in San Franciso with some devious hacking tricks such as the ability to remote control vehicles and set police wanted status on random people leading to some very funny moments in deed.
At a time where being connected and online is as common place as getting dressed in the morning, Watch Dogs 2 tells a cautionary tale of how systems can be used to collate data, data we are all creating each and every hour of every day just by doing normal day to day things, and how that data can be used to record, manipulate, judge and control everything we do. Th story though light hearted at times does carry a deeper and darker message that we should all be very aware of when about to click “I agree” on a website’s Term of Conditions agreement.
But with all that said, the issues with the online even a week after launch means a substantial amount that should make Watch Dogs 2 a great game, remains unavailable and the sheer number of game crashes I suffered playing on Playstation 4 was frustrating and irritating enough to spoil my experience. Hopefully Ubisoft will get the online issues resolved and I will return to update this review, but at this time the problems will effect the score I can give this game which is a real shame because Watch Dogs 2 really lifts the series into the light far more than the original and is well worth a visit by fans of the first and those who may have been put off by the original’s negative reaction.
Maybe someone at DedSEC could help get the online side to Watch Dogs 2 working!
*Update – At the time of this review going live, Ubisoft has released a new update which has partially activated some of the online features to Watch Dogs 2. Review and score will be adjusted once these have tested*