Normally we’d be looking at a full review for the game at the day before launch, but Ubisoft’s got a few wrinkles to iron out. The seamless multiplayer portions of the game are currently offline. While Ubisoft gets that portion of the game hammered out, we’ll be holding our final judgment until we get hands-on with the final code. That said, I did get a taste of the multiplayer at an event a few weeks ago and was summarily impressed with how much fun it was, so I don’t expect its inclusion to do anything but raise the score.
The premise for Watch Dogs 2 expands directly on its predecessor. The Blume company who prototyped ctOS (the semi-fictional infrastructure control software) in Chicago as a method to centralize management of things like the electrical grid has expanded nationwide. ctOS 2.0 has been deployed with 6.8 million connected devices (colloquially known as the “Internet of Things”) all connected to one another. Where the original Watch Dogs was mostly Aiden’s personal struggle, Watch Dogs 2 focuses on a central premise that I’ve been personally preaching for years:
You are worth less than the data you produce.
As modern cities push to become hyper-connected, it becomes more difficult to control the data that is generated about every one of us. The game makes this frightening point in its first moments. Big Brother no longer works alone, instead enlisting the help of “Little Brothers” inside the devices around us. Children’s habits are collected as data to be used for marketing, game consoles provide a view into our gaming habits, apps like Waze showcase our driving habits, and our viewing trends have been cataloged and collated for decades. The concept of collecting and correlating all of this data is called “Big Data” and private business and government agencies are investing in its use.
But what if that data is wrong?
This is exactly the problem that protagonist Marcus Holloway faces in Watch Dogs 2. His profile has been flagged for a crime he didn’t commit. This digital shadow could wreck his entire life, and he has no intention of letting that stand. As a skilled hacker, he catches the attention of DedSec who put him on an impossible mission — break into Blume and delete his profile. Though nobody in DedSec had ever succeeded, Marcus manages to physically access the ctOS 2.0 servers and erase his personal data. The backdoor he leaves behind are the keys to the kingdom – a window into Blume that DedSec can use to expose what they are really up to, showing the world what insidious intrusions they’ve let in their doors under the guise of safety and convenience.
While the Blume corporation has upped their game, DedSec has countered with a few tricks of its own. While Watch Dogs focused on intrusion, Watch Dogs 2 has a lot more manipulation of the world. There are now four functions for hacking physical items: hacking a phone can open up their datastores, but you can also vibrate their phone to distract enemies, or even cause it to explode. An electrical box can be rigged with a proximity trigger to non-lethally electrocute a curious guard.
As you earn or find more research points (there are some hidden as collectables within the environment) you gain more options to manipulate the world. Similar to the first game, these are split into trees that affect combat, City Disruption, Social Engineering, Vehicle Hacking, Remote Control, Botnets, and Tinkering. Within these areas are individual skills that greatly expand the player’s ability to manipulate the real world. Some personal favorites are skills that let you call in false APBs so the police respond and arrest the subject, the ability to remotely control vehicles (which is incredibly useful while being pursued), and the classic steam pipe eruption trick from the first game. Just as it was in Watch Dogs 2, all hacks on display have roots in real-world hacks. This ties directly into how you obtain new gear — 3D printing.
Rather than visiting the local gun shop, you obtain new gear in Watch Dogs 2 in courtesy of a massive DedSec 3D printer. Guns, explosives, and even the two drones are available for printing, thankfully without the multi-week wait. While the prices seem outrageous, they keep the game in balance — I never felt too powerful, but I always felt like I could get the job done. That’s not a balance most games get right, especially near the end, but Watch Dogs 2 nails it.
As I explored a near-perfect rendition of San Francisco, Oakland, Marin, and Silicon Valley, the first thing I noticed was that there were no towers to climb to unlock portions of the world. Unrestricted, the game lets you free-roam anywhere you wish right out of the gate.
Thanks to an unfortunate water incident (read: threw it into the Bay while drunk) I replaced my handset and got to work in this new world. First I had to outfit my new phone with apps. Car-on-demand does what it sounds like, Driver SF lets you get your Uber on, and Scout X helps you track landmarks in the city on your maps. SongSneak is your Shazam / Soundhound replacement, and Media Player lets you set your own playlists, whereas Director’s Cut is your one stop shop for filters for all the pictures you’ll take with your camera. It’s a minor thing, but it really made it feel less like a “press X to hack” device and more like a phone I might carry in the real world.
Using my Media Player app I was happy to find tracks from Aphex Twin, Plaid, GonjaSufi, LFO, M|O|O|N, Clark, Sublime, and even some CCR. Discovering new tracks is on you — the first 25 are free, but you’ll have to use SongSneak to nab new ones. The soundtrack is pretty stellar, featuring some great hits from the last 30 years, as well as a classical station — something for everyone.
Do it for teh lulz
One of the chief complaints in Watch Dogs was protagonist Aiden Pierce had a bland and by-the-numbers revenge plot as motivation, resulting in an unrelatable and somewhat unlikable character. Watch Dogs 2’s Marcus Holloway is a far more likeable character with very understandable motivations. Instead of focusing on a revenge storyline, Watch Dogs 2 instead embraces the hacker culture. Sometimes petty, sometimes serious, and oft-times doing it for ‘teh lulz’, hacker group DedSec represents a loose collection of team members, meaning Marcus is never really alone. It creates a space for more character development and interplay instead of the constant brooding introspection we got with Aiden.
The politically and somewhat civic-minded miscreants of DedSec are aggravated with the Blume corporation and ctOS, but it takes Marcus and his backdoor to give them enough of a push to unite them under a common goal – exposing the Blume corporation.
To break Blume, you’ll need power. To achieve that, the DedSec team intends to construct a giant botnet (networked computers that can be used as a unified attack vector). Given the number of phones in the world, the best way to do this is with an app. Every mission you undertake brings more app users and fans to your cause, as do selfies at famous landmarks and doing various side missions.
The side missions in the original Watch Dogs were a lot more serious. You had criminal convoys, detecting and preventing crime, and busting down gang hideouts. Watch Dogs 2 throws all of that in the trash and focuses on far more entertaining side content. Beyond the well-constructed main missions lie side missions that feel like they could have just as easily been worked into the primary story arc. Thematically, they often run parallel to the main thrust. For example, one mission is about teaching one of DedSec’s relatives the dangers of putting every scrap of data online. Another one revolves around exposing the lies of the New Dawn Church (read: Scientology).
Beyond the story-compelled side content, players can earn money with an Uber-like app, race your quadcopter drone, burn rubber on motorcycles, tear up the track in go-carts, and much more. All of it is done in a “Yea, I could see somebody doing this in the real world” sort of approach, making it fit the bright and colorful setting all the better.
Beyond the addition of new hacking skills, Marcus also snaps up two RC vehicles to do his bidding. A small wheeled RC car called a Jumper is able to get into small spaces like vents and under tripwires, going where Marcus can’t. This can be helpful to infiltrate areas, pick up objects, and remote-hack just about anything. On the flip side, you can also eventually print a Quadcopter. The Quadcopter can’t interact with objects physically, but it can reach areas neither Marcus nor the Jumper could otherwise, spotting targets or navigating puzzles. Both add a cool element for exploration, and it feels awesome when you’ve completed an objective without ever physically setting foot on the premises.
Hacking in Watch Dogs was very much a “press X to hack” sort of affair, as the real thing is interminably boring.
If you felt like Watch Dogs took itself too seriously, Watch Dogs 2 does the opposite without making a parody of itself. It does this by closely approximating real hacker subculture. DedSec is a mix of Cult of the Dead Cow and Anonymous, Nudle is Google, and SoundGrabber is essentially Shazam. It provides a framework where silliness can play out, but also conveys the real-world implication of just how much freedom over our own data we really have already lost. It is tonally perfect, and the writing made me laugh more than once.
Hack the planet!
Watch Dogs 2 features “seamless multiplayer”. What this means in practice is that multiplayer actions can and do happen at any time. Other players can intercept you mid mission (Hacking Invasion, a port from the first game) and begin to hack your data, resulting in a game of impromptu cat and mouse. Conversely, you can select multiplayer missions and then meet up to tackle them cooperatively.
There is a new online mode for Watch Dogs 2 entitled “Bounty Hunter”. When you’ve caused enough chaos in the single player game to arouse the full wrath of the police, other players may be invited into your game to try to take you down. Up to three players can join the hunt and are rewarded with cash for ending your reign of terror. Conversely, the player can score similar bonuses by standing their ground and axing the hunters. It’s a good risk/reward system, and in practice it proved to be a lot of fun.
Since all of these multiplayer aspects are currently turned off while Ubisoft irons out some lag-including issues, we’ll reserve judgment on them. That said, they aren’t in any way critical to the success of the main product — they’ll only add to it.
One of the lures of Watch Dogs is that you feel like a digital dynamo, hacking people’s phones, reading their mail, eavesdropping their phone calls, and otherwise being an intrusive snoop. You gain a window into that person’s motivations and background. All of that is still present in Watch Dogs 2, but it’s gotten a shot in the arm.
One skill in the game allows you to remotely control vehicles. Having random cars or bikes careen off the Golden Gate Bridge simply never gets old. Similarly, you can absolutely break any design choices the developer had for a difficult mission by calling in both the police and a rival gang to take down targets within a building. As the various factions gun each other down, you are free to waltz in and take whatever you want. It’s an insanely powerful skill and it encourages crossover of stealth and gunplay within the same mission.
If there is anything that lets the player agency aspect of Watch Dogs 2 down it’s the AI. The AI is fairly content to use cover and shoot at you, but they have the attention span of a goldfish. Since you can’t move bodies (making stealth sometimes very difficult), the AI will spot any of your handiwork fairly quickly. That said, they won’t remember it for long. Using your phone you can distract them, making them oblivious to anything near them, or you can simply hide out, as they will lose interest fairly quickly. Similarly, using a remotely-controlled vehicle to crush their friends is just a passing interest. While the crowd is more alive, nobody is particularly concerned with what’s going on around them in Watch Dogs 2, or at least for any length of time. That said, it doesn’t dampen the fun of the game, and in the end that’s worth more than hyperrealism.
Though it doesn’t make a big deal of it, Marcus has some parkour skills. This allows him to scale up chest-high boxes to climb up buildings, backflip off of ledges, and otherwise amble about the environment. It feels a lot less plodding than its predecessor and opens up new ways to tackle missions. Since the game never forces you into one particular play style (gunplay, stealth, or remote hacking) it’s not uncommon to use parkour to reach high ground, spot enemies with your quadcopter, use the jumper to unlock a few gates, and then stealth in (or plug away with a rifle) to do your dirty work.
There is one new mechanic that gets a fair bit of use in Watch Dogs 2, and that’s a new remote hacking system. Being able to spot the wiring for alarm systems was introduced in Watch Dogs, but here in the sequel you are treated to a ‘turn the levers’ sort of system that has you redirecting blue power bands to the right areas to unlock them. These puzzles start off simple and in a single room, eventually spanning large buildings, or even one that runs the length of Stanford University’s quad area. It was a fun change of pace every time I encountered one.
I have to say that the open world of Watch Dogs 2 does suffer a bit of framerate chug and some occasional pop-in on PlayStation 4. The game runs at 30fps at 1080p, but occasionally the framerate can dip for a moment or two, often causing screen tearing in the process. Thankfully it’s infrequent, and I can’t say it has impacted my gameplay, but it’s there just the same.
If there was one other minor complaint I’d lodge against Watch Dogs 2, it’s that the secondary hackerspaces (your base of operations) feel somewhat underutilized. Since you can warp around without having to ‘discover’ locations first, warping back to DedSec HQ is just as easy as warping to them, it makes them somewhat redundant.
Watch Dogs 2 is Ubisoft open world at its finest. Full to bursting with fun and interesting content, Watch Dogs 2 carefully balances hacker culture, serious moments, and engaging storylines that creates a game that has something to say. With far more personality in its protagonist, it’s very easy to recommend Watch Dogs 2.
Score: Provisional – 90%
- Likeable protagonist
- Sharp and funny writing
- Bright and colorful world of San Francisco
- Plethora of varied main and side content
- Never takes itself too seriously
- Secondary hackerspaces don’t do much
- AI can be a little dim
- Infrequent framerate wobble