Watch Dogs 2 was announced by Ubisoft all the way back at E3 this year, and once word of it had gotten out, there were mixed feelings. On the one hand, the concept of the series had always been good and this looked set to introduce a new approach to the world of hacking, however, there were also doubts considering the issues people had with the first game. While not a horrible experience, the original wasn't quite what people expected it to be. Because of a seemingly lifeless world, its dreary protagonist, and more limited hacking options than some would have preferred, many were understandably cautious about the sequel.
Watch Dogs 2, from the outset, is very clearly a different game from its predecessor, and the opening hour of the game pretty much shows you why. Rather than a sombre, brooding figure walking around a grey Chicago, Watch Dogs 2 puts you in the shoes of a young hacker named Marcus in vibrant San Francisco, as he proves himself worthy to enter the eccentric hacking society DedSec, who themselves are hell bent on exposing corruption and immorality. The premise is that you find out the shadowy corporation Blume is being shady in their operations, not only towards you but to everyone, and DedSec is working to bring them to justice, along with anyone who may be working with/for them.
The narrative for the most part is entertaining and the characters are thankfully well-written and engaging. We had fears that all we'd hear was cringeworthy lines as hipster types spewed 'down with the kids' phrases, but all of the characters work and compliment each other very well, providing twists and turns throughout the story. There are a couple of surprises in the story as well, which kept us guessing as to where it was going.
In terms of how the game plays when you step into Marcus Holloway's shoes, it's pretty much like the first in terms of premise, in that you walk around a city and you point at things to interact with/hack them, except now this is all made smoother by the introduction of parkour, as Marcus can hop, skip and jump his way round San Francisco. The important thing to note, though, is that he can't climb like in fellow Ubisoft franchise Assassin's Creed, but he can only climb up walls of a certain height and jump over small objects. Getting to higher places requires some thought and potentially 'borrowing' a crane or two.
Missions are varied and interesting, and mostly take the format of longer missions split into phases. Most of the main operations (missions) involve exposing an organisation's wrongdoing, and you then have a sequence of tasks to undertake to ensure you have ammunition against them, after which you reveal it to the world in the form of an Anonymous-esque video. Most of these require you to infiltrate huge facilities, whether that be to hack intel, physically steal key technology or monitor people, and much more.
Stealth is encouraged when tackling all of these missions, because although you can invest in a variety of weapons and offensive gadgets, Marcus doesn't fare well when the guards are called and bullets are flying from all angles. Keeping the alarm down and reinforcements away is preferred, and that mostly revolves around stopping guards from spotting you or catching sight of their incapacitated colleagues. By clicking the right stick (we played on PS4) you can activate a vision mode similar to the Arkham series where you see enemies and technology around you in greys, blues and reds, and this allows you to plan how you'll move through each task, whether that be setting traps for guards, distracting them while you move through like a ghost, or simply which ones you'll blow to pieces with your explosive arsenal, depending on the play-style you opt for.
How you interact with the world around you is down in part to your own creativity, but also on how many upgrades you have, framed as points in the DedSec research app on your phone. These allow you to do new and interesting things with people, objects and gadgets, and unlocking these grants you more ways to spice up your hacking exploits. The good thing about this is that some of these require not only enough research points, but also key data that needs to be picked up or hacked in a certain location in the city, so legwork is required to get them all.
The upgrades and research you unlock then allows you more and more routes for each mission, as there are often a number of ways to complete any given objective. For example, you can use the quadcopter to access keys, tag enemies and hack things, but not to interact with panels, so you can then send either yourself or your RC Jumper in to deal with those. Some missions can even be completed without Marcus going anywhere near the objective, which is a nice touch. The satisfaction when you use the technology to the best of your abilities and execute a flawless run is a great feeling, too, and really makes you feel like you're a hacker, even if what you're doing with the touch of a button would be so much more complicated in real life.
To dwell a bit more on the world of Watch Dogs 2, it certainly has more of a distinct identity than that of the first game, and it was a wise choice by Ubisoft to move the action to San Francisco. There's not only variety between all of the different parts of town, from the gritty gang areas to the marvellously shiny Silicon Valley, but there's also colour in there too. In fact, the whole game looks lovely, apart from a few graphical slips in terms of textures, and we revelled in some of the views we were offered. As you walk around the city, the detail Ubisoft has put in is really quite impressive, and what's more is that all the locations are actually interesting to explore, stopping exploration from becoming a slog.
There's also online functionality in Watch Dogs 2 that works in two ways. Firstly, there are the online options for when you actually consciously invite someone into your own game and want to tackle various activities with them. Via your phone, it's easy to invite people into your game for freemode, and from there you can pretty much do as you wish. There are co-op missions, tasks to upload a virus and so on, and we had a lot of fun with it when we teamed up with colleagues and played together, since it allowed you to really flex your muscles and see what avenues you could take with the technological capabilities of two players instead of one. The only thing we'd say about this type of online play, however, is that these co-op missions may get a bit stale after a while, as although there's a lot of them, the variety in terms of what you have to do for each isn't huge.
The second type of online play is what Ubisoft refers to as "seamless multiplayer", which basically means if you're hooked up to the internet then players can come and go from your game via different events, one of which is hacking invasions, where another player attempts to steal data from you and you have to find them in a certain area before they succeed. There are also the bounty hunter missions, where you have to stop someone who is outrunning the police. Although at the time of writing this "seamless" online functionality is down for maintenance, prior to this we got a chance to play with this quite a bit and it makes for natural, yet unexpected moments that spice up the game and keep it feeling fresh, something we appreciated. You really feel like you are in a living world when these events naturally occur all around you.
In general, the performance in online play was good and smooth, and when inviting another player we didn't have any issues with connection, however, one colleague did notice the frame-rate drop considerably when another player entered the game in these "seamless" moments, so that's something to bear in mind, since these will be happening quite frequently.
There are a few more niggling issues with Watch Dogs 2, however. The cops, for instance, get incredibly annoying during car chase sequences, as police cars seemingly spawn into roads you're going down and when you're hidden they still know which road to turn into in order to spot your car. We found escape sequences took quite a while sometimes because of this, leading to us driving round for ages just looking for somewhere to escape the sight of the cars and the helicopter. Also, although the hacks while driving are good in the sense that they delay the police significantly, such as bollards coming up when police come near, sometimes it's hard to execute the commands given the speed you're travelling at.
Another issue is that the sheer number of interactions open to the player can be a bit overwhelming at first. Pretty much from the beginning of the game the whole world is available to you, with all the areas and icons there for you to see, and while this is nice in one sense, there is a lot to deal with in the first couple of hours of the game, and it's a lot to take in when you have to work out how to move, hack, upgrade, explore, craft and more. The tutorials do a good job at teaching you, granted, and you do eventually get to grips with what you can do, but we would still have liked the world to have been unveiled to us more naturally rather than plopping us in and giving it all to us in one go. Plus, the fact you can fast travel anywhere from the beginning means that a lot of players will probably miss the sights to see along the way, which is a true shame since San Francisco is a rich and vibrant digital world that has a lot to offer.
Some parts of the game could have been better explained, too, as the first hacking invasion we encountered was a clumsy exchange as we identified the hacker and proceeded to taser him, only to find out we couldn't, but then the police showed up and took us down. A little more clarity on things like that, as well as what the symbols mean when hacking things, would have been very much appreciated.
These little niggling things don't significantly detract from what is most certainly an improved instalment in the Watch Dogs series. At about 15-20 hours long, there is a lot of substance here; it's detailed, interesting, and, above all, fun. The art of hacking in Watch Dogs 2 produces gameplay variety that fans of the series will appreciate, and this, combined with an engaging roster of characters, a detailed world, and online that is a lot of fun, means that Watch Dogs 2 is definitely one to keep on your radar this year.
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