Watch Dogs 2 largely delivers on the promise of the first game, crafting an open world experience that is different and diverse. Here is our review of the PS4 version.
The first Watch Dogs game was definitely entertaining, and we really enjoyed it. However, it is mostly remembered for what never came to be. Shown off as one of the first ‘next gen’ titles, early demos showed incredible visuals – but gamers were disappointed when the final product did not live up to what was shown in the demos. A few home-made patches (or in Watch Dogs terms, ‘hacks’) came out for the PC version to enable these visual effects for those not afraid to experiment with them, but the damage was done. Console owners in particular never got what they had been looking forward to, so Ubisoft had something to make up for. Luckily, Watch Dogs 2 rectifies a lot of those mistakes – instead pleasantly surprising us during our playthrough, at least for the most part.
Our first hands on experiences with Watch Dogs 2 came during this summer’s Gamescom event, where we met with developers from Ubisoft Montreal who guided us through both the single and multiplayer modes of the game. Incredibly nice guys, and a fun demo of a game that takes place in an inspiring setting – Watch Dogs 2 moves the franchise to the San Francisco Bay Area.
It’s these surroundings that help create an immersive experience in the game, as San Francisco and the surrounding area are just filled to the brim with landmarks – and a lot of them are in the game. You can stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge, or drive across it many times without paying any (real money) tolls to do so. You can visit Alcatraz, go down Lombard Street, or leave the city to explore Marin or the Palo Alto/Mountain View area that’s home to companies like Google and Apple. Although they don’t appear in the game in a literal sense, you’ll instantly recognize them in companies that you encounter. It’s a wonderful setting to explore if you’re familiar with the area, and recognizable enough even if you’ve never been there yourself.
The environment is portrayed realistically in terms of the game’s visuals, but has an over-the-top approach to how companies, people and lifestyles appear in the game. This provides a light-hearted way of dealing with a subject matter that could have taken a darker, techno-thriller type of turn. Instead, the bay area is portrayed in ways as colorful as the city itself is. Watch Dogs 2 isn’t about the locations though, it’s a game about hacking. Ironically, the hacking itself is somewhat of a mundane activity and not as complex or intricate as it sounds, but it’s the experience that leads up to it or that results from it that matters. More on that later.
In Watch Dogs 2, you play as Marcus Holloway, a talented hacker who attracts the attention of Dedsec, the hacker collective we saw in the first game. After you join them, the game is about taking down the Central Operating System 2.0 (or CtOS 2.0), which acts as a big brother type of city-wide surveillance system – a role the hacked group opposes. By following and completing the story missions, your group gains influence and followers, slowly getting stronger in your fight against Blume, the corporation behind CtOS 2.0. Of course, Blume also pushes back, and will try to hunt you down – especially during story missions.
Aside from these story missions, you’re also able to uncover plenty of side missions, which can be unlocked in a myriad of ways – for example by intercepting text messages from random people. This is one of the many forms of ‘hacking’ that you can perform, although the actual hacking is an automated process that’s done using the press of a button. It doesn’t matter if you’re hacking traffic lights or security cameras – what matters is how the consequences of these actions fit into your grand plan, and that’s where the fun lies. For nearly every mission, there are a number of ways in which you can tackle it. You can cause havoc, or create subtle distractions – you could even complete your missions without ever setting foot in the area. This is done using a combination of a drone-like helicopter and a miniature buggy, the latter of which can also perform hacks.
Another tactic is to set people up against each other. You can turn an innocent security guard into a wanted fugitive by hacking the police system, after which a bust will quickly follow – causing a big distraction or even a firefight. What your target area looks like afterwards will be very different when you initiate such an event, and the same happens when you set up another gang to attack your target – so from stealth to chaos, you have a wide range of approaches to choose from when you tackle the countless missions available to you.
These missions are spread across a huge area, and traversing it is made easier using a fast travel system – which is generally superior to driving/stealing a car because the driving experience feels a tad underdeveloped, with ‘floaty’ cars and a general lack of a real sense of speed. The best driving parts are actually the racing bits, where you can race go karts or sailboats. They’re not an integral part of the gameplay experience, which makes it easier to forgive the shortcoming that the ‘normal’ driving sections have.
Upon release, Watch Dogs 2 had some problems with its online code, which we didn’t test extensively. Luckily, we did get to test this during Gamescom, and the system works well. The most fun way to play multiplayer is by tackling missions cooperatively with a friend, but Watch Dogs 2 also enables you to hack other (real life) players in the game world – or join forces with them. Getting hacked can be a fun break of pace, but it can also be an annoyance if you’re just looking to play the game by yourself – luckily, this is a feature that can be turned on and off at will.
Watch Dogs 2 is a more than worthy sequel and offers more diversity and replayability than the first game did. The excellent setting, vast array of approaches and emphasis on fun and humor keeps the experience fresh. The audiovisual delivery is excellent, though Ubisoft didn’t go for the wow factor like they did with the earliest demos for the first game – perhaps a smart move, because it keeps the emphasis on the gameplay. That part is, aside from the driving and a few lackluster side missions, rock solid.