I was blasé and bored of the original Watch Dogs from the moment it started. The uninspired protagonist, clichéd revenge story and typical gameplay did nothing to hold my attention. The only thing it had going for it was the hacking mechanic, which felt more limited than it should have, and in a world of Grand Theft Auto clones, a single gimmick didn’t do anything to set it apart.
It was with some trepidation that I began my playthrough of Watch Dogs 2. I expected it to be similar to the first, overly brooding and dreary with some sort of self-righteous crusade being at the heart of the story. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Watch Dogs 2 takes the good elements of the original title and simply throws the rest out in favor of what is a complete turnabout in tone.
Watch Dogs 2 takes place in San Francisco, and the sun and ocean of the West Coast make for a much brighter landscape than the original’s Chicago. You also don’t have to go around unlocking parts of the map through taking down ctOS towers anymore which is fantastic. All of San Francisco is open and mapped from the beginning. The landscape seems to be an analog to the new cast and plot, both of which are much more varied and light-hearted this time around. You take the role of Marcus Holloway, a hacker who has just joined the San Francisco DedSec hacktivist group. The endgame of this DedSec centers around taking down the Blume Corporation’s ctOS which connects the infrastructures of cities all over the nation as well as privately owned devices into a giant surveillance network.
Because of ctOS’s universality, the world is heading towards a Minority Report-like situation where people are flagged automatically as potential criminals or malcontents by the purchases and habits without ever committing any real infraction. The mission structure to take down Blume this time around is a lot different than the first Watch Dogs. Instead of completing mission after mission, the game is divided into episodic Arcs which are in turn divided into three to four missions apiece.
You may have several Arcs available to you at once, with one having you investigating the corruption and criminal behavior of a Church of Scientology spoof, and another having you locating and cracking into ctOS 2.0 before it hits the streets. The motivation for these missions is mostly information gathering and publicity stunts. Part of the road to taking down Blume Corp. is gaining followers on social media. These followers then install an app on their internet connected devices, allowing you to form an Internet of Things botnet cloud. The more followers you have, the more abilities you unlock to research through the research app located on your in-game smartphone.
The hacking ability itself has expanded tremendously and makes a bit of a puzzle out of each mission. Typically, missions will find you needing to infiltrate a specific location in order to obtain an item or hack your way into a secure system. The daisy-chaining from camera to camera looking for hack points and enemies returns from the first game, but it seems less tedious since there're more options at your disposal. Two major additions are the RC car and Quadrocopter drone. Instead of having to hoof it into enemy territory physically, during the game you unlock these two remote devices that allow you much more tactical flexibility.
Most facilities you’ll have to break in to have secondary passages, such as air ducts, or holes in barriers that you can use the RC car to travel through. This allows you to stealthily unlock doors, or set environmental traps for guards without having to worry about Marcus coming to any physical harm. The Quadricopter has the capability to severely lessen the amount of camera jumping you have to do by allowing you to scout from a bird’s-eye view. You don’t necessarily have to worry about being stealth if you choose not to, though. You also have a host of aggressive and violent options.
At DedSec HQ there is a 3D printer that allows you to, in exchange for money, print handguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, and other devices of destruction. You can also change your wardrobe here, and choose from any of the hundreds of in-game cosmetic items to wear, which is another vast improvement over the original game. HQ is also where your fellow DedSec members’ hangout, and where a lot of the plot development takes place.
Your hacker buddies in Watch Dogs 2 are a lot less dour than the DedSec of the original, and it’s a vast improvement. The atmosphere is ripe with internet and pop culture references and memes, and the more accurate portrayal of computers and tech culture makes this feel more like Mr. Robot Jr. rather than a crappy NCIS episode.
Marcus himself is a quirky and likable fellow. Like the rest of the DedSec crew, he's not particularly interested in fitting into society, but he's not brooding and angsty about it. One of the most positive things I can say about the writing in Watch Dogs 2 is that they were able to make the cast diverse, Marcus is African-American, Josh has Asperger's, Wrench is a technophile, and Sitara is a female artist who paints the public face of DedSec. However, the cast never becomes a caricature of their diversity.
As with all plausible and well-written characters, each of their individual traits and struggles makes up the whole of their character instead of one singular overriding focus. Showing a more complex demographic make-up in artistic works is a hot button issue right now, and Watch Dogs 2 shows that it can be done with panache instead of awkwardly shoehorning characters into a work whose only intention is to make you look like you care.
Unfortunately, the multiplayer experience was unavailable during the review period. So, even though I’ve enjoyed a ton of the single-player experience, I haven’t been able to try out the seamless multiplayer. Ubisoft original stated that the feature would be available for launch, but due to unforeseen issues the release date for the full multiplayer experience is now up in the air.
As it stands, sans reviewing multiplayer, Watch Dogs 2 is a rare sequel where the developers took a chance instead of sticking by what was a successful formula. Although I personally wasn’t a fan of the original Watch Dogs, the game sold well and Ubisoft could have easily slapped some new paint on it and released another dreary, boring game. They didn’t though, and I hope it’s a trend other developers pick up on because Watch Dogs 2 is a superior product.
This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher. Watch Dogs 2 is available now starting at $59.99 on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. The game is rated M.