Watch Dogs 2 is an unfortunate victim of the franchise’s reputation. The first game was over-hyped, dogged by controversies, and it ultimately underwhelmed, and so it’s only natural for an air of scepticism to surround its sequel. Sadly, that scepticism will keep many gamers away from what is a fantastic open-world game.
It’s even more impressive because the premise Ubisoft has gone with for Watch Dogs 2 could so easily have backfired. The monotonous, non-offensive protagonist and plot of the first game were safe bets, but in going all-in with the hipster hacktivist lifestyle was a risk, and one that could have easily fallen flat on its face. All the promos and trailers in the lead up to release led me to believe that it was headed that way too, but the longer I played, the more I was proven wrong.
On the face of it, Watch Dogs 2’s Dedsec crew is filled with stereotypes – the black guy from a rough neighbourhood; the rich kid who has shunned life’s material pleasures; the lose-cannon-slash-comic-relief; and the high-functioning autistic coding wiz. But the game’s many cutscenes, voice interactions and audio logs add a lot of depth and humanity to these seemingly shallow characters, making you not only relate to them, but also root for them. No Ubisoft open-world game that has handled character development this well.
A lot of credit for that goes to the writing, which surprised me with how well it integrates into the game’s events. With the premise like that of hackers taking on powerful corporations and the government, it’s easy to fall into the traps of corny nerd humour, hipster drivel, and played out memes, but the Watch Dogs 2 never resorts to any of that. The dialogue is natural and relatable and the banter between the characters is genuinely witty.
Watch Dogs 2 is also a welcome departure from the infamous Ubisoft open-world formula of peppering the world with plenty of activities with little substance. Here, most of the side missions feel individually crafted, even if not all of them are. From discussing the tensions between taxi unions and ride-sharing services with a passenger NPC during a driving mission, to a seemingly routine rescue mission that ends up with a cameo from the first game’s protagonist, Watch Dogs 2’s side missions are a distraction well worth indulging in.
It helps that the game is set in San Francisco, a picturesque city that’s a whole lot of fun to explore thanks to the immense variety in its landscapes, architecture and lifestyles. I’ve often found myself ignoring missions to track down a research point (used to upgrade your abilities) or one of the meticulously created vehicle side activities. Exploring is also made fun thanks to the driving mechanics, which are far from realistic, but are more importantly easy and cause minimum frustration. And who wouldn’t love driving around a city when you can just move other cars out of your way at the press of a button.
The main missions in Watch Dogs 2 are unique and suitably grand, and each mission is usually multi-layered, with various activities – from driving to eavesdropping to infiltration – building up to the ultimate mission objective. You – a bunch of outcasts with little more than your hacking skills and a thirst for social justice – will be taking on giant corporations (some eerily similar to the likes of Facebook and Google), the FBI, and the government, and these missions often do make you feel like you’re in over your head.
The game gives you plenty of ways to tackle missions. Use your hacking prowess to play puppetmaster from a distance; get closer and tinker with the city infrastructure to mess with your foes, or go all guns blazing and kill everyone in sight – Watch Dogs 2 lets you play the game any way you choose, although I found some methods more rewarding than others. I mostly found myself employing the ghost play style (using hacking and going undetected), which is as close as the game comes to stealth.
The one downside here is that most missions also require you to physically infiltrate a location, and that’s where the stealth approach is left wanting. The enemy AI in Watch Dogs 2 is surprisingly competent, but your own sneaking skills leave a lot to be desired. Having spent 5-10 minutes patiently sneaking into a heavily guarded area, protagonist Marcus will often stupidly expose himself while hacking a terminal or performing an overly elaborate melee takedown, alerting all the guards in the vicinity and forcing you to fight your way out.
The one aspect of Watch Dogs 2 that isn’t quite as compelling is the online activities. Sure, I’ve been ‘hacked’ by other players from time to time and tracking them down is fun, and I’ve indulged in the occasional bounty hunt when one appeared nearby, but aside from those and a few co-op missions, there’s not enough to put the core single-player game on hold for too long.
But that core single-player experience is an absolute joy to play through. Ubisoft has a lot of experience with making open-world games, but Watch Dogs 2 gets the formula just right. The plot, the narrative, and the city all come together cohesively, and so this feels more like a story that unfolds at a pace that you control as opposed to a large sandbox where random missions are strung together for the sake of creating a campaign.
It’s unfortunate that Watch Dogs 2 will be overlooked by some, because it really does deserve better than that. It delivers on what the first game promised and then goes above and beyond.