Right, let’s get the comparisons that have been floating around the online space about Watch Dogs 2 out the way from the get-go.
Yes, there are parallels one can draw between the first and second installments in Ubisoft’s open-world hackathon and the first couple of Assassin’s Creed games.
Both the first Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed came packaged with fantastic visuals and mouth-watering concepts, but were ultimately let down by thin plots and missions that were both unimaginative and repetitive. They were the prettiest slogs of their day. Both, incidentally, had mind-numbingly boring protagonists.
Watch Dogs 2 Review: Second time’s a charm
By contrast, Assassin’s Creed II and, yes, Watch Dogs 2 are heaps of fun to play and feel like the games the first iterations in their respective franchises should have been to begin with. Both boast better mission design, a more varied experience, a fun, funky and funny protagonist that isn’t a chore to spend time with and a better plot underpinning all the action.
That having been said, Watch Dogs 2 isn’t the gigantic leap forward Assassin’s Creed II was, possibly because Ubisoft open-world games borrow so many elements from each other these days that the shock of the new is impossible. But unlike its predecessor, Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t simply present hacking and the hyper-connected world of today as merely a useful tool and a backdrop respectively. It deep dives into the concepts it addresses, as well the culture it both embraces and pokes fun at and leaves players with more to ponder by the time the credits roll than Aiden Pearce ever did.
Watch Dogs 2 Review: Meet Marcus
The story centres on one Marcus Holloway, a hacker from Oakland who found himself up to his neck in trouble when cTOS (city OS, central Operating System) juiced up his criminal record making him a prime target for the authorities. Since he’d been operating at the fringes of a hacktivist group called DeadSec, Marcus soon finds himself breaking into the local cTOS hub to erase his profile as a kind of initiation into the group. Once accepted as a member, he begins to learn that cTOS – and the company that installed it, Blume – are up to something far more insidious than ganking hackers from Oakland. Armed with this information and a crew of colourful new compadres, Marcus sets about dismantling Blume, one hack at a time. Hilarity ensues.
Watch Dog 2 starts slowly; so slowly in fact that players who rinsed the first game in this series will be forgiven for a sense of ‘been there done that’ in its opening hour. The opening couple of missions contain many of the elements players would expect in a Watch Dogs game – stealthily outmaneuver armed enemies, resort to melee or cover shooting when this doesn’t work out, drive pretty long distances between points of interest and pick up new items in the odd shop. The city of San Francisco radiates with dozens of side-quests, online missions, shops and other locations just as the Chicago in Watch Dogs did although thankfully, players don’t need to hack hubs to open up content around the map. So far, so Watch Dogs.
Watch Dogs 2 Review: It’s the little things that count
Where Watch Dog 2 parts company with its predecessor is in the small details that make the game so much fun to play – starting with DeadSec. Marcus’s mates are a likable bunch of oddballs and the way they play off one another creates a warm gooey connection with the player. Seriously, these are people you’d want as friends in real life; they finish each other’s sentences, make time for one another’s flaws and their loyalty to one another is unwavering. The fact that they’re well-written and well-played adds immensely to the sense that Marcus – and by extension, the player – is a part of the best gang in existence.
The mechanics, too, are a cut above those in Watch Dogs. Rather than map every astonishing ability the player has to a super smartphone, Watch Dogs 2 requires Marcus to occasionally squat down and open up his laptop – ya know, like a real hacker would – in order to breach numerous objectives hidden behind a wall of code. There are two additional pieces of equipment Marcus has to aid him in his endeavours. There’s the Jumper – a remote-controlled two-wheeled mini vehicle that can hack into servers – and a drone that can scout out the area ahead. Marcus has to be stationary when either are employed so it’s worth sitting him out of harm’s way before going remote.
Marcus’s equipment – and the general social edicts of DeadSec – lend themselves to a stealthy approach in most situations. That’s not to say that players can’t charge into a mission guns blazing and take their chances, only that it feels rather unnatural to do so. It’s also less satisfying; sure, shotgunning a security guard in the face gets the job done, but piloting the Jumper between the legs of unaware enemies, stealing a code key off a boss and then downloading a data dump in a server room without firing so much as one bullet is just so much more rewarding – and it makes one feel wicked cool.
Watch Dogs 2 Review: This ain’t cyberpunk – it’s real
Watch Dogs 2 truly shines in the way it unfolds its plot. While it starts off as a bog-standard revenge caper, the game’s story slowly adds layer upon layer using the elements, themes and in-jokes that anyone familiar with the tech landscape will appreciate with a knowing grin. As the game’s tagline suggests, the data we all produce is now more valuable than we are as individuals and, unlike its predecessor, Watch Dogs 2 boasts a story that takes a hard unblinking look at this reality.
Blume isn’t just some faceless monolith hording oodles of data, rather it comes across as a multi-armed insidious beast trying to poke its tentacles not just into every company in Silicon Valley, but into every aspects of life. On the way to the end credits, the plot ropes in elements that will be all too familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in tech companies and the role they’ve been playing in news headlines. Hackers juking the stock market using algorithms, tech companies providing backdoors into their software for the authorities, social media influencing elections using user feeds as echo chambers, data being bought and sold on the quiet, hi-tech robotics planned for crowd control on local soil, the Internet Of Things providing myriad opportunities for blackhat hacking – stop me if any of this is starting to sound familiar.
DeadSec may come across a bunch of achingly hip hooligans at times, but they’re nowhere near as bad – and as ultimately damaging to society as a whole – as the forces they’re ranged against. The fact that the main antagonist is a Yoga-practicing, Tofu-chomping, smarm-emitting CEO with a man-bun should tell you everything you need to know.
Watch Dogs 2 Review: Verdict
Watch Dogs 2, then, is great second step for the franchise. It’s not quite a member of the open-world elite – that would be GTA, in case you’re wondering – but it’s certainly in firing range and thematically it’s richer and deeper than many of its competitors. Call this a worthy and enjoyable upgrade.
- Watch Dogs 2 was reviewed on an Xbox One. A review code was provided by the publisher.