Game Review: Watch Dogs 2 (Xbox One)

The original Watch Dogs was shown back in 2012 at E3 to a trailer that had fans of the industry pumped. A truly next-gen game in the style of Grand Theft Auto with the ability to hack nearly anything and anyone around you. It turned out that the trailer was just too good to be true and put publisher Ubisoft in the digital crosshairs of gamers worldwide after footage of the near-finished game surfaced and the phrase “Visual Downgrade” became synonymous with the publisher and eventually that of the entire industry. Ubisoft released a version of the game that in no way shape or form even came close to matching that of the original ‘gameplay’ trailer. While Ubisoft wasn’t the first publisher to over promise a vision of a game and then under deliver, it was one of the first to really bring this visual downgrade movement into the limelight.

Ubisoft needed to take a different approach to revealing Watch Dogs 2 and they did it in a way that many developers are usually scared of; they showed a lot of actual in-game footage. Watch Dogs 2 was as transparent as the company could be with it and it was for the best. Watch Dogs 2 is not only a much better game than that of its predecessor but one that is far more confident, echoing that of the publisher as well.

Watch Dogs 2 does what every sequel should do, it builds upon what worked in the prior installment and then attempts to build a better game around the mechanics we are already familiar with. There are; however, certain aspects of the game that just don’t feel like a natural fit to its characters, their motivations and to that of the story.

In the first Watch Dogs game, you played as gruff anti-hero Aiden Pearce, taking down a private security system built into the infrastructure of a populated Chicago. While Pearce is not the hero this time around, and the city is replaced with a far more interesting San Francisco, the game itself is nearly identical in many ways, as is the narrative.

You are once again tasked with taking the fight to Blume, a tech giant known for its involvement in the ctOS operating system that controls the entire city. Nearly anything you see is hooked up to this system and is designed around making the entire city your playground. You play as Oakland-based Marcus Holloway, a hacker with dreams of joining DedSec, a locally based hacker group elite, focused on taking down Blume. Once you pass your initiation, you join the hacker collective and this is where your story begins.

Marcus is immediately likable, and far more down to earth than Aiden Pearce ever was. He is rooted in pop culture and has a great rapport with his hacker friends, whom I will touch upon shortly. Ruffin Prentiss, as Marcus, makes for a very believable character. While his acting credits are minimal and usually is typecast as some sort of street gang member or as a semi-regular on the TV series Power, he really is enjoyable here as Marcus and makes for a fresh approach to a protagonist that is in stark contrast to what this genre usually offers.

Unlike the prior game, you never feel as alone with Marcus as you did with Aiden Pearce. Sure, Aiden had his allies, but you never felt truly part of a group as you do here with Marcus. Dedsec is full of extremely well-written characters that made me laugh more than a dozen times with my 25+ hours with the game. Not only is the dialogue superb and relevant to that of the demographic this game is designed for, but you can easily relate to at least one member of this team quite easily. Sitara is a hacker/artist who is the visual front of Dedsec. She’s opinionated, rash, but calm at the same time. She’s the unofficial leader of this collective and the member you are in contact with the most. Then there is the digital mask wearing Wrench, whose eyes change based on his mood, expression or just for giggles. Wrench would rather blow something up than suffer an awkward silence. I can’t remember how many times the conversations he has with Marcus had me chuckle. When they both talk about Aliens vs Predator or the laughable Predator/Archie crossover, I knew about everything that they were talking about, sharing many of the same thoughts and opinions as these digital personalities. Josh, a young socially awkward hacker with Asperger’s, is one of my favorite characters in this game hands down. His wit, charm, and failure to grasp certain themes during a conversation are so well conceived that he comes off very genuine. Lastly, there is Horatio, a man who the game keeps in the background for the majority of the game. He does get a few solid missions here and there but fails to grab me like the other three members of Dedsec did. You are also joined by another hacker that has no ties to Dedsec but one that fans of the series will immediately recognize.

Watch Dogs 2, much like the first game allows a digitally converted city to be your playground. You’ll hack webcams to find out secrets on various people, break into the infrastructure of high-ranking CEO’s from a variety of businesses and even break into the offices of a Google inspired service called Nudle. While there is a lot of variety in the tasks and missions you’ll encounter, there is an equally amount of variety with regards to how you tackle them. Often, there is a lethal and non-lethal method to completing most tasks. You can hack personal phones to offer a distraction to a nearby security guard, using that much-needed pause to sneak past him, or subdue him, or go the full nine and call in a SWAT team or rival gang on them. You can even control cars and use them to distract or just run people over with them. There is just something innately satisfying about driving through a patch of security guards with their own van and having it deal out some swift justice. There is a vast amount of options to unlock that will fundamentally change how you play the game. While I took a half and half approach to lethal and non-lethal to my playthrough, it is the lethal approach that is at odds with character’s morals and motivations here.

Watch Dogs 2 is about helping the little guy, taking the power away from big corporations and doing what you can to protect the safety of the people who make San Francisco their home. There are missions where you’ll investigate why utility companies have jacked up their prices or shut down other hackers who are taking advantage of innocent people. While this sounds noble and heroic, it is undercut by the senseless violence and murderous rampage you can tackle as Marcus. You can unload a gun into public with no consequences other than fleeing the police or murder entire office buildings of a business to hack that much-needed email account. There is zero consequence for killing your way to your goal, hell, even your friends will just simply ignore the fact you just murdered a dozen or so people while you were out for a jog. The disconnect for this is jarring and is in direct conflict with the message the game is trying to tell.

The Bay area of California is a wonderful playground for the tonal shift this game has compared to the last one. The narrative is far more humorous and engaging than the drama Aiden Pearce had to deal with in Chicago. Regardless of wanting that perfect stealth run or attempting your mission in a flurry of bullets, your role as Marcus comes with a great deal of variety in how you get the job done, and what secrets you’ll find along the way. While Watch Dogs 2 allows you to fast travel to key locations on a whim, you may want to hold back on relying on it as so much of what makes the city thrive is experienced when on a distanced journey. Walking down the streets to my goal I could hack nearby phones to read a text message between friends or listen to a phone call between a man and his mistress. I once hacked a car to run through a light to smash into a group of people singing on the street. People flocked to the scene and some even commented on the performer’s deaths. There is so much subtle detail to this game that if you race through it, you’ll miss a lot of what the game has to offer. Watch Dogs isn’t a traditional Grand Theft Auto game and shouldn’t be played like one.

One feature that is pretty fun is taking selfie’s with the various bystanders that are all around you. This can cause them to break into a fun scene or a bit of scripted dialogue. One such event was sort of sweet, but then went completely sideways; a proposal on the beach started innocent enough until I went to take a selfie and suddenly one of them noticed me and started posing, causing a fight between the two lovers that ended up with them yelling and screaming and eventually into a full out brawl. Someone called the cops and it then turned into a shoot-out until one of them was put down and an ambulance was called. This all happened because I took a selfie of the proposal.

Much like every open-world game out there, you rely on a map littered with icons and destinations. While most games can become intimidating with how much there is to collect or to explore, Watch Dogs 2 feels a lot more freeing than other open world games. You will use your cell phone to find destination hot spots, music to listen to, cars to be delivered to you, as well as select missions available to you. Some missions can be found just walking around, listening to phone calls or hacking into various devices. How you tackle these, and in what order, is completely up to you.

As you walk around or drive around San Francisco, you’ll find a variety of clothing stores to deck out Marcus in whatever you see fit for him to wear. Dress him up in a suit, a sleeveless biker outfit, or fulfill your hipster fantasy, there is quite the number of outfits to mix and match to your heart’s content. There are also various outfits that you can buy for real money via the game’s cash store. These packs, as well as collectibles found in the game, can also change the appearance of your guns, gadgets, and cars, each having a selection of skins you can procure. How much of an effect this customizing has on you will warrant the purchase of said digital goods, even despite their costly nature.

The gear that you’ll equip for your missions ranges from weapons and utility drones. You’ll craft these items with a larger than life 3D printer in your hacker bunker. You have two options for your drones, a mobile and fast-paced RC car that can get you into some hard to reach spots, and a flying drone that is mostly good for high up locations to scout or hack from afar. It’s worth noting that only Marcus and the RC car can provide physical hacks, and I felt the flying drone got the short end of the stick here because of that.

The drones, much like Marcus, can be upgraded to become more useful. You’ll unlock points to use in a skill tree that will boost your marksmanship skills and various hacking talents. The hacking skills that you’ll upgrade will allow you to hack robots, traffic lights, cars, and personal objects that you’ll come into contact with. Since ctOS is built into the infrastructure of everything you can possibly think of, there is an almost endless supply of ideas on how to go about your missions, so putting points into something early on will dictate how you play the game, so choose wisely.

Some hacking isn’t just as simple as pressing a button as many of the bigger hacking moments in the game are via a mini-game of sorts. You’ll have a central node that you’ll need to power and you’ll rotate sections on a path leading to and away from said node. As you rotate and power other smaller nodes these will then allow a complete circuit to form and then power the main node. These moments are fun, engaging but never difficult, even when a timer pops up on-screen, which was sadly too rare.

Combat in Watch Dogs 2 is either via hacking or through the use of guns. Often I would have to rely on my weapon skills during a shootout due to the games poor detection and cover systems. Watch Dogs 2 uses a click to cover system that results in Marcus getting stuck to cover when you need to get away or to move around the corner to avoid detection. Most times; however, it doesn’t work as intended and I would have to take a more violent approach to finish the mission as checkpoints are painfully bad. Often I had enemies detect me through buildings or I would miss a shot and then instantly follow it up with a headshot with no enemy even close to seeing me get the kill, but rest assured, they still detected me. The game cheapens the experience so often with moments like this that break any fun I was having with the title. The actual shooting mechanics also are not well done, despite the publisher having a solid library of 3rd person shooters to pull from. I often had to dash at my enemy, hack their phone to distract them and then punch them into the ground as it was more effective than any of the guns were.

Watch Dogs 2 has a seamless multiplayer experience that allows you to either team up with other players during certain missions or to invade their game and play a digital version of “hide and go seek”. At launch, this feature was broken, but during my review, it worked like a charm. This can be a fun distraction but can come across as just that as the mode is not terribly thorough. I often found that just running around a building as another player tries to find you to be the best tactic and after a while, the online features of this game start to wear thin. Matching up with other players that play wholly different from you can also ruin a well thought out approach to a mission and have it just go sideways.

Watch Dogs 2 is a game that is far more enjoyable than the previous installment, but it has a vast amount of mechanical problems that can put a damper on the whole experience. Shooting and cover systems are poorly implemented and the cheap detection system can cause a great deal of rage. Aside from those moments that require a quick hand on your gun, Watch Dogs 2 shines when it demands that you be creative. Hacking cars, robots or calling in rival gangs to do your bidding is thrilling and sets this game apart from its competition. The characters in Marcus, Sitara, Josh, and Wrench, are those I will remember far after I am done with the game. While there is so much working against this game from being great, Watch Dogs 2 with the right play style can be incredibly entertaining and worthy of the purchase. Now, if only someone would hack this game and make the shooting fun.


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