It may be stating the bleeding obvious but Watch Dogs 2 is a very different game from its predecessor. The oppressive underpasses, alleyways and docks of the first game’s dark, malevolent Chicago have been traded in for the sun-kissed streets, marinas and highways of “the entire Bay area”, which in practice means San Francisco and the bits around it. This encompasses the tech cluster of Silicon Valley, the picturesque beaches of Marin and Oakland where, as the game says, everyone priced out of San Francisco actually lives. Wherever you go, the game pops with colour, light bouncing off pastel walls, shimmering seas and polished car bonnets, a stark change from the depressing grey, brown and black palette that characterised the original Watch Dogs. This has been matched by a refreshing new lightness of tone, moping miserabilist Aiden Pearce having been replaced by Marcus Holloway, a young black Oakland native obsessed with pop culture and dismayed by the direction his world is going. Like Aiden, Marcus wants to smash the system but, crucially, he wants to have fun while doing it. The result is a game that’s a bolder, brighter and ultimately better take on the same universe.
Despite a different city and a completely different feel, Watch Dogs’ central preoccupations remain, the world is still being controlled by the 1984-in-disguise network that is ctOS, now having moved to version 2.0 after the events of the first game (if you haven’t played it, don’t worry, everything you need to know is explained). This means greater control than ever and a shift in approach towards something akin to the “thought crimes” seen in various sci-fi films. Marcus’ past is discussed rather than shown, but gradually the game reveals how his particular rage against the machine is fuelled by being accused of a crime based on ctOS profiling techniques rather than physical evidence. While this is never stated, the clear implication is that if you’re young, black and live in a poor neighbourhood, you’re far, far more likely to be arrested, a sensible reflection of current anxieties and a clear sign that Ubisoft Montreal hasn’t forgotten its social conscience in the switch from the Midwest to the West Coast.
Marcus, however, isn’t working alone, the game’s intro mission acting as his audition for Dedsec, an anarchist hacker collective hell-bent on taking down both ctOS and the shadowy Blume corporation that truly wields the power in this hi-tech dystopia. Having proved his skills, he’s quickly welcomed into the inner sanctum and joins a leadership core that comprises high-functioning autistic master hacker Josh, corporate inside man Horatio, graffiti artist Sitara and, last but not least, hacktivist firebrand Wrench. Of this quartet, Wrench effortlessly steals the show, not least because, in order to avoid ctOS’s facial detection software, he’s perpetually covered in a mask that pops emojis over his eyes to display his mood. He teams this look with a digitally modified voice, studded denim jacket and a punk-rock sense of ‘let’s smash it up and sort it out later’ and is an exciting, unpredictable force of nature. Approximately halfway through the game, Raymond “T-Bone” Kenney (a key ally in the first Watch Dogs and protagonist of its Bad Blood DLC) turns up to give Dedsec much needed expert advice and infuse the game with his trademark dreadlocked charm. Generally, the writing is strong throughout, and this leading cast is a nice mix of genders, temperaments, races and abilities, with Josh joining Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst’s Plastic as autistic spectrum characters to feature in major videogame releases this year. Admittedly, the fact that they’re both hackers suggests a degree of typecasting, and it sometimes feels like Josh is the butt of one too many jokes, but the inclusion of differently abled characters is important nevertheless.
The same can, of course, be said about Marcus as, after Mafia III‘s Lincoln Clay, he becomes the second black protagonist in a AAA game this year. While race isn’t the headline feature like in 2K’s 1968 opus, it never feels like Watch Dogs 2 is entirely ignoring it either, especially when Marcus teams up with Horatio to break into Nudle, the game’s Google facsimile. Horatio is also black and a Nudle employee, and while the dialogue between the two is light and breezy, it revolves around Horatio’s outsider status at the rich, white company, an unexpected and refreshing bit of social commentary in a game that occasionally seems unwilling to make its satire really stick.
While it’s wearisome that every open-world game is compared to Grand Theft Auto, the shift to Southern California has made Watch Dogs 2 feel a lot like GTA V, just with added hacking. This isn’t a problem most of the time, but it does make its attempts at social commentary sometimes look a bit feeble. The name Nudle is a classic case in point, having given themselves the opportunity to comment on the tech giant that seems to be gradually taking over the world, Ubisoft Montreal limits itself to some discussion of its hiring policies and a name that sort of sounds like it. Contrast that with GTA calling its Facebook analogue Lifeinvader and continuously mocking those whose lives seem to revolve around the narcissist need to detail the minutiae of their daily activities, and it’s hard to not think of some of Watch Dogs 2’s allusions to the real world as missed opportunities.
It’s a pattern that continues with the game’s references to unscrupulous, celebrity-obsessed pharmaceutical executive Gene Carcani and high-profile politician Mark Thruss. Both are fairly obvious parodies of Martin Shkreli (notorious for jacking up the price of a life-saving HIV drug and then buying the only copy of a Wu Tang Clan album for $2 million) and Donald Trump (come on, you really need me to tell you what Donald Trump is notorious for?) respectively, but there’s no real edge to either of the depictions. Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t explore either case in any detail or comment on it, seemingly believing that simply alluding to real-life events is sufficient. However, for either to have any impact, it’s not enough to just put them in the game, there needs to be some point to their inclusion. It’s a skill GTA has mastered, offering an entire satirical analysis of America in its facsimiles. Watch Dogs 2’s caricatures on the other hand are just there, not so much objects of satire as current affairs window dressing.
Of course, Thruss and Carcani are far from the only targets of Dedsec’s ire, with the game’s wide-ranging story mode bringing you into conflict with everyone, from definitely-not-Scientologists New Dawn to the FBI, with San Francisco’s street gangs thrown in for good measure. Cleverly, this diverse range of opponents is justified by Watch Dogs 2 using social media followers as its main measure of progression (surely making it the most millennial game ever made), with the central conceit being that the more attention Dedsec gets from high-profile stunts, the more people download its app, sign up to the fight against ctOS and donate their devices’ processing power to taking down Blume and the whole rotten infrastructure. Moreover, this set-up allows side-missions and distractions to feed into the central theme and, as gaining followers is the easiest way of unlocking new abilities, there’s a genuine incentive to pursue this goal. Effectively, the whole game revolves around your in-game mobile phone (always accessible with a push of the Start button), with the Dedsec app allowing you to track missions and side-missions, Nudle Maps giving you, well, the map, and Research acting as a skill tree where you can decide just which of your abilities and gadgets you want to develop further. Then there’s Song Sneak which allows you to save songs you hear on the radio or in the street to your Media Player app, the Uber-like Driver SF (see what they did there?) that has you ferry around a variety of colourful clients, Car on Demand (does what it says on the tin), and Director’s Cut for recording and editing your most stylish moments. One of the best apps, however, is ScoutX, which is essentially incentivised sightseeing and gives you followers for taking selfies (with your phone’s camera app and a choice of filters, naturally) at San Francisco landmarks like the Transamerica Pyramid and Golden Gate Bridge. These are spread throughout the Bay Area and mean there’s a real point to exploring San Francisco and its surroundings, with another neat touch being that the more landmarks you shoot, the more selfie gestures and poses you unlock.
For those wanting more high-octane diversions, there are dirt bike checkpoint challenges, electronic go-kart races, drone races, sailing contests, high points that need to be tagged with graffiti, and a multitude of money bags and cosmetic items scattered across the game world. That’s not to mention the key data points that need to be found and hacked in order to fully open up your skill tree and the seamless multiplayer (now up and running after a week’s delay) that encompasses co-op side missions, bounty hunting and hacker invasions. In short, the whole Bay Area feels alive and, just like in the best open-world titles, there’s always something to distract you from whatever you’re “supposed” to be doing.
Otherwise, you could always just wander the streets causing hacking havoc, with Marcus’s mobile having far greater power than Aiden could have ever dreamed of. Now, you not only go around profiling people, stealing their money and listening to their private phone calls, you can also remote control any of the cars found on the streets, highways and country paths of the Bay Area. Simply hold L1 (throughout Watch Dogs 2 tapping L1 triggers a commonly used quick hack and holding the same button brings up a contextual menu for greater control) to take control of the vehicle and use Triangle, X, Circle and Square to accelerate, reverse and turn left/right, respectively. Moreover, you can use this ability while driving, a quick tap of L1 sending the car in front of you into the side of a wall or off the side of a cliff. Somehow, toying with the virtual denizens of the Bay Area never gets old, particularly as driving one car into another will trigger a heated confrontation between the drivers. It’s all silly, childish fun, tying into the lightness of tone that characterises the entire game, the refreshing sense that, after the po-faced seriousness of games like Assassin’s Creed and The Division, this is Ubisoft learning to have fun again.
It also helps that, with the help of Driver and Destruction Derby devs Reflections, the driving mechanics have been massively improved from the first game, the floaty, fiddly handling of the original having been replaced with a lovely arcade system that encourages reckless speed and sweeping handbrake turns and brings back fond memories of Burnout. There’s a nicely surreal feel to it, tiny hatchbacks can mow down telegraph poles, superbikes can bounce off cars at high speed and 200ft jumps can be absorbed in an instant. This is the central aspect that distinguishes it from GTA, it feels like a game that really wants you to just have fun, and that’s got rid of the stuff that gets in the way of that goal. Its attitude to open-world death is a classic example of this, essentially, outside of the main missions, it doesn’t really matter if you die in Watch Dogs 2, you’ll simply respawn pretty much where you were with money, weapons and abilities intact. GTA on the other hand strips you of firearms and cash upon your death; Rockstar North’s focus is on realism, Ubisoft Montreal’s is on fun.
However, mission variety is one area where Watch Dogs 2 is lagging, the vast majority being minor variations of drive here, infiltrate the area and hack something. Thankfully, the diversity of the game’s campaign helps this from feeling like a slog, as does the open-ended nature of each mission. In fact, if you’re trying to take the stealthy route, Watch Dogs 2 can sometimes feel like a puzzle game as you carefully lay traps and distract enemies to slip by unnoticed. You can also go in all guns blazing, of course, but that feels like a rather banal option considering your range of abilities and doesn’t suit Marcus’s character, he’s a geeky hacker not a battle-hardened action hero who views mass killing as an occupation. Once you’ve got enough cash to buy them, the most effective options are often the quadcopter (drone) and RC jumper, remote control gadgets that, between them, can accomplish almost all of Marcus’s goals, sometimes without him even setting foot inside the enemy building. Each has access to the X-ray vision hacking view (hit R3 to trace security connections, track enemies and highlight hacking opportunities), but a central difference is that while the drone is far more manoeuvrable and harder to spot, only the RC jumper can physically interact with systems on its own, using its telescopic arm to shut down a security system for example. As you progress, these shut-downs become increasingly complex, with the network visualisation puzzles returning from the first game, only on a much grander scale. This time, the network will extend up, down and across entire buildingsm and you’ll use the quadcopter to fly around, locate and rotate connectors, enable further junction points and eventually open the entire network.
For those who prefer to get up close and personal, Marcus is a more than capable fighter, with his “thunderball” weapon (essentially a key ring that features a billiard ball on a bit of bungee cord) used for both smacking enemies head on or garrotting from behind á la Agent 47. Marcus is also a far more stylish and athletic free runner than Aiden Pearce ever was, albeit with a slightly curious control system, sprint and freerun are mapped to separate buttons, meaning you’ll need to both press L3 and hold R2 to speed through the game world like Ezio and co. While there are sensible limits placed on this system (not having the skills of a master assassin, Marcus cannot simply climb buildings, but must find ladders and take control of mobile cranes to get vertical), it’s still slightly baffling why Ubisoft Montreal didn’t take the Assassin’s Creed route of mapping everything to R2. Nevertheless, once you get the hang of it, it’s a satisfying, fluid system that even throws in nonchalant backflips off ledges and cartwheels over obstacles.
The other thing you’ll find as you drive, ride and stroll around the Bay Area is clothes shops, lots and lots of clothes shops, with Watch Dogs 2 offering a slightly ridiculous level of cosmetic customisation that takes in everything from tailored suits to the sort of tie dye monstrosities you can only get away with in California. You can even buy tourist tat from stalls along Pier 39 or on Alcatraz island, so if you want to play the whole game dressed in an I ♥ SF t-shirt, you can. Cleverly, Ubisoft have kept Marcus’s base appearance fairly neutral with a buzz cut and a bit of facial hair the only constants. This means that what defines his look are your stylistic choices, whether that’s an oversized playing card hoodie and stars and stripes high tops, or a slim fit blazer and oxfords, “your” Marcus will likely be radically different from everyone else’s.
Visually, Watch Dogs 2’s setting is a meticulously detailed miniature world, although for some reason the game is slightly lacking in the “wow, look at that” department. For the most part, this is a world that’s functional rather than beautiful, but there are some nice moments, the way the setting sun lights up San Francisco’s skyscrapers or glints off the waves gently lapping Marin’s beaches. It is, however, all polished to a dazzling sheen, for a genre notorious for bugs, Watch Dogs 2 has remarkably few of them, the frame rate even staying steady when you hit your car’s nitrous button and the world streams by in a blur. Whatever you do, the game just works, an impressive feat in itself given the wealth of interactivity Watch Dogs 2 offers. The design flair comes from Dedsec itself, with major missions preceded by Anonymous-style videos replete with modulated voices, animated graphics and digitised skulls; loading screens featuring looping 8-bit sequences, and every mission opening with a digitised radar screen (a little more variation here would have been nice, this gradually gets a bit repetitive). Other neat touches include the map being styled to look like Google Maps and Marcus’s mobile displaying the in-game weather forecast.
The idea of Dedsec as the game’s unifying theme carries through to the audio, with the other core group members continually in contact with Marcus via his ever-present headphones, giving mission details, asking for help or just cracking jokes. Throughout, there’s a real sense that you’re a part of a team, possibly the star player but far from a one-man army. Unfortunately though, the game’s music feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, while there’s a choice of rock, pop, hip-hop, samba and classical stations, and adding songs via Song Sneak is a great feature, most of the modern music is fairly unremarkable with only the classical pieces instantly recognisable. This is a real shame, especially given just how much licensed music can add to a game (would GTA V’s country adventures have been half as much fun without Rebel Radio, and would Vice City have attained its iconic status without Broken Wings, 99 Luftballons and the rest?). Moreover, Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t restrict its soundtrack to vehicles, with Marcus able to play any discovered song through his media player app.
This though is a rare misstep in what is generally a fantastic game, a fun, fresh and vibrant take on the open-world genre that’s packed with colourful characters, fun things to do and ways to cause chaos. It would be nice if its satire had more bite and a little more mission variety wouldn’t go amiss, but overall Watch Dogs 2 builds on the strong foundations of its predecessor to deliver a compelling, hi-tech adventure that, in the tradition of the best open-world games, offers up the entire Bay Area as your own personal plaything, a meticulously balanced world that’s just begging to be explored, figured out and messed about with.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 15th November 2016