TL; DR(eview) - Watch_Dogs 2 improves on its predecessor in nearly every way (even if it still kept the weird underscore). The gameplay feels tighter, the protagonist and story are generally lighter and more spirited, and moving the game from Chicago to San Francisco gives an overall brighter feel to the design. A fun enough open-world action game, albeit one that doesn’t really break any new ground.
Watch_Dogs 2 reflects a Ubisoft that listened to and tried to learn from seemingly all of the critical feedback that was lobbed at the first game. An overly drawn out pre-release media cycle was traded in for a brief 5-month window from formal E3 announce trailer to November release. Generic, angsty protagonist Aiden Pearce has been cast aside and all but forgotten (save a small cameo) in favor of more fun-loving Marcus Holloway. Dedsec is less about hackers working in the shadows and in fact openly encourages the public to download their app in order to lend them computing power in order to grow their resources and shine a light on the corruption around them.
Watch_Dogs 2 is at its best when it stops fighting the Grant Theft Auto aspects of the game. Whereas the first game had Aiden Pearce on a guilt-laden revenge mission after a failed attempt at his life instead killed his young niece, the sequel shines a light on tech culture with satirical takes on a variety of targets. Early game missions have you messing with a Martin Shkreli-type character (the guy who made waves by raising the price of HIV medicine 1500% and paying millions for the exclusivity of owning a limited Wu Tang album), parodies of Scientology and Knight Rider, and even hacking into Ubisoft for a self-referential video game trailer leak. Less successful are the moments when Watch_Dogs 2 tries to add in some stakes with some dramatic beats that miss the mark and don’t fit in tonally with the otherwise light-hearted fare.
The San Francisco arm of Dedsec is all about exposing the seedy underbelly of San Francisco’s tech firms. You play as Marcus aka Retr0, a new initiate who joins Samara, Wrench, and a couple other hackivists as you try to run up Dedsec’s social following. Followers who download the Dedsec app are authorizing the hackers to utilize their computing power, giving them more and more resources to investigate the shady dealings of the game’s stand-ins for companies like Facebook (iNvite) and Google (Nudle). What begins by tackling some superficial controversies builds over the course of the game as Dedsec discover there’s much more going on than they originally expected.
The gameplay of Watch_Dogs 2 largely builds on the groundwork set out in the first game. With your handy cellphone and laptop, you can hack just about everything in the city, from people’s bank accounts or cars, to security cameras or construction cranes. Marcus can also upgrade his arsenal with a couple of handy portable hacking devices, like an RC car and a drone that can infiltrate areas he cannot or be used to scout out or complete certain objectives remotely. In fact I found some of the funnest experiences with the hacking mini-game puzzles to be those that required me to fly the drone around landmark buildings in order to unlock the appropriate paths.
It’s just now dawning on me that I rarely found myself dealing with extensive police chases in this game, which is another improvement compared to the first, where it felt like every other mission involved Aiden fleeing the police and needing to hack traffic lights to interrupt the pursuit. While that game certainly had an exploit that effectively boiled down to cops can’t find you in the water, the decision to cut back on those missions is a benefit as the driving still doesn’t always feel as good as maybe it should.
Less car stuff means more third-person shooting though, should you choose to go the brute force route over stealth. Marcus can buy weapons at the Hackerspace home base by having them 3D printed (because 21st century). The game’s upgrade system (revolving around the number of Dedsec followers replacing more traditional like experience points) also allows for a handful of new hacker tricks. If you don’t want to engage enemies directly, you can use your phone to call in a gang hit on a target or a less lethal arrest warrant. I often found myself hiding in cover and letting a mini-shootout happen around me after calling in the gang hits to thin the enemy’s numbers. Then I’d pop out and either zap remaining enemies with the stun gun or if I was feeling in the mood for a rampage, I’d blast them with a shotgun. In theory though, you could play through the whole campaign non-lethally. The stealth doesn’t feel all that rewarding though, and all too often I was getting caught anyway (sometimes just due to accidentally hitting the wrong buttons because games like this and Assassin’s Creed control weird) so I eventually just leaned into the murder-sprees full-tilt.
Outside of the main narrative, I often found myself enjoying just wandering the stand-in San Francisco. Whether it was visiting familiar landmarks, finding hidden collectables and upgrade points, hijacking cars to swerve into traffic, or just messing with pedestrians by calling in the aforementioned gang hits and causing chaos, the open-world aspect of the game made for a fun time. That said, I did often find the world a bit too big or lacking enjoyable side missions so I eventually found myself fast traveling around the map from objective to objective when I decided to knuckle down and finish up the story.
I managed to finish Watch_Dogs 2, which is more than I could say about the first game. And overall, I had a good time with it. I doubt I’ll ever feel the urge to really revisit the game but it went a long way toward redeeming the franchise after the shaky first steps. I’ll be curious to see where they take the series next, though, like Assassin’s Creed before it, I already feel my interest waning so who knows if the next game will grab me.