It was late one of these weekend nights. I had told myself I was going to get in a decent Watch Dogs 2 session so that I could prep this very review you are currently reading. After about an hour of mucking about, hacking random phone conversations and screwing with the heads of gangsters, seizing control of parked cars to terrify pedestrians, racing overly expensive sailboats across the bay harbor and posing for selfies with nudists, I realized I had killed most of my evening accomplishing jack squat, and that was a pretty terrific, because it only meant one thing, Ubisoft had rediscovered the meaning of “open world”. You did it Ubisoft, you truly did. The first Watch Dogs, arguably one of the most anticipated titles of the last half decade and turned out to be a terrible disappointment. Calling Watch Dogs a “tech demo” would have been far too generous a statement, it was more a skeleton of a game, a collection of ideas that could feasibly provide a good foundation for an open world where the focal point is hacking, but Watch Dogs itself had far too little going on. An empty and ugly game world, horrible car physics where driving felt like shoving a two ton weight uphill, a half-hearted morality system, very few interesting side events and a hacking component that amounted to hijacking CCTV cameras and raising or lowering gates.
There was speculation that Ubisoft perhaps rushed Watch Dogs out to make some last minute holiday sales off their highly awaited app, that the game wasn’t done but Watch Dogs was needed to pick up the numbers their other titles were losing. Others theorized that similar to Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs needed a sequel to find itself, to really become the promising new IP everyone had awaited. No matter how you break down all the theories and rumors, it all landed at the same conclusion. Watch Dogs needed more time to cook, as it was an inedible mess of flour and raw eggs. Watch Dogs 2 is that bit of extra time in the oven, popped out with all the gooey goodness we expected the first time, with a bit of icing and some sprinkles on top.
Most noticeable in the trailers, and Ubisoft’s most advertised talking point, is the new protagonist Marcus Holloway. A young, hip, African American hacker meant to breathe life into the series after putting up with grumpy puss Aiden Pearce. On that end, Marcus is a success. While Aiden wandered around brooding “MY NEPHEW IS DEAD”, Marcus seems to genuinely enjoy life. In fairness Marcus too comes with a chip on his shoulder, he has time served due to a crime he didn’t commit… or rather didn’t get to commit, but he’s not afraid to turn up, partying till he pukes his guts out and leading his team of multicutural hackers on escapades that include crashing movie sets and taking on hacker challenges at Not Burning Man. ctOS, the big evil traffic light controlling operating system from the first game also returns, also sporting its own brand new features, including a Minority Report style ‘predictive algorhythm’ that allows it to find criminals before they even think about committing a crime, hence why it declared Marcus needed to go straight to jail, giving him a pretty solid reason for wanting to bring it down.
Marcus’ attitude helps a great deal. While Aiden’s over the top violent Punisher-esque pulp comic inspired persona just left you feeling like your duties were to shoot people or blow them up, Marcus’ playful trolling leaves you in the mood to mess with people. I’ve seen a ton of editorials and players state that you should never use guns because that doesn’t “fit” Marcus. Well. No. Marcus is a registered gun owner, Dedsec gives you access to a sweet arsenal of 3D Printed guns, there’s an entire skill tree dedicated to shootan, and there are so many deadly gangs wandering San Francisco you don’t want to be without your piece. However guns do feel like too simple an answer for Marcus. Not when he could summon a gangland hit under the Social Engineering tab, or make robots love his enemies to death, or turn his simple commercial drone into a predator variant. Marcus carries a wealth of new skills that allow him a much more varied approach to Watch Dogs 2‘s challenges than the last games binary “Sneak around using cameras or shoot it all till it’s dead.”
Say it with me. “Hacking is fun.” It wasn’t in the last game, hell, it could barely be called ‘hacking’ at all. Okay fine, so Watch Dogs 2 has some loose definitions of hacking, you’re not looking at Hacknet or Uplink, it’s that Hollywood movie sort of fantasy hacking and it’s a blast. Hijacking control of people’s cars, SWATTING folks, forcing robots to dance for your pleasure. Your little tiny smart phone is now the coolest damn thing in the world, you’re a superhero or mustache twirling villain all by the push of a button. ctOS, despite its expanded narrative powers, has been toned down from the last game. This is both a blessing and a curse, there’s no real challenge or threat to hacking anymore, but ctOS also used to be a bit too good, snitching out your position to the cops or shutting down Aiden’s amazing powers of traffic light control. ctOS doesn’t shut you out nearly as often in this game, and with no more morality system you are free to go nuts with Marcus’ techno powers. Very few puzzles or enemy base infiltrations require a stringent approach, and I’ll often use my drone to scout the area, identifying the enemy target who will serve my nefarious goals the best, placing a hit or an APB on them, then as my summoned cops or gangsters show up I’ll start hijacking vehicles to provide me cover, flatten the bad guys or simply ensure they can’t escape my wrath. It makes for a pretty epic stew of controlled chaos. It reminds me very much of the Phantom Pain, and how my approaches to problems were limited by my imagination. This is open world.
In fact Watch Dogs 2 learns from its betters in every way. There seem to be traces of Infamous Second Son, Saints Row the Third and Grand Theft Auto V all over this game. San Francisco is a far less angry and depressing town than Chicago. Everyone here is living life, having fun, falling in love, you stumble upon the occasional piece of shit, but then that’s what the “Snitch ’em out” button is for. Cars control so much better in this game, they’re, dare I say, fun to drive. In Watch Dogs the only special vehicle Aiden got was a hearse. A damn hearse, just to give you an idea of how depressing it all was. Watch Dogs 2 there seems to be no end to the special vehicles, sports cars, beach bugs, mopeds, choppers, E-Karts, a goddamn talking Firebird in a nod to Knight Rider’s KITT. Marcus himself is on point, wearing some very west coast fashions, from skullies to fedoras, basketball shoes to shit kickers, hip hop, sk8r boi, hipster, C-Suite exec, you can mix and match any of these looks to customize him to your taste. It’s a far cry from the sex offender look Aiden tried to bring back into fall fashion.
This time Marcus deals with Dedsec directly, he’s the green recruit for their San Fran chapter, and it seems the actions of Aiden and Dedsec Chicago years ago have made the world just a little worse. ctOS is now everywhere, and a number of companies have integrated the operating system, originally only meant for city infrastructure control, into their platforms. These corporations include the Facebook inspired fictional social networking site INVite, the Google parallel Nudle, Cisco and Apple hybrid Haum, the Virgin and Boston Dynamics reminiscent Galilee, and Sony Pixar Frankenstein HMP Studios. You’ll party at a desert venue that recalls Burning Man named Swelter Skelter, while going against the church of Scientology styled New Dawn cult. In fact there is very little in Watch Dogs 2 that doesn’t seem to have a real world basis, especially in the first half of the game, you’ll troll a Martin Shkreli wannabe, go against a corrupt politician deleting their emails from a private server, and you’ll even hack a teenage girl to teach her why shaking her booty for a webcam before thousands might be a bad idea. Hell, you even orchestrate an Ubisoft trailer leak, and that’s pretty cool. Yet the story seems to weave all of these things seamlessly, and it all works into an overall plot that provides some compelling missions and really clever plot twists. It’s no longer the 80s B movie plot that the first Watch Dogs was, it feels modern, hip and well thought out.
To help him hack all the assholes that need to be hacked, Marcus has quite the team backing him. The anarchist white male representative Wrench, autistic scripter Josh, brother from another mother Horatio, art school drop out Sitara, returning aging tech hippie Ray and transgender council woman Miranda. This Burger King Kids Club of hackers seems like the type of thing that could go south easily, but Watch Dogs manages to avoid a lot of the traps that hamstring games which include diversity for diversity’s sake. Simply due to the fact that Watch Dogs treats them as characters with an invested interest in life, love, art and politics. Sitara is the moral and emotional center of Dedsec, with the game rarely making a deal of her past living in Calcutta. They also feel real because they come with a real depth, Marcus was the guy who grew up in Oakland dodging gangs and life on the street, going on to be a nerdy black man (we’re everywhere), but he doesn’t feel like a stereotype. He feels honest. This is a title other well meaning developers that completely miss the mark, like say Gearbox or BioWare, can learn from.
But, this is still Ubisoft. If only it were all perfect. While every single problem I had with Watch Dogs has been fixed, and while Ubisoft has restrained itself from some of their more typical and annoying habits (my world map is no longer condensed with a dozen pointless events concentrated in a single city block) it still has some issues. Most of the problems with the game comes from the platforming and puzzling. Now some of the puzzles are fun, you’ll often run into environment wide puzzles that require you turn some switches. This may sound boring on paper, but considering you’ll often be zipping around with your drone or RC car to solve them, and that they’ll give you some awesome looks at the architecture of the buildings and landmarks (remember when Assassin’s Creed did that?) they’re quite fun. No, I’m talking climbing puzzles and hidden object puzzles. Puzzles that often require you maneuver bulky and slow construction equipment around tight alley ways. Puzzles where Ubisoft seem to believe figuring out how to start the puzzle is the real challenge, hiding the start point as far as a block away from the actual puzzle. These were all time wasting and tedious.
Then there’s the simply bizarre. San Francisco is certainly a lot more colorful than Chicago, but there are wide swaths of the map that are boring and useless, places near fairly central hubs you’ll be venturing through a good amount of time. You might occasionally find a grafitti riddled alleyway or a really beautifully contrasted neighborhood of rundown buildings and natural mountains, but these seem to be stuffed into corners of the map you’ll never see unless you go out your way. Sure, there are tourist spots the game points you too, but there’s not much to do other than snap a photo for some free experience. While playing one of my late night sessions I found a salt farm, with large hills of sand and salt and colorful pools of salt water, the only structures being ramps and pipes, with the game providing a shitload of dirtbikes. It was pretty clear what Ubisoft wanted me to do here, and it was a lot of damn fun. I spent more than a reasonable amount of time zipping off hills and drawing eights in these salt pools. It was a good times, and it absolutely perplexed me why map features like this were so far out the way. In Infamous Second Son and GTAV practically everything was your playground, everything was memorable, I guess this was one of the few lessons lost on Watch Dogs 2.
Watch Dogs 2 comes a very long way from its predecessor, and I can’t help but wonder if this was Watch Dogs as it was always meant to be. Marcus is a real neat damn guy fighting the tech giants that control our every day life. Cool cars, cool company and cool missions keep this game feeling fresh, while a handful of new hacks has completely turned around Watch Dogs’ once mundane gameplay. It’s a shame bits of San Francisco feel a bit empty, and that there are still a few missions and puzzles that feel like tedious busy work. However Ubisoft has a good game on its hands, and Watch Dogs is poised to take over as Ubisoft’s next great IP should they continue in this direction and allow Watch Dogs titles the amount of development time and space they need to mature into truly fun epics.