Watch Dogs was depressing. I’m not talking about the stinging disappointment of the actual game after that astonishing reveal (as depressing as that was); I mean that, as a game, it was depressing. It was a grey world full of unlikable characters and vicious brutality. It had its moments, but the thing I remember most about it was just how little joy it took in the inherent – and tremendous – possibilities.
Watch Dogs 2 is about as far away from that as is possible. Bright and sunny San Francisco provides a far more upbeat setting; the characters are likeable and fun; the mood is gleeful and exuberant. In terms of pure atmosphere, Watch Dogs 2 is a delight. Which admittedly leads to some serious dissonance when you start cracking skulls open with a weaponised pool ball or shooting people in the face with a shotgun, but hey, video games.
Instead of the glum and vengeful Aiden Pearce, our new protagonist is the charismatic and chipper Marcus Holloway. Painted by the intrusive, Orwellian CtOS system as being a danger simply due to having exceptional computer skills and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he joins up with hacktivist collective DedSec to reveal the dangers and flaws inherent in the system.
And despite the Anonymous-ification of DedSec, I actually rather like their Watch Dogs 2 representatives. They’re colourful characters with a lot of fun banter, from the bromance that erupts between Marcus and the mask-wearing Wrench, to the routine snark from pseudo-leader and graffiti artist Sitara. There are lots and lots and lots of nerdy/pop-culture little jokes that will trigger a wry smile if you actually get them.
Actually, while we’re on the topic of colourful characters, I want to point out that I’m largely impressed with how diverse Watch Dogs 2 manages to be. Its core cast is multi-racial, spans genders and sexualities, and even manages to add a transgender character. What impresses me the most is that it does this without ever feeling preachy, or like it’s shoehorning anything in, which is my usual complaint when games attempt this. It all feels incredibly natural. Serious kudos for that. There is one point where it horribly fucks this up, but alas, spoilers.
In any case, the plot and the DedSec targets are often pulled from the headlines; you’ll take on a very Scientology-esque church, a search engine giant that is definitely not Google, a social media platform that certainly couldn’t be Facebook, and the like. Naturally, all of them are involved in some shady practices, and it’s up to you to break in and expose the awful things they’re doing. It gets a little more serious at points, but mostly it’s a very tongue-in-cheek poke at Silicon Valley and major corporations which tries to stay light-hearted, in stark contrast to its predecessor.
As noted, there is some mild dissonance with this in terms of pure gameplay mechanics. Talking specifics, the game offers three real “methods” of play: Ghost, Aggressor, or Trickster. You can rely on stealth, marking out enemies and using melee or Marcus’ stun gun to take them down non-lethally as you slip through. You can go in guns blazing – 3D-printed guns, mark you, which is one of the less ridiculous things this game does – and shoot up everybody. Or you can use gadgets and hacking to just fuck with everybody and cause chaos that doesn’t directly involve you. Naturally, it’s most fun to combine all three and horribly blunder your way through a level.
Individually, none of the aspects are perfect, but some are definitely better than others. Stealth is slightly wonky in terms of how detection works, with all guards seemingly being alerted the instant one spots you, even if you take him down before he can say a word or fire a bullet; not only that, but they seem to wake up surprisingly quickly. Balls-out combat isn’t really Marcus’ strong suit either, as he’s a tad more fragile than most protagonists and somehow can’t just shrug off a shotgun blast to the chest.
But it’s all more than the sum of its parts, because while the individual elements have their flaws, they slot together neatly and allow for a wide variety of different approaches. Hacking a robot sentry into “love” mode so it starts charging at people to “hug” them, causing chaos as security forces try to take it down, is hilarious. Using this to draw guards away from one area and sneak through – which you’ve already scouted out with your quadcopter or by hacking security cameras – and then blasting your way through them on your way out? That’s excellent.
The variety on offer also extends to doing things that are probably pretty far from the “intended” way. One mission involves stealing a truck from a guarded port area… and I did it without ever venturing into the port area, simply through gadgets and hacking. The quadcopter scouted out all of the enemies for me. My little rover went and did the physical access part of things, hacking a hardwired console and opening the gate. And then, once again, back to the quadcopter to (very badly) remote control the truck out to where I could hop in and drive it away. There are defenses against this sort of thing; CtOS can be temporarily shut down, and guards will happily destroy your gadgets if they spot them, but the quadcopter can fly and the rover can fit through vents, opening up more strategic possibilities.
Or you can hack a forklift truck and raise some pallets to give yourself a stepping stone to a roof. Or you can remote control a car to drive over a security guard. Or you can hack electrical generators into the area and turn them into non-lethal, proximity-triggered shock bombs. Or you can spoof some data on a guard to make a gang (or the police) think he’s a high-priority target, creating an alert and triggering a gunfight between factions. There’s a lot of really excellent shit you can do.
Not that you have all of these amazing hacker abilities at the start. Your “levelling up” is done by accumulating research points and using them to unlock further skills, but this sort of makes sense in a game-y way: everything you do gets DedSec more followers, and those followers are willingly offering up their processing power for your operations. The more processing power, the more stuff you can research and the bigger the hacks you can pull off. As such, it actually makes sense that doing optional side-mission things like “taking selfies in front of San Franciso landmarks” gets you more publicity and followers.
Bizarrely, where Watch Dogs 2 fails is also in its variety. That probably sounds mildly insane considering the massive list of stuff I just typed out, but it’s true. For one thing, the majority of missions are “break into this guarded area and steal a thing”, and that starts to get a little samey after 10 hours. For another, there is way too much in the way of “figure out how to get to this inaccessible location”, which inevitably means either looking around for a scissor ladder you can hijack, a vent you can sent your rover through, or the one crate that’s high enough to give you a platform to climb up a bit. It doesn’t help that the rewards for a lot of the side activities involving these
I’ll mitigate this a little by saying that some of it is doubtless down to the Reviewer’s Curse: I’d probably be a little less annoyed if I had the luxury of playing in shorter bursts or taking lengthier breaks. That doesn’t really change the fact that there is a lot of this stuff, though, and it only occasionally feels like a clever diversion that makes you think rather than a brief waste of time.
I don’t have much of an opinion on the game’s multiplayer, which largely follows Watch Dogs‘ formula of always-online “invasion” gameplay. You might get a prompt that you need to hack someone nearby, in which case you have to stay within radius and not get detected by them; alternatively, you might find yourself being hacked. You might get an alert of a bounty, letting you track down a player with a high Wanted rating. Or you might even dive into one of the game’s co-op side missions.
Honestly, I turned off the hacking thing after experiencing it a couple of times; I played that quite a lot in Watch Dogs, and in Watch Dogs 2 it just kept bloody happening after I’d finally managed to scale a building to get to a mission start point. The bounty hunts are fun, certainly, if you’re not doing anything better: chasing down another player and using street hacks against them is incredibly satisfying, if a bit of a dick move. And the side-misisons… well, they’re reliant on someone else being available to do them. I’ve joined a few where the other player hasn’t moved from the start point, presumably having wandered off to get a drink while waiting; I’ve also had one that went rather swimmingly, with jolly co-operation proving equal to the task at hand.
The multiplayer is a bit of a side dish rather than anything exceptional, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the game, and you can disable most of it as you like. It’s fun to dip into occasionally, even if it’s not really a reason to play.
Thinking about it, that sort of sums up my feelings with Watch Dogs 2 on the whole. It’s not an exceptional game, but it is a consistently good one. It’s a hell of a lot better than Watch Dogs was, managing to inject fun and levity into the hackers-against-surveillance-state plot. It vastly expands on the idea of the first game, offering a lot more in the way of ways to deal with particular problems. It’s just not quite there in terms of mission variety, and it seems like it’s still trying to find its feet as a series and carve out its own niche in the open-world genre – and, as such, it only occasionally hits the sort of heights I want to see.