Unlike the original game, Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s all the better for it. The small group that make up DedSec aren’t just out to expose ctOS for the vast and fallible personal privacy violation that it is, but these characters in their late teens or early 20s want to have a bit of fun while doing so.
It all starts off quite seriously, though, as Marcus works his way into a Blume server farm. As a young African American, his life isn’t exactly being made easier by having a crime that he didn’t commit pinned to his name by the system – of course, he’s now flagrantly breaking the law in order to delete those records, but let’s not overthink things. It’s a nicely put together level that guides you through the game’s various gameplay mechanics, many of which will be familiar to players of the original, and also serves as his induction into DedSec.
They’re a motley group of characters with a mixture of hacker stereotypes and the more unusual. The Wrench is the nickname of a guy in a weird LED mask and spiked biker gear, while Sitara gets the honour of being the only woman in the group, as well as the ignominious position of being the only non-hacker, instead being the person behind all of the group’s over the top graphic design and distorted graphics. Sorry Ubisoft, but at first glance, this feels like a step backwards.
They’d love nothing more than to take down Blume and ctOS, but in order to do so, they need processing power. The answer to this? To perform successively more daring hacks and events to raise public awareness, getting willing followers to download the DedSec app and lend their tech’s processing power to the cause. It’s a clever play on real world botnets that ties into the game’s progression system.
It’s because of this that DedSec need to be so over the top, and Ubisoft plants tongue firmly in cheek as they mimic real world events. There’s the evil pharmaceutical CEO who’s getting rich off over-inflating the price of his company’s products, but who loves one particular rapper enough to then want to blow a few million on getting a 100% exclusive album. Then there’s a whole play on Knight Rider with a show called Cyber Driver, and DedSec use this as an opportunity to steal the talking car and go for a very public joy ride.
San Francisco is a gorgeous and fitting backdrop to all of this. The game’s much more lighthearted, and having a prettier, more vibrantly colourful backdrop to the game is a perfect fit. Embracing the nonsense, I decked out my version of Marcus in a series of ridiculous clothes. The less said about the double denim shorts and waistcoat, the better…
If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that you can get a long way just by hacking computers from the other side of the world, but in Watch Dogs, there’s always that physical element to the gameplay. You’re liberated from having to delve into a command line, type in IP addresses, or manage botnets, thanks to the game letting you hack anything that’s close by. You don’t need line of sight anymore, but can go into a view mode that shows you hackable items through walls.
At the same time, you’ve got a pair of drones to use. One’s a flying quadcopter, and the other the Jumper, a little guy that rolls around on the floor, can jump when it needs to and has a surprisingly compact telescopic arm hidden inside it that can reach out and interact with things. With the hacking and these drones, you can complete entire missions without setting foot inside the building.
Of course, there are still times where you’ll want to or need to get your hands dirty, whether it’s with a spot of cat burgling or just giving up on that “no kills” run and going in all guns blazing. On the fly hacking just feels a lot better than it did in the original, where everything was boiled down to a single action. Now you have options when you hold down the shoulder button, so that you can set a little junction box to explode right away, trigger when someone is near, and also make a sound to get someone to come near. You can force other cars to stop, go, turn left and right. Those are fairly tame examples, and you can quite hypocritically alter police records on the fly to bring the rozzers out in force, or more shadily call in a gang to do your dirty work for you. It’s faster and more fluid.
The same is true of the on the fly co-op and multiplayer. You can’t head off and do story missions together, sadly, but heading online and teaming up is much slicker. Just trying to complete one mission, to destroy some trucks behind kept in a warehouse on the seafront, my co-op buddy and I failed time and again. Sparking a car chase as we finished the mission and going on the run – making use of the much better handling cars – was a lot of fun, as one of us drove while the other tried to get rid of our pursuers with gunfire and hacking the environment. Having knockout grenades as opposed to explosive grenades didn’t really help matters, though.
Watch Dogs 2 is pretty dumb at times, when it comes to the setting and story, but it’s also pretty smart. As long as you can put up with the “script kiddies” and their over the top antics, there’s a game here that feels like a pretty big improvement over the original.