The first Watch Dogs game was a bit of a mess. Big controversies surrounded it, such as the drop in visual quality compared to its reveal, or the last minute delay that pushed it from releasing alongside the PS4 to launch five months later. In the end, it was just an okay game that didn’t really deliver on the promise of its exciting new ideas. Watch Dogs 2 delivers on that promise, and then some.
Watch Dogs 2 is an entirely different beast from it’s predecessor. The first game was a gritty, dramatic story set in Chicago about corruption and revenge, but the sequel is a bright and upbeat story about young hacktivists in an equally bright and colourful San Francisco. You play as Marcus Holloway, a gifted young hacker who’s had a bevy of false criminal charges pinned on him by the easily corrupted, predictive nature of the ctOS AI infrastructure that’s now in San Francisco. Teaming up with a quartet of other hackers in the activist group DedSec, they aim to gather enough followers (and their processing power) to take down Blume and expose the dark side of the city they live in.
It feels like everyone who worked on this game was given a copy of GTA V and told to study it thoroughly. The narrative has that same witty, modern Hollywood feeling that oozes with personality and colour. Your main crew of characters have diverse personalities and backgrounds, and get plenty of development that makes them more than just flat archetypes.
Yet it can be a bit hard to get attached to, due to the structure of the game. Instead of one central plot thread to follow, you’re often presented with multiple main story missions at once that can feel very disjointed from one another. I watched a cutscene where a rival hacker made a play at DedSec, but just moments later got a call from the groups leader telling me to join the gang for karaoke. Serving the story in bitesized chunks means they don’t always fold together seamlessly, and it can lead to some pivotal moments of the story falling a bit flat.
Still, the game never loses it’s unique personality and it come through in every other aspect of the game. DedSec’s hacks and publicity videos have a sharp and unique aesthetic style that’s tantamount to sensory overload, taking inspiration from the trend of Web Brutlism art that has become prevalent in modern millennial design work. It does sometimes feel as though this has been viewed and mimicked from a 40-something’s perspective, as it’s hard to imagine these hip underground hackers plastering huge meme posters all over their secret hideout.
That fresh perspective and the shift in tone is incredibly successful. The game tells the same message of technology corruption and big businesses selling private data that the first game danced with, but in approaching it from the view of chipper 20-something hacktivists instead of gruff middle-aged white men with dark agendas, we get a fresh look at this world from a different angle.
Even greater than the narrative and visual improvements are the gameplay changes. Everything looks, and feels, much snappier. Cars feel fun and speedy, and your character animations are some of the smoothest, most dynamic things I’ve seen in a game. While the gunplay feels just as responsive as it did in the first game, you’re definitely gonna be spending less time shooting in this game than you did in the first.
Your hacker abilities in the original basically amounted to doing camera puzzles and causing minor traffic disturbances. Beyond that, hacking rarely played a unique role in gameplay and most of the game consisted of by-the-books stealth and combat. Watch Dogs 2 laughs at that, and gives you so much god damned variety you might end up choking on it.
Two new toys in Watch Dogs 2 are the quadcopter drone and the RC jumper, two controllable miniature vehicles you can whip out at any time. The drone lets you fly around and above the mission area, scouting things out and formulating your approach. The RC Jumper, meanwhile, can quickly get into an area via air-ducts and open windows, as well as distract enemies and divert their attention. On top of this, both of them can deploy EMPs and stun-zappers, as well as hack into almost anything within their line of sight, in the same way you can yourself.
Hacking is more varied, as holding L1 brings up four options that are quickly and intuitively selected by the face buttons, while tapping L1 triggers the default. It’s through this that you can hack cars on the fly to stop, go, reverse and turn left or right. You can also remote control forklifts to pick up boxes and create new platforms, or carry lethal explosives to a more convenient location. Even further, you can manipulate construction cranes around the world to help transport you to advantageous higher grounds. AI patrol robots are just as susceptible to hacking, and can be shut down, distracted, or turned against other enemies. Except there’s more. So, so much more.
Hacking in Watch Dogs 2 means something now. You aren’t just pressing the square button to unlock a door, you’re truly manipulating the game world to your advantage, and creating unique opportunities and mission approaches based on your own personal play style. You can disable security cameras and distract guards as you melee them and sneak through the area, or you can lure guards to power-boxes and stun them to clear them out, or maybe you’ll just send your quadcopter in to retrieve important intel. On several occasions I used nothing but a forklift and patient driving to achieve your mission goal.
The gameplay variety doesn’t end with your toolset, either. Watch Dogs 2 features a ton of side-content that’s entirely new to the franchise. You can customise your character with an insanely wide variety of clothes, and then snap pictures of your hot new look with the camera app on your phone. You can also use that camera to snap pictures of iconic landmarks in the ScoutX app. You could also use the Driver SF app to engage in Uber driver-style side missions. Or you can locate any number of racing challenges or hostile gang hideouts to take on via the game map.
Watch Dogs 2 still has seamless multiplayer interactions, with the hide and seek gameplay of Invasions returning and new Bounty Hunt missions, where you’re either trying to assist or evade a police chase. They’re lots of fun, but they’re also entirely optional, so if you experience a hack or see another player driving by with “valuable data”, you can simply ignore them and carry on with the next story mission. It lets you know that the activities are available without being as obtrusive as the first game was with them, but if you want more, you can elect to play them via the app on the phone.
On top of this, Watch Dogs 2 introduces true, open world co-op. You and a friend can goof around in the gameworld together, and you can also take on a number of repeatable co-op missions. They’re essentially the same as many of the single player missions, but being able to coordinate with a second player mixes things up in such a fun, satisfying way. There were times where I’d do nothing but offer support and clear the path for my partner using my drone, while they snuck in and completed the task.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t feature a full co-op campaign of any kind, and there’s only around a dozen co-op missions to play through. Watch Dogs 2 may not be worth it solely for the co-op, with those missions and an open world full of activities and mayhem to partake in, it’s a great addition to the huge amount of content already on offer.
Note: As we reported this morning, Ubisoft have been periodically disabling seamless multiplayer, citing issues that cause the game to lag and crash. They are confident of fixing these issues before launch tonight/tomorrow and so our score does not take this issue into account. The latest update we have is that the patch is with Sony and Xbox certification.
Our online testing did encounter these problems, but we were still able to get a feel for each of the modes on offer. Additionally, initiating co-op by inviting friends does not see the same issues manifest, letting us see the multiplayer working as intended.
Watch Dogs 2 is the perfect sequel. It takes everything that made the first game unique and original, and expands on all of it. Everything is better, from the hacking, to the story, the setting and the variety of content. Watch Dogs 2 is far from being just more of the same. An apt comparison could be the jump from the first Assassins Creed game to Assassins Creed 2. While the first was a promising yet clunky new idea, the sequel delivered on that idea and turned it into one of the most iconic series of the last decade. With Watch Dogs 2, Ubisoft is well on its way to recreating that same magic.
Version tested: PS4, PS4 Pro