Think of this analogy, when thinking about Watch Dogs 2 (2016): If GTA 5 (2013) was the wacky, ambitious sequel to GTA 4 (2008), then Watch Dogs 2 is the GTA 5 to Watch Dogs’ (2014) GTA 4.
What impresses most about Watch Dogs 2 is that is shows Ubisoft’s understanding of the players wants and desires for the Watch Dogs franchise. Whilst they were way off the mark with the first Watch Dogs game, which promised a slew of hacking features and innovative gameplay, they delivered in its sequel.
They’ve taken the variety of criticisms levied at Watch Dogs, the personality-free empty trench coat that was Aiden Pearce, the repetitive and simplistic hacking puzzles, a game world devoid of varied and interesting content outside of the main story missions, and they’ve redesigned these features from the ground up. In Watch Dogs, Ubisoft relied too heavily on their open world formula which was becoming tired. Watch Dogs 2, whilst not perfect, resolves a lot of those concerns.
Marcus Holloway, the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2, is the anti-Aiden Pearce. He has personality, is relatable to an extent and is, at times, funny, as are the other supporting characters. The game world is no longer laden with icons to hoover up by doing repetitive side activities. The open world activities resemble the ‘Paris Stories’ side missions found in Assassin’s Creed Unity (2014), whereby you complete missions given by NPCs in the game world. Some of them are multi-tiered and have their own narrative arcs, some of them are simple one-off missions. Either way, they are interesting and varied and crop up often enough that you will always have three or four on the go in the quest log.
Thematically, Watch Dogs 2 has shifted completely from its predecessor. It is not afraid to poke fun at itself and doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments where it parodies real-life happenings, a pharmaceutical CEO who wants to buy the only album of a well-known rapper, a religious institution resembling Scientology. Watch Dogs 2 is unashamedly open when poking fun at these subjects and is under no illusion of providing a subtle commentaries. It’s refreshingly unpretentious and I can’t stop thinking about what sort of bizarre and zany mission I’ll be given next. The original Watch Dogs was not technically a bad game but I did spend a lot of my time playing it, wondering when it would start to become fun. Watch Dogs 2 has been relentless in providing enjoying and engaging story content.
The UI remains the same. You access your main menu by bringing up a smart phone replica on the screen, with different apps for different side-menus, and the game map resembles the style of Google maps. Gameplay does not stop when you bring these menus up, other than for in-game settings and main map, which can make toggling play-tracks or missions when driving a little bit inconvenient but I can’t say it has ever hindered my experience.
A major overhaul is the manner in which hacks work. Instead of pressing square or X to activate a hack, doing this will bring up a variety of different tools you can use on a specific item, with more hacks unlocked as you progress Marcus’ character. It gives the gameplay more depth and variety when approaching missions and enables you to be more creative with how you dispatch your enemies.
In terms of visuals, compared to Watch Dogs’ dank and grey Chicago streets, Watch Dogs 2’s San Francisco is bright and vibrant, and colours pop on the street art and in the characters clothing items. Cars also drive better, although not perfectly, and sound is consistent also, with no major complaints.
To say it is a massive improvement over its predecessor is an understatement, but it is not the perfect game and does have some caveats. The game world, like those in nearly all Ubisoft titles, feels too much like a simulation. Like it has been created for a video game, which sounds ridiculous, but it lacks the same sense of being lived in and character that, say, a Rockstar or Bethesda game has. There are also times where your actions do not fit the context of the story.
The whole game is centred around Marcus helping the hacking activist group, DedSec, to increase their followers, which is essentially PR and branding, however, you are given guns quite early in the game and can gun down NPCs who stand in your way. The game encourages stealth and using your hacking tools to be a ghost and infiltrate areas, but it seems odd that such excessive violence is needed to achieve these goals. However, this is a video game and Ubisoft has to please the majority of video game players, so I get it, but it still feels weird.
Still, I can’t stop thinking about playing it and will probably get back to it after I’ve finished this review. Isn’t that the real test of a video game, to entice the player to spend as much time as possible in its world. Maybe Ubisoft can take the lessons learned and apply them to future titles. Assassin’s Creed is rumoured to be rebooted in 2017, and I’m excited to see what they do with that.