The original Watch Dogs released back in 2014 and received mixed reception from fans and press alike. The game was at worst bland, at best mildly innovative. So much of the game was centered on new hacking mechanics, which did set the game apart, but the wrapper around the mechanics was the epitome of ‘safe’. There wasn’t anything in the original game that set it noticeably apart in terms of story, characters, or world. It all came down to the mechanics, and that wasn’t enough for many, rightfully so.
Watch Dogs 2 did a lot to directly improve upon those weaknesses. The new game is set in San Francisco and the surrounding area. Besides the more interesting geographical layout the city is colorful, vibrant. There’s a texture to it, more height to the city streets that help develop more dynamic interactions with the world. The characters have character, a distinct style and personality that is complemented by some of the best writing in a video game this year.
The story follows Marcus Holloway, a 20 something hacker who gets in with an organized group called Dedsec. Dedsec is basically Anonymous, the real life hacking organization, and the game doesn’t shy away from any real world comparisons. In video’s after many missions the team in Dedsec produces messages similar to the real life hacking group, in a way Dedsec becomes the face for real life hacking group. The developers at Ubisoft take the mindset of the group and strip away the anonymity, filling it up with post-punk alt-hipster attitude.
The actual structure of the game is similar to most of the big budget, open world games with the key addition of those unique mechanics mentioned before. Each mission, when boiled down, is Marcus approaching a fish bowl like play space and figuring out how to get to an objective. That basic structure is largely varied up with the size, shape, and aesthetic of the fish bowl. Halfway through the game players will develop systems for completing the missions, rinsing and repeating as the target changes and the tools do as well, and it can make for a mundane slog.
That’s where the upgrade system in Watch Dogs 2 comes in to lend the mission design a hand. By doling out new tools and tricks steadily throughout the game, approaching the fishbowl can still feel fresh every time. As the later game begins the powers get a bit more outrageous, affecting more of the environment and making the interaction players have more dynamic. Specifically, Marcus has access to two drones that add a buffer to traditional penalties in this style of game. Normally, Marcus would be sneaking around the level (or shooting his way through it), and if he is caught the player is basically forced to restart. With the drones, players can explore and interact with the space before sending Marcus in, and if the drones are caught it isn’t a fail state.
Interacting with the environment is largely done through small hacks, Marcus manipulating anything with a chip in it to his own ends. It makes driving through environment take on a different feel than similar games, a better feel. Instead of blindly heading in the direction of a waypoint there are things to do on the way there, fun tricks like making other cars back up inadvertently or changing the color of the stop lights.
The story of Watch Dogs 2 isn’t necessarily an award winning masterpiece, but it is a solid step in the right direction. With all the well realized characters a lot of the plot rests on their shoulders, and it’s at its best when it does. The missions are memorable vignettes, many pulling from real world news stories to both fresh and sobering effect. The ‘villain’ in the game is fun to watch and interesting enough, but ultimately he feels one note, there are no redeeming qualities. That wouldn’t stand out if it weren’t for a diverse, deep cast of protagonists, who all seem rounded out compared to the antagonist’s flatness.
Watch Dogs 2 is a big step in the right direction for the franchise, and a smaller step in the right direction for the genre of game as a whole. All of the bland trappings of the first game were spray painted over and seem appropriately vibrant. The gameplay is just different enough from competitors that it feels familiar but fresh. Some of the mundane heritage is still embedded in the game, but besides the slight missteps Watch Dogs 2 is hard not to recommend.