It’s amazing how quickly the world has changed between the first showing of the original Watch Dogs, and now the release of Watch Dogs 2. The franchise went from being one of the most anticipated games in recent memory to one that seemingly no one in my circle of gaming enthusiasts had much interest in.
A lot of that has to do with the original Watch Dogs. Although the MetaCritic for the Playstation 4 version of the game (as of November 2016) is currently sitting at an 80, the way people revere both the moody protagonist, Aiden Pearce, and the dark take on the city of Chicago, you would have thought it was much lower than that. I, for one, actually loved Watch Dogs. Although not a fan of the story or the protagonist, I enjoyed the open-world mechanics that Ubisoft put in place. The two pronged approach weaving a slew of hacking mechanics inside a normal open-world game made for memorable sequences. It gave the player a lot more control in how you wanted to take on objectives, making the game feel more open than a lot of the other games released in the same genre.
With Watch Dogs 2 it’s probably the most obvious example of developers listening and reacting to feedback from a game. The game takes place in sunny and beautiful Northern California. The entire color palette and changed from the dark grays of Watch Dogs, to more vibrant and often whimsical colors of a summertime California. Ubisoft also decided to ditch the gruff monotone services of Aiden Pearce, going with a much more lighthearted and well-meaning fellow named Marcus Holloway. The game opens up with Marcus as he tries to infiltrate a CTOS office and eliminate digital traces of himself. This turns out to be a literal tryout for the hacking group DedSec. Without going into any sorts of spoilers, once you join DeadSec your basic premise is to take down “the man.” The story keeps things incredibly light and fun. There’s a couple attempts at social commentary but they land relatively flat.
One thing I did appreciate about the approach Watch Dogs 2 takes with its story is in its diverse cast. Marcus is an African American character who feels and talks authentically. He doesn’t fit a profile, or check off boxes, he’s one of the better protagonists I’ve played as in 2016. The rest of DeadSec play it a little safer with more of your typical hacker stereotypes. Luckily they play well off of each other and most of the time keep things entertaining. There are a handful of times where things fall off the rails with ham-fisted dialogue and cheesy quips but those for me are far more endearing then the melodrama of the original game.
Where Watch Dogs 2 really shines is in its recreation of the Bay Area, and specifically San Francisco. It’s stunning. Having spent a lot of time in the city and its surrounding area I can confirm that this game does the best job of recreating Northern California. It does so many things right. From the way in which the city flows, to even the recreation of the cities inhabitants. When you’re not hunting down missions, you can easily lose yourself in taking in the beauty of Ubisoft’s work.
From a moment to moment gameplay perspective, Watch Dogs 2 is more familiar to the first game then many might think. The missions make you rely heavily on hacking and stealth. Especially at the beginning when you haven’t upgraded much of your skill tree. You will spend a lot of time hacking cameras and finding key passes to get into secure areas. I found the first three to four hours of Watch Dogs 2 to be a bit of a bore to get through. The missions felt standard. The hacking relatively tame. And the mission structure safe. But once you start getting additional skills like the flying drone and the ability to call on rival gangs to take out hits, the game really opens up.
It’s at this point when I started to see some definite influences from one of Ubisoft’s other major franchises, Far Cry. Many of the main and side missions have you going to an enemy encampment or base of operations. I started most of these encounters by scouting out enemies and looking for a way in. From there I often called an enemy gang to take out some of the easy prey while I or one of my drones snuck in. The freedom of choice in Watch Dogs 2 is where the game really starts humming. I cannot tell you how many times I’d sit back in amazement when something went the way I planned it. And even when things didn’t go my way, Marcus has enough tools at his disposal to get out of any situation.
Watch Dogs 2 is comprised of four different types of missions or encounters. Main missions are where the story progresses. Side missions are exactly as they sound, and encompass things like tagging billboards to racing your RC Car. And then there are online missions that can be done by yourself or cooperatively. These I didn’t spend as much time in but did try a couple of times both with my hands-on preview and also in the full retail release. I had pretty good luck with these missions getting matched up with people who wanted to complete the missions and not screw around. In the last week Ubisoft has also brought online the always online component allowing others to hack into your game or vice versa at any time. In my playtime since this patch I haven’t had any of these encounters.
Its varied just enough to make the entire experience quite refreshing. And really that’s what Watch Dogs 2 comes down to. It’s a refreshing and easy going world to be in. Even when the narrative tries to up the stakes you can go on hacking the world and making it do whatever it is you want to do. The game is opened up just enough to allow for the insane to happen and when it does Watch Dogs 2 really shines. It’s not a momentous step forward for the franchise but anyone sitting on the sideline worried that Ubisoft slept on the criticism of the first, fret not, Watch Dogs 2 is a better game in every way from its predecessor.
The owner and editor-in-chief of Darkstation.com. I've been apart of the website since 2002 and purchased the website in 2010. Owning and running Darkstation is a dream come true. I love video games and I love writing and talking about them even more.