Watch Dogs 2 Review: Revamped and Ready for Action
Back in the day when the first Watch Dogs was revealed at E3 2012, it wowed people with its concept as well as the lighting, physics and effects on display. Considered by many as the first true next gen open-world sandbox game, it kept gamers’ anticipation at fever pitch till its release in 2014.
While it was applauded for its hacking and stealth focused open-world gameplay, many found the game to be underwhelming due to a one-note protagonist, an overly edgy ambiance and the visual downgrade from its pre-release marketing presentations.
Many hoped that this was just a symptom of introducing a new franchise, and that a sequel would be able to remedy its shortcomings and expand upon its core gameplay which revolved around a mixture of shooting, taking cover, driving and, of course, hacking.
It seems like Ubisoft Montreal paid heed to the feedback received after the release of the first game, and tried to address gamers’ concerns, in order to develop Watch Dogs 2 into a game that would appeal to both the fans and the detractors of the previous game.
The first Watch Dogs presented itself as a post-modern, GTA styled, sandbox game but in order to cater to its theme of surveillance conspiracy thriller it compromised on the levity and variety aspect of gameplay that makes sandbox games like GTA and Just Cause fun to play in the long run.
Aiden Pearce, the protagonist of first Watch Dogs was a blank personality wrapped in somber clothes and a gravelly voice. The supporting cast in that game was equally edgy and gloomy as was the dark and dreary depiction of the city of Chicago.
On the other hand, Watch Dogs 2 portrays a more fun and colourful side of the underground hacker culture. There is a distinct emphasis on presenting diversity in personalities and values when it comes to how characters express themselves in terms of dialogue and action.
Let’s start with the new protagonist: Marcus Holloway. Marcus’ personality is a total 180 from Aiden Pierce. Where Aiden was quiet and stoic, Marcus is boisterous and displays charisma and optimistic exuberance not only in his speech and gestures but also in his actions.
Whether dancing over cars or displaying his athleticism with his parkour abilities, Marcus exudes a light hearted youthful energy that was missing from the world-weary protagonist of the previous game.
Rest of the supporting cast is also full of personality. They are a rag tag group of underground anarchists who, are essentially caricatures of eccentric individuals. These people live in a world of pop culture and social media, which they use to express their emotions that come off well due to stellar facial animation.
Thankfully, even though characters do utilize pop culture references, memes and leetspeak, the game never goes overboard in its reliance on the techy hipster lingo. The organic use of such verbiage helps the characters establish their persona without becoming overly annoying.
This hipster punk vibe is well integrated with the game’s overall theme. It is not only in story and characterization but also incorporated in the game’s in-world art, the transition graphics and even in the in-game user interface that relies on use of phone apps to access and navigate menus.
The Sunny streets of San Francisco in Watch Dogs 2 are also a far cry from the cloudy rain soaked roads of Chicago from the first game.
Game’s Bay Area is as diverse as it is vibrant; featuring high-rise filled city centres with bright red bus tracks, quiet picket-fenced suburbs, dense graffiti ladened ghettos, serene sandy beaches, lush parks, long bridges and much much more.
These areas are beautifully realized with nice texture details, great lighting, fluid animation, and all of this is helped by an improved draw distance which keeps pace even with the speediest of vehicles.
Speaking of draw distance, Watch Dogs 2’s Bay Area is huge. The map size easily dwarfs the city of Chicago from the first game and is home to areas from the main San Francisco and Oakland to Silicon Valley and even Alcatraz island.
Even at this huge scale the developers have made a city that feels alive. Aside from the usual day/night cycle and weather changes, the game’s Bay Area is full of little details like urban wildlife and people reacting to randomly occurring incidents like misdemeanors, gang shootsouts, police chases and robberies.
Aside from location variety, the Bay Area is home to an array of automobiles that include cars from compacts, coupes, muscle cars and SUVs to track, cruiser and sports bikes as well as heavy vehicles like trucks, buses, vans and even seafaring motor and sailboats.
Each vehicle is accompanied by its own sound; from the blaring engines of a sports car to hum of an electric car, and feature ability to listen to music from 6 different radio stations and songs reaching across 7 different genres ranging from classical and world to rock and rap.
Car handling has also received a much-needed improvement from the first game. Driving in Watch Dogs 2 is more streamlined and tightened so that it is now significantly less floaty and has an arcady feel to it which makes it far more accessible.
Ubisoft has also added the ability to shoot while driving, as well as increased the possibilities of hacking vehicles like remotely controlling other cars to create confusion and comical roadside mayhem that is in keeping with the lighter tone of the game.
Fans of the first game need not worry; while lighter in tone, Watch Dogs 2 isnt Sunset Overdrive. The game does retain a level of gravity that is needed for its theme of privacy, surveillance and conspiracies however the narrative grit and edge from the previous game is gone.
Like the first game, the story in Watch Dogs 2 revolves around the hegemony of the, big brother like, computer operating system called ctOS 2.0, and hackers trying to end its absolute control over the hyper-connected city.
While there are some elements, like Blume and ctOS, that return from Watch Dogs, the narrative in Watch Dogs 2 is loosely connected to the story of the first game. With most references limited to easter eggs, the relevant information regarding events in Chicago and their connection to context of San Francisco is well-explained in Watch Dogs 2.
With the inclusion of mission based story arcs the story in Watch Dogs 2 feels significantly more developed and cohesive than the first game, however there are still couple of issues that prevent it from narrative successes of open-world sandbox titles produced by Rockstar Games.
Even with all the, aforementioned, character personalities, the game is unable to organically create a personal stake in the story. It is unable to convincingly establish strong character motivations for their roles and lacks proper synergy between characters which hinders its efforts when it tries to evoke emotions from the player.
Hacking in the first Watch Dogs was limited to context sensitive actions, all of which were mapped on to one button. This was where some players felt like the game was handholding their decision making and that the hacking mechanics lacked synergy with sandbox nature of the game world.
This single button context sensitive hacking gameplay, while simplistic, allowed players the freedom and ability to strategize and choose hacking methodology on the fly during hectic activities like overwhelming firefights, tense infiltrations and chase sequences.
Watch Dogs 2 brings back all of the tricks like hacking cameras and activating road traps but adds a lot more skills that players can utilize in conjunction with the detective vision-like NetHack mode to make hacking a more dynamic activity.
Hacking is now a two-button affair. One button opens up a short hacking wheel and the other is used to select nature of the hack. This allows for more choice and flexibility without compromising on the immediacy in the decision-making process.
This flexibility is extended to overall game design, as each mission is structured in such a way that gives players the ability to utilize the tools at their disposal and accomplish the task according to their desired playstyle.
Players are given freedom to be a combat oriented aggressor and go all out guns blazing or be a ghost to infiltrate stealthily without harming a single soul and everything in between. Though even in aggressor mode, it is not advisable to go in full Rambo style as Marcus isn’t a bullet sponge and heavy fire can easily take him down.
Addition of gadgets like the land based RC Jumper and aerial drone: Quadcopter, make it possible for third playstyle named ‘trickster’ which allows players to accomplish missions through remote hacking, without ever stepping foot into the danger zone.
This allowance for different playstyles not only prevents the prevalent mission structure of infiltrate-grab object/info-escape, from becoming repetitive but also gives the players creative freedom to tackle each task as they wish, and allows them to switch their playstyles on the go according to the upgrades chosen for Marcus.
Watch Dogs 2 has an expanded skill-tree that allows players to customize their character’s ability and invest the Research Points, earned from completing missions, to upgrade skills across 7 categories that range from vehicle, data and remote hacking to increasing gadget mastery and combat expertise.
Players can also customize Marcus’s clothing by buying and equipping different hats, glasses, tops, bottoms, footware and bags across 9 different brands as well as collect and use skins for Marcus’s weapons.
Watch Dogs 2 not only features a lengthy campaign with 15 main objective arcs as well as dozens of equally entertaining side missions to complete, but also adds missions with online coop opportunities via DedSec events.
DedSec event seamlessly merges 2 players’ sessions and allows them to work together and complete a Cooperative Operation which can include activities ranging from hacking a gang leader’s phone, destroying key items or uploading a virus in a secure location. These Cooperative Operations can also be attempted as an offline single player.
Players can also partake in online PVP activities like the returning Hacking Invasions where one person tries to hack another player’s game while remaining undetected, as well as the new Bounty Hunter event, similar in nature to invasion events in the Souls games, where up to 3 players can join forces to hunt down a player that is wanted by the police.
At the time of this review, the review copies of the game were having issues with its seamless online multiplayer component and was taken offline. While the developers have assured of a speedy fix and swift return of that feature, realistically there is no telling how well that portion of online play would function in the coming days.
Aside from all the aforementioned missions, Watch Dogs 2 also features loads of places to discover, activities to do and things to collect.
Players can partake in Crazy Taxi like chauffeuring, race cars, boats and drones, take selfies in front of landmarks, hack and collect items as well as do a myriad of other activities that not only reward exploration but also net players research points or cash to invest in upgrades.
With so many things to do, Watch Dogs 2 provides players with content enough to keep them busy for days; couple that with the ability to explore an open world with tactical stealth and hacking mechanics, and you have an experience that is peerless.
No other game in the market possess the ability to give players the feeling of empowerment that they can get from executing events like; hacking cars mid-chase to create a ‘parting of the Red sea’ moment, or completing a mission from A to Z by only utilizing remote devices like cameras and drones or placing a false APB on an enemy and watching police attack your target from a safe location.
Watch Dogs 2 is the Assassins Creed 2 of this franchise. While the first game was an imperfect attempt at a novel concept, the second one upgrades on its foundations in every way possible and presents a game that is not only a more comprehensive experience but also fun to play on repeat.
It seems that the development teams at Ubisoft truly paid attention to the criticism levied at the first Watch Dogs game and utilized the feedback to create a game that exploits its unique premise to give an experience that will speak to every fan of the open world action adventure genre.