Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: Action Adventure, Stealth
WATCH_DOGS 2 is the follow up to Ubisoft’s previous attempt to start a new IP franchise. When the original game turned out to be nothing like its initial E3 reveal, critics and fans rightly panned the it for its shortcomings. As a whole, however, WATCH_DOGS set the stage for the franchise to grow. After playing WATCH_DOGS 2 extensively, I am happy to report that Ubisoft has improved upon the original in nearly every way imaginable.
Fair warning: There is nudity in this game as players will come across a colony of nudists and, during a certain segment of the game, some beach goers walk around topless. Although WATCH_DOGS 2 is based on hacking, there is a significant amount of violence in the game as well. Shootouts are bloody, and can be brutal depending on the weapons used. There is no gore–only blood splatters to show that violence has occurred. WATCH_DOGS 2 also contains a fair amount of language, including frequent use of the f-word, among other expletives. Religion is mentioned frequently, but not the Christian faith. One mission is focused around Scientology.
WATCH_DOGS 2 is easily everything that the first WATCH_DOGS should have been. When Ubisoft says you can hack everything, they mean it. Instead of playing as the stoic, brooding sack of potatoes that was Aiden Pierce, players take on the role of budding San Francisco Dedsec inductee, Marcus Holloway. Going by the code name Retr0, Marcus begins his story by wiping his record clean after Blume (the bad guys from the first game) and their Ctos system wrongfully convict him of a crime he hasn’t even committed. After completing his induction into Dedsec, Marcus becomes one of the gang. Throughout WATCH_DOGS 2, Marcus and Dedsec face off against violent criminal gangs, Blume, and other hacker groups.
Gone are the days of the trial-and-error stealth missions that forced you to restart if an enemy so much as caught a whiff of your cologne. This time around, missions can be completed a number of different ways, including hacking your way through nearly any confrontation in the game. For instance, cars can be hacked and controlled. This technique is good for pinning enemies against walls or outright killing them (though the game can be completed without killing anyone). Cars can be hacked in the same manner during high-speed chases, when tailing targets, or when running from police. While going in guns blazing is another option, I strongly discourage this as the gunplay feels like a step back to third-person shooters like Gears of War 4. Aiming is fickle and feels too sluggish considering most enemies can off you in one or two shots. Stealth is arguably the best option for dealing with enemies. One of Marcus’ hacking abilities in combat distracts enemies by causing their phone to go off. They will stop fighting to check their phones, allowing you to close the gap and take them out with a quick, stealthy takedown. In late-game missions, this is pretty much the ONLY way to achieve success.
Hacking plays a key role in everything that you do in WATCH_DOGS 2, but it never gets repetitive. There is an RC car and a Drone that players can use to hack previously unreachable devices, as well as devices only Marcus can hack. The stealth gameplay really shines during the puzzle-like sections when Marcus tries to sneak into a server room undetected. Marcus can also using hacking to summon a gang of thugs to rough up your target, or summon police to have your target arrested. These gameplay mechanics are hilarious when used on random NPCs, as they will sometimes run from the police and get tackled or tazed.
The game is packed to the brim with content, including fun diversions such as drone races. There are also fully fleshed-out side missions almost as long and rewarding as the main story missions. Side missions can be completed any time, and are found by speaking to key NPCs on the map. There is also a Shazam-like app called Song Sneak that allows players to collect songs they hear while exploring various stores and restaurants and later listen to these songs while driving (via entertainment system) or walking (via smartphone) through the city.
While the content is plentiful, the game still feels a bit on the short side. Missions are typically divided into five or six chapters each, but they consist of little more than driving to a destination and hacking a Ctos box or taking out a group of thugs. While the game took 20-30 hours for me to complete, I wanted more by the time the credits started to roll.
The driving is much improved over the first WATCH_DOGS, and to make navigation even easier, all fast-travel points are unlocked from the start. Most are shops where Marcus can buy clothing items and accessories, including sunglasses and laptop bags–a huge improvement over Aiden Pierce’s trench coat variants from the first game. Marcus can wear long sleeves, short sleeves, muscle shirts, hoodies, board shorts, and so on, adding a much more realistic feel to the game and granting players ownership, as they can dress him how they believe most millennials (or hackers) would dress.
Perhaps the strongest element of WATCH_DOGS 2 is its writing. While the first game’s protagonist had about as much personality as a brick wall, Marcus and the other San Francisco Bay Dedsec members are full of charisma. Watching them interact with one another is a real treat. They are more than a hacker collective—they’re best friends. Players will witness them laugh, cry, and fan-out together, which is an experience games rarely provide to me. The narrative is also aware of current events. For example, one mission has Marcus infiltrating a religious organziation that closely resembles Scientology, a controversial, modern-day religion. Another mission has you breaking into the office of a major tech company’s CEO to find evidence of collusion with Blume. The game even has its own equivalents for Facebook (!nvite) and Google (Nudle). WATCH_DOGS 2’s overall theme forces players to question what can potentially happen when their personal information is put in the hands of companies, social networks, and alike potential hackers.
Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the servers were still down due to launch issues, so I did not get a chance to try the multiplayer. While there are some modes that have PVP as the focus, it’s very different than most shooters, working basically the same way as the first WATCH_DOGS. Players can invade your game at any time (a mode which you can turn off) which prevents you from pursuing any missions or side objectives until you stop the invading player. There are also online co-op missions that feature both combat and hacking options for players to experiment with.
Graphically, WATCH_DOGS 2 is on par with most modern games. There are a few instances where Ubisoft’s current engine begins to show its age with pop-in and other graphical glitches showing up. At times, character models appear in full detail during gameplay, but look somewhat washed out and less detailed during cutscenes. WATCH_DOGS 2 isn’t ugly by any means, but these few issues sour an otherwise beautiful game.
Overall, WATCH_DOGS 2 is the most fun I have had with an open-world game this year. From a cast of characters almost anyone can empathize with, to a fun, diverse array of missions and side quests, there’s so much to love. Ubisoft has essentially done the exact same thing they did with Assassin’s Creed—taking an innovative, yet flawed, new IP and improving nearly every aspect of it with player feedback. Fans of the original should definitely pick it up, and series newcomers will find a lot to love.
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The Bottom Line
WATCH_DOGS 2 is better than the first WATCH_DOGS in nearly every way. From improved hacking mechanics, to better vehicle handling, to more relatable protagonists, Ubisoft has taken fan feedback into consideration and crafted another fine franchise out of the new, innovative ideas that were introduced in the first game.