Let’s get this out of the way right now: to lump Watch Dogs 2 in with its 2014 predecessor would be to do it a real disservice.
Where Ubisoft’s original hack-focused adventure was a dreary, broken, and relatively empty affair, the sequel goes bigger and better in every respect.
Watch Dogs 2 is colourful, inventive, surprising, fun, (and perhaps most importantly) feels alive. While the story may stumble occasionally, and the overall package often feels like the same old Ubisoft Open World Game we’ve all seen before, there really is a lot to love.
The premise of the game is relatively simple, and also makes sense taking the context of your actions within the game into account. You play as Marcus Holloway, a young African-American born and raised in Oakland, just across the bay from the city of San Francisco.
Watch Dogs 2 is set in a world where (much like in real life) ‘big data’ has a troubling amount of info on everyone.
After this data is compiled in such a way that Marcus is profiled and deemed a criminal risk, he decides to join up with the hacker group known as DedSec and put an end to corporate corruption, and the misuse of such data.
Of course, being such a small crew, there’s a limit to what DedSec can do right away. To that end, Marcus needs to complete ‘Operations’ (missions, basically) that range from big story-driven set pieces to smaller side quests.
Completing Operations gains you more followers, which grants you more processing power, which allows you access to bigger Operations, and a wealth of fantastic upgrades and new toys to play with.
Frankly, I found the story to be a bit ‘meh’. Teeth grindingly cheesy ‘hacker’ dialogue, coupled with a cast of characters who look like they were pulled from an early 00’s film about hacking did nothing to help along the relatively predictable story. Maybe I just find it a little hard to stomach whenever a big business such as Ubisoft tries to tell a story about anarchy – it just doesn’t feel authentic.
With that said, there are some decent character moments, and Marcus at least is a strong protagonist – I just wish there was a little more depth to it, as it really just feels like a bad cover version of Mr Robot more than anything else.
There’s a steady sense of progression to Watch Dogs 2 that I found nicely complement the gentle slope in difficulty. While you’ll initially be sneaking around and causing minor mischief to get by, the game will eventually ramp up the challenge to demand full use of all your skills and considerable arsenal of weapons and toys.
Naturally, there’s still plenty of freedom to approach situations in certain ways – for the most part. My one major complaint here is that – at least in the beginning – it’s all too easy to shoot your way out of pretty much any situation, almost completely negating the need to sneak around enemies and use your skills.
This is a problem, since Watch Dogs 2 is a game that wants you to hack. Still, there are plenty of environmental puzzles that encourage you to do so – whether it’s to help you get around an enemy, or simply reach a cheeky bonus reward, and there are still plenty of incentives to hacking – usually they revolve around fucking with your surroundings or NPCs just to see what happens.
Still, after a certain point what you can do as a hacker really begins to open up – and that’s when Watch Dogs 2 becomes a truly glorious digital playground in which to mess about till your heart’s content.
Levels feel like they’ve had more way more thought put into them this time around, as they exist as a seamless part of the open-world.
Going from speeding along the Golden Gate Bridge on a motorcycle (driving is so much better this time, by the way) to sneaking through a slice of enemy territory in a matter of minutes is so satisfying, and makes the experience that much more immersive – that loading screens are few and far between only adds to the richness of the world.
Really, ‘open’ and ‘seamless’ are the two key words I found myself coming back to over and over again when playing this game. There’s just so much you can do, and you never really find yourself forced into any of it, which ensures playing rarely feels like a slog.
Of course, the motivation to go ahead and actually progress in-game is there. If you don’t do it for the story itself (which, as I said, is a weak point) you’ll almost certainly do it for the wealth of upgrades on offer – each time you get a new one you’ll want to head straight back out into the world and try it out on some poor unsuspecting schmuck.
The NPC’s all react brilliantly, by the way, and are a massive part of making San Francisco’s gorgeous setting feel even more alive. Everyone will react to your differently, whether you’ve whipped out your phone to take a selfie (another great feature) or if you simply decide to go on a good old-fashioned GTA style killin’ spree.
The latter, I have to say, can feel out of place considering we’re meant to playing as objective ‘good guys’ – but I’ll give it a pass what with it being a videogame that clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The missions themselves offer plenty of variety, whether they be brief side missions that offer up wonderful slices of real world parody (there’s a particularly brilliant one very early on that I won’t spoil), or the tense late game missions that ask you to combine stealth, combat, and hacking ability.
It doesn’t help that there are plenty of distractions from the main story in the first place. In addition to the aforementioned side missions, hidden rewards, and general invitation to waste time fucking around, there’s also the seamless online multiplayer, which creates some truly fantastic moments.
I do need to address the fact that others have apparently been having problems with the seamless online (lag, sporadic crashes and such). Personally – during both my initial hands on and subsequent review time – I’ve had no problems at all with it and found it to be fantastic fun.
Still, I do have to point out that it has been called out as a problem by some, and while Ubisoft did take this feature offline for a good chunk of everyone’s review time, the company seems confident that these issues will be erased by launch – just be aware that your mileage with this feature could vary.
With that out of the way, I have to say that – in my experience with it – Ubisoft really nailed the seamless multiplayer. On several occasions I’d be driving along, only to see the marker on my map that indicated a multiplayer event was nearby – I’d get genuinely excited.
What’s great about this feature is that you honestly never know what you’re gonna get. You could get your ass beaten down by a better player as you try to hunt them down for bounty, you could find yourself attempting to evade a group of fellow gamers in a desperate chase across the city, or you could find a partner in crime to team up on missions with.
Watch Dogs 2 really is rammed with stuff to do. Oakland, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco are all entirely distinct areas that encourage exploration, while the levels themselves offer a great chance for experimentation.
I wasted hours screwing around with NPCs, or else chasing other players across the map, and I’ll likely hand over even more time to earning enough points to grab all the upgrades and really let loose on the world.
Watch Dogs 2 is not Watch Dogs. This is a point that I simply cannot stress to you enough. If you were put off by the original game, then please, please, don’t let that stop you trying this one.
However, if you were put off by the mere concept of the first game, then I can’t imagine this will do much more for you. The story is also a pretty weak affair by the standard of other modern AAA games, and there is the occasional naff moment sprinkled in the many, many hours of gameplay.
For the most part, though, this feels like an old-school PS2 GTA style experience in the best possible sense. It’s a massive virtual playground with tons to do.
With that said, you should be aware going in that while it’s an open world game with some cool new gameplay concepts, it can still feel very much like the same old open world games you’ve played before – your mileage with Watch Dogs 2 will vary depending on how many Ubisoft open worlds you’ve played before, but everyone should get at least a few weekends of fun.
It might not set the videogame industry on fire, and derives most of its gameplay from almost exactly the same formula Ubisoft uses for every other open world game – but Watch Dogs 2 is a solid effort that deserves a look if you were intrigued by its predecessor.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.