Let’s be frank: The original Watch Dogs was a game with a fantastic concept that was ultimately wasted on a weak open world and gameplay that just didn’t really deliver on what we were expecting.
The good news is that right off the bat, I can tell you that at least one of those problems have been wiped away from Watch Dogs 2 – the open world of San Francisco is great fun to explore, and absolutely packed with detail, but what use is that if there’s nothing to do in it?
It’s hard to say for certain based on the three hours I had with the game at a press event in San Francisco, but it does look to me like Watch Dogs 2 is a strong game, with plenty of variety and lots of opportunity for some good old-fashioned GTA-inspired fucking around – player freedom very much seems to be a key factor.
Let’s start at the beginning (a very good place to start). The opening mission does a great job of laying out what Watch Dogs 2 is and what it stands for.
Combat and stealth play a part (because I think that’s the law for every AAA game nowadays), but from the word go, you’re taught that 90 percent of the time, you’ll want to rely on your ability to hack.
Story-wise, I’m not here to ruin anything for you, so I’ll avoid specifics – but after being talked through the basics, you fall in with DedSec, a hacker group that are out to do more than just close down the Battlefield 1 servers for lolz.
After the intro mission (which doesn’t screw around and comes in at a brisk 20 minutes) you’re chucked into the open world. Obviously, the first thing I did was drive to the Golden Gate Bridge and see if I could climb to the top of it (you can, and the view was awesome). Like I said before – the player freedom here compared to the first Watch Dogs is wonderfully refreshing.
While the gorgeous city of San Francisco was begging to be explored right away, it seemed to me that with a very limited inventory and empty skill-tree at the start of the game, it was clearly in my best interests to actually crack on with the story and earn some upgrades.
It’s at this point that the ‘point’ of Watch Dogs 2 is made clear – you complete missions (or ‘operations’) to earn followers, and eventually gain enough processing power to take on more ambitious missions – as hacktivists, DedSec are all about using their skills for good. They’re a likeable bunch – if a touch cringe-worthy at times.
As with any open world game, there are main missions that progress you through the meat of the game, and side missions that flesh out the world around you.
Honestly, I didn’t really get too far into what the main missions had to offer, because I was so distracted by everything you could do on the side. Bonus missions saw me do everything from steal a Knight Rider inspired talking car so I could take it on a joy ride, to using my hacking skills to fuck with a particularly nasty reclusive billionaire.
While I was always using a combo of stealth and hacking, and (for me as a last resort) getting into actual fights on missions, there was always enough variety to keep what I was doing interesting, and a generous reward systems and robust skill tree meant that it was never long before I had a new toy or ability to play with.
My personal favourite upgrade by far, was one that allowed me to hack into any car and make it reverse, swerve violently to the side, or suddenly accelerate. I soon realised I’d spent about twenty minutes stood on a roof causing a massive pileup of traffic, with the crowd below utterly confused as to what was going on.
This tool was also super useful in evading police chases on missions, but that sweet sense of player freedom (I know, that again) meant that testing out my new gear on an unsuspecting public was positively encouraged.
I also quickly fell in love with a tool that allowed me to hack into anybody’s phone and flag them as a massive threat, summoning a large police force to deal with them. Again, this probably would have been useful for missions, but I spent most of my time watching gleefully on as random folk on the street were wrestled to the ground by the long arm of the law.
The way the NPC’s react absolutely make this game, by the way. You can tell a ton of work has gone into making each individual feel as distinct as possible, from hacking their phone to seeing a short bio – like ‘has a lot of cats’ or ‘into cosplay’ – to the way they respond to you on the street.
For example, I tried taking a selfie (another great feature) with some folk downtown, who proceeded to curse at me and tell me to back off. Fair enough. I tried the same thing a little later on, and this new group were more than happy to pose with me.
Again, this isn’t a massive thing that can make or break the game, but it’s another indication that Watch Dogs 2 is a game made up of lots of player-made moments.
Nowhere is player-made fun made more evident than in the seamless online multiplayer which, I am happy to say, really does work like a charm. More than a few times I was tempted off course by a bounty hunt or some other PvP event, and every time I was alerted to one, I felt genuinely excited to get there and play – that’s the mark of a damn good feature in my book.
Of course, 90 percent of the time these encounters ended in my death, but that made them no less enjoyable – and you’re still rewarded just for trying, which is awesome.
The seamless online is absolutely one of the most important aspects of Watch Dogs 2, and perhaps its biggest selling point. When I spoke with the game’s senior producer Dominic Guay after the hands-on, it was clear that’s the aspect the team are most excited about.
I’m still today easily surprised and excited when I have seamless encounters with other players… Because we try real hard to code AI that act like real people, but nothing is gonna beat a real person. Sometimes you’re just exploring, you hear a noise, you head over and discover it’s another player doing something in the city. That kind of emergence created by another player is already fun, without even doing a mission. Honestly, we feel like there’s so much more to do in that space, so it’s exciting for us creatively.
But while the innovation of seamless online and the keen sense of player freedom were the biggest impressions I got while playing Watch Dogs 2, I can’t say that it was all sunshine and flowers in my hair.
I did run into a couple of bugs during my three hours – nothing game breaking, but there was one moment where I became stuck on the spot for about five minutes before I could move anywhere, and I noticed one pretty nasty effect at times, where cars would simply fade out of view if they were far away enough.
I’m not a monster though, and I can understand that it’s a massive open world game – shit like that is simply bound to happen, and as long as it doesn’t seriously impede the experience, then we should all get along just fine.
What it really comes down to at the end of the day is this: After three hours with Watch Dogs 2 I was impressed. I love the open world, I love that I rarely did the same thing twice, and I love any game that gives me free license to fuck around till my heart’s content.
Honestly, ever since I stopped playing, I can’t really stop thinking about how I want to jump back in and carry on exploring San Francisco, collecting upgrades, and seeing everything Watch Dogs 2 has to offer. I don’t think it’ll disappoint.
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.