Ubisoft’s second attempt at an open world hack-em-up gets so much right, making us completely forget about the first game, and breathing new life into the genre.
Moving to San Francisco and starting afresh is the smartest thing Watch Dogs 2 could have done. Unlike dreary Chicago and bland antagonist Aiden Pearce, Marcus Holloway’s San Francisco feels vibrant and alive: this is a city full of life that reacts to you as you play.
Take the emote system, for example. After around fifteen hours or so it occurred to me that I hadn’t even tried it out. So I walked into a cafe and observed the citizens for a bit, before randomly flipping off an innocent woman having her Caramel Latte.
Instantly, she stood up and started angrily gesticulating, which only made me do it again. She started swearing at me, and physically pushed me out of the shop.
A CITY ALIVE WITH REAL PEOPLE
These incidental moments may not make the city feel quite as teeming with life as GTA V, but they make Mafia 3 look like a still image.
I drove to a park and tried it again. This time a random jogger was the recipient of my abuse. Instantly he squared up to me, wanting to fight. A passer by saw me abusing him and started pushing me.
I pulled a gun on them (a stun gun; I’m not a monster) and they backed off, and ran away, ringing the police as they went. A quick hack later and their phones weren’t working, and I’d gotten away with it.
It felt alien to me to be so nasty: DEDSEC might be a group of hackers, but the gang itself is made up of likeable, almost real people.
Marcus is a geek who knows how to hack, how to fight, and how to drink. The geek cliche is shed early on as he meets up with his newfound group on the beach, drinking. He awakes in his pants with a random lady. Geeks don’t meet girls, right? Marcus is a real person, and so are his pals.
MR ROBOT, BUT WITH A SMILE
Much of the plot feels like a knowing nod and a wink to real world events of the past few years, as well as must-watch Amazon hacker drama Mr Robot.
An early mission sees you hack into a pharmaceutical giant’s home, because he’s trying to pay a beloved artist to sell him his new album exclusively. It’s a direct reference to what happened between Martin Shkreli and the Wu-Tang Clan, and it’s not the only real world reference.
A politician trying to get elected with billboards that directly resemble those of the “Make America Great Again” Trump ones? Check. Incidental dialogue as you drive about who would win between Alien and Predator? Yep. Friendly ribbing between gang members? Sure.
It all adds up to make a plot and world that feels human, and although there are a few dark moments, the overall tone is light and cheery.
HACTIVISTS AND POLITICS, OH MY!
The plot revolves around evil corporations - Google has become Nudle, and your in-game smartphone even uses Nudle Maps. Politicians are using our data to lie to us, and to sell us to other companies.
There’s a heavy amount of social commentary at times, but it feels odd that it’s within such an expensive game made by… well, a huge corporation.
Some of it feels directly aimed at gamers and critics, with snarky comments about reviewers, and Marcus himself mentioning how it’s nice to meet a fellow hacker who’s black. This is a remarkably inclusive game, and while it’s a shame that in this day and age it even needs mentioning, it’s nice to say “well done” to Ubisoft on this one.
Hacking everything is the name of the game, of course, and it’s terrific fun. An instant tap of L1 (on PS4) will automatically activate the most commonly used hack on whatever you are targeting, while a long press will let you pick from four hacking options.
Driving along and hitting L1 to make a car screech out of the way and careen into a wall never gets old, nor does it stop making you chuckle each time. It shouldn’t work, but being able to actually move traffic in an open world game is just ridiculously good.
FOLLOWERS AND SKILL TREES
A lot of the abilities are unlocked through a skill tree, which lets you spec your character out and play the way you want.
It was around ten hours before I even touched the marksmanship skill tree, relying almost solely on gadgets, hacking, stealth, and upgrading my botnet hacking capacity so I could hack more without needing to grab a recharge from passers-by.
The toys are so much fun, too.
Flying around in your drone, using the “hacknet” (basically detective vision from the Batman: Arkham series) to tag every enemy, stealing their passwords to allow entry to buildings, it’s so rewarding.
It’s also terrific to switch to your RC-car, the “jumper”, which can sneak through vents and hack panels which unlock doors.
All of this, combined with the ability to hack everything, means the levels themselves are reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, in that they feel dynamic. Meticulous planning from the outset can make a mission go smoothly, but should it all go wrong, your skills mean you have the tools to react to any outcome.
But it wouldn’t work if the levels and missions were boring, and thankfully Watch Dogs 2 has a decent amount of variety, with some areas which surprise in their depth.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but I lost track of the amount of times I started a mission in a building and it went places I didn’t expect. The deeper you burrow into these secure locations, the harder it is to get back out - especially if you are playing in a non lethal way.
Of course, you can go in guns blazing too, and there’s no penalty for doing so.
Shooting up Nudle Maps (which, yes, is full of primary colours as you’d expect from a Google Maps parody) and seeing the hipsters going crazy is ridiculous in itself, but it’s a valid way to play and there are weapons that suit it.
As you’d expect from an open world game, there are some driving missions, and it’s only these that I found a little overly familiar.
They’re mostly standard fare, with police chases and escapes cropping up about three times - and it’s as irritating here as it is everywhere else. Thankfully you can gain a hack which turns helicopters away, which is at least something.
Elsewhere, some of the checkpointing is a little harsh. The mission areas aren’t enormous, it’s more the population of guards and locked access which makes it take time.
Painstakingly scouting an area with all your tools and then being caught near the objective is bad enough, but when you realise the checkpoint wasn’t the first objective of two, but outside the building at the start, well, that’s tough. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a little frustrating.
OPEN WORLD PLAYGROUND
This is a world full of side-quests that are addictive and distracting. Hidden research points which require Assassin’s Creed style hacking glyph puzzle games on the side of the buildings to unlock access range from easy to fiendishly difficult.
Using an enormous crane to pick Marcus up from the street and scale the tallest buildings all for a paint job pickup for your weapons is great fun. Hell, you can even hack forklift trucks and picking up cars so you can climb to out of reach spots, take selfies at landmarks, or just ferry random people around as if you’re an Uber driver.
It genuinely feels amazing to just walk around with the power in Marcus’ pocket.
You can identify people and what they’re about, and if they are criminals, you can just wire their money to your account. You can unlock skills which allow you to place a fake warrant on someone, or even just make them out to be a gang traitor, and watch as the police or gangs do your work for them.
Calling the police on someone has consequences, though, and I watched in horror as a man I’d framed was gunned down for resisting arrest.
Somehow, over the 20 or so hours the story takes to finish, it never gets old. The hacking keeps the world and missions feeling fresh, and I even went right back after finishing it for more.
MULTIPLAYER HACKING RETURNS
The co-op is where Watch Dogs 2 really shines.
The whole of San Francisco is a seamless multiplayer world. Random hacking events with competitors can take place at any given moment, creating fun distractions that require you to either sneakily hack an opponent, or find the person hacking you.
As in the single player portions, every mission completed gives you followers, and these have milestones which grant you research points that, in turn, unlock parts of the skill tree.
I can’t recall a single moment in gaming that has made me feel as elated as when a fellow critic and I took on a heist style mission, stealing some VR gear from a rival gang. After all, DEDSEC are gamers.
He identified the truck with the hardware in, while I snuck round the back of the compound. I hacked the gates open and remote controlled the truck right out of the back door, before closing the gates and remote controlling a cherry picker truck to block them.
They didn’t even know we were there.
VISUALS, BUGS, AND FRAME RATE
Or at least that’s how it should have gone. Sadly, the co-op mode currently seems very buggy.
We attempted for two hours to complete multiple missions, but every single time the final part of the objective was bugged, and we couldn’t complete them. We played some over and over, hoping it would stop doing this, to no avail. I had this happen with random people I teamed up with, too.
Worse yet, there appears to currently be a huge problem with the frame rate. Ubisoft has now turned off the seamless multiplayer (at time of writing), because with it on, after an hour or so of play, the game would gradually break.
Initially screen tearing would occur, but then, the frame rate would slowly start to break down, to the point the game was running at a frame rate lower than I’ve seen anywhere this generation.
The only way to fix the issue was to quit the game and load back in. It’s a terrible shame because there’s so much good about the multiplayer, that it being affected this way is devastating.
It’s a lovely looking game, as well, mostly thanks to the location, but walking around in the early evening as rain comes it looks beautiful, as do the vibrant beaches and clean and shiny official buildings you get to explore.
WATCH DOGS 2 VERDICT
Watch Dogs 2 completely washes away the bad taste of the first game. The characters are likeable and fun, and it’s a world full of brilliant distractions that you can’t stop yourself from taking part in.
Although the plot does wrap up a little quickly towards the end, and the main villain flatters to deceive a little too much, the hacking makes you feel like a complete badass, and the only negatives are minor.
Fingers crossed Ubisoft can get a patch out ASAP and sort out the performance issues - you can work around them right now, but it would be better if they were resolved with an update.
Regardless, this is a superb open world game that, thanks to the hacking, breathes new life into a genre that was desperately in need of it.