The first Watch Dogs (written as Watch_Dogs, lets not forget) was a serious take on a modern Big Brother with an equally poe-faced protagonist. Watch Dogs 2 (with or without the underscore) goes the other way and presents a cast of likeable, if rather Hipster-esque, characters who inject far more fun into the series.
Marcus, the new star of Ubisoft’s latest game, is young, eager to fight for freedom and, more importantly, willing to make a joke or two along the way. Early in the game he’s introduced to a bunch of like-minded hackers who go by the name of Dedsec and are keen to take on a global company currently in charge of running CtOS, the operating system running everything in the city.
TV series seem to have had a fixation on Silicon Valley recently and Ubisoft has been busy with the home of shiny CPUs, too, moving the setting of their latest Watch Dogs to San Francisco. It certainly makes sense; huge global companies with the power to inspire millions to own small plastic and metal devices that gradually encroach into the relative privacy of our everyday lives. Likewise Blume, a company with far bigger ambitions than to have a mobile phone in every home, has no qualms about using everyone’s data to its own advantage, even going so far as to profile people to spot crimes before they happen.
Marcus is arrested and charged for a crime he didn’t commit, just because his profile fitted the crime, so begins his quest for payback against the firm that seems to be stretching its influence ever wider. Along the way, the team will come up against, gangs, a radical church and even the FBI, hacking their way out of each situation and gaining followers for their merry band of hackers.
That’s not to say Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t have any dark moments, there are several points where the whole mood changes and the motives of our hacker team are given a twist. It’s a well written and well balanced story that manages to straddle the dangers of messing with large corporations and the lives of a young hacker group who are as keen to make dick jokes as they are to bring down The Man.
Gameplay hints at previous Ubisoft open world games but differs in several important ways. Firstly, there are no towers to capture, a welcome change. Yes, the group have a base, but you’ll only be returning here to further the story and the rest of the time you’re free to roam right across the open map, taking in the whole Bay Area. Secondly, missions give you far more freedom to tackle them however you wish. It’s not quite a Hitman level of freedom but you can choose to go in all guns blazing, sneak in un-noticed or a mix of the two.
The main aim of most missions is to get in to a building, hack the system or steal something, then get out as fast as possible. Some events will trigger alarms, meaning that dispatching guards, gangs or whoever is trying to stop you at the start makes it far easier to escape, others will allow you to come and go without being noticed at all, though it’s never made overly easy to do either of these, there are risks in both methods.
To help you, Marcus has access to a few tools. The hacker system is able to give you a hacker vision that can pinpoint guards, security systems and hacking points that can electrify certain objects, creating a distraction for guards. You also get a gyrocoptor and RC car, both of which can be used to enter buildings unseen and help identify these areas, though only the RC car can hack passkeys and security systems to open doors.
While there is an argument that missions become quite samey after a while, the fact that you get to choose how to best tackle them and a few interesting deviations in the way the buildings and guards are set out do help to keep things feeling fresh. Enemy AI can be quite dumb at times, though, either ignoring you completely or spotting you when you think you’re safe, but they’re no less deadly when you’re flanked by several people with guns. Thankfully, you can either distract them by sending a message to their phones or hack the phone to send an electrical charge right through them, or even just run to a building and hack the door lock for a temporary reprieve.
Because this is an open world Ubisoft game, you won’t be surprised to hear that there are plenty of side missions and easter eggs hidden around. Some open up new hacking powers like being able to put out an APB on an innocent bystander or distracting a whole crowd of people and others improve your gunplay or allow you to hack the traffic lights to create a diversion when fleeing from the police. Others are just there for the hell of it, including a mission to hack Ubisoft themselves.
Watch Dogs 2 manages to re-write Ubisoft’s open world tactics for the better and is great fun to play, especially considering how well San Francisco has been designed, especially on PC where it really shines. It occasionally stumbles in its repetitive missions and AI but always redeems itself in its story, characters and all the other things you can do within its sandbox city.