When it comes to sequels, at least in videogames, the expectation is that you’ll have heard enough of a response from fans to analyze what worked and what didn’t in a game. The hope is that by the time a development team puts the finishing touches on a sequel, everyone can look back at it fondly because it righted the wrongs of its predecessor. Watch Dogs 2 is a really difficult title to talk about because it works so well in some places, and in others it falls completely flat. Ubisoft definitely listened to the complaints player’s had with the first Watch Dogs, but there’s a difference between eliminating a problem and just reversing it. Unfortunately, Watch Dogs 2 does the latter for better and for worse.
Forget everything you remember form the first game because the connections to it are small at best. Watch Dogs 2 trades the gloomy streets of Chicago and a morally ambiguous vigilante for sunny San Francisco and easygoing Marcus Holloway, a young black man who’s falsely profiled by the ctOS, a highly advanced technological system which powers everything from a city’s power grid to the steam pipes running under the street. Its so advanced that it can actually determine someone’s current mood, income level, and whether or not they’re likely to commit a crime. Marcus takes his revenge by hacking into and taking control of ctOS and and vowing to destroy its creator, the Blume Corporation with his new allies from the notorious hacker group, DedSec. The social commentary isn’t exactly subtle, but its clever enough to poke important questions about data collection, our sense of privacy and just how much of our info is up for grabs by corporations. But this is where the similarities between the first and second Watch Dogs. In response to the criticism that Watch Dogs tried to tell a narrative that was too complicated, the story in Watch Dogs 2 is almost nonexistent, existing only as an excuse to complete more missions. In my opinion, this change isn’t for the better. Marcus is a character who we learn almost nothing about throughout the entire game. As it happens, the rest of his DedSec team have more depth than he does, and unsurprisingly, the story is at its best when it decides to focus on them. The developers have stated that their focus in the story was to show the “family” aspect of hacker groups, and seeing the diverse cast of characters interact and argue with each other was quite enjoyable (There’s one especially entertaining debate between Marcus and fellow hacker Wrench on “Aliens vs. Predators”). But the lack of a cohesive main story means that the narrative is never as strong as it tries to be.
See, the way to progress through the game is by gaining in-game “followers” to download the DedSec app, and give the hacker group enough processing power to shut down the Blume Corporation. Completing missions, taking selfies at important landmarks and participating in races around the city all contribute to the amount of followers Marcus can receive. Once you’ve gained enough followers and completed enough missions, you’re allowed to tackle the game’s finale. The game world is massive, stretching from Marin County to Silicon Valley, which allows for diverse locations and a wide variety of missions to take on. Be prepared to break into and hack everything from “Nudle” (Ubisoft’s replacement for the tech giant Google) to “The Church of the New Dawn” (Scientology anyone?). Despite the fact that each mission follows the same pattern of hack into, steal, repeat, Ubisoft Montreal wisely gives players a handful of different tools to make sure no infiltration feels the same. On one mission, I’d use nothing but a quadcopter to fly around the mission area and take out every hired thug by hacking a car and driving it into a group or by luring a guard to a nearby gas main and watching his body fly far from the explosion.
However in other missions where I wasn’t so careful, I could plant false evidence on an enemy and get hitmen from a nearby gang or police officers to help me take out a particularly powerful enemy. At first, none of this felt as fun as it should’ve been. Since stealth is very challenging in this game (the second an enemy detects you mysteriously every enemy in the area now knows as well), I attempted a more aggressive style, and then felt even more frustrated. The amount of damage you can take is considerably lower, and hacking isn’t effective unless you’re stationary. So what changed? Realizing that the key to success isn’t choosing one playstyle, but all three. After repeatedly failing one particular mission, I managed to record footage of me finally playing the game the way it was meant to be played; and that felt very satisfying:
The most difficult thing about reviewing this game is that its greatest strength ends up being its biggest flaw. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a difference between fixing an issue and simply reversing it. Watch Dogs 2 isn’t nearly as dark as the first one, but it still delivers a story that doesn’t end up being as great as it could be. The characters are much more likable, but they get very little time to develop themselves into actual people rather than just sidekicks. The parkour is really fun when it works, but it rarely works as well as its supposed to. Ironically, despite being the reverse of the original, Watch Dogs 2 still gets the same score because in one way or another, there’s still the same amount of problems that plagued the first game. It still gets a 7.5/10, but its worth holding out for this hacker’s paradise until its at least $30.