Watch Dogs 2 – Review
PS4, Xbox One, PC
This is a sequel only in name and mechanics. Gone is the dreary tone of the first game and in its place a bright, vibrant, wise-cracking flash in the pan. Watch Dogs 2 takes the somewhat cringey world of hacking and puts it through the popular culture wringer. You won’t quite laugh out loud at the many references thrown at you, but rarely do the characters feel unwelcome. The confident delivery by the voice actors sucks you into this hacktivist world, even as you question how Wrench can drink beer through his ridiculous mask.
You control Marcus, an enthusiastic new member of DedSec, the hacking collective featured in Watch Dogs. This resourceful group has managed to infiltrate San Francisco, complete with secret lairs and 3D printers able to make drones and weapons, provided you have enough cash to pay for the expensive resin. Weapons are quite expected, but it soon becomes clear that this is a different kind of open world adventure. In fact, most missions can be successfully completed without Marcus setting foot into the mission area. Instead, you’ll be using a mixture of camera-hopping and drone-driving/flying to explore heavily-guarded areas for crucial information, all to further DedSec’s goal of informing the public about corporate wrongdoings. I must say, it’s a pretty cool feeling to finish a mission and zoom back to Marcus, who is calmly closing his laptop and then walk away from the mission area with no one ever knowing it was him/you.
Movement within this open world is not without some issues, however. Marcus is strangely grounded, in that there’s no actual jump ability. Instead, you hold down R2 to parkour over, up and around obstacles in your way. While this works for the most part, allowing you to explore building tops for extra hacking skill points and cash deposits, it often feels needlessly restrictive. Some of my favourite moments in GTA games involve jumping off a building just because I could, usually with a parachute to save me from a nasty death. Usually. Watch Dogs 2’s environmental puzzles are just obscure enough, with no real obvious path available, that you feel quite smart working out ways to get high enough to reach a teasing ladder or rooftop. But once you’ve collected the thing you were after, there’s no easy way to get down except to backtrack, which is often a lengthy procedure. The game sorely needs a ‘parkour down’ mechanic.
While the systems available in Watch Dogs 2 usually play nicely together, you’ll come across moments of frustration such as psychic cops flagging you for no reason – well, other than that the game itself ‘knows’ it was you who called a gang hit on a target. The cops in general are extremely frustrating to avoid, often spawning in your path seconds before you might have escaped them and able to zero in on your hiding location as if by artificial direction. These rare moments don’t ruin the overall cohesion of the world, but they do make it feel far less tested than anything Rockstar might create.
I’ve been trying to work out exactly what it is about Watch Dogs 2 that makes its feel so alive and interesting and I think a large part of it is how the hacking is the core mechanic. L1 becomes your God button, allowing you to play with San Fran’s citizens at will. Steal from them, listen in on conversations, make prank calls, control traffic lights, explode manholes and even directly control vehicles. It all creates a web of influence that connects you to the world. It’s a super power that greatly enhances the feeling of San Francisco as your personal playground. Your sphere of influence extends to the eyes of the security cameras, the ears of all nearby phones and the arms of your capable drones. This sense of playing with a whole city is what makes Watch Dogs 2 exciting to play, even if the actual things that you do aren’t all that different to other stealth/action titles.
You can play Watch Dogs 2 using guns and violence if you like, but it is clearly designed to discourage this approach. There’s no upgradable health or armour, so Marcus only takes a few bullets to kill, and every single enemy is a crack shot. Don’t expect to last very long out in the open. That said, I’ve had to complete more than a few objectives guns blazing due to things degenerating into chaos. If you’re patient enough, secure areas can show their main paths as you peel back layers of security and learn to distract guards rather than incapacitate them (I’ve had knocked-out guards wake up and cause alarm on me a few times). I never tired of this voyeuristic approach to level design.
While not without its problems, Watch Dogs 2 manages to maintain its juggling act of likeable characters, pop culture references, hacker culture and stealth vs action gameplay. Everything is held together by the God button, in L1 we trust, a web that permeates the very fabric of this game’s reality. Whether it’s taking a selfie at Alcatraz, perusing the city’s many clothing outlets or hacking into a religious cult’s sacred church to expose their lies, Watch Dogs 2 offers enough enjoyable pursuits that its incongruities can be forgiven. This is a sequel that is not only better in every way to its predecessor, it overwrites it.