After a game receives as much disapproval as the first Watch_Dogs did, most publishers scrap the idea of expanding the series. But not Ubisoft. Smitten with the idea of an open-world where everything is digitally connected, and eager to showcase the lives of hacktivists whose duty it is to keep the world from falling into the clutches of evil corporations, the idea of Watch_Dogs was conceived. Personally, I enjoyed the first game quite a bit. It told the story of Aiden Peirce, a hacker whose actions caused the death of his niece. He tasked himself with bringing the person who ordered the murder of his niece to justice. The story was very somber and broody, but the hacker backdrop was a very fitting way to tell it. Ultimately, a lot of fans did not like the somber tone or Aiden’s character, and Ubisoft was sent back to the drawing board to try and redeem the fledgling franchise. Four years later, we have the release of Watch Dogs 2. The newest game does fix a lot of issues facing the original, but is it enough?
Lets talk first about my favorite part of Watch Dogs 2: its setting. Ubisoft has always done an incredible job at building cities that have as much personality as the game. Watch Dogs 2′s rendition of San Francisco stands up there with some of my favorite recreated settings. The city is colorful and full of easily recognizable landmarks. There were, and will continue to be, a lot of times where I turned on my console and spent my entire play-session just driving around and exploring the city. I found myself easily sidetracked while going to the next mission and wound up prioritizing exploration over story advancement. One minute you are headed to your next objective, and the next minute you are seeing if your Nudle Car can climb up the top of a cliff to a radio tower (Spoilers: It can!). I have not had this much fun just driving around without a purpose since the hundreds of hours I spent in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas doing the exact same thing.
At, and between, locations are a ton of people. Going into the game, I assumed that there would be a fair amount of people, especially in the bustling locations. I was surprised to see people on hiking trails, mountain tops, secluded beach areas, and other locations where games typically do not populate NPCs. There are a ton of people in Watch Dogs 2! This makes San Francisco, and the surrounding areas, feel like realistic counterparts to the social hubs they are emulating. Your interactions with the populous can be employable as well. Some people are down to take a selfie with you, and others are vocally (and sometimes physically) very opposed to it. I had one notable gentlemen who protested to me taking a picture of him so much that he started swinging his fists at me when I persisted to do so. I am not sure who was most in the wrong in that situation. In terms of hacking the people of San Francisco and Oakland, there is a great variety of things that can be done. Returning from the original Watch Dogs, you can hack into certain citizens phones and steal money right from their bank account or eavesdrop on their phone, text, and e-mail correspondence. You can now also do a number of new things to hack, and generally mess up, their life. My favorite (and most used) new hack is the ability to forge a criminal profile and assign it to some unlucky chump. This prompts the police to quickly come and snatch them up. I used this hack a number of times to remove enemies in restricted locations that I was having a hard time working around. It is not incredibly believable that the police could drive into heavy gang territory and haul off an enemy without anyone firing a single bullet, but it sure is funny to watch.
In terms of the story, Watch Dogs 2 has one really great thing going for it: Marcus. Marcus is the main character in Watch Dogs 2. Where fans complained about how bland past protagonist Aiden Peirce was, Marcus is the polar opposite. He is full of charm and charisma, and his interactions with the other hackers in DeadSec are the highlight of each mission. I particularly loved his relationship with Josh, at times it felt almost like Marcus was Josh’s older brother. There was teasing, but never anything malicious, there was joking, and there was always a genuine sense of caring. Marcus is definitely one of the most well-crafted protagonists that Ubisoft has ever created.
One thing that story has going against it is that its mission structure gets repetitive really quick. Typically it follows this format: Drive to a location, use drone or jumper to find a terminal to hack to gain access to building, sneak around the building or shoot up the place, hack one final thing, and leave the area. While there are enough tools to make this fun for a while, and the addition of the drone and the jumper add to this greatly, it quickly feels like a chore to do. Most of the missions in Watch Dogs 2 feel like errand quests (which I do not care for) and one thing I loved about the original was that is broke this cliche structure that a lot of open-world games have taken to.
Luckily, there is a great amount of gameplay variety in the side missions. When you get bored of the main story mission format, you can jump into a side mission and do something different until you are ready to jump back into the story. To further complement the side missions, I was greatly impressed by the amount of attention that was placed in the delivery of the side missions. Each one starts up in a logical way, either from talking to someone in the city, discovering something in the main missions, or by taking part in an event. When you begin one of the missions, there is a cut scene that is rendered as well as a scene from the main story instead of just some background banter between teammates. You wont have to complete the side missions just because the completionist in you needs to, you will want to complete them because each one adds a new layer to the story of Marcus and DeadSec and their role in the hacker world.
Another issue I ran into a lot was that the checkpoints and auto-save locations were far from evenly spaced. There were many missions where I made decent progress through the level and then was killed part of the way through, forcing me to start back at the very beginning of the mission. During the 16th Street Station Mission, I had completed the objectives inside the building and had long since left. Since I prefer to drive a motorcycle, I jumped on one nearby and drove off. The rest of the mission dialogue progressed normally after that. I was then involved in an automobile accident and died from impact after being ejected from my bike. Irritatingly, and for a reason I cannot fathom, the game restarted me back at the beginning of the 16th Street Mission to repeat the before mentioned objectives. This was the point where I decided I was done playing Watch Dogs 2 for the night. Not because I felt like saving the challenge for later, but because the frustration of starting over at the beginning of the level after essentially beating it was incredibly off-putting. Ubisoft has never seemed to struggle with placing properly spaced checkpoints in the past. While playing the original Watch_Dogs and games in the Assassin’s Creed series I had never encountered this issue. Why Ubisoft decided to do this with Watch Dogs 2, or if it is just a bug that flew under the radar, is beyond me.
Another thing that Ubisoft has fixed in the past but still seems to have issues finding their way back into Watch Dogs 2 is in the detection system. What Ubisoft has done really well with in the past is ironing out the detection system so that it makes sense when enemies are alerted to your presence and location. I think Assassin’s Creed Syndicate does a wonderful job with this. Enemies have to alert their allies around them before they know that there is a problem. If you can eliminate the enemy who has discovered you before they bring attention to you, then you can fluidly move back to your stealthy approach. Even the first Watch_Dogs has this dynamic. Interestingly, Watch_Dogs 2 instead has the tendency to send every enemy in the location after you the second after the enemy who finds you goes into investigation mode. There is no radio call, no shout for help, no alarms being pulled, nothing causing a communication between the original enemy who finds you and the rest of his allies who now know exactly where you are at.
Because these issues that Ubisoft has fixed in the past seem to have made a reappearance in Watch Dogs 2, it feels like Ubisoft has taken a large step backwards in their developmental progress. Watch Dogs 2, for some reason, throws out a lot of progress made with previous titles and reverts back to a lot of irritating gameplay quirks that plagued past Ubisoft games. Ubisoft has made an active effort in the past to fix these problems within their games, and it is surprising to see their return in Ubisoft’s only big release of the holiday season. Without another Assassin’s Creed game to release this year, I would have figured more attention would be paid to fine-tuning these systems, but that must not have been the case.
There are a lot of things I love about Watch Dogs 2, and an lot of things I hate about it. It is unfortunate that my favorite parts of the game revolve around character interactions and not so much gameplay aspects. While I really enjoy this game on the whole, certain unforgivable offenses within the game cause my enthusiasm for the game to taper off quickly. At the same time, irritating parts of the game are aided by charming characters, an incredible setting, and a ton of fully fleshed out things to do. This bazaar balance of allure and nuances will cause me to keep coming back until I’ve completed every part of the game but once I have finished with everything in the game, I, ultimately, will set it down and not revisit it until the possible release of Watch Dogs 3.