Watch Dogs 2 is what the first Watch Dogs should have been, and that’s both a compliment and a putdown. It improves in many ways including a story that’s at least moderately engaging, personable and memorable characters, and a far greater commitment to the hacking crux of the franchise. But it really only gets us to the bar we set back in 2014—okay, a notch or two above it—which can only leave us wondering where we would be if this sequel had a better starting point to work with.
It is, however, still in a relatively good place, though disappointing on an intellectual level. The biggest leap forward is simply the impetus behind it all. You’re now operating as a part of the hacker group DedSec in a sect all the way across the country to San Francisco, a far brighter and livelier place than the droll Chicago of yesteryear. It’s unfortunate then that the Blume Corporation has installed ctOS in the Bay Area.
The narrative itself isn’t all that grand or intimate. In fact, the protagonist Marcus Holloway (Ruffin Prentiss) and his crew pretty much just want to take Blume just because they’re bad, which is perhaps too obvious. They want to use their impressive hacking talents to expose the corruption built into the system. But through that ostensibly blank canvas, the game is given room to breathe and grow in its mechanics and designs.
Most notably is simply the tone of the game, which I wrote about last week. It’s bright and bouncy, as colorful and optimistic as the slightly fictionalized version of San Francisco in the game. No one is especially downtrodden despite the systemic Big Brother around every corner, and everyone has friends. (Aiden was a lonely dude.) They’re still quirky, self-aware, stylish guys like that hot jams and helping people. It’s just, well, nice.
It falls apart slightly through some of the missions. There are odd moments of victim-blaming, arbitrarily taking money from ATM users, and partnering up with murderous hackers. And there are, for some reason, still guns in this thing. It’s an immense amount of narrative dissonance at this point, especially with both DedSec and Marcus identifying as pacifists. It makes it sincerely troubling the game forces a gun into your hands and you have to do the thing this game does the worst.
Gunplay is, at best, serviceable and a tedious obligation at worst. Only once I fully excised the possibility of shooting folk did I fully begin to enjoy the game. It’s just a brute force approach to a game that’s all about subverting the obvious. Frame a guard with forged evidence and get him out of the way or call a cop’s phone to distract him away from a door or any other number of tremendously slick and mischievous things.
All that mischief you can accomplish via ctOS has greatly expanded since the first game, which is a godsend and a necessity. And by relying on that rather than sending in Marcus and his bullet-averse body, many missions turn into strange little hacking/positional puzzles. With an RC car and a quadricopter drone, trying to get secure information from a locked console (or whatever) becomes a thinking problem on how to keep your body safe while you surreptitiously drive SUVs into the bay and drop forklifts and disable cameras with your remote hacking.
While that’s the majority of the situations, there’s a significant amount of missions that fall completely flat on creativity. (Most, in fact, can fall under this category if you hate your life.) One mission, for example, requires you to go around a biker bar and blow up some ATMs. You can try sneaking around either with your body or with your RC car, but the most effective way is to just not give a fuck about getting caught and ram car after car into a bunch of frazzled and alerted bikers.
At the very least, however, it tries to keep you moving from place to place at a fervent pace. It wants to show you the emulated Oakland and San Mateo and all the rest of the Bay Area and show it to you relentlessly, sweeping from landmark to landmark and every unexplored space in between. It takes some pokes and prods along the way with exceptionally superficial and not at all interesting commentary on modern technology and privacy and piracy, but it is at least fun.
And that’s kind of the thesis of Watch Dogs 2. It has its problems and doesn’t grow as much as it could or should have (though at least it eschews the traditional Ubisoft tact of open world map overload), but it has a good time being what it is. You’ll have to forgive some bits and pieces to accept the bigger picture, but it’s worth it if you can.
+ Light and inviting tone and attitude
+ Charismatic set of characters that, by the end, are genuinely integral
+ Puzzle-like mission structure that invite rabid use of hacking skills
– Why are guns still an option?
– Misses the point on some of this social commentary
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Watch Dogs 2
Release: November 15, 2016
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player, multiplayer