What do you know? You can teach a dog new tricks! Or at the very least, you can stop it from doing all the bad tricks it did before. Watch_Dogs 2 improves in almost every way over its predecessor. Yes, even on that godawful driving.
The very first thing you’ll notice (and really, the thing that will stick with you the most throughout your playthrough) is that this game is fun. And I don’t mean to imply that the first Watch_Dogs wasn’t fun, but I also don’t mean to imply that it wasn’t not fun. Aiden Pearce made for a damn dour protagonist who had an origin story worthy of the Bat-family: his niece took a bullet meant for him after a botched robbery; this meant he delivered every line with more gravel than Russia’s roads (400,000 km worth of it; look it up). Marcus “Retr0” Holloway, on the other hand, is a kid having all kinds of fun sticking it to the man. He’s a gray hat hacker looking to expose tech companies’ biggest secrets, which are usually that they’ve been collecting all our secrets and selling them to the highest bidders.
Marcus’s DedSec teammates are also way more fun to interact with than Aiden’s: Horatio, the group’s sort-of leader with a boring dayjob at one of the tech firms they’re looking to take down; Sitara, the group’s graphic designer and brand ambassador; Josh, the best coder in the group with high-functioning autism; and Wrench, the masked punk who wants to smash everything with a sledgehammer and gets all the best lines.
The location change is also very welcome. The gray skies and streets of Chicago are traded for the vastly brighter and more colourful skies and streets of San Francisco and the Bay Area, including Oakland, Marin County, and Silicon Valley. Besides the obvious upgrade in palette, I personally enjoyed hacking my way through the Bay Area over the Windy City as I’ve been to SF, and I love visiting the digital versions of places I’ve been to IRL (which is part of the reason why GTA IV and GTA V were so fun for me; I’ve spent substantial time in both New York and Los Angeles, and I loved matching the real-world locations to the gonzo GTA versions). Plus, the denizens of SF have the most hilarious conversations.
Speaking of GTA, Watch_Dogs 2 tries to be a lot more like Rockstar’s flagship franchise than its predecessor (which tried to be more like a bland Jason Statham movie). Its missions are fun and light in ways that the first game never achieved, and, thanks to Sitara, experience is measured by how many followers DedSec has on various social media platforms. You get more followers after every successful mission as details are posted on online. Missions include things like stealing a movie studio’s KITT-like car to create a new trailer for a terrible movie, exposing a thinly-veiled Scientology stand-in religion for the fraud it is, and tricking AIDS-medication price-gouging asshole Martin Shkreli into donating a huge chunk of cash for AIDS research by making him think he was buying a Wu-Tang Clan album no one else would ever hear. Wait, I meant tricking leukaemia-medication price-gouging asshole Gene Carcani into donating a huge chunk of cash for leukaemia research by making him think he was buying a Bobo Dakes album no one else would ever hear.
That spoofing of real-world personalities and companies is prevalent throughout the game, just like in GTA, including most of the major Silicon Valley tech companies you can think of: !Nvite (Facebook), Scout (Instagram), Galilei (SpaceX), and DriverSF (Uber). There’s even a huge Google parody called Nudle, complete with expansive campus, a maps app, and self-driving cars.
While later missions can get a bit heavier (I mean, as heavy as it can get while still giving you a nemesis who’s Steve Jobs and Steven Seagal’s love child), it is clear that Ubisoft learned from its first outing. The story is kept mostly light and fun, with hilarious banter between your teammates throughout the various missions. And hey, we get to go to Burning Man! Ubi jettisoned all the grim and gritty nonsense that heavily bogged the first game down. And nowhere is this more evident than in the changes to gameplay.
Zero Day Exploit
Because letting a gravelly-voiced anti-hero do nothing but hack would run counter to accepted sci-fi action video game conventions, Aiden Pearce shot the hell out of everybody, and you had no real choice in the matter as it was often the only way to beat a mission (this is a problem Deus Ex: Human Revolution had too). This is not the case for Marcus Holloway. Besides giving Marcus more non-lethal combat options (like his billiard-ball-on-a-lanyard melee weapon and his stun gun), Marcus can avoid combat altogether in almost every single mission.
With plenty of hacking options, Marcus often doesn’t even have to set foot in the locations teeming with antagonists. He’s also given some great toys in the quadcopter and RC jumper. The quadcopter flies high in the sky and can give you a lay of the land so you can better plan your routes and exits, as well as mark all the baddies in the area (who will almost always shoot you on sight). The RC jumper doesn’t fly, but it can jump, and more importantly, it can pick up physical items and hack terminals that require physical connections, neither of which can be done by the quadcopter. Also, Marcus gets a pretty neat “NetHack” vision, similar to Batman’s “Detective Vision” in the Arkham games, allowing him to see hackable items through walls, including cameras, laptops, etc.
And that “etc.” is pretty all-encompassing. Unlike the first game where only a few things were actually hackable (a sorry state of affairs for a hacking game), Marcus can hack nearly everything that runs on electricity (and almost always wirelessly), including forklifts, cranes, junction boxes, traffic lights, and every single car in the game. Even better, Marcus can hack police and criminal databases to forge evidence and sic the police or a rival criminal faction on any target in the game. This ultimately means Marcus never has to get into a fight if you don’t want him to. Of course, you can also go in guns blazing if that’s your thing, thanks to Wrench’s 3D-printer that can create various lethal weapons, but I have found the puzzle-solving inherent in going the non-combat route to be far more challenging and fun.
Watch_Dogs 2 also features “always online” gameplay, which means that a rival player could invade your game at any time and try to mess with you, or you can start co-op missions with anyone in the world. You can turn this off if you’d rather just play through the story unmolested, but that seems to run counter to the spirit of a hacking game in which various factions are vying to control the flow of private information. Ubisoft’s servers did have some issues with this at launch, however, and they have only recently been fixed with a new patch.
And lest I forget, the driving is much better! Unlike in the first game, where every vehicle, regardless of make and model, drove like a brick with square wheels, the different vehicles in Watch_Dogs 2 actually handle like different vehicles. Larger vehicles, like buses, lorries, and vans, are slow and plodding, but can take a beating. Mid-size sedans handle relatively well, and you can even escape the cops if you know what you’re doing. But sports cars and motorcycles, man those things are a dream. You want to speed away from the cops and turn on a dime? Then these are your vehicles. Is this realistic? Honestly, who cares. The important thing is that driving is much more fun and responsive than it was in the first game.