From when the very first reviews broke of Watch_Dogs to when the mass public got their hands on the highly anticipated title, pretty much everyone quickly came to the same conclusion: “the second one will be better”. After playing it, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re probably right.
It’s the Assassin’s Creed 2 effect, when the solemn Altair was swapped for the captivating Ezio Auditore, when the dusty Middle East was swapped for the fabulous Renaissance Italy, when the poor mechanics were improved and the potential was finally met. Watch_Dogs 2 swaps the rainy Chicago for the vibrant San Francisco, swaps the miserable Aiden Pearce for a cheery Marcus Holloway – and it already looks like a better game. With refinements and fresh new ideas, Watch_Dogs 2 could be the flicker that sets the series on fire.
I played over two hours of Watch_Dogs 2 and was free to explore San Francisco and all it had to offer at my own pace. From dancing to an accordion, to eliminating gang hideouts, from crashing motor bikes at high speed to pulling off daring hacking heights, dressing in dapper clothes, forging evidence so innocent bystander will get arrested and everything in between. Here are ten things we know.
1. Marcus is ace
One of the biggest complaints about Watch_Dogs is that it’s main protagonist, Aiden Pierce, was so unlikeable. A miserable, life weary, Batman-voice merchant, he was difficult for anyone to become attached to. Now, despite sharing a surname with an insipid little shit of a football manager, Marcus Holloway is instantly more likeable. He’s young, energetic, he’s still got grand ideas of life and even bigger ideas of freedom, but with his inexperience comes a sense of naivety. He’s immediately more relatable because we’ve all held, or still hold, those views of what life can be. While Marcus is a sound lad, his mates on the other hand have great potential to be grating dickheads. Wrench, who wears an LED encrusted helmet is, ironically, a helmet. And yet, Marcus’ mates continue to make him likeable, as he stands out as being even more normal a the hurricane of batshit madness.
2. They’ve nailed San Fransisco
I’ve never been to San Francisco, so I may be completely wrong, but Ubisoft has nailed the city. It feels and looks exactly like I think it does and my brain likes it when its expectations are met. The hills, those particular San Fran style houses on the hills, the bright trams, the high density of hipsters and their coffee shops, the wide cultural variation of people and architecture, the towering skyscrapers. It’s very reminiscent of GTA V’s Los Santos in how it takes the dream version of the city rather than the actual replica. Not to mention the city looks so pretty as Cherry Blossoms dance with grace in the golden hour twilight.
3. It’s a well realised open world
As well as being a gorgeous recreation of the city, Watch_Dogs 2’s San Franciso feels so alive, and could well be one of the most well realised worlds I’ve ever played in. Just as in the original, you can hack any random citizen you see in the world and will be given some tidbits of information on them, it’s not a lot but it really helps make those who populate the world feel like actually people rather than NPCS, as if they’re living their own life regardless of what you do. This is even more true than words on the screen, as you can see the population actually doing stuff rather than meandering about. Within thirty seconds of beginning my playthrough I saw a policeman chase a man on foot after presumably committing a crime of some sort, then I explored the park I spawned in as people walked their dogs, couples had a picnic, someone was reading, another was playing the guitar. Just normal people living their lives.
People all over the city are always having interesting conversations to listen in on too, from one bearded business man complaining about Early Access games to a woman talking on the phone complaining about her husband. My favourite thing that I found on my travels was an Italian restaurant. I walked inside and was immediately engulfed by the wonderful tones of an accordion, I walked past the red and white cloth draped tables to the back of the restaurant and found a man with a bushy mustache playing said accordion. Thanks to the new emote system I was then able to dance away to the tune and as I did the people eating spaghetti than started cheering. It was lovely and makes the world not only nice to be in, but interactive at a level more than just shooting holes in it.
4. The possibilities for mischief are endless, and hacking is deeper
This might come as bad news to some people, but the in-game hacking in Watch_Dogs 2 does largely remain the click-square-to-make-things-happen scenario, but I don’t really see how they could make it fun in any other way. I feel hacking was depicted fairly realistically in cutscenes, while it does remain fairly easy to do, there are now a lot more options as to what you do with the power of your phone. There are four options for a lot of the hacks now, when there used to only be one. For instance, if you hack a car you can make it go forwards, backwards, or swerve in either direction. My favourite is what you can do to people on the street, you can again nick all their money, but now you can either send forged evidence on them to the police and get them arrested, or snitch on them to the local cartel and get them hit. I do have issues with these narrative-wise, but one can’t deny that they are really fun to see play out and can lead to a lot of mischief and carnage that you’ve created all on your own.
5. Drones are cool
Perhaps the biggest new addition is that of the drones, of which Marcus has two at his disposal. The typical flying drone and a more robust one that operates on the ground, known as the “jumper”. These two pieces of technology both reflect the technological advances the world has gone through and, crucially, give a whole new dimension to combat. The flying drone can hover high above any hideout or compound you need to infiltrate and scout out enemies and activate hack traps to incapacitate them. The Jumper is a cute little thing that can jump really high and can get into places that Marcus cannot – it can go through air vents and holes, hack terminals, and can also hurl abusive insults at enemies to distract them. The use of drones make the player a lot more capable as they can be more aware of what they’re getting into before they do it just adds another nice level to the whole “hacktivist” thing. Interestingly, it appeared to me that I could complete every story mission I played with using just the drones, which certainly gives a lot of options for how you want to take on a mission.
6. Emphasis on stealth
It seemed to me that there has been a far greater emphasis placed on stealth combat in Watch_Dogs 2, even more so than the original. Marcus is equipped with a silent stun gun and a weird pool ball on a string, and both are effective weapons in taking down enemies both silently and non-lethally. In fact, I think you can actually complete the game without killing anyone at all. You certainly can still charge in and shoot everybody up, and I did manage to do so on one occasions, but if you get surrounded by armed enemies you won’t last long at all and will quickly be gunned down.
7. Someone likes Mr. Robot and Kanye
Aside from San Francisco itself, my favourite aspect of Watch_Dogs 2 was how much its drawn on from modern day popular culture and the parallels its taken from today’s society. Mr. Robot, if you’re somehow unaware, is a great show about hacking, privacy, and covers many of the same themes as Watch_Dogs. In fact, the narrative threads both closely mirror each other. Without delving too much into spoiler territory, in season one of Mr. Robot a hacktavist group pull off a massive hack that they think will change the world, but in season two they learn that it hasn’t had the desired effect, in fact it’s probably helped the all evil corporation that runs the world. In Watch_Dogs Chicago was the first Smart City, Aiden and his motley crew worked to hack it and bring the project tumbling down. Now, three years later, every major city in America is a smart city and now no one has a secret. The similarities between Watch_Dogs and Mr. Robot are obvious, even so that I had to check IMDB to make sure actors from the show weren’t actually playing characters in the game, as they sounded so alike.
There are some really interesting sci-fi, almost Orwellian ideas in Watch_Dogs 2, and they draw a lot of real life references too, especially with stuff like Donald Trump and Edward Snowden. My favourite of these, and perhaps the most frightening, is the idea that the evil corporation in the game will tell life insurance companies every time a person orders a pizza, and then those life insurance companies bump up the premium.
Aside from the science-fiction aspect, I really like how contemporary culture bleeds into the world. Marcus is a black character and I think (speaking as a white person) Ubi have done well to try and make him not only look like a black person for the social-points, but to really make him feel like it too. The music, clothing (very Kanye), the way Marcus speaks, it all feels very genuine and it made Marcus feel like a distinct character with a culture.
8. Some refinement still needed
Not everything is perfect in Watch_Dogs 2 just yet, but with two months or so before release there’s still plenty of time for that. I felt the shooting, while having plenty of impact thanks to the loud sound effects and kick back, could still feel a little smoother, but perhaps that was just because I was using an early weapon. However, I didn’t really like the parkour in the game at all. By holding R2 as you approach a climbable or jumpable object Marcus will do just that. In the trailers that were released it looked so smooth, but in reality it felt quite slow and clunky. I really do hope that aspect of the game improves for release.
9. Mechanics contradict narrative
My personal biggest problem with Watch_Dogs, and now Watch_Dogs 2, is that the mechanics of the game so heavily contradict the politics and message that the game is trying to preach. Marcus and his pals are all hackers who want to bring down the evil corporations and win back privacy, but then his easiest source of income is just to steal it from random people on the street. He has the power at his fingertips to make anyone he wishes get arrested by the police or killed by a gang, and that just feels so weird – that his only use of power is to do bad things to innocent people. There is an argument to be made that it is player-choice if they want to do those bad things to unassuming NPCs, but the issue is is that there’s no choice to do good acts. I would love it if I was able to see that someone was broke and just immediately be able to wire them $10k. I’d love it if it was only actual criminals I could hand over to the police. Yes, that may limit the choice for the player a bit, but I do think it would help make the game feel more cohesive and reduce that ludo-narrative dissonance.
10. Driving has been improved
I guess I’ll end on another improvement that I feel Watch_Dogs 2 has made from its predecessor, and that’s the driving. I felt the original’s driving was very slow and cumbersome as it strives for realism, despite the fact you were making cars crash at will around you. Now, no matter which vehicle you may be in, you can use a boost that will make cars go incredibly fast. You can feel the pace as the palm trees and buildings fly by. As someone who’s never been a good driver in any game, I was able to drift around corners really easily and it was fun to do. Obviously bad cars and vans still feel rubbish to drive, but when you get on a motor bike or in a sports car and proper give it some welly it feels great. Even if lamp posts you crash into all still collapse into five pieces again. Can’t have it all, eh?