Ubisoft has an interesting reputation when it comes to new IPs. They tend to release a AAA title that gets a lot of hype, and often times, the game doesn’t live up to the hype. Despite not meeting the expectations of tons of fans, the potential for these titles is unmistakable. Assassin’s Creed is a good example, though more recently, Ubisoft Montreal’s Watch Dogs was a heavily hyped title for this generation of games. While most couldn’t deny how cool the concept was, the execution left a lot to be desired. Aiden Pearce was a dull protagonist, the game lacked variety, and the story took itself too seriously for its own good. Ubisoft Montreal has taken this feedback to heart, taking their series about hackers to the Bay Area of California. Their result was Watch Dogs 2, and it’s one hell of an improvement.
Starting with the premise, Watch Dogs 2 tells the story of a gifted hacker named Marcus Holloway, aka Retr0, as he joins the hacker group known as DedSec. DedSec’s main objective is to take down Blume, a corporation that supplies all the latest and greatest technology for consumers in the world of Watch Dogs. To do this, DedSec uses their powerful resources to uncover corruption, scandals, and the true intentions of the various organizations in the city. Trying to spread their message, each new mission they tackle gains them more followers, and the more followers they have, the easier it becomes to expose Blume for what it really is.
Marcus acts as a much more relatable protagonist than Aiden, giving off a friendly personality, a great sense of humor, and even representing nerd culture. While it can feel out of place that Marcus can even commit some of the acts in the game, mainly murder, he still makes for an enjoyable protagonist for the entire ride. Even though the character is set, the player still has a bit of freedom of how they can make Marcus their own by choosing the styles he wears throughout the city. Unlike Aiden, Marcus’ attire is completely customizable with hundreds if not thousands of clothing combinations. New sets unlock over the course of the game, giving players a chance to make Marcus how they want.
Ruffin Prentiss gives an excellent performance for Marcus, providing the extra depth to the character when it matters most. The banter he shares with some of his teammates tend to make some of the best moments in the game too. It’s especially the moments with Wrench, the lovable comic relief character with a mask that emotes based on how he feels. The two share a great buddy dynamic that makes Wrench feel just like a best friend in real life. There is a great Alien vs. Predator conversation between the two that shows just how close this world resembles our own, among plenty of other great pop culture references that makes one wonder how they were even able to make it in the game.
Watch Dogs 2 makes a great use of its new setting, another big improvement over the first game. While the first game took place in the real world location of Chicago, Illinois, it wasn’t a very recognizable city for most people. Many people know where Chicago is, but not a lot of people really know the landmarks or the layout of the city. Moving to the San Francisco Bay Area for the sequel suddenly opened up a realm of possibilities. The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Chinatown, Castro Street; all of these landmarks and locations are faithfully recreated for this city full of variety, and there are some truly awe inspiring views. The game makes brilliant use of these points of interest with the ScoutX app, an app that alerts players when one is nearby. Using the app, players can snap pictures of these landmarks (including selfies) and earn followers towards their cause, which is a great comparison to the way social media really is.
The ScoutX app helps to add just a bit more charm and life to the city, as it’s incredibly easy to go off on a tangent and go crazy taking selfies everywhere. Of the 57 points of interest, some of them are actually people, as San Francisco is well known for its street performers. One moment, I was taking a picture of a giant metal crab at Fisherman’s Wharf, wondering if the game included the famous “Bush man”; suddenly the ScoutX app alerted me of his presence nearby. It was great as a Bay Area native to see just how accurate the game was with the incredible attention to detail. This version of the Bay Area may not be exact, but even the roads feel familiar for anyone who has driven through the area, though with a lot less traffic than the real thing for obvious reasons.
Another app that adds a great element to the game is the Uber parody (and Ubisoft reference) Driver SF, a mostly optional set of missions that gives the player various driving challenges. One passenger may task the player with pulling off awesome jumps while another may need the player to get from point A to point B as fast as they can. This is just one of many great optional challenges that players can undertake, including drone races, go-karting, dirt bike courses, and more. Ubisoft Montreal definitely took a lot of time adding things to do in this virtual San Francisco, and even provide plenty of interesting side missions to do should the player feel like taking a break from the main story.
Missions have a lot more variety this time around, giving the player plenty of options and toys to utilize for tackling a mission however they see fit. Players can use stealthy takedown moves and take their time to progress in a mission, but the true fun comes from using the various tools around you. Perhaps the player would want to hack a car into driving forward over a group of enemies, or even hack an enemy cell phone and place an APB on the enemy, allowing for the player to watch as the police come to arrest the unsuspecting subject. The real stars come in the form of the RC Jumper and Drone, as players can use these tools to not only survey an area easily, but also use them to hack things further away. It adds an extra element that provides players with freedom of how to finish their missions. Even if the player wants to go in guns blazing, that is definitely a possibility.
Using guns in the game is a bit of a risk, as anything besides the stun gun will typically alert enemies of your presence. Unlike the first game, there is no focus mode, so the gameplay will be like most cover-based third person shooters in that regard. Marcus may be powerful, but he isn’t invincible, and while his hacking abilities can be upgraded, his body cannot be. Players will still have to play smart if they go in with an offensive approach. Sometimes it just takes a little distraction here and there, or a smart use of cover to take on a group of enemies.
There are also hacking puzzles, that while a bit repetitive, offer a good challenge to make the game more than just action. Hacking a server will sometimes need the player to create a current from one point to another by changing directional paths and getting the proper channels to line up. Some will be rather easy, but there are a handful of big challenges that will require a lot of focus and attention to detail. Sometimes players will even have to utilize their drone to fully solve the puzzle as it may cover a large area out of Marcus’ reach. Hopefully the next game will get a bit more creative and offer different types of puzzles, but for now these puzzles work.
The sound design is a bit of a mixed bag, as voice acting is excellent and the music ranges from original tracks to great licensed songs. SongSneak is a play on the real life app Shazam, allowing players to even add music they hear in the game to their music player. Despite this, certain sound effects seemed a bit unusual. Mostly firing guns and driving certain vehicles, as they often sounded just a bit off. Guns didn’t have that pop impact that a typical shooter would have and sometimes driving a car would have a really loud engine noise that didn’t sound like an actual car engine. It’s a minor complaint but it was something that seemed to hurt the experience a bit.
Some of the best things in Watch Dogs 2 are the parodies within the game. Ubisoft had no trouble taking shots at things from our world, whether it be the Mayoral candidate Mark Thruss (parodying Presidential elect Donald Trump), or even the Church of New Dawn (a parody of Scientology). They even took a moment to make fun of themselves, including the Ubisoft San Francisco office for a mission to uncover a leaked E3 video for a game. Watch Dogs 2 represents a great mirror to our real world and offers a lot of interesting perspectives on what these people and companies are capable of.
Another thing that Watch Dogs 2 captures perfectly is diversity, something San Francisco excels in. Throughout the city, players will come across several cultures, races, beliefs, and even LGBT ways of life. Even on the team at DedSec, there’s a good amount of diversity within the surprisingly deep cast. The character Josh especially stands out as a great addition, as his character has Autism, a mental disorder that actually makes him a valuable asset to the team, showing it off as a strength rather than a weakness. Kudos to Ubisoft Montreal for including such a diverse world and treating it with such care and tact.
Jumping to the multiplayer side of things, Watch Dogs 2 handles multiplayer in a way that most games don’t. Making a somewhat seamless experience, players can run into each other at times to either work together or against each other. Co-op missions can be taken out pretty quickly, as two hackers can always work faster than one. Hacker Invasion is a fun little game of hide-and-seek as one player will find the target and commence a download from their bank account. The target will then have a set amount of time to find their hacker and they’ll be given the chance to neutralize them and win the invasion. Both parties get followers either way so the amount received is based on how many tasks are done within the invasion between both sides.
Bounty Hunter mode is a way for players to take care of a target that is currently being chased by the police with a three star rating or more. I found this mode to be a little unfair, as often times a player will be pinned in an open area, and a bounty hunter can literally just walk up to them while they’re behind cover and either shoot them or do a one-hit-kill melee attack. Sure, if the target is attentive and aware of their surroundings, they can stand a fighting chance, but this is difficult when police are shooting at them from several areas. What makes it worse is that there can be multiple bounty hunters. Again, both parties will get followers, but it feels a little one-sided when it comes to the balance. Either way, it can still feel really satisfying to neutralize the hunters after you.
While the multiplayer is fun, it can be a bit intrusive at times. One moment I was using a crane to get to a rooftop to work on a mission objective, and suddenly I was being hacked. I wasn’t going to take the time to get off the roof I spent so much time working towards, so I used a drone to find the hacker so he didn’t download my money. Once I found him, he got in a car and drove way too far away for me to even possibly get to from my position. Had I been on the ground, there would have been a chance, but activating during a mission like that seemed a bit unfair. Luckily, these features can be turned off and are entirely optional, mainly there to give the player a more seamless world with other players.
One more thing of note is the somewhat anticlimactic ending, as even though it does some things different than previous missions, it doesn’t end in a huge mandatory firefight. No big fight against the game’s main antagonist, Blume CEO, Dusan Nemec. It barely feels different to all the other missions as far as what actually happens. Regardless of the ending, the story is still an enjoyable length, and the city still has plenty of secrets to uncover. Ubisoft Montreal deserves a lot of praise for making so many improvements for Watch Dogs 2, as these improvements should help this franchise survive. Hopefully the first one didn’t leave a bad enough impression, because Watch Dogs 2 deserves the attention this time around.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10