Flexible hacking gives this open-world sequel a distinct flavor.
By expanding on a lot of what the first game and its expansion got right and mixing action, stealth, and puzzle gameplay with handy remote-control drones, Watch Dogs 2 impresses with open mission designs with multiple ways to reach your objective and some great toys to find them with. I’m conflicted about the tone of its story and characters, but I had a great time exploring its Bay Area map. This is a significant improvement over the original Watch Dogs in nearly every way.
One of the chief complaints about the original Watch Dogs was that its “fixer” hacker protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is a bland and unlikeable character. Ubisoft listened and left Pearce in Chicago, picking up in the Bay Area with the much more personable hacker vigilante Marcus Holloway, who is motivated not by blind revenge but by a philosophy and doesn’t always take himself seriously. Aside from a few cringe-inducing jokes, I like Marcus a lot more. Even though he and his vigilante hacker gang, Dedsec, are a little obnoxious and petty about their crusade against the Orwellian surveillance state this version of America has become, they’re generally relatable.
But, surprise twist: that’s kind of an issue, because I just don’t buy Marcus as a killer who mows people down by the dozen with gaudy, 3D-printed assault weapons. The way he’s portrayed in the cutscenes ranting against the misuse of people’s personal information is passionate, and he seems like a fundamentally good person. And then the mission begins and he might wipe out a group of private security guards, gang members, or worse, actual San Francisco Police, before going back to being relatively happy-go-lucky in the cutscenes again, unfazed by all the murder and chaos. It’s a weird disconnect that feels different than roleplaying as a violent criminal like Trevor Philips or Michael de Santa, and though it didn’t affect the mechanics it was something I was constantly noticing and feeling off about.
Watch Dogs 2 is as much a stealth game as it is an action game.
Because there’s no morality system to punish (or reward) violent behavior, Marcus’ personality is the only thing pushing us toward a non-lethal playstyle of stealth and silent takedowns. While it’s not as built out as something like Hitman (you can’t, for example, hide unconscious bodies to avoid detection) Watch Dogs 2 is as much a stealth game as it is an action game. Finding a silent path to an objective is a more interesting and challenging way to play that makes you use all your tools, including drones that can drive through small spaces or fly to hack something you couldn’t reach. They’re great for scoping out an area before you charge in yourself. It’s a shame that efforts to keep the body count down aren’t recognized, though – even perfectly ghosting a mission gives you the same reward as turning everyone you meet into ghosts.
Though I attempted it anyway, non-lethal techniques aren’t quite enough when you’re caught in the midst of a high-tech heist. You can melee people and knock them out (or maybe getting hit in the face by Marcus’ improvised melee weapon kills them, I’m not entirely sure), and you have an infinite-ammo stun gun that can incapacitate people at range, but it’s slow to fire (even with an upgrade). It’s no match for a wave of guards with SMGs, and so, not always for the better, out come the big guns.
You have enough means of indirect attack to feel capable in a fight.
Shootouts ensue, using the same cover-based shooting that’s all but ubiquitous with open-world crime games. Watch Dogs 2 feels a little different than most because even on normal difficulty you’re not very durable, and the AI is reasonably good at using cover and aggressively flanking. (Also, a lot more of San Francisco gangs have hand grenades than I’d have thought.) But you have enough means of indirect attack to feel capable in a fight, and some of them are great fun. Explosive-carrying enemies can be hacked to detonate their bombs, some can be stunned by overloading their headset communications gear, and anyone who happens to be standing near a hackable piece of equipment in the environment can be shocked or blown up at the push of a button.
But my favorite is the ability to summon angry gang members or police and target them at whoever you like by fabricating evidence. It’s not just a means of attack, it’s a fantastic distraction: I love calling them in on the far side of an area and then running in to grab my objective while the guards are too busy dealing with them to notice me. This hilarious power can be abused in a semi-game-breaking way: you can keep calling them in (after your power meter recharges) until every enemy is dead without lifting a finger.
You usually have more than one option on every hackable item.
Hacking in general is more flexible than in the first Watch Dogs – you usually have more than one option on every hackable item. For example, you can open a door with a hack, or you can choose to lock it so that no one can follow you for a few seconds. You can detonate an electrical box to stun someone nearby, make it go haywire to attract attention, or turn it into a mine that will detonate when someone gets close. If anything, there may be too many hackable items scattered around, to the point where I often have trouble selecting the right one in situations where timing matters.
Bay to Breakers
This is a great open world map, and I’m not just saying that because was born in the Bay Area and have lived here for almost my entire life. Watch Dogs 2’s version is super condensed, with entire neighborhoods left on the cutting room floor, but it has all the major landmarks pretty much where they should be. (Thankfully the perpetually gridlocked traffic was omitted.) It’s a fun and diverse place to explore and run amok, and it’s surreal to be in a car chase and suddenly look up and see something like Moscone Center, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Painted Ladies, Fisherman’s Wharf, or Stanford University. I’d recommend it as virtual tourism, especially if you’ve been here before and want a refresher.
There’s also quite a bit of satire about the San Francisco area and its culture, but nothing approaching HBO’s Silicon Valley’s wit. A lot of its humor comes through in the random bios that pop up when you hack civilians, some of whom can give you jokey snippets of phone calls or text conversations, all the while humanizing the crowds and making me less enthusiastic about trying to run them over on purpose.