Watch Dogs 2 Review – Hacking San Francisco

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Developer: Ubisoft Studios; Publisher: Ubisoft

Released: November 29, 2016; Reviewed On: PC

Core i5-6500 3.2 GHz; 16GB DDR4 RAM; GeForce GTX 1070 8GB

 

Improving over every aspect of its predecessor, Watch Dogs 2 blew my expectations out of the water. Its portrayal of hackers still remains goofy, and apparently all you need is a cell phone and an app to break the system. Yet, its GTA-like world design and the gorgeous San Francisco setting create one of the most entertaining games to have come out in 2016. I for one, didn’t hate the original Watch Dogs (mostly because I haven’t paid attention to its massive hype train) and found it to be a generic, but still fun experience. Watch Dogs 2 in turn is a sequel done right, and although its ideas conflict against one another significantly more than in the past, it offers an engaging story and open mission design, along with a dense and detailed sandbox. At the end of the day, it is fun to hack underground pipes (yeah somehow you can do that) to explode a car coming after you, or to run on a rampage provided you can survive.

Watch Dogs 2 learns a lot from the mistakes of its predecessor, including the notion that it’s probably best to step far back on the media hype train. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of trailers and gameplay before release, yet Watch Dogs 2 didn’t promise us incredible graphics, nor a “living” world. The goofy tone of the game works to its advantage to create a fun experience, unlike the bland grey colours of Chicago in Watch Dogs. Not to mention its protagonist, Aiden Pearce, and don’t even get me started on him. Thankfully, Watch Dogs 2 introduces a group of likeable characters who strive to achieve change in digitalized society. Marcus Holloway and his friends constantly throw jokes around and often act goofy, especially the intro sequence where everyone gets drunk. By the end, I still didn’t really care for the supporting cast, but they were nice to talk to between most of the missions when I had to come back to the HQ. I found the plot to be quite interesting, and there’s plenty of criticism to be found relating to the real world, which addresses problems of our digitalized age. Watch Dogs 2 even features 3D printing to create all your weapons and tools; like how cool is that.

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San Francisco Bay area is far from biggest maps in open-world games, but Ubisoft made sure to pack in all important landmarks and incredible levels of detail. Unlike greys and browns of Chicago in Watch Dogs, the new city is a goofy and colourful setting, full of things to do. In typical fashion of Ubisoft sandbox games, San Francisco is filled to the brim with meaningless side activities that only serve to fill up that progression bar, however I managed to find plenty of interesting tasks to fill up my thirty or so hours it took to complete the game. Despite the repetitive nature of its side activities, Watch Dogs 2 never got to the point where I was completely bored – there was always something to do and I even often found myself simply cruising down the streets of San Francisco.

As with any other Ubisoft game, Watch Dogs 2 fills up fast with side activities. Both the map and your phone, which acts as a mission hub, soon become cluttered with icons and records. Among the flow of the main storyline, the game contains side missions, races, crime events, hacking, various collectibles – you name it. In a typical manner to all other sandbox games, these serve to fill up the experience bar, disguised here under the “followers” system. Somehow, everything you do enhances traffic through DedSec’s mobile app, which gives your crew access to people’s computers for processing power. With that said, in the end, all it comes down to is unlocking the final main mission, which already sits in your phone log from the very start of the game. It just goes to show how mundane Ubisoft’s sandbox games have become – there is no sense of a connected story, just a “to do” list of tasks. Although this is one of my biggest complaints, I’ve also found some things to like here. In example, the city’s points of interests are no longer laid out on the map and you have to individually locate them all and use your phone to take pictures. The game is filled to the brim with finer detail, which is there to enhance player experience.

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Watch Dogs 2 continues the series on by blending stealth and action gameplay, which are still very much at odds here. You can still easily blast your way through multiple cars’ worth of enemies, but Marcus’ durability in firefights is not any better than Aiden Pearce’s. The tone of the story also encourages non-lethal progress, which is where I have gripes with the game’s story. Watch Dogs 2 has a huge disconnect between its story and everything the player can do in the game, which often reflects in mission objectives too. I’d go from listening to Marcus talk about social freedoms and change, yet the next minute I’m blowing up 2 cars and killing enemies. None of my rampage would be reflective in the next story bit either, as characters would go about with the scripted plot. It’s not a big complaint but I do feel like the game’s tone wants a non-lethal approach over anything. Thankfully, options in Watch Dogs 2 are diverse, and either approach offers many tools.

Naturally, hacking brings many ways to approach an objective and Marcus’ fancy skills with a computer can get him anywhere. The two drones at your disposal – a jumper drone and a quad copter – allow for easy mapping of enemy positions for a stealth approach, although its more fun to ignore all that. If I ever got detected, I’d simply shoot everyone dead and proceed with the objective. The AI guards are fairly simple, and even large groups still don’t have what it takes to do a lot of damage, although don’t forget your health also drops really fast. Naturally, you can hack into anything in the game with a press of a button, turning the environment to your advantage. Marcus can easily interface with CTOS, a digital system powering everything in the city, which lets the player control traffic lights, blow steam pipes, listen in on people’s conversations and so on. With it, you also have to hack into cameras for unlocking doors, while Marcus sits down with his computer. Some times like those, I got detected, so I’d recommend hiding somewhere for best results. A lot often, however, stealth really feels dull from repetition, which is why I seldom used it. Going through the same motions gets boring quite fast, and there’s plenty of that over the 30 hours of gameplay.

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The skill tree in Watch Dogs 2 focuses a lot on hacking abilities, and over time, Marcus is able to use more and more parts of CTOS 2.0 to his advantage. While not a lot can be done at the start, I was soon able to manipulate traffic, blow up steam pipes and even cause parked cars to move on their own. It’s all cool at the start when you try it, but can get stale during the game’s runtime. Added to that, at least half of the skills web is absolutely useless, in usual fashion of Ubisoft games. The City Disruption tree is the only one really worth investing into, while most offer incremental upgrades over the existing tools. Each skill is worth 4-8 research points as well, which can be a total waste for the boring skills, but thankfully you get 6-8 points for every time you level up. More powerful skills require to obtain Key Data from restricted areas, so it’s just another thing to do on the list of side activities. But after all, its fun to wire other people’s money to your bank account.

Marcus has a full arsenal of 3D printed weapons, including shotguns, sniper rifles and grenade launchers. The shooting doesn’t feel as responsive as I would have liked, and the cover system is simply awkward. Moving from cover to cover just doesn’t feel right, and the character either clips to it or runs backward out in the open. Considering how many enemies flank you, it got annoying after a while, although I still wouldn’t say I died a lot on the game’s standard difficulty. Most of the time, my screen was just filled up with red, and health regenerates ridiculously fast even for an action game. Again, its hard to see this relate to peaceful intentions of DedSec in the game’s story, but I’d rather have it over tranquilizer guns, so Watch Dogs 2 wins either way. Guns have never ruined a sandbox game, and Watch Dogs 2 makes great use of variety to give players freedom.

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On that notion, the police in Watch Dogs 2 are bound to get really frustrating. Their frequent response is shoot first, ask questions later, and they get pissed at you over the smallest things. Upon stealing a car near a police vehicle once, I was met with a hail of gunfire – so much for discretion. But hey, at least you don’t get murdered for speeding. Eventually, you grow your arsenal to deal with all of that, however Marcus’ resilience doesn’t change a bit – you still die a lot. Despite that, I still preferred to use guns for most of the main missions, and really why wouldn’t you. There are no repercussions to shooting up an entire building full of guards, and Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t even fail you for messing up stealth like I’d expect an Ubisoft game to do. And now that I mention stealth, expect to fail that a lot (unless you’re one of those perfectionist types). NPCs would call 911 for the stupidest reasons, such as the one mission where you have to get into a New Dawn church building. I tried to access the roof through raising a platform and next thing I know I have a couple cop cars coming my way. Pretty sure trespassing is not supposed to get me shot, but Watch Dogs 2 police clearly don’t give a shit.

To that extent, car chases can take frustratingly long, especially dealing with 4-star heat. Cops are relentless even against minor crimes, and floaty car handling does nothing to improve the manners. Cars generally drive well, and there is surprising variety in how different vehicles feel, but when I need precision to squeeze into a small alley, all bets are off. More often than not I’d happen to crash right after enemies lose sight of me and that gets me right back into the sights of the helicopter sniper. Unlike in its predecessor, Watch Dogs 2 allows to fire from a moving car, and often to hilarious results. Blowing up tires causes enemy cars to flip over and crash, although it is not the only way to get rid of pursuit. Marcus easily manipulates traffic lights, and exploding steam pipes is usually the best solution. Cars themselves are very diverse, although I recognized most of them from the previous game. Variation reflects the city’s contrast, and the more expensive cars can be found in Marin or Silicon Valley, and of course, you’ll see Teslas driving around. I never got bored from driving around either, and although there are certain points the game lets you fast-travel to, it takes away from the enjoyment of driving in San Francisco. Still, it is very useful to have that just in case the commute becomes a hassle, and Watch Dogs 2 does well with its map design.

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Visually, Watch Dogs 2 looks really impressive, although you’d want to have a beefy system to back it up. The PC port is a lot better this time and no longer runs like shit, however its also quite advanced and even with a GTX 1070 on 1080p, I had to disable some high end settings like upscaling and Ambient Occlusion, which is something to keep in mind. The trade-off is worth it though, and Watch Dogs 2 looks incredible, especially during the daytime. San Francisco is filled to the brim with detail, ranging from dense vegetation to many of its parks to light reflections as you drive downtown in the middle of the night. Paired with extensive draw distances on PC,  San Francisco feels huge, although its combined map is still quite smaller than biggest open-worlds. The city appears incredibly diverse to make a fun playground different to most games. Watch Dogs 2 creates a stark contrast between its areas, yet manages to connect them seamlessly at the same time. Still, driving near the city’s core, you can spot poverty and gang hangouts, while the expensive houses in outlying hills reflect a very peaceful atmosphere (frequently interrupted by me if I happen to be driving a muscle car).

Watch Dogs 2 does a lot right to improve the disappointment of its predecessor, although it is still not a perfect game. The repetition in its open-world design is still there, and most of main missions can’t impress, but the developers took steps to make the game feel slightly different from the company’s typical output. Ubisoft have created a really fun sandbox by setting the game in San Francisco, which is a joy to explore. The vibe of the game has been changed significantly, replacing the boring revenge story and dull Aiden Pearce with a cast of funny relatable characters. Although its often at odds with itself, this move has worked great to place the series in the right direction, and despite the non-violent story contradicting with explosive action gameplay, Watch Dogs 2 is a lot of fun to play.

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The Verdict: 

Watch Dogs 2 is a step in the right direction for the series and heavily improves on the original. Although a lot of repetition can still be found in this game, San Francisco is a great playground for numerous activities and Watch Dogs 2 offers extensive variety in its gameplay tools. It’s one of the most fun open-world games I’ve played in a while, and definitely worth checking out.

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