Watch Dogs 2 does not feature towers to climb in order to reveal parts of the map. This being an open-world game released in 2016, a lack of Ubisoft Towers must come as no small relief—one less piece of busywork. It’s emblematic of Watch Dogs 2’s sharp approach to open-world gameplay, eschewing many of its predecessor’s generic trappings. Gone is the enormous map filled with garbage, replaced by memorable side missions. Instead of a poe-faced revenge tale, players are treated to a swashbuckling Robin Hood-style adventure. Even the core gameplay loop feels different; placing less of an emphasis on gunplay in favour of problem-solving, to the point where Watch Dogs 2 at times feels like an open-world puzzle game. It’s a tremendous improvement over the last Watch Dogs and a damn fine game in its own right, even though it could use a patch or two.
I’m not kidding when I call Watch Dogs 2 a puzzle game. I spent most of my time in the game’s version of the San Francisco Bay Area manipulating the environment so I could parkour my way up a building and hack the device at the top. When presented with an area full of enemies, I would often send in drones to clean out as much of the zone as they could, or scout out the objective. I did occasionally get into a rumble or two, but that was mostly because the story demanded it or because I got too cocky during a sneaking mission. As my tools became more sophisticated, I found that I could finish a whole mission with my quadcopter and RC car.
Both the main missions and the side missions feel very similar, which is not a bad thing—the sidequests feel like smaller versions of the story missions rather than simple diversions. It’s less about providing stuff for the player to do, and more about telling stories within the Bay Area. There are a couple standard races, as well as some online co-op missions and collectibles, but the map never feels busy. Players will spend most of their time finding new ways to achieve their objective.
That level of improvisation would be impossible without the game’s improved hacking. In the first Watch Dogs, most of Marcus’ abilities were very contextual, like being able to raise or lower a forklift. Here, players can fully control the forklift’s movement, and if so inclined, can even attach a bunch of sticky grenades and drive the forklift into a gang of enemies. Players can also point the police or gang members at an NPC. Need to escape a dangerous situation? Call in some unwitting reinforcements. Watch Dogs 2’s tools are less about letting players approach a situation any way they want (no matter how the game presents its perk tree) and more about finding unique ways to stay out of trouble. Players can pull out an assault rifle and take those security guards to clown town, but it’s often the path of most resistance—hacking is easier and more fun.
This is a rare AAA example of mechanics working in conjunction with the story and tone. Marcus, Watch Dogs 2’s protagonist, isn’t a soldier. He’s a talented, affable hacktivist that is ready to change the world and save the proletariat from the shackles of the new establishment. The fact that he does so while engaging in the classic “Alien vs Predator” argument with his friends makes him feel more well-rounded—that he talks about the fictional mashup for a good five minutes and really dives into the hypothetical scenario makes him feel human.
Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t have a particularly fantastic plot, but it skates past the now prevalent “hacktivist group vs The Man” story with a lot of charm and by paying attention to the little things. The cutscenes are very well directed and each character moves and emotes like a real person would. The motion capture team has a lot to be proud of here. Of course, no developer is an island, and a legitimately great script bolsters that work. Characters don’t just make pop culture references, they have conversations that incorporate pop culture. That may seem like semantics, but it’s the difference between a game emulating The Big Bang Theory and a game emulating Community. When Marcus chats with his friend Wrench (who isn’t as obnoxious as he first appears, he’ll grow on you) about which Star Trek captain he would be, Marcus jumps to Sisko. The aforementioned “Aliens vs Predator” conversation even goes into the fan films and comics, coming up with a wild fictional character algebra equation. The protagonists riff with (and on) each other even when pop culture isn’t on the table, which makes DedSec feel like a real group of friends. So many videogames can’t quite handle character interaction outside of exposition, so I wanted to praise this development while I have the opportunity.
Watch Dogs 2 is also paced very well, keeping the characters proactive and in motion—any moping around doesn’t last very long. I like that, if only because it makes every mission feel important. It’s also a very political game, in part because of recent world events. Yes, Watch Dogs 2 was finished long before America turned heel. However, it’s clear the game always intended to make a statement—it’s just that now this statement is timely as well. There are a few conversations that were “of the moment” when they must have been written but remain timely, like Marcus and his friend chatting about being the only two black guys in Silicon Valley. There’s also a politician who wants to “Make the Bay Area Stronger” and received a huge boost through inaccurate news reports pushed to the top of social media. I’m not making that up. Also, remember the huge DDOS attack that brought down Twitter a few weeks ago? That was because people had Wi-Fi enabled home devices on unprotected networks — something DedSec regularly takes advantage of in-game. If you don’t like politics in your videogames, you will not like Watch Dogs 2. Also, if you say you don’t like politics in your videogames when really you mean you don’t like diverse casts, you will also not like Watch Dogs 2. DedSec & their allies are basically a gritty reboot of the Burger King Kids Club.
Everything about Watch Dogs 2 is an improvement over the original. The Pipe Mania hacking minigame in particular has been changed for the better. Players still have to spin pipes to direct the blue line from one point to the other, but the pipes are now in the real world as opposed to being in some greyed-out virtual reality. Players have to explore as Marcus or throw out the quadcopter and fly around meatspace, looking for the interactive pipes. It’s probably less accurate, as I don’t think real-life hackers need to run around a church looking for that one pipe they need, but it’s a more involved minigame as a result, requiring an extra bit of thought and effort.
The story is better, and the hacking is better; especially now that you can siphon phone battery charge from nearby NPCs. The cars are better, the mission design is better, and the bad guy is a cutting indictment of the modern tech industry instead of some elderly jerk. Unfortunately, the only point that has not been improved is the framerate. I spent about 12-14 hours with Watch Dogs 2, and there was a good hour or so where the game was literally unplayable. I know critics like to throw that word around, but the framerate was so horrible that it literally gave me motion sickness. It wasn’t that bad in the hours before, and definitively improved once I took a break, but it’s certainly something to look out for. The game also crashed twice—once after a particularly horrific framerate explosion, and again for seemingly no reason. We only tested the game on PS4, so this may be a console-specific issue.
The code powering Watch Dogs 2 could use some work, but the game itself is excellent and maybe the best open-world game available on current-gen consoles—yes, I’m saying I think Watch Dogs 2 is better than Grand Theft Auto V, if only because it’s a rare example of a big-budget game looking to make a statement. Even more rare, it succeeds by starting with a central thesis and communicating ideas through player action. That it also manages to be a rip-roaring good time is almost irrelevant. You can patch a framerate, but you can’t patch a story or gameplay, and on those fronts Watch Dogs 2 is nigh unimpeachable.