Watch Dogs 2 Review

Played On Windows.
Also Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
Quick link: Video Review

In 2014, Ubisoft Montreal released Watch Dogs. It was an attempt to set up a new franchise with the main character being a hacker in Chicago. The game suffered from some issues but the biggest piece was a lackluster hacking mechanism and a weak protagonist. So now a couple of years later, a sequel has been released. Does Watch Dogs 2 fix those issues?

Watch Dogs 2 finds us following a new protagonist, Marcus Holloway, in San Francisco. In fact, much of the first game is put aside. While the group’s name, DedSec, is back and there are references to Aiden Pierce from the first game, everything in Watch Dogs 2 feels completely different as if it’s almost a reboot of the franchise.

Graphics

The entire Watch Dogs 2 game feels fresh and new, the move from Chicago to San Francisco changes much of the game, instead of tall skyscrapers, San Francisco gives the game a number of really beautiful locations to visit. Watch Dogs 2 uses this to great effect. The game is absolutely gorgeous at times, and I love the look of this city.

The characters in Watch Dogs 2 are a lot livelier as well, rather than stoic Aiden Pierce, Marcus and his fellow hackers of Dedsec all are colorful and quite charming. They have their own hideouts where they hang and Marcus can interact with each of them multiple times to learn more and the game shines in almost every cutscene as the characters interact with each other.


Photo Mode looks good as well.

In addition, Dedsec heavily focuses on graffiti subculture and more. When the game does use graffiti styles, it looks fantastic. Walking down the hall into DedSec’s Hackerspace is great because on one wall is what you would assume the group would decorate their office with, different forms of counter culture designs and it creates a colorful space rather than a sterile business front.

San Fransico also has a lot of famous locations that appear in the game, whether it be Piedmont Boutique’s fishnet legs or any of the murals that they recreate in the game. Even when the game spoofs something, there’s still an entertaining location like Google’s spoof “Nudle” has a beautiful campus.

Story

The story of Watch Dogs 2 revolves around Dedsec and the new version of CTOS, named simply CTOS 2.0 being run by Blume Corporation. The game starts with Marcus sneaking in on a test for Dedsec. We hear how awesome he’s doing and how far he’s gotten, that it’s the hardest setting, and how no one has done this before, even though it’s a rather simple mission. It’s trying to flatter the player and honestly, it just feels awkward. However, Marcus is able to erase his record and escape relatively easy.

From there, the game takes off, and Marcus joins Dedsec. He meets the entire team and lets them know he left a back door in the CTOS program, so he can return. The team is thrilled and say if they get enough followers on social media they can take down Blume.

This part is actually an issue for me because it incorrectly is talking about gameplay elements. Followers don’t unlock missions, that mission is never completed in the way it’s stated, so players don’t actually have to do side missions or content, but the game tries to fool players into thinking it’s important without giving them a total to aim for.

The problem is that followers don’t do anything for missions, and only give the player points to unlock tech. I’m confused by this section of the game because it intentionally gives incorrect information. I can only imagine that originally this was how the game was set up and no one fixed the dialogue before launch, or players weren’t playing the side content enough and the developer needed to push them in that direction so they added this scene to incentivize it.

Either way, it’s a confusing opening, and the first couple of hours have a couple of scenes that don’t work as expected.

However, if the player pushes on they start to find a better story. The characters are entertaining, and there are a number of conversations that just feel like conversations I’ve had, about which movie is better, Predator vs Alien, and just generic hacker conversations. They’re actually a lot of really endearing moments in the story, moments where I said. “That sounds like discussions I’ve had.”

Though, I find it hard to really accept some of Watch Dog 2 premise. There’s a “Fight the power” mentality behind the game, where the game is calling out a number of major scandals and criminal actions by faceless corporations at the beginning of the game. There’s actually a clever mission where you steal a trailer from Ubisoft for a game they were working on, though it appears that game has been canceled already.


Here the game calls out Martin Shkreli. A bit too on the nose if you ask me.

The problem though is this is still Ubisoft, a very large multinational corporation and it’s really hard to ignore the fact that this is one of the largest corporations in charge of the video game industry and yet the story is supposed to be “subversive”. It really doesn’t work the way they intended it and just feels like a company is throwing shade.

The story missions are set up in arcs, and each arc has a few “missions” which are more like specific actions that have to be taken to complete it. Most mission arcs are entertaining to follow along and many can be played simultaneously with others which helps a lot and each story mission does have a nice compact story to follow.

I do have a couple of problems with Watch Dogs 2 characters, especially with Marcus, I’ve heard some of the racist rationales, and I find that ludicrous that his skin color makes a difference. The problem I do have with Marcus though is, he’s a little too perfect. He’s slim, he’s a great hacker, he uses a yo-yo for fighting, he does backflips off buildings, he’s literally a perfect human being.


While this is very true for tech I don’t think Google is really at that level.

This is common in games, you get a character who can do almost anything and stick with him for the game. But Marcus as a character feels like he’s coming from the wrong game, he would fit in more with an Assassin’s Creed than Watch Dogs.

The bigger issue I have with Marcus is he barely touches a keyboard. He walks up to pads and touches a few keys, the rest of Dedsec create amazing tools and toys for Marcus, most are engineering, programming, or working on features, but when Marcus makes either of his main items, the RC car, and the quadcopter, he does it by fabrication in a machine rather than programming.

I would have loved to see Marcus have to code up something at some point in the game, instead it’s everyone else who’s a programmer. It could have been as simple as unlocking an upgrade would be him returning to the base and writing some code, or a mini-game. Pony Island had a few very simple “hacking” puzzles. They’re kind of dumb, but they gave a better representation of a hacker than Watch Dogs 2 does.

In fact, the only “hacking” Marcus does is a form of pipe dream puzzles. They’re good puzzles, but not very deep, and are more real-world based than anything that could happen.


Make the grid look right is a cool piece, if only there were more puzzles like this!

It’s a shame because it makes Marcus feel too detached from any intelligent character that they are portraying him as he seems like a grunt who does other people’s bidding rather than a major member of the collective he’s a part of. He becomes similar to the typical protagonist of almost any video game, especially adventure games, which is a shame because he becomes a generic character even when he’s set up to be unique.

Watch Dogs 2 has two really interesting parts of the final mission where the player takes over other characters. It’s strange though, these two parts are done in quick succession and never touched on again but they offer an idea that Watch Dogs 2 fails to capitalize on. Taking more than one character into a mission or having different main characters could have made the game stand out. Dedsec is a collective, and yet all the other characters are minor characters. Having different characters could have allowed special abilities, one who is more parkour enabled, one who is more of a fighter, and one who has a better hacking ability. Sadly, this isn’t done and I question why spend the time to add in two playable characters if they only wanted to use it in a single mission?

But all the characters of DedSec are so hip and cool that I eventually got tired of the experience of hearing about them. You want likable characters, but in Watch Dogs 2, the characters of DedSec are so sugary sweet that you are forced to like them no matter what.

At the same time, the enemies in the game get almost no backstory, sometimes there’s a quick strawman drawn for a subject of missions but almost every gang and group that DedSec fights against gets a name and that’s it. From the enemy hacker gang to a biker gang, to a security force and even just a generic couple of gangs have very little back story. You’ll go head to head with them but no one takes the time to explain who they are. Prime Eight is just enemy hackers, go take them down. The Sons of Ragnarok ride bikes, why do you need to know more? Personally, I would have liked any information so I could see why I hate them other than “they are bad guys”.

Then the game decides to make Watch Dogs 2 edgy. There’s a lot of swearing in Watch Dogs 2, like a lot. I swear a lot. I’m no stranger to the F word, but even I was thinking “This is getting excessive isn’t it?” Why do you have to say F!@# yeah instead of just yeah? Someone compiled a video of every swear in the game, and says there’s 140 of them. Their video takes about 8 minutes to play.

That’s not a ton but so many of them are unnecessary, and it’s not just one character who swears. Everyone has to let out an expletive at some point. Maybe someone confused a mature story with a mature rating and then wanted the swearing to ensure they got an M rating but apparently failed to understand the difference, but it’s not a better game for the language.

One last issue does come up with the story, and it’s a cognitive dissonance issue. DedSec and Marcus keep talking about non-violence, or about how they are different than the enemy, but Marcus leaves a slew of dead bodies. Marcus does have a stun gun, but can also fabricate or pick up any number of firearms.


Rather than show violence, I’ll show what Watch Dogs 2 really should have focused on, watching dogs.

The issue is the game isn’t made to support stealth, there are enough enemies and guards on almost every stage that they will have to be taken out. There are enough other tactics that players will play violently and there’s no penalty for doing so.

I would often call in rival gangs or police officers to have shootouts with my enemies, and they would slowly clear out office buildings, FBI headquarters and more. The amount of death and destruction that Marcus and his team leaves behind makes it very hard to accept their moral high ground. It may be “Stealth” in that Marcus isn’t killed, but having ten dead enemies per level in each level makes it hard to accept the peaceful message of DedSec.

Gameplay

Calling in rival gangs or police is just one of the many techniques Marcus has. At first, Marcus doesn’t have many abilities available to him, but the upgrade system allows Marcus to quickly expand out and pick up a variety of abilities that will help him. He can do anything from distracting guards, making their phones explode, making electrical boxes or pieces of the world explode, or even turning scenery pieces into traps.

However, everything Marcus can do feels like it is done at a push of a button. Just like in the first game, Marcus rarely “hacks” and just feels that he’s hitting a single button on a smartphone to make things work. The only time there’s any trouble is when certain doors or computers are locked down, which just requires Marcus to find someone carrying a key, but then just focusing on the character, and clicking the A button is enough to get the key and unlock the door.

This was a major issue I had with Watch Dogs, and it’s clear Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t want to change this functionality. It does make Watch Dogs 2 easier to play, but it could have been more interesting to build the functionality of that single button system that Marcus uses or earn it in some thematic way other than a simple upgrade grid.

The only places where Marcus really has to solve a puzzle is through puzzles in the real world where he has to rewire an entire system where there’s a number of junctions that can be switched or turned to provide power to where it needs to go to solve the puzzle. They’re clever puzzles, and they get more complex as the game goes on.

It’s a shame that that’s the only real “hacking” that the player has to do, almost everything else is limited to walking to a location and hitting the A button to do some action and play out an animation.

The good news though is that there’s a lot of variety in the way the player approaches each mission. As mentioned, Marcus has both a quadcopter and an RC car. While the Quadcopter is mostly used for surveillance and can’t be used to do the same actions as Marcus, the RC car has similar abilities to Marcus. It allows for a more stealth-based approach to missions where Marcus can stay in a safe area, and send his robots into high security.

Of course, enemies will detect the RC car if Marcus isn’t careful and try to destroy it, so there’s still stealth required by the RC car. If the car is destroyed, Marcus is slightly inconvenienced, this is another of the rather big issues I have with Watch Dogs 2, failure isn’t a big issue. If Marcus is not in a mission the penalty for death is respawning very close to where you are standing with no notoriety.


The RC Car can do almost every piece of the mission instead of Marcus, making it easier for Marcus to just stay hidden.

Inside a mission, the penalty is to go back to any checkpoint, however, that’s only if Marcus is killed. If Marcus’ tools are destroyed, there’s a respawn time. As Marcus uses his explosive devices, similarly they also recharge slowly, and even the battery power of his hacking ability recharges, so if the first time Marcus calls in a Gang strike or the Police, he will eventually get another chance even if there’s no way to recharge his power.

Almost every mission can be solved with this setup but the story keeps the player completing the main missions as there’s a variety of locations and tasks the player has to go through the gameplay revolves around a few interesting strategies that they can exploit time and time again.

Watch Dogs 2’s main missions are interesting and decently fun, but unfortunately Watch Dogs 2 isn’t set up to capitalize on them. If Watch Dogs 2 just had the main missions and allowed the player to enjoy driving around the city between the missions, it would be an enjoyable experience.

Sadly Watch Dogs 2 seems to feel that there always has to be something to do. After the first mission the game is constantly interrupted telling the player to do X or Y, to get one of what feels like 20 side missions, to go and handle those missions, to drive a car like Uber for side cash, to take pictures of famous monuments, or to participate in many activities including a ton of co-op activities.


This is a moment I could have missed. Two guys getting their picture taken for social media, while the woman taking it talks to them. Fully voiced, but not the main story.

Watch Dogs 2 seems to nag the play about this, and just keep giving the player more and more content to watch, play, and focus on. You’ll finish a mission and talk to your team, then watch a short news movie that plays while you’re driving around, then get a message or two about what you could do around you.

If Watch Dogs 2 just gave the player a chance to breathe and enjoy the moment, I believe players would have a better time, but instead Watch Dogs 2 just seems to push side missions to the point where players feel they can’t sit still. They can’t enjoy the feeling of success.

It doesn’t help that there are so many icons on the map of stuff to do. Most are a single event in that the player only has to complete it once, but the vast amount hurts the experience. Have a todo list of twenty to forty items makes the player feels like he’s making very little progress when he crosses off a single element and still has thirty-nine items to do.

It doesn’t help that almost every side mission feels hollow. Almost every side mission involves going to a location and finding an interactable item and hitting a button. Marcus might go up to a switch box or a phone to do something. Once done he’ll be watching someone at an ATM and can either choose the left or right side of an ATM to give money or take it from this person. Marcus makes a choice and gets rewarded the same way. There’s no morality here which means the player can make a choice but there’s no other benefit either. It’s just a simple cutscene that doesn’t change much.

Every side mission is like this. Whether it be “Climb a building to click Y to spray paint a mural” to “Find the ringing phones.” none of them lead to anything more than a very short diversion. The sheer amount of them is overwhelming but the cheapness of the experience ruins any enjoyment the player could have when finding them.


Don’t text and drive kids. The phone is your menu system.

Sadly, everything outside of the main missions amounts to this. Uber missions are just driving from point to point while a story plays out. Snapping a picture of the golden gate bridge takes a second and just throws followers at you. But the sheer shallowness of these experience ruins any chance of the player feeling connected to Marcus’ actions in a meaningful way.

What really frustrates me is that the game is excellent when the player just takes a minute and explores. There’s a number of locations that walking around was fantastic for, but the player being led past to another location won’t help them find. I saw a person handing out donuts near a woman playing violin which was a wonderful moment. There was no purpose for either experience, no mini-game to collect, no benefit other than a wonderful taste of San Francisco and those are the bright points of Watch Dogs 2. Not the 50 million mini missions or collectibles to chase down.

The fact I can sit back and pet a dog multiple times and laugh at the little animals’ bark is brilliant because I’m able to take a step back and enjoy the simple thing. The ability to explore the game at my own pace and enjoy them rather than get led to the next task the game wanted me to do is when Watch Dogs 2 is at its best, and the fact is that’s not something you can force the player to experience.


More dogs, more watching. Why am I not getting points for these?

But as the player does this the game keeps prompting them to follow the mission tree, find a special location, or keep busy. The player is unable to take those moments because the game keeps trying to get them engaged. The entire game is based on the checklist of tasks and the discovery of new and unique moments aren’t on that checklist. Watch Dogs 2 is fine for completionists, but it forgets the best games need organic moments that Watch Dogs 2 DOES have, it just needed to stop with the long list of tasks and let the player take a moment for themselves.

Which is a shame because Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t really allow that. There’s a finite amount of side missions and main missions. So after that point, maybe the player can sit back and enjoy the scenery, but unfortunately Watch Dogs 2 still has Multiplayer, both competitive and co-operative. So while you might stroll down the street, or even put down the controller while listening to music to make a sandwich, Watch Dogs 2 is waiting to bring you back in.

As you enjoy the moment, you can suddenly be “hacked” and now have to find whoever it is who just hacked you. Which amounts to trying to find a random person around you and then take them out. It’s an interesting idea and honestly, could be a lot of fun, but you have to make this an event people want to play. Instead, it seemed to pop up any time I was writing something down, or making a meal. Even pausing the game on the options screen doesn’t stop it from starting, and seeing it pop up as I walked towards a destination on my map doesn’t help because suddenly the mission I was going for disappeared.

Random co-op or competitive moments are an interesting idea, but since you can just be thrown into them suddenly, it’s a pain. After the first three or four occurrences, I just “quit session” because I didn’t want to play them. I wanted to play the story that I paid the money for, but the game kept trying to get me to do something else, yet again. There’s apparently an option to turn it off, but why not start with it off and turn it on if a player is interested?

Later in my game, I was told to hack a random person. I made no indication I wanted to play co-op, the game just decided suddenly that “It’s co-op time.” Another time I saw a friendly NPC and a mission to go hack a truck? WHY? I had driven from one mission to another directly, even choosing as a GPS location on the mini-map. I never even HINTED I wanted to play with other people at that point, but that’s not how Watch Dogs 2 works. It decides when it’s time to play with other people, not the player.

Watch Dogs 2 essentially is too insistent that that player is doing something because it assumes that’s the epitome of “fun” that it tries to take the player away from doing something that they are enjoying.

There are other issues I have with Watch Dogs 2. While there are only a few missions where the cops chase the player, these are frustrating. The game doesn’t take the time to really detail how you are supposed to evade them, and cops are extremely persistent. I only seemed to win them using a specific ability once a helicopter is involved (the ability to make the helicopter leave). Overall I’m glad the police weren’t used more, but mostly because they are too persistent in chasing the player. By the end of the game, I had enough abilities to eliminate them, but there also was far less of those missions at that point in the game.


Marcus even knows Euroboard games! Isn’t he so darn perfect?

The verticality in the game is also frustrating. I wondered if the developers designed this game as a part of Assassin’s Creed because the game kept hiding items on top of buildings. There is a mixture of techniques to get on top of a building, and a few good locations did have a small puzzle of finding a ladder or a path. But most of the rooftop caches don’t have a clear solution or perhaps just require a specific type of car or scissor lift. Most of them are more annoying than interesting to solve.

It doesn’t help that a number of caches are just to earn more money, yet money in Watch Dogs 2 has almost no purpose once you’ve bought the quadcopter, and even there, the quadcopter isn’t necessary to beat the game, though it is very helpful for scouting.

With everything else, I do have to mention one last issue. There appear to be some graphical problems on the PC version. It appears the streaming system has some issues, and perhaps it’s CPU bound but if this is happening, the game will noticeably hitch as you drive around the city, and you’ll be driving quite a bit.

The hitching is bad enough to make me not want to play. I tried a number of solutions online the only one that solved it for me was to lower the quality of the graphics to the lowest they could go. This worked, but there are other settings that should have worked. It appears to be some issue with the throughput of the CPU, and while others might not have the problem, the hardware I’m using should be adequate. Yet the game does seem to have these problems and it’s a shame because it’s the initial impression of the game.

Conclusion

I know I’ve called out Watch Dogs numerous times in this review, but Watch Dogs 2 is good. The main story and mission were enjoyable. If Watch Dogs 2 allowed itself to focus on those, I might have enjoyed it more. But the incessant push to make me do something other than the main storyline really hurt the experience. The limited interactions with the game also didn’t endear me and the fact that the game didn’t try to offer a vastly different experience than every other open world game. This is Assassin’s Credit or Grand Theft Auto with some superpowers controlled by the square button. It really should have been so much more.

I give Watch Dogs 2 a

3/5

Final Thoughts: Watch Dogs 2 makes a few right steps following Watch Dogs 2, but spends too much of its time trying to distract the player from what is a very interesting world.

Stats: 30.7+ hours played No Steam Achievements.