A game about a man who is trapped in a foreign embassy, hiding between two rooms without windows, and in constant fear of assassination would make for a pretty crap game. Thankfully for us, Ubisoft have taken their Julian Assange simulator series and pumped it full of personality and panache for the sequel, with Watch Dogs 2.
Having just washed the blood of Altair from under the Ubi-bus, the studio has reapplied a fresh coat of crimson to the wheels by chucking Watch Dogs’ previous protagonist – Aiden Pierce – under the proverbial public conveyance and replaced him with Marcus, a young, likable and plucky Ezio Auditore clone, complete with introductory sexual escapade, impossibly charming demeanour and inexplicable combat and free-running skills. Marcus very much embodies the project of Watch Dogs 2: a hard reset. After the famously overhyped and sorely underwhelming Watch Dogs, this sequel is virtually anything but, with little more than vague nods and weak allusions made to Pierce’s exploits. Set in a brand new city, with a brand new crew and a brand new mission, Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t require any prior knowledge of the universe of Watch Dogs, making it immediately accessible to newcomers and fans of the series.
Watch Dogs 2: Xbox One [Reviewed], PC, PlayStation 4
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: 15 November 2016
Price: £54.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Marcus’s hacktivist crew, ‘Dedsec’, is going up against the technocratic, [insert George Orwell reference] capitalistic organisation known as ‘Blume’: a corporation that has unprecedented control of the digital lives of modern day Americans. In order to take down Blume and its associates, Marcus’s crew must gain followers on their app so as to empower themselves in the digital world and better spread awareness of the crimes committed by the oligarchical overlords of San Francisco. To get followers, Dedsec sends you on various missions that involve some of the most hilarious dialogue to come out of Ubisoft in ages. Busting internet paedophiles, exposing fake religions, stealing talking cars: Watch Dogs 2 is a playground of parodies as far as its missions and narrative go. For all the bland, boring and banal plots and characters of Ubisoft’s recent back-catalogue (name me one character from The Division?) the contemporary themes and socio-political awareness of Watch Dogs 2’s story make it an engaging, light-hearted and genuinely thought-provoking experience. That being said, Watch Dogs 2 is by no means as satirically barbed as GTA V, and a lot of the issues this game deals with have already been blasted by Rockstar, so Watch Dogs 2 is treading somewhat already trodden ground.
Similarly, the open-world of San Francisco might seem appealing and vibrant from afar, but those initiated into the worlds of Witcher 3 or GTA V will quickly see that Ubisoft’s attempt at a populated, pretty world to look at is exactly that: the digital equivalent of running around an empty museum. Plenty to look at but nothing to do, San Francisco has expectedly gorgeous vistas to photograph, and citizens of every stripe populate its streets: but there is nothing to do besides drive around the aforementioned streets. Sure, there are side missions, but the success of other open worlds of recent years was their interiority. GTA V felt alive – from trips to the cinema to tennis tournaments and (eventually!) heists, you were free to interact with the world. Watch Dogs 2 breathes no such life into the clockwork corpse that is San Francisco. NPCs are indifferent to your existence, walking when you aren’t shooting and running when you are, and the shops and storefronts of the world serve strictly practical purposes, with no extracurricular entertainment to be had – unless you count arbitrarily buying a cup of coffee as entertainment. In an era where there is no excuse for AAA developer’s to make an ‘ugly’ game, Watch Dogs 2 does not get brownie points for turning up to the office in a suit. For a game post-GTA V, the inclusion of social multiplayer activities within the game world seems like an odd omission.
While the ‘open’ world is about as fun to explore as the psychology of a sock puppet, missions in Watch Dogs 2 will keep you busy, with a steady blend of stealth, action and hacking coming together to form some uncanny ensemble of equal parts Splinter Cell, The Division and Assassin’s Creed. Merging offensive and defensive gadgets together, Marcus can distract or defeat enemies by tampering with their electronic devices. Such tampering includes calling the police on your target, summoning gang bangers to attack targets, blowing up mobile phones in peoples’ pockets or remotely piloting cars in order to make them swerve off the road or run into enemies. Taking over cameras and turning the city itself on your adversaries is devilishly delightful for the first hour or so of the game, but once you get your hands on an automatic weapon, all bets are off regarding stealth, and the line between Watch Dogs 2 and The Division becomes all-but impossible to define.
Hacking cameras and ringing phones become a novel gimmick once you get your mitts on high-velocity grenade launchers and high-calibre sniper rifles. The ease in which weapons can be bought, and the lack of discouragement to use them, results in Watch Dogs 2’s unique selling point, it’s hacktivist ‘the world is your playground’ mechanic, taking a back seat to the mechanically inferior attempt the game makes at being a The Division surrogate. With a three-way progression path regarding power-ups – ranging between ‘trickster’, ‘aggressor’ and ‘ghost’ – taken right from Splinter Cell’s ‘stealth/panther/assault’ branching upgrade and gameplay system, and chunky, lacklustre parkour mechanics that make old man Ezio look like a spring chicken, Watch Dogs 2 quickly becomes a melting pot for Ubisoft’s other IPs to congeal within, resulting in a hot mess of a game. Even the more elaborate hacking puzzles are nothing new. The tried-and-tested ‘current flow’ mechanic, utilised in titles such as Bioshock, makes an appearance in Watch Dogs 2’s more elaborate hacking puzzles. Nothing about this game feels fresh or new, but rather re-skinned and re-booted.
Speaking of re-used Ubisoft mechanics, why on earth is the ‘HackNet’ feature so invasive and breathtakingly ugly? Taking its lead from the ‘eagle vision’ feature that is virtually ubiquitous in gaming nowadays, HackNet is a visual augmentation that allows you to see San Francisco through digital eyes, and locate cameras and other hackable devices throughout the world, as well as track enemies and objects of importance through walls. As helpful a feature as this is, the fact that it removes the minimap from the HUD and completely obfuscates the beautiful game world with a dull grey and blue colour palette does little to promote its use. Although a seemingly minor gripe, this is just another example of the melting pot attitude that Ubisoft has taken to this supposed reboot. For a game oozing with personality – from its cyberpunk, hipster graphic design to its brilliant soundtrack and genuinely relatable and comedic script and characters – the lack or originality at the heart of Watch Dogs 2 plagues it at every junction.
With little risk-taking being implemented in the core experience, the multiplayer component of Watch Dogs 2 is interesting and injects the game world with some much-needed tension and vitality. At any point during gameplay, other players can drop into your session and proceed to hack your data. While attempting to hack you, enemy players must remain within a certain radius of you, meaning that you have to frantically scan each and every NPC in order to identify the wolf among the sheep, before they get away with your data. Although yet another borrowed mechanic from the Ubisoft archive – with a similar system underpinning the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer component – the result is a taut and tense game of cat & mouse between two – or sometimes more – players, with car chases and gun battles often breaking out. Multiplayer doesn’t just pit black hat against black hat, however. Players can team up to tackle two-man missions that reward players with more followers. These coop missions, while challenging, are often very similar, with déjà vu setting in after a couple of online assignments being completed. There isn’t much in the way of variety regarding multiplayer, but the challenge of these missions and the thrill of hunting other players, as well as being hunted at virtually anytime, was very enjoyable.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Watch Dogs 2 is just how uncanny it is. Social media interactions in-game are just as addictive as they are in real life. Despite my refusal to use platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever other app allows people to suffocate my eyeballs with pictures of their ugly kids or dogs or faces, I couldn’t help but snap ‘selfies’ at the San-Fran landmarks populating the game world. Although not quite as engaging as activities in other open worlds, shutter-bugging my way through the bay was a fun distraction, and taking pics of such iconic landmarks such as Alcatraz Island was a great way to spend a [virtual] day. On that note, the photo-realism of the game world is stunning. Ubisoft really has a talent for capturing the world and filling it full of uninspired gameplay mechanics.
If their attention to gameplay was as rigorous as their attention to their game worlds, the likes of Watch Dogs 2 and The Division would be infinitely more fun. The graphic design of Watch Dogs 2 is also a further testament to Ubisoft’s misplaced gaze, or rather, misallocation of attention. The larger-than-life hacktivist lifestyle Ubisoft are peddling in Watch Dogs 2 is a world of neon lights, garish graffiti and anarchic anthems: one great big multi-coloured f-you to the establishment. A far cry from the reality of cyber crime and hacker lifestyles – remember Edward Snowden? – Ubisoft’s San Francisco cyber-scene looks like a punk-rock canary in a cage. The vibrancy of the graphic design is lost on the static open world, with the result being a game full of character and charm essential trapped in a game world possessing neither, with borrowed or dated mechanics to boot.
With other open world games costing pennies at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to pick up Watch Dogs 2. Whatever humour and charm the satirical, contemporary writing carries becomes eventually overshadowed by bland, over-subscribed gameplay mechanics that are better executed amongst Ubisoft’s very own portfolio. Looking for a quasi-open world third person shooter that is good to play and great to look at? Pick up The Division: at least you can play that with four friends.