‘Watch Dogs 2’ Review

'Watch Dogs 2' data-mines Silicon Valley's absurdity for great satire

Watch Dogs 2 is a playable version of the 1995 movie Hackers. And that’s great.
Watch Dogs 2 is a playable version of the 1995 movie Hackers. And that’s great.
Watch Dogs 2 is a playable version of the 1995 movie Hackers. And that’s great.

Highs

  • Fun, well-drawn characters
  • Interesting, varied missions with cool ideas
  • Open-world gameplay gives you options
  • Seamless multiplayer co-op offers mixes things up

Lows

  • Combat and stealth are more irritating than empowering
  • Not enough opportunities to hack creatively

Watch Dogs 2 couldn’t have come along at a better time. The fraught U.S. presidential election that included everything from leaked emails to declarations of voter fraud has left many people angry about the state of government. Wikileaks and Russian hacks played roles in the story, and Facebook has been accused of influencing some voters with its unfiltered news feed, which often surfaces fake reports that users might think are real.

For the fictional hacker group DedSec, the heroes of Watch Dogs 2, these news items would be calls to action. Like its 2014 predecessor, Watch Dogs 2 imagines a tech dystopia of corporations like Google and Facebook sucking up their customers’ personal data and putting it to all sorts of nefarious purposes – and then tasks the player with breaking in and shining bright sunlight on all that Silicon Valley evil-doing. Watch Dogs 2’s missions to wreck fraudulent voting machines rigged using data stolen by a social media network, or blow open a conspiracy by a smart home company to spy on homeowners’ personal habits to drive up their insurance rates, feel perfectly placed. You don’t get to steal Trump’s tax returns, find Clinton’s deleted emails, or block Russia from hacking the American electoral process, but you come pretty close.

While Watch Dogs 2 is an improvement in many, many ways over its 2014 predecessor, the game’s core gameplay does not feel as fresh as its narrative. Cover-based shooting and stealth get equal billing next to the game’s much more interesting premise of hacking just about everything in the game world to confuse, attack or otherwise trick enemies. When Watch Dogs 2 makes you fight it out, it suffers. When it lets you be a hacker genius messing with the gun-toting minions of the corrupt, it shines.

Mess with the best, die like the rest

Players had a lot of gripes with the original Watch Dogs. Its central protagonist, Aiden Pearce, was basically a drab, more teched-out version of Batman out for personal revenge after the death of his niece. He was a bit of a jerk and not especially compelling. Plus, the original premise of the game as publisher Ubisoft described it — hacking the “Internet of Things” scattered throughout Chicago — still devolved into a lot of standard-issue gunfights. But now, you could turn the lights off.

Where Watch Dogs was dour and self-serious, the sequel is bright, colorful, and snarky.

It isn’t perfect, but many of these issues do not plague Watch Dogs 2. Marcus Holloway, a genius hacker from Oakland, joins and quickly comes to lead the small-time hacker collective DedSec after he’s wrongfully targeted as a criminal based on profiling data collected by ctOS, smart-city infrastructure software that runs everything from traffic lights to police dispatches, while also turning whole cities into surveillance states. Hackers, as they do, tend to react badly to these scenarios, and DedSec goes on a lengthy mission to dismantle Blume and anyone affiliated with them.

Even at its outset, Watch Dogs 2 feels markedly different from its predecessor. Where Watch Dogs was dour and self-serious, the sequel is bright, colorful, and snarky. Watch Dogs 2’s new Silicon Valley setting is a shiny playground, which makes a distinctly zany stage for strong, satirical commentary with dystopian ideas about Big Data and rampant, roughshod capitalism. The game is full of analogues for real companies like Google and Facebook (or Twitter), as well as less direct caricatures like smart home company Haum and robotics manufacturer Tidis. The whole thing feels just a step beyond reality, but it’s not hard to imagine seeing many of its extremely distasteful ideas coming to light in the real world. It’s fun to smash them with righteous code.

The game is all the better for not shying away from being a comment on its moment, as well. To some degree, Watch Dogs 2 takes Silicon Valley to task for its lack of transparency and ongoing issues like diversity, and it does so with humor, instead of a hammer.

While the missions’ topical subject matter offers a wink and a nod of recognition, it’s Watch Dogs 2’s characters that really pull you in. The game builds a strong cast of central characters in DedSec, and takes the time to develop their personalities. The interplay between them, in turn, brings out more of Marcus, who is himself is a well-drawn, fun, deep character with myriad motivations and personal baggage that make him interesting.

The game’s strongest moments pair fun, playful gameplay with strong character development between Marcus and his teammates. In one, Marcus accompanies DedSec pal Horatio to his job at Google analogue Nudle, complete with super-pretentious conversations about “juicing” and “superfoods,” and some hilarious asides about being a person of color in the overwhelmingly white Silicon Valley. In another, DedSec member Wrench is captured by the FBI, which takes away his signature mask. Marcus makes it a personal mission to steal the mask back, while screwing the FBI in the process. You spend a huge amount of time with these characters, and it’s the interactions between Marcus and his friends that really carry the game.

It’s clear Ubisoft heard feedback for Watch Dogs and took it to heart. Watch Dogs 2 is somewhat remarkable for being a Ubisoft game that’s not absolutely overflowing with random junk to do. There are side activities, of course, like motocross races or giving people rides as the game’s version of an Uber driver. But Watch Dogs 2 feels tuned and streamlined. It’s a huge, lengthy game, but it doesn’t feel like it’s drowning in filler content. Instead, it heavily favors story, to its credit.

A puzzle game that forces the action game

Watch Dogs 2 becomes its best self after you’ve unlocked most of Marcus’ hacking abilities. You can complete several missions from outside combat zones, flying a drone around enemy strongholds to zap bad guys with exploding electrical lines, hacking computers, summoning cops and gangs to fight and distract enemies, and remote controlling vehicles. When you’re able to use your head to figure out how to ruin a gang’s stash of cocaine or expose a police smuggling ring without firing a shot, you get peak Watch Dogs 2. Figuring out how to approach, and hack, whole situations with your variety of tools turns the experience into a smart puzzle game that makes you feel more like a trickster god than a superhero.

Watch Dogs 2 becomes its best self after you’ve unlocked most of Marcus’ hacking abilities.

Combat and stealth, on the other hand, don’t feel as subtle and considered. You’ll spend much of the game sneaking around trying to avoid a fight, but enemies are often preternaturally able to spot and identify you, then notify everyone they’ve ever met of your exact whereabouts as if by telepathy. Every other wall in San Francisco is made of glass, making sneaking around a constant annoyance of getting spotted by the one guy you’d forgotten about. There’s a lot of time wasted time casing an area and planning your approach, only to screw up something minor and have to do it all again.

When things do go wrong and you’re spotted, the game usually devolves into a shootout, which can vary from boring to frustrating. Fights usually play out the same way: First, you find a good bottleneck where enemies can only attack you from one direction; next, you use a hacking ability that dumps shrieking feedback into their radios or telephones; then you shoot your unsuspecting victims as they freak out in pain. So many levels in my Watch Dogs 2 playthrough have piles of bodies in one room where I goaded the game’s dumb AI into attacking me, cleared out the level, and then went about my data-stealing business.

For a game so heavily slanted toward sneaking and fighting, it’s rare that you actually feel empowered by either. The best stealth moments in Watch Dogs 2 are when you find a sneaky way to bypass the hardship of a level, like commandeering and then riding around on a crane to pass over every enemy’s head. Clearing out a level with a killing spree feels tonally out of sync with what’s happening in the game.

Theese problems are magnified by the game’s poorly designed checkpoints. Not only will dying often force you to replay a large chunk of a mission, but, in doing so, you may be forced into a less forgiving or even impossible scenario. Several times I would get reset only to find that things had changed — enemies were still on alert, or key items and vehicles had been moved.

In one mission, where Marcus uses surveillance cam footage to study some corrupt cops’ meetup in order to ambush them, the AI changed completely on my second attempt at the fight, driving their cars to different spots in the area and setting up differently. The whole point of the mission was to know where the enemies would be for this clandestine drug buy, with the game encouraging you to set a series of traps. But once I’d set all my ingenious engines of death and destruction, they became useless because the game didn’t replicate the mission correctly after I’d died.

Problems like these make some portions of Watch Dogs 2 into a frustrating slog. It’s a real shame, because when the Rube Goldberg machine of using the whole world against the bad guys works, it really works. When you can avoid firing a shot, you feel like you’re as smart as Marcus, but given how many missions there are, and how many times you try to slip past tens of guards to reach an objective, there just aren’t enough of those moments.

Our Take

Even with its frustrating elements, Watch Dogs 2 is, in many ways, a step in the right direction for the ever-evolving-but-very-samey Ubisoft open-world formula. Its story and characters are goofy, funny, and obviously loved by the game’s creators. The game is full of good ideas and fun moments. However, the game’s biggest flaws also led its biggest flaws — the struggles with its combat and stealth, and many of the missions amount to the same “sneak in, interact with computer, sneak out” combination. Still, the good outweighs the bad, with Watch Dogs 2 providing lots of stellar opportunities for players to hack the planet.

What’s the alternative?

There’s usually no shortage of open-world video games these days, although Watch Dogs 2 stands apart with its generally light, often-comedic tone and its signature hacking gameplay. You’ll find this year’s Mafia III has a similar Grand Theft Auto-like mindset but with an emphasis on its storytelling. Alternatively, there’s Far Cry Primal, which more or less dispatches with story entirely in favor of providing players with almost nothing but open-world activities to focus on.

How long will it last?

Watch Dogs 2 has a metric ton of things to do in it, even if it feels like it’s less stuff, or less densely populated with activities, than other games. Even just focusing on main story missions will provide players with probably 15 hours of game time, and with side quests, races, driving, collectibles and other open-world trappings, there’s a whole lot to do.

Should you buy it?

As open-world games go, Watch Dogs 2 provides something that feels a little bit unique in terms of story and gameplay. Its emphasis on hacking as a means of solving problems is unlike any other title of similar formula, and its satirical, comedic but less-heavy tone makes it feel like a more upbeat Grand Theft Auto game. If that sounds appealing, grab Watch Dogs 2.

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