In 2014, Ubisoft released the first entry into the WATCH_DOGS franchise to mixed reviews, largely because of it’s advertisement and presentation leading up to the eventual release. Commonly referred to as “bullshots”, it would later become apparent that the footage we were given at E3 in 2013 had been doctored and generally didn’t represent the game visually or mechanically. Ubisoft lost the trust of many long-time fans (myself included), but now we have a new Watch Dogs game; does this one hold up to the pre-release hype?
Same _DOG, New Tricks
This iteration of the franchise has us joining a mostly new cast of characters in the brand new setting of San Francisco. The first game was set in Chicago, so one of the first things you’re bound to notice is the change in environment and characterization. This time around we join Marcus (aka Retr0) and the rest of the hacker syndicate DedSec as they seek to once again put a stop to ctOS, the overly invasive and Orwellian surveillance system that has now spread across the country. ctOS was essentially beta tested in Chicago, and the central theme of the first game was to take it down for good. However, Blume (the company responsible for ctOS) saw this merely as a chance to beef up it’s security and used the hacking attacks as further justification for an even more invasive system.
Using what has become known as the “Internet of Things”, ctOS 2.0 taps into basically every household item you can imagine to collect data on unsuspecting citizens and then selling it to anyone that’s willing to pay, such as insurance companies.
While the protagonist of the first game Aiden Pierce simply worked in conjunction with DedSec, Marcus is actually a member and is inducted as part of the game’s tutorial. The goal of DedSec this time is to put a stop to ctOS in San Francisco, and make sure that it stays down. They accomplish this by making use of social media and “hacktivism”, as well as a DedSec app that followers can download to their phone. Doing so allows DedSec to establish a botnet from it’s followers, increasing their reach and power.
This time around you have the entirety of San Francisco to explore (including Alcatraz Island), and every corner of the map is bustling with activities for you to take part in. Some are directly related to your mission of taking down Blume and ctOS, while others simply offer a fun side activity (such as eKart and Motocross racing).
In addition to this, the game’s online mode makes a bit of a return in the form of Online Operations, where you can interact with or work against other players in the world. At the time of this writing, however, the “seamless online” was disabled due to a bug and I was unable to partake. The feature sounds very interesting, and hopefully they can fix it soon.
The rest of the missions are very commentative on our society today, such as our fascination (read: obsession) with social media and “upvoting”, and see you take on a variety of enemies; one mission had me expose the lies of the Church of the New Dawn, which is obviously a reference to Scientology. Police corruption in poor neighborhoods is another set of missions for you to take part in, and is absolutely drawn from current events.
You can accomplish your goals in a variety of ways, but it essentially comes down to two methods: clever use of hacking exploits and the tools of the trade, or “guns blazing”. Most of your equipment is crafted in DedSec’s 3D printer, and you can make anything from drones to fully automatic rifles. You’ll need to find research data around the city to unlock some of the cooler stuff, but it’s definitely worth it. You can even give your equipment a spiffy paintjob.
Some of the new tools include a biwheel drone called the Jumper that is able to roll around, sneak through ventilation areas, and even leap to heights you can’t reach yourself. It’s also capable of physical hacks which is helpful for overcoming a strong enemy presence. Also present is the quadcopter drone, which is capable of flying around and gathering surveillance of a given area; after upgrades, it can even mark enemies. These both felt like great additions to the toolkit and the gameplay benefits from them.
Apart from this Marcus has access to the usual set of abilities and tools, such as remotely hacking phones and vehicles, causing maximum carnage. This time your phone relies on “botnet charges”, which can be refreshed by hacking the phones of basically anyone on the street. This is similar in function to the battery system from the first game, but felt more thoughtful and useful.
High Resolution Hacking
The visuals in this game are actually quite good, and like most games coming out now it can benefit from owning a PS4 Pro system. But rest assured, if you’re still stuck in the stone ages like myself and are using a standard PS4, the game still looks very nice indeed.
I feel like many portions of this game were given great attention to detail and were fleshed out very nicely, particularly with regards to graffiti in the world and vehicles. Weather effects were also nice, and the reflection on streets and sidewalks caused by a downpour were a sight to look at.
All in all, I would love to recommend this game to people in general, but unfortunately I do have some qualms with the game unrelated to it’s performance or even it’s story.
Essentially my problems come down to the atmosphere and character design established in the first game versus this game. Watch_Dogs established a dark and gritty Chicago, with very layered and interesting characters. Aiden was a character that had clear motivations toward protecting his family and making the world a better place, and that was reflected in what he was willing to do. He also felt much more capable of taking on the challenges at hand than Marcus does; Aiden’s weapon of choice was a collapsible baton that he used to great effect in neutralizing enemies – this versus Marcus’ weapon of a pool ball on a bungee cord.
With regards to characterization, the world of the first Watch_Dogs felt very dangerous and dark, which I would associate with being more realistic given the circumstances. Watch_Dogs 2 seems to have departed from this path and gone for a brighter, campier world and I’m not entirely sure it helps set it apart from it’s obvious competition, the Grand Theft Auto series. The dark atmosphere of the first game was one of it’s only redeeming qualities, and that’s no longer there.
In summary, each entry into this franchise has something I love that’s mostly outweighed by things that I don’t like, and they each feel fragmented as a result. If there were a way to take the atmosphere and character design of the first game and put it inside the mechanical construct of this entry, I feel it would be an excellent and praise worthy game. For the time being, however, I can only say that Watch_Dogs 2 is “OK”. If you’re not a fan of the series, you’re better off passing on this one.