The last time I played Watch Dogs 2, I wasn’t impressed. The E3 demo was short, and it showed a minuscule portion of the game, but it was enough for me to realize that the sequel felt mostly similar to its predecessor. I had another chance to check out the game after that first demo when Ubisoft invited me to an extended hands-on preview last week. I played Watch Dogs 2 for a few hours, and even though it still felt similar to the first title, I was slightly more intrigued by the game.
Wild And Free
The first Watch Dogs focused on Aiden Pearce and his revenge-fueled quest to take down those responsible for the death of his niece. It was a dark story set in Ubisoft’s version of Chicago. Watch Dogs 2, however, doesn’t seem to have a serious tone for most of the game. As new protagonist Marcus Holloway, you join the hacktivist group Dedsec. The group’s main goal is to disrupt the Blume Corporation and its revamped “ctOS” system, which monitors every citizen in the San Francisco Bay Area. Unlike Pearce and his compatriots in the first game, the members of Dedsec seem carefree at times, but also determined to take on Blume and ctOS. To them, every mission brings them one step closer to eliminating Big Brother, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t have fun along the way. In one of the missions, for example, you have to steal a unique car (similar to KITT from Knight Rider) from a movie set just because it looked cool.
The setting of San Francisco also has a major contrast to the previous game's Chicago: Whereas the Windy City seemed to always showcase dark colors and cramped spaces, the San Francisco Bay Area shows a mixture of bright and dark color tones depending on where you are in the world. Ubisoft Montreal also made sure to show off the city’s diversity through its different neighborhoods and architecture. In addition to the downtown area, there are places like Marin, which has its own winding roads, bayside houses, and apartments. There’s also Ubisoft’s take on Silicon Valley, which is full of massive campuses that house the world’s top tech companies. Overall, the world of Watch Dogs 2 is larger and more diverse than its predecessor.
Things To Do
Progressing through the game requires you to complete a series of primary story missions, or as the game calls them, “Main Operations.” Each operation is made up of multiple missions, and you don’t have to complete the full operation all at once. You can complete a few missions and then spend some time exploring the open world. The developers also present you with multiple story missions as a way to eliminate the feeling of walking a linear path in the campaign. In addition to these main missions, there are some side quests available (a.k.a. "Side Operations") from citizens all over the game world.
With each completed mission, you gain a specific number of followers. At first, the idea of accruing followers seems silly, but it actually makes sense the longer you play the game. Each follower downloads the Dedsec app. This allows the hacker group to utilize the hardware of any device with the app installed to stage the eventual attack on Blume’s servers in the Bay Area. It’s unclear how many followers you’ll need to recruit to reach the final mission, but game director Danny Belanger told me that there are multiple milestones, or major story missions, that unlock based on follower count.
There are also some collectibles and points of interest scattered throughout the area. As for other activities, that’s where the game is sorely lacking. A quick look at the map shows multiple spots for races, which utilize go-karts, bikes, sailboats, and even drones. However, there isn’t anything else to distract you from the main objectives other than collectibles, races, and side operations, at least in the single-player campaign. The lack of activities makes the rest of the Watch Dogs 2 world feel barren. There’s some solace in the races, extra missions, and collectibles, but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough to keep you entertained for long.
As always, the centerpiece of the Watch Dogs series is the hacking abilities, but this time around, Belanger said that your play style will fall into one of the three skill categories: Trickster, Aggressor, or Ghost. Each ability in the skill tree corresponds to one of the three categories. You can mix and match abilities from different categories to create your own unique hacker/vigilante.
“The one that we really wanted to focus on was the Trickster hacker,” Belanger said. “He’s sending his gadgets, using cameras [as well as] the system and solving the problem without ever putting a foot [in the enemy area]. We value all the play styles because we’re not there to force a player to play a certain way. If there’s a problem, and you like playing [a specific] way, it’s fine. We really wanted to make hacking at the core of [gameplay]. The challenge is that it’s really easy to shoot, so we needed tools to make hacking very efficient, so we wanted to keep the ‘one-button hack,’ but still have depth and allow you to really create situations that are useful, but also very entertaining.”
As you roam around the Bay Area, you can still use “one-button hacks” to quickly open doors, access camera feeds, or hack into servers. However, there’s more depth to the hacking system this time around. For example, when you hack someone’s phone, you can choose from one (or more) of four options, such as stealing a specific amount of money from their bank account or distracting them with a phone call or message.
The same idea also works for cars. You can control a car’s forward, backward, and side movements without sitting in the driver’s seat. If you prefer to avoid direct confrontations with foes, these new tools ensure that you can finish each mission without firing a single shot.
In addition to new hacking tools, you also get some new toys to play with, such as a small remote control (RC) car and drone. At first I thought I could actually go through the game without using the new toys, but there are some obstacles that required the gadgets. One example was when I needed to reach a closed circuit box to open a door, but the box was located behind an impassable fence. Luckily, there was a small gap at the bottom of the fence, which allowed me to use the RC car to slip through and hack the closed circuit box. Even so, you don’t necessarily have to use them in most situations if they’re not suited to your play style.
A Bit More Convincing, But...
At the end of the session, I found that I enjoyed the many ways to approach missions in Watch Dogs 2, especially with the new hacking options. These new features allow you to be more creative in various situations, such as infiltrating a compound or taking out a few enemies. However, the open-world side of the game needs more work. Side operations, races, and collectibles are fine, but if that’s the extent of what you can do in the Bay Area outside of the main campaign, it probably won't be enough to keep players satisfied.
With this large of a game world, there should be more for players to do without the need to resort to online gameplay. If this problem isn’t fixed soon, boredom is likely to set in for fans within the first few hours of the game.