WATCH DOGS 2 REVIEW

WATCH DOGS 2 REVIEW

 

By expanding on a lot of what the first game and its expansion got right and mixing action, stealth, and puzzle gameplay with handy remote-control drones, Watch Dogs 2 impresses with open mission designs with multiple ways to reach your objective and some great toys to find them with. I’m conflicted about the tone of its story and characters, but I had a great time exploring its Bay Area map. This is a significant improvement over the original Watch Dogs in nearly every way.

One of the chief complaints about the original Watch Dogs was that its “fixer” hacker protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is a bland and unlikeable character. Ubisoft listened and left Pearce in Chicago, picking up in the Bay Area with the much more personable hacker vigilante Marcus Holloway, who is motivated not by blind revenge but by a philosophy and doesn’t always take himself seriously. Aside from a few cringe-inducing jokes, I like Marcus a lot more. Even though he and his vigilante hacker gang, Dedsec, are a little obnoxious and petty about their crusade against the Orwellian surveillance state this version of America has become, they’re generally relatable.

But, surprise twist: that’s kind of an issue, because I just don’t buy Marcus as a killer who mows people down by the dozen with gaudy, 3D-printed assault weapons. The way he’s portrayed in the cutscenes ranting against the misuse of people’s personal information is passionate, and he seems like a fundamentally good person. And then the mission begins and he might wipe out a group of private security guards, gang members, or worse, actual San Francisco Police, before going back to being relatively happy-go-lucky in the cutscenes again, unfazed by all the murder and chaos. It’s a weird disconnect that feels different than roleplaying as a violent criminal like Trevor Philips or Michael de Santa, and though it didn’t affect the mechanics it was something I was constantly noticing and feeling off about.

Because there’s no morality system to punish (or reward) violent behavior, Marcus’ personality is the only thing pushing us toward a non-lethal playstyle of stealth and silent takedowns. While it’s not as built out as something like Hitman (you can’t, for example, hide unconscious bodies to avoid detection) Watch Dogs 2 is as much a stealth game as it is an action game. Finding a silent path to an objective is a more interesting and challenging way to play that makes you use all your tools, including drones that can drive through small spaces or fly to hack something you couldn’t reach. They’re great for scoping out an area before you charge in yourself. It’s a shame that efforts to keep the body count down aren’t recognized, though – even perfectly ghosting a mission gives you the same reward as turning everyone you meet into ghosts.

Though I attempted it anyway, non-lethal techniques aren’t quite enough when you’re caught in the midst of a high-tech heist. You can melee people and knock them out (or maybe getting hit in the face by Marcus’ improvised melee weapon kills them, I’m not entirely sure), and you have an infinite-ammo stun gun that can incapacitate people at range, but it’s slow to fire (even with an upgrade). It’s no match for a wave of guards with SMGs, and so, not always for the better, out come the big guns.

Shootouts ensue, using the same cover-based shooting that’s all but ubiquitous with open-world crime games. Watch Dogs 2 feels a little different than most because even on normal difficulty you’re not very durable, and the AI is reasonably good at using cover and aggressively flanking. (Also, a lot more of San Francisco gangs have hand grenades than I’d have thought.) But you have enough means of indirect attack to feel capable in a fight, and some of them are great fun. Explosive-carrying enemies can be hacked to detonate their bombs, some can be stunned by overloading their headset communications gear, and anyone who happens to be standing near a hackable piece of equipment in the environment can be shocked or blown up at the push of a button.

But my favorite is the ability to summon angry gang members or police and target them at whoever you like by fabricating evidence. It’s not just a means of attack, it’s a fantastic distraction: I love calling them in on the far side of an area and then running in to grab my objective while the guards are too busy dealing with them to notice me. This hilarious power can be abused in a semi-game-breaking way: you can keep calling them in (after your power meter recharges) until every enemy is dead without lifting a finger.

Hacking in general is more flexible than in the first Watch Dogs - you usually have more than one option on every hackable item. For example, you can open a door with a hack, or you can choose to lock it so that no one can follow you for a few seconds. You can detonate an electrical box to stun someone nearby, make it go haywire to attract attention, or turn it into a mine that will detonate when someone gets close. If anything, there may be too many hackable items scattered around, to the point where I often have trouble selecting the right one in situations where timing matters.

This is a great open world map, and I’m not just saying that because was born in the Bay Area and have lived here for almost my entire life. Watch Dogs 2’s version is super condensed, with entire neighborhoods left on the cutting room floor, but it has all the major landmarks pretty much where they should be. (Thankfully the perpetually gridlocked traffic was omitted.) It’s a fun and diverse place to explore and run amok, and it’s surreal to be in a car chase and suddenly look up and see something like Moscone Center, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Painted Ladies, Fisherman’s Wharf, or Stanford University. I’d recommend it as virtual tourism, especially if you’ve been here before and want a refresher.

There's also quite a bit of satire about the San Francisco area and its culture, but nothing approaching HBO’s Silicon Valley’s wit. A lot of its humor comes through in the random bios that pop up when you hack civilians, some of whom can give you jokey snippets of phone calls or text conversations, all the while humanizing the crowds and making me less enthusiastic about trying to run them over on purpose.

vSpeaking of driving, the still-arcadey physics of Watch Dogs 2’s cars feel less over-the-top and more controllable than in the first game. Watch Dogs 2 relies a lot less on car chases than the first one does, so it’s not nearly as repetitious, but when they do happen car-on-car combat is made much more interesting and unique by the ability to hack cars and force them to stop or turn at will. Ideally you can force them directly into a wall or oncoming traffic. There are still button prompts to trigger explosions that auto-eliminate pursuers like before, but I no longer felt like I was driving around in circles leading cars through traps until they were all gone.

On the other hand, those high-speed chases highlight how the frame rate on PS4 and Xbox One is not especially good. In addition to occasional noticeable dips when just walking and looking around, when you’re driving fast through a busy area like North Beach and swinging the camera around, Watch Dogs 2 can get pretty chuggy. It’s playable, but if you’re sensitive to frame rate issues you will probably not be happy with that performance. The PS4 Pro handles the frame rate much better, though other than that the visual differences aren’t striking.

For Hacking’s Sake

Over time, the whole hacker-movie tone becomes a little obnoxious. This is much more brash and punk version of hacker life than the conceptually similar TV show, Mr. Robot, and because of that a lot of the objectives come off as gleeful petty vandalism (with optional murder) instead of righteous vigilantism. In the first few missions you go after stand-ins for universally loathed pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli and the Church of Scientology by way of sabotaging a hacker-themed movie. Since they’re only loosely in cahoots with the big bad guy (an effectively menacing man-bun wearing tech bro) and the goal is to gain attention for Dedsec (there’s actually a decent reason for that), it feels almost Saints Row The Third-like in its self-aggrandizing pranks, but without the same self-awareness of the characters. These people are cartoonish, but they don’t seem to know they’re in a spoof. I could also do without the frequent garish, meme-laden Dedsec propaganda videos about your exploits.

Missions themselves are strong and refreshing in their flexibility, however. The vast majority take place out in the open world instead of a linear “dungeon” area. In most you’re pointed to a fortified objective, such as a movie studio or the headquarters of a Google-like company, and are free to go about it however you want. Usually I’ve seen at least two or three means of reaching the target by stealth using your drones, or if you decide to go in loud you can approach from any direction. That freedom feels great, and is reminiscent of the Gang Hideout missions of the first Watch Dogs, which were by far my favorite part of that game. But given the potential for replayability, it’s disappointing there’s no way to revisit an early mission without starting a new game.

Outside of combat there’s a huge emphasis on environmental puzzle solving, and many are well done. Upgrade points and other useful items are stashed in generally high locations that can only be reached by finding a way to climb up, and with power-flow puzzles that appear overlaid on the world. Most of them require the use of your drones, so you have to think about what tool is best for the job. I’ve spent easily as much time with these puzzles as I have with action. The only frustrating part is spending 10 minutes looking for a solution before realizing it requires an upgrade you don’t have yet.

There are loads of those side activities, including races, being an Uber driver (called Driver San Francisco, a clever reference to one of Ubisoft’s older games) plus lots of areas that are patrolled by guards with stashes of cash. There’s no shortage of things to do, and it’s kept me busy for upwards of 30 hours.

That brings us to the multiplayer modes, which are now up and running after being mostly disabled at launch. Outside of the handful of two-player co-op missions (which are good opportunities for double-hacker antics) they still don’t work as reliably as I’d like, but when they do manage to connect you to other players they’re tense games of cat and mouse. In the hacking mode that can happen spontaneously as you play (when you’re not in a story mission), one player blends into the civilian population and attempts to steal data from another player by staying close to them without being discovered. It’s very similar to the first Watch Dogs, except now everybody has a flying drone that can quickly scan everybody in the area. That tips the balance a bit too much toward the defending player – it’s hard to hide from an eye in the sky. I’ve yet to have a hack go successfully except for when the target also has to deal with police chasing them because of unrelated shenanigans.

The other mode, Bounty Hunt, is an excellent spin on the typical police chase. When you max out your wanted meter (which you can do voluntarily by activating a mission instead of mowing down civilians), instead of calling in the military the police call in something far more lethal to stop your rampage: other players. PvP combat isn’t Watch Dogs 2’s strongest suit, and these fights usually start and end with volleys from grenade launchers, but I love the thrill of the chase and hitting each other with hacking abilities. I once used my flying drone to drop explosives on a bounty target who thought he was safe by covering the only access point to his perch atop the Golden Gate Bridge, which was a terrifically satisfying end to the hunt. These modes really let you test your survival skills when you’ve maxed out all your upgrades, and adds some much-needed unpredictability to chases that, in most open-world games, lose their appeal as soon as you've figured out how to exploit the AI's weaknesses.

The Verdict

Watch Dogs 2’s distinctive hacking and puzzle mechanics do a great job of reminding you that you’re not playing just another Grand Theft Auto clone as you tear through it’s beautiful Bay Area map. Marcus is a bit too friendly of a guy to be believable as our instrument of mayhem, but the flexible missions let you get through mostly non-violently if you’re good enough at stealth. And when it works, multiplayer is good unconventional cat-and-mouse fun, too.

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BIG Thanks & Credit to  DAN STAPLETON Via IGN.com

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