Game review: Watch Dogs 2 – open-world hacking sequel is lighter and more fun than original

With a more likeable lead and the diverse San Francisco Bay Area as virtual playground, Watch Dogs 2 is a fun game that has something to say about the current state of America

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 11:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 11:03am

Watch Dogs 2


3.5/5 stars

When the world looks bleak, video games can offer a refuge – an escape from dire circumstances or disheartening situations.

Players can lose themselves in open worlds. They can decompress from whatever stresses they’ve encountered. At a time like this, we need video games more than ever, and Ubisoft provides a near-perfect palliative with Watch Dogs 2.

Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, this sequel takes a new approach. It stars a new protagonist: an African-American hacker from Oakland named Marcus Holloway, and it focuses on his fight against corrupt tech corporations.

In tone and substance, Watch Dogs 2 (for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC) is completely different from the first game. The serious Aiden Pearce and his revenge tale made the original a dour slog filled with personal drama and anger.

By contrast, Marcus’ fight against corporations is mostly offbeat and nerdy. The missions have a lighthearted mood as well as an inventiveness that the first game lacked. Often players may feel as if they’re pulling off Ocean’s 11-type schemes.

The new game makes hacking easier and expands the tech repertoire. Now, players can easily hack objects with the press of a button. While sneaking into a building, they can hit the shoulder button and distract a foe. If they want to booby-trap an electrical box during a gunfight, they can aim for the object and activate it.

Ubisoft also has introduced a layer of hacking controls, activated by holding down the shoulder button, which enables players to choose among four actions, bringing more strategy into the fray.

Drones are the other game-changing addition. Marcus has two machines for infiltrating enemy territory from a safe distance. The two-wheeled RC Jumper can squeeze into air ducts to hack computers in distant rooms. The Quadcopter comes in handy for scouting and laying down traps for patrols. Coordinated use of both drones opens up a new world of stealth gameplay, allowing players to wrap up some missions while staying out of danger.

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Both drones are also essential for puzzle solving. The Quadcopter permits players to flit around the environment and connect circuit nodes so that Marcus can access a closed system. Elsewhere, players encounter scenarios where Marcus must get access to off-limits areas. That’s when players watch for paths through which the RC Jumper can roll.

These great tools form a solid foundation, but Watch Dogs 2 also distinguishes itself from most open-world games with a mission design and writing that’s smart and timely. Ubisoft did the necessary research to create versions of San Francisco, Oakland, Marin County and Silicon Valley that resemble each locale and reflect the soul and character of each area.

As players wander through this world, they’ll hear passers-by talking about gentrification and being priced out of San Francisco. During a mission in the East Bay district, they’ll hear talk about scandals in the Oakland Police Department.

Many missions have a ripped-from-the-headlines vibe. Players will encounter a pharma CEO, whom Marcus tricks into donating millions to leukaemia research by posing as a hip-hop star selling a new song. Another mission involves getting payback against a gamer troll who calls Swat teams on opposing players.

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By lacing the narrative with actual events, Ubisoft makes Marcus’ heroics more relevant. Players are righting wrongs they’ve actually read or heard about. That heightens a sense of empowerment at a time when there’s a great deal of uncertainty.

Sure, Watch Dogs 2’s narrative has its flaws. The quirky humour and hiccups in pacing make some missions feel awkward. But since the game does so much right and rekindles our sense of justice and hope, small flaws can be overlooked.