I seemed to be in a relative minority when it came to Watch Dogs – I absolutely adored it. Its shortcomings (predominantly its story and characters and how its marketing over-promised and over-hyped) were largely in areas I didn’t really mind shortcomings in, while the things it did well (mission structure, lively and engaging open world, fun side activities) were some of the elements I value most highly in games.
So the announcement of Watch Dogs 2 was a highly exciting one for me – and it seemed the rest of the world too. From the first trailer, it looked to build upon everything its predecessor did badly while enhancing its best parts. And how was it in the end?
There’s very little in Watch Dogs 2 that wasn’t better than the original. The world is more vivid, the characters are genuinely likable or dislikable depending on their role in the story, the story actually makes a level of sense in a game world based on hacking, and the game in general slightly eases up on the serious tone that the first one over-did – there is drama in Watch Dogs 2, but it doesn’t tie the story down with anything as unsubtle as the “AIDEN’S CHILD IS DEAD, GO VISIT ITS GRAVESTONE, LOOK AT IT, SADNESS AND THINGS” from Watch Dogs 1.
The world is so, so much more vivid. It has more colour, for a start. San Francisco is a more varied place, too – you can go from hick bars in the countryside to neon-lit graffiti-riddled downtown nightlife, visiting Alcatraz, Lombard Street and the Golden Gate Bridge on the way. The people are more animated and interesting than in Watch Dogs… in general, it just feels like a really “positive” game world to live in.
As suggested at the top of this review, stories in games aren’t something where I require a level of quality. If a fun game has a crap story (Watch Dogs 1), I still love the game. If a crap game has a fun story (Mafia III), I don’t. But Watch Dogs 2 is a fun game WITH a fun story. I went into it wholly expecting the “hacker-life” to feel contrived and cheesy – bar a few squiffy lines (Marcus finding the machine of his dreams and continuously screaming “I can’t even!” springs violently to mind) and the odd dodgy character or two, it honestly felt genuine. I wanted to see the good guys get the happy ending and the bad guys get brought to justice – the only reason I cared if Aiden even survived his story in the first game is so I could keep doing side stuff after finishing it.
A lot of good stuff in Watch Dogs 2 was present in WD1 as well, and it was highly welcome to enjoy those same aspects in a better world with better everything. The simple ability to analyse ANYONE in the world, see their full names, career, salary, personalities etc gives the world an insane amount of life – it’s weird for a video game to give you a feeling of sonder, but when you analyse someone you’ve just accidentally hit with a car and the game giving them a complete life abruptly halted by your mistake, it’s gut-wrenching.
The freedom of how you complete the game is wonderful, too. Almost accidentally through the mechanics being imperfect, Watch Dogs 2 discourages all-guns-blazing by having enemies able to drop you in fractions of a second. But there are many ways to complete missions without drawing a gun, and they’re so satisfying to pull off. I became an early advocate for using an unlockable ability to forge a nasty criminal record onto anyone I pleased – with a little patience, you could have an entire hostile area systematically arrested. When I grew a little more bloodthirsty, I added a similar ability to forge evidence to gangs that people of my choosing were traitors to their gang – two heavily armed members would then drive up and blast them into oblivion without me being anywhere near the scene.
Sometimes, that wasn’t a viable option (or I simply didn’t want to play it that way). If my objective was to hack a computer within a restricted area, I could launch my little RC car, which I could carefully navigate through the area while avoiding enemies’ lines of sight with it. Upon reaching the computer, I had it extend its little robotic arm and plug its USB into the target PC’s port, downloading, uploading or otherwise hacking it without ever even setting foot in the place.
There are so many other methods of playing Watch Dogs 2 beyond just those two, and you can also mix and match – while I didn’t get much use from it, I quite enjoyed equipping the RC car with the ability to shout “hey, f***face!”, luring enemies out of the way of my route to my objective… as long as they couldn’t take out the car with a well-thrown stone or some reckless gunfire first.
And I’m wholly convinced that the newly-drivable scissor lifts and other various ways of gaining height are the greatest thing to ever grace any game. Without any method of flying (which isn’t really a big loss in all honesty), it’s always fun when a mission marker is atop a tall building working out where the nearest forklift, scissor lift or even crane is, so you can hack it, step onto it, and see San Francisco from its dizzying highest.
While there isn’t MUCH in WD2 better than the original, I do miss some things. Watch Dogs 1 felt like it had more tiers of activity – you had main missions, then side missions, then activities, and finally collectibles. Watch Dogs 2 feels a lot more like it compresses main and side missions into one big blob (they’re mixed together in the mission select and there’s no real difference in their significance) and the amount of smaller content to do is reduced dramatically.
In the first game, you had ~100 “collectible” spots where you could spy on someone for a little while and see a humorous cutscene. There were tons of minigames like chess (yay!) and competitive drinking (eugh, but still nice just to have it) in WD1 – now, your humorous camera spying is limited to a few missions, and those minigames are gone completely. I could see the rationale for removing those to stop 100%ing the game being so obnoxious as WD1 was, but WD2 doesn’t even let you see your game completion. Worse still, you can still go into cafés and bars where you would have played these games, but in WD2, all you can do is meaninglessly order drinks. There are other things to do in WD2 (such as the ScoutX picture locations and the Driver: San Francisco – funny joke – Uber-esque taxi jobs) but WD2’s San Francisco does just feel that smidge emptier than the predecessor’s Chicago did.
There were a few other minor niggles. My previous review, Mafia III, featured complaints about how it utilised a “parkour button” – rather than a conventional jump, you held down a button in that game and Lincoln Clay would then jump, vault and climb… maybe 20% of the time you wanted to. If I’m not mistaken, Watch Dogs 1 might have actually popularised this system, and Watch Dogs 2 brings it back. And while it’s not nearly as dysfunctional as in Mafia III, you will still find occasions where Marcus should clearly be able to jump a gap, but where the game decides that it’s having none of it. It’s most prevalent in “improvised” solutions to puzzles – I couldn’t find a scissor lift to reach the top of a building, so I instead parked several cars and a bus in a way to make myself a staircase up. Parkour button? Nah! I got 95% of the height needed, but that final clamber from the face of the upright bus to the roof was clearly not designed to be possible, so I fell to my near-death.
Watch Dogs 2 was bloody excellent. Exactly what I wanted from a sequel, and I’m happy that it’s so good that even people disappointed with the first can now love the Watch Dogs world. I cared about the characters like I never expected to, and still got my hours after hours of enjoyment from messing about, snouting into the lives of other people, and playing every mission in a way that felt like I’d made it up myself.