Watch Dogs 2 Is Determined To Be Fun

Playful isn’t high on the list of adjectives I’d use to describe Aiden Pearce’s po-faced misadventures in Watch Dogs, so when I sat down to play four hours of Watch Dogs 2, my face wasn’t prepared for the amount of grinning I’d be doing. There were aches. There was embarrassing, snorting laughter. Mostly, though, there was relief.

The first game had a tone problem. It was grey and grim and stuck with a humourless, sad sack protagonist, which didn’t quite match up with a conceit as silly as a magic phone that can hack grenades and find out what type of porn people watch. Its sequel, however, seems determined to be fun.

Marcus, Watch Dogs 2’s protagonist, is a major reason for this change in tone. He’s a gregarious and affable hacker from Oakland, whose penchant for troublemaking is only exceeded by hacking skills that call to mind Case from Neuromancer rather than a 20-something member of an Anonymous analogue. He jokes, he pulls pranks, his melee weapon is a ball on a fluorescent rope, and he dresses like a man who was pushed into a vat of ‘80s fashion mistakes. I’m utterly smitten.

It makes such a huge difference, playing a character who seems to be actually enjoying himself. And he’s got good reason to, as the missions I played were almost all massive pranks. Though Marcus and his Dedsec – the hacker group he’s affiliated with – pals are trying to topple Big Brother, their weapons are humiliation just as often as they are guns and hacking. Defacing billboards, tricking a crooked CEO into donating money to charity, stealing props from movie studios – it’s all a big game to them. And that’s not just how it starts out. When I jumped forward to a save at the 20 hour mark, the missions continued to be endearingly silly, even with the seemingly higher stakes.

Ultimately, the main objectives still fall into familiar categories like infiltrating buildings or stealing stuff, but there’s joy to be had in experimenting with different ways to actually achieve these goals. Take a very simple mission from quite late into the game: the aforementioned defacing of a billboard. The task is simple – get to the top of a building, climb up to the billboard, and cover it in giant cartoon poos – but there’s an obstacle in the way. A gang is in control of the construction site containing a crane that serves as the only way to get to the top of the building. So how do you get through the goons?

There’s the aggressive, guns-blazing route that would seem like the most obvious, but even that comes with a lot of options. Do you charge in, shooting, using cover to protect yourself? Do you disable enemies with electrical grenades? Maybe remote-controlling a hacked car primed to explode is more your style, instead. Guns, vehicles, drones – there’s no dearth of deadly tools in Marcus’ arsenal.

Subtlety is just as viable a route, however. Through stealthy movement and parkour, Marcus can avoid detection and work his way through areas unseen, or sneak up on enemies and use non-lethal methods to take them out of the fight. In four hours, I didn’t once come across a situation that couldn’t be handled without killing. It seems more in keeping with Marcus’ character, as well. It’s hard to reconcile the prankster who has become a victim of a dystopian surveillance system with the mass-murderer players can turn him into.

That said, when Watch Dogs 2 devolves into explosive violence and spectacle, it’s undeniably entertaining. When I tackled the billboard mission, I opted for a strategy that was both sneaky and chaotic. I used a pair of extremely handy abilities that effectively turned the construction yard into a miniature war zone, with cops and multiple gangs drowning the place in bullets and fire. All I had to do was frame a gang member, bringing another gang in to execute him, while alerting the police that there was a terrorist in the area. Then I watched the carnage, before commandeering the crane while everyone was distracted.

Most of these tools and abilities take time to acquire. The Dedsec cell you’re a part of starts of small, though with lots of potential. New 3D-printed weapons and equipment, ground and air drones, and additional hacking skills are all just a mission away. To get them, cash, followers and research is necessary. The purpose of cash is obvious, followers are sort of a metric of Dedsec’s success, and also power the hacker super-weapon app they’re developing, and research points can be spent on new tech. Missions, side content and exploration dole them out in generous quantities.

If anything, I worry that Marcus perhaps has too many fancy abilities. It’s great for the sandbox, and I spent plenty of time just mucking around, creating almighty explosions and generally making a nuisance of myself, but I wonder if it’s going to make late-game missions a walkover. Despite my concerns, I confess that I died plenty of times. That could be down to self-imposed challenges, however, as I was trying to go through most of the missions without getting spotted – possible, but sometimes very tricky.

Watch Dogs 2, like its predecessor, presents hacking very simply. If the ability is unlocked, you can fire it off at the touch of a button. There are times when Marcus cracks open his laptop, but the player never needs to break a sweat. Occasionally, however, a hacking mini-game does crop up, and it’s sort of an augmented reality version of BioShock’s pipemania. It’s not great.

The AR display, which shows tubes and wires spread out across walls and floors, sometimes across multiple rooms, obfuscates what are really quite simple puzzles, simply not letting you see the big picture, and forcing you to run back and forth. And while I’m all for chucking the odd puzzle into an open-world action game, turning a bunch of tubes would not be my first choice. I don’t even know what it’s got to do with hacking. I only came across two of them, thankfully, and both in missions that were otherwise excellent.

The quality of the missions meant that I spent most of my allotted time playing through them, but my brief forays into side-missions and exploration of the Bay Area proved to be just as rewarding. There are collectibles and nodes and all the sorts of stuff you’d expect from an Ubisoft open-world – though I noted a welcome lack of bloat – but it’s the multiplayer encounters that have stuck with me.

Multiplayer missions, like bounty hunts or hacking attempts, are woven seamlessly into the world, some appearing like any other mission (though they’re colour-coded so you know they’re multiplayer), others appearing as special events. The standout is a hacking game of cat and mouse, probably my favourite part of the first Watch Dogs. The mode is simple enough – you either get notified that someone is trying to hack you, or that you need to hack them. The twist is that the hacker looks like an NPC. The trick, then, is to try and stay close to your victim without giving away that you’re another player. If you get caught, then it becomes a chase, as hunter becomes the hunted. It’s elegantly simple, but provided some of the tensest moments of my time with the game. The bounty hunts also created a few highlights, however.

In bounty hunts, you get a target and you kill them. Pretty basic stuff. Except, your target might have rocket launchers, an armada of driverless cars, or the ability to cause the very ground beneath you to erupt. I found myself in one of these hunts, mid-battle. It’s not always 1-on-1 fights. As I turned the corner, pulling into the street my GPS was guiding me to, I was greeted by a vision of the apocalypse. Corpses. Debris everywhere. Burned out cars. Gas spewing out of the road. Alarms wailing. That was the aftermath, but down the road it was still going on. This led to a four-person bike chase down the coast, as we frantically dodged underground pipe explosions and high-speed car collisions thanks to hacked traffic lights. One crash later, and the battle was decided by a messy shootout in a cloud of smoke and crackling electricity. I wish I could tell you the result, but I was shot in the head by a shifty sniper.

Though a great deal of the first game can be found in its successor, it seems to have benefited from a philosophy shift. It’s more liberating, more of a sandbox. After our time was up with Watch Dogs 2, a few of us who had played got to chatting about our antics, and the one series that was mentioned several times, as a comparison, was Saints Row. Saints Row 2, in particular. The gleeful chaos and levity are part of it, but there’s also everyone’s favourite aspect of any good video game: dressing up. I am very pleased to report that you can make poor Marcus look like the fashion equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

At first I thought Marcus just had very eclectic taste, but then it hit me. He doesn’t. Almost every item of clothing you can buy for him shares one common theme: Duran Duran wore it. Or would wear it. And there are a few items that Kanye would probably be all over, too. I thought Narnia was the best thing you could find in a wardrobe, but no, it’s this. My favourite ensemble? Obnoxious cap. Zebra-print suit jacket. Tight jeans. Cowboy boots. And red shutter shades to top off the travesty.

He matches San Francisco pretty well. While the city is now frequently discussed in the same sentence as wealth inequality and housing problems, and there are definitely hints of that in Watch Dogs 2, it also presents the dream of San Francisco: a vibrant, relaxed, geek-friendly Mecca. Driving across it was a delight – though I do hope they add a bit more friction to the driving, as vehicles sometimes feel like they’re close to floating – as I briefly turned into a tourist. As a setting, it’s a big improvement over the grey concrete and glass metropolis of Chicago.

I always feel like I’m on the edge of swearing off open-world action games, but I find myself unexpectedly eager to play more of Watch Dogs 2. It seems like a marked improvement over its predecessors offerings, and a better home for the better concepts rattling around inside the first game.

Watch Dogs 2 is due for release on November 15th.

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36 Comments

  1. a very affectionate parrot says:

    For me the thing that worked best about the first watch dogs was the ability to hack your way through a building’s security system from the outside and achieve your objective without even trespassing into enemy territory, it seems like this one gives you even more tools to do the same thing (drones etc…) AND doesn’t have the horribly dour tone of the first game, so I’m cautiously optimistic for this.

    • JakeOfRavenclaw says:

      Yes! This was my favorite thing about the first game too, perhaps even more so because the first time I managed to do it was by accident, while I was using an enemy’s body camera to scout around. Obviously hacking is going to be more akin to magic in any game with this level of accessibility, but those moments where you could complete objectives without even going anywhere near the bad guys really captured the *feel* of being a sneaky hacker (less so the missions where you were blowing up convoys in the middle of Chicago, but it sounds like they’ve got things a bit more dialed in this time).

      Also I’m really a sucker for games that let you dress up your character–the first Watch Dogs was pretty lame in that respect–so this one has definitely just moved up my wish list :-)

  2. CartonofMilk says:

    I’ve been very looking forward to this game.

    Unlike a lot of people i actually enjoyed the first though it did have some glaring flaws. And this game from the get go sounded to me like it had fixed all of them.

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      caff says:

      I’m with you. Enjoyed the first one a lot, and after completing the single player story I had a huge blast dipping into the cat-and-mouse multiplayer.

      Another gane, Spy Party has a very similar multiplayer feel of “oh shit he knows where I am”. Proper tense stuff.

  3. JarinArenos says:

    I gave WD1 a pass, but Marcus makes me think I might have to give this one a try. Is there any kind of story continuity between the first and second game? Do I need a plot synopsis or LP of the first game to fully enjoy the second?

    • Fraser Brown says:

      There’s at least one character who is in both games, but the only real background you need is what CTOS is all about, and the game explains that at the start.

  4. Cerulean Shaman says:

    I sure hope it aims to be fun. I really hated almost every aspect about the first one except MAYBE the gunplay, occasionally, and it was sorta fun being destructive with the environment.

    However I forced myself to finish it to get my money’s worth and really disliked the story. This game has a lot to live up to and regardless of it’s ratings I’m probably still not going to touch it until it’s bargain bin.

    Deus Ex at least had my trust and it only wrapped it around its shillong and slapped me in the face with it.

  5. G-Lord says:

    Ended up preordering the game due to an Origin error, even though I generally don’t preorder. Glad to hear that I possibly didn’t waste my bet :P.

  6. brulleks says:

    “All I had to do was frame a gang member, bringing another gang in to execute him, while alerting the police that there was a terrorist in the area. Then I watched the carnage, before commandeering the crane while everyone was distracted.”

    This is exactly the kind of thing I always found myself wishing I could do in the first game, so colour me interested. The first game had some good ideas, but many of the missions and side activities left me cold – particularly one of the last few main missions, which simply robbed you of all the tools the rest of the game taught you to use, leading to a very abrupt uninstall.

  7. TillEulenspiegel says:

    RPS has this weird thing against “grey and grim”. That’s what good cyberpunk is. Well, except for the space rastas (Neuromancer).

    You can’t have a light and goofy capitalist dystopia.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      I have no problem with grittier games. My problem with WD1 was that the tone didn’t really match the conceit, and Pearce was simply boring and miserable.

    • Pich says:

      Snowcrash managed to be gritty with humor and personality, of wich WD1 and his trash protagonist were utterly void

    • Sin Vega says:

      Cyberpunk doesn’t have to be a monochrome po-faced grimacefest. That’s a tone, not a setting. And tellingly, it’s one that a lot of shooty games share regardless of what their setting or subgenre is, which made it all the more disappointing for Watchunderscoredogs. If you’re gonna do a dystopia, you still need to give it some personality and colour and life, and yeah, even a little fun. I’m probably gonna regret the choice of example, but however grim Bloodnet got, there were still moments where the protagonist was glib or funny or warm. Johnny Watchunderscoredogs was just another scowlfaced douche in a world of them.

      Granted, going to the other extreme can be criticised too, depending on how it’s handled. But at least if you do it that way, you’re sacrificing dramatic weight for sheer fun, rather then failing at both.

    • ishumar says:

      “You can’t have a light and goofy capitalist dystopia.”

      hey man have you heard about this thing called contemporary society

      • ishumar says:

        on that note, at some point ubisoft should force the employees of one of their open world game studios to all read debord & zizek & deleuze, wear white turtlenecks and smoke the chomsky hashish, like all of it.

        rhizomatic drugmaniac big other situationist open world collectathon: de gaull final boss. erect barricades by making a map out of the tracing. break free from panopticon prisons, but you don’t, when arrested by arborescent coppers. confront dromomaniac npc pedestrian spectacle with lacanian decaffinated collectibles. destroy own antiontology with sokal paper submission. uninstall and reflect on lucaks

      • Unclepauly says:

        You call that light and goofy? Pfft

    • MikoSquiz says:

      Good cyberpunk is not grey and grim. Good cyberpunk is glossy black and blue-and-orange neon.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      Yeah, I don’t get it either. The writers here seem to want scifi and cyberpunk games to be in nice primary colours. And in particular, to want post-apocalyptic games to be super colourful and bright, and not dirty and grey/brown as the world would actually be after some sort of global catastrophe.

      Surely there are enough games featuring either childish cartoon characters (Overwatch, for example) or nerdish ye olde elves and dwarves cavorting in a forest somewhere (about 25% of all games) or superheroes in garishly coloured cities (Saints Row, Batman, etc) that we’re still allowed to have some browns and greys in our gritty sci fi wastelands?

    • Chiron says:

      Brazil.

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      caff says:

      I’m with you on this too. I think the best cyberpunk is all moody and grey, rainswept dark alleys with neon strip club signs.

      Fortunately CD Projekt Red are working on what looks exactly like my perfect cyberpunk game.

  8. Gordon Shock says:

    Let’s just hope that the Ubisoft formula won’t be the one to suck all the fun out of the game.

    Too many times I was bitten by it, so I am utterly cautious about WD2.

  9. RaoulDuke says:

    Your use of the word “walkover” isn’t really appropriate, as you aren’t competing with others in the situation you mentioned [Being too OP for late-game SP content]. I think “cakewalk” is what you were looking for.

    You’ve convinced me to pirate WD2 [I certainly wasn’t going to buy it so lost sale here], sounds like it would be fun for a few hours, running around doing silly stuff, but I’m not at all into that story they keep showing so doubt I’ll be inclined to complete it.

    edit – Maybe you also need to rewrite this sentence “In four hours, I *didn’t* once come across a situation that *couldn’t* be handled *without killing.*” I had to read it like 5 times to understand it.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      A walkover can mean an easy victory, and is thus appropriate here. And I’d feel bad if I encouraged anyone to pirate a game. Glad you like the sound of it though.

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    AutonomyLost says:

    Just a reminder: the game comes out on November 29th now for PC, the 15th for consoles.

  11. Freud says:

    They seem to have borrowed heavily from Mr Robot. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing.

  12. April March says:

    Looks great. I think I’ll definitively go for a no-killing playthrough, because while I agree I prefer a Watch_______Dogs that’s more cheerful, I don’t want to be the one who kills people in order to paint cartoon poo.

  13. Raoul Duke says:

    The funniest part of this is the implication that they didn’t think of this for WD1. “Hey guys, I just had an idea… what if we make the next one FUN?!”

    That said, if they are aiming for fun, then why does the screenshot above still feature a bunch of edgelord quasi-extreme-sports hacker douches with sick facial hair and tatts, and not (for example) interesting, non-image obsessed, non-douches? They can make the most interactive world in the… er, world, but if their characters are as awful as Watch Dogs 1, then no-one is going to care enough to want to interact with it.

    • A Wanderer says:

      At least I’m not the only one who thinks the character design is bloody awful !
      I mean, these guys and girls aren’t hackers. They are how TV and the mainstream media think hackers look like.
      I wish they would have kept the “blending in the crowd” feeling of the first one, just with more personnality.

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        Harlander says:

        You’d never blend into a crowd with a hat that’s that iconic

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        Yeah, I think possibly the worst thing you could do when trying to commit crimes against a government is be a white guy with dreads, a big beard and a Hawaiian shirt.
        Even if the government didn’t spot him instantly he’d probably be harangued wherever he went by people screaming cultural appropriation in his face.

  14. RubberbandAU says:

    Didn’t have a problem with Aiden as the protagonist. I think the story made it abundantly clear, through multiple cutscenes, why he had such a dark, quiet personality. Being responsible for the death of your niece through some pretty bad life choices would do that to someone. It didn’t feel incongruous to me and I felt it added to the enjoyment of the game.

    Appreciate that might not work for everyone but I am starting to get bad feelies about WD2 as it sounds like they’ve overcompensated for people who couldn’t connect with him.

    Regardless, Spidertank.

  15. aerozol says:

    Might be a bit late to get this answered – but are these your screenshots or promotional ones? Assuming the latter, but would be nice to be surprised. Really hard to tell these days, when both are used interchangeable in articles (that said, not actually sure how often RPS takes their own?)

  16. mondzi says:

    “Ok, Marcus, your next task is to cover this billboard in cartoon poos (because we are pranksters). There may be some problems getting there, a gang maybe, just kill them on the way…”

    Yeah, really silly missions.

  17. Williz says:

    Actually looking forward to this, I skipped the first one due to issues but this one is looking like it’s been made with PC in mind and actual fun.

  18. Smoky_the_Bear says:

    I’m sorry but that first screenshot of those multicoloured, badge adorned hipsters with their graffiti covered laptops just screams to me that this game is trying so hard to be “cool” and just comes across as incredibly juvenile instead.

  19. Daller says:

    The release is delayed for 2 weeks, right? Hope this part will be better than the first one

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