Wot I Think: Watch Dogs 2

We’ve already looked at Watch Dogs 2’s [official site] multiplayer, which is seamlessly stitched onto the game’s open world singleplayer shenanigans, and I’ve written about my first few hours with the game. Now, having worked my way through the story missions and as much of the surrounding city as possible, I’m here to tell you wot I think of Ubisoft’s latest hack ’em up as a whole.

San Francisco is a warzone. Watch Dogs 2 lets you bring the conflict to the surface using military hardware to assault corporations and police checkpoints, but even if you make every effort to leave the guns to one side, the war is raging all around you. It’s in every packet of data transmitted, in the divisions of race and class, and in the shadow that Silicon Valley casts over the city.

When Ubisoft announced that the sequel to the underwhelming Watch Dogs would use San Francisco as its setting, any excitement about the possibility of recreating Bullitt’s car chase was tempered by thoughts of how a game about hacktivism might engage (or not) with the tech industry’s presence in the Bay Area. Some of the richest companies and individuals in the world, often talking about the power of technology and new media to improve lives, while neighbourhoods in their own cities deteriorate and divide.

The sandbox environment of open world games is, as the word suggests, a playground of sorts. One of Watch Dogs 2’s greatest achievements is to make a playground of San Francisco without applying DayGlo paint to every crack, or removing every needle and shard of glass from the sand. It’s a game at its best when the DedSec buddies at its heart are as much pranksters as code warriors, taking down the high and mighty like Robin Hoodie in skinny jeans. The early story missions are light-hearted and fun, but that attitude comes from the protagonists rather than from the setting, and for a few hours at least Watch Dogs 2 manages to incorporate a story of striking back against the one percent without compromising its sense of fun.

It’s a tricky balancing act and when things become more grim and the stakes rise, the story itself and the characters at its heart do crumble under the pressure. When you’re manipulating billionaires with fake phonecalls and siphoning money from their accounts to charities, or stealing cars and movie scripts from big, dumb film productions, DeadSec are a good crew to hang out with. Later, bad things happen and the game never quite recovers – the writing works better with comedy and a lightness of touch than when it’s grappling with Drama, and the solution to Drama, eventually, is to throw grenade launchers at it.

That the game moves toward missions of obligatory carnage is a shame because the challenge and the pleasure is in use of hacks and gadgets to infiltrate rather than in use of brute force, but the escalation of violence highlights an issue that is there from the game’s opening minutes. Simply put, for all that they have done well, Ubisoft Montreal haven’t found a way to move far enough from the GTA formula. The themes, characters and tools of Watch Dogs 2 aren’t a natural fit for mass murder and consequence-free killings, but for all that the game captures something of the essence of San Francisco (and its beauty; it’s a wonderful place just to spend time in, seeing sights and taking photos), the city is like an Etch-a-Sketch. You cover it with tiremarks, bullet holes and bodies, and then, once you’re a couple of blocks away, the streets are wiped clean ready to be written again.

And so, when a cutscene contains actual consequences it’s hard not to feel at least one-step removed from what’s happening on-screen. At one point, I decided it might be fun to break into a heavily guarded area by luring the security folks to a truck in the carpark and then hacking it to go all Maximum Overdrive, squashing all of the guards against a wall. It was fun, particularly when the truck’s first victim panicked when the headlights came on, capturing him in a pool of light, gun in hand. He shouted in alarm as the driverless juggernaut grumbled into action and smeared him across the wall.

Shortly afterwards, a mission had me hunting a serial killer who was almost certainly less dangerous and responsible for far fewer deaths than Marcus, the lead character of the game. You might be able to ignore the disconnect between plot and action, playing Marcus as an amoral agent of chaos, but I felt myself growing increasingly irritated and detached as I moved through the story. I much prefer the DeadSec pals than any of the GTA V cast, and the writing and performances do some strong groundwork, but the main missions feel like episodes in a TV show that never quite found its identity in the writers’ room. One episode introduces an element of tragedy, but the main effect is to cut short one of the most interesting conversations and voices in the game.

Where Watch Dogs 2 manages to break the open world, driving and shooting mould, it’s sometimes brilliant. The multiplayer, as Brendan has already reported, is equal parts smart and stodgy, and the actual driving and hacking is a lot of fun throughout. The emphasis on stealth can be frustrating, given the AI’s tendency to switch from unaware to high alert in an instant. Make one mistake and you’re often facing down an entire army of security guards, gangsters or cops, and from that point you’re likely to be forced into a killing spree to survive.

It’s a curious game. Beautifully crafted and occasionally bold in its satire and character-building, it eventually lacks the courage of its convictions. Somewhere in Watch Dogs 2, there is a game that is the antithesis of GTA, a game that draws meaning from its city rather than simply using it as a backdrop for consequence-free crime capers and random assaults and high speed chases. That game never quite emerges though and instead, we’re left with an estranged sibling of GTA, and as soon as they get a few drinks down them, they both have the same ideas – no situation or problem is so complex or big that you can’t wave a gun at it.

The hacking skills and basic manipulation of NPCs and environment aren’t enough to fill the toolset or the gaps between the more inventive missions. And where there is a gap, random acts of violence tend to fill it. That’s my choice, as a player, but it’s a choice I make because the alternatives don’t hold up. Yes, I can make my drone harass dogs in the park and that’s a laugh for a while, as is picking on members of the public because I decide they’re pricks based on one intercepted text conversation, but the world isn’t reactive enough to make those pursuits worthwhile.

Some of my favourite hours with the game involved just watching the NPCs go about their business, but the most interesting way to insert yourself into that business usually involves a speeding car, even though it can be fun to make fake phonecalls or other nastier hack-based interruptions to the daily routine. At first I was roleplaying Marcus, stopping at traffic lights, trying to ensure I did as little harm as possible, and occasionally stopping to observe the lives of the people around me.

However, as time went on, that wasn’t enough. It’s telling that the skills you acquire as you level up are all designed to cause chaos and pain. Sure, you might be able to save a life by taking control of a car whose driver is behaving recklessly, but that’s extremely unlikely. The more powerful you become, the more capable of tearing up the city you are. While Marcus might do what’s right, or try to, during the scripted missions, it’s possible to idly steal from peoples’ bank accounts as you drive around the city. And then you can steer onto the pavement and plough through pedestrians.

Long before I finished the story, the warm glow of those opening hours had faded, and nothing really mattered. I was still having fun, on occasion, but something strange had happened. In exploring the possibilities of a GTA-like that didn’t encourage violence at every turn, Watch Dogs 2 does more to highlight the limitations of the sub-genre than even the weakest entry in Rockstar’s series. For all of its creative solutions and ideals, Watch Dogs 2 can’t help but see California as an open carry state, and while I’ve enjoyed portions of it enormously, it doesn’t go far enough in stamping its own identity on what is, eventually, another city of crime, cars and firearms.

Watch Dogs 2 is available now, via Steam and UPlay, for Windows.

39 Comments

  1. Pich says:

    >The hacking skills and basic manipulation of NPCs and environment aren’t enough to fill the toolset or the gaps between the more inventive missions. And where there is a gap, random acts of violence tend to fill it.

    huh, so far i’ve heard the opposite, that non-violent means are always available and more fun and challenging.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      I’m not done with the game just yet, though I think I’m relatively far into it, and I’ve resorted to violence exactly once in the game: in that drama mission Adam mentions. Not really because the game forces you to kill someone for the first time (you can just stun them and it counts too), but also because it felt like what Marcus would do in the situation.

      Everywhere else, and even in that mission, you can pull out a completely non-lethal playthrough. It’s hard, but it’s also very rewarding. The mission I just finished was a prime example of that: it appeared initially to be just about impossible to go through without killing/incapacitating someone, but with the right amount of distractions, harmless hacks (mass distraction, power outage, etc.) and use of the environment, you can actually do it completely stealthily and feel awesome while doing it. It was nerve-wracking throughout, there were no checkpoints beyond the entrance so the tension was super high, but the satisfaction was awesome. Going in guns blazing would be far less interesting or rewarding.

      I think the biggest thing this highlights for me is that WD2, much like other open world sandboxes, has the issue that they let players do whatever they want, so most will just go kill stuff as a default stance. If you’re not a murderous psychopath, the game actually supports that very well and gives you a bunch of fun tools to work with. I’ve not even bothered leveling any of the weapon abilities and I to this day still just use the stun pistol (though I’ll use bombs as a distraction too).

      • HoboDragon says:

        Thanks for this. I had already dismissed WD2 after all reviews here and elsewhere, but with your comment it sounds like one should give it a shot and really, really try the non-lethal way.

        • sosolidshoe says:

          You should, frankly as this review went on it became more and more alien to the actual experience of the game. It’s not a chronicle of what the game requires of you, but of the laziness of the author who, given the choice, took easy options and then blames the game for permitting them that choice at all.

          Honestly it’s a pretty bizarre review – the actual missions are all clearly designed around you using hacks, environmental stuns, and perhaps an occasional stungun shot(very occasional, given you can complete almost all of them by proxy using your two drones and Marcus never even has to step into the “red box” danger zone on the minimap) with the lethal, guns-blazing path as an easy out for those who can’t be arsed to do it properly. Meanwhile the author complains of how you can go on GTA-style rampages out in the open world with ease, whereas I found the game was designed to shit on you really hard if you did; you can kill people and run away sure, there’s never a reason too but you can if you want, but if you try to stand and fight the Police will wreck you, hard and fast.

          Hell, once you get the upgrade to the stungun that lets it take down “heavy” enemies on one hit, it’s *more* effective than most of the lethal weapons.

          Only once was I ever tempted to go lethal for gameplay reasons rather than narrative ones(and only one other time for that reason), and you’re not even controlling Marcus at that point, but in the end even with a ludicrously-tooled up character under my control and a situation actually designed for “fireworks”, without access to my drones, I still found sneaky play with the stungun worked best.

          WD2 isn’t a perfect game by any means, but the “Hackers – The Video Game” theme works great & is at-odds with the gameplay design far less often than the reviewer suggests, and it’s the most enjoyable Ubisoft Open World Radiotower Game I’ve played since the days of Ezio.

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        alison says:

        “No checkpoints beyond the entrance” basically kills this whole game for me. Somehow in recent years I have become very uncomfortable with killing people in games, so I seek out the more narrative paths wherever I can. I was interested in this game because of that option (plus Hackers was the greatest movie ever made), but God help me if I don’t have a proper save mechanic to get through that narrative. I do not need to waste my evenings and weekends sneaking through the same goddamn area a million times over.

        I recently played through Mankind Divided and yeah I saved every couple of minutes. If I was spotted I reloaded. And I still had to replay a bunch of useless shit every time. Eventually I started saving every 10 seconds just getting from one hiding spot to the next. Some people call that “save scumming”. I call it playing any computer game after 1991. Start-of-the-mission checkpoints are the worst, most backward, least player-friendly computer game “feature” since boss fights.

        The ridiculous thing is that Life Is Strange proved last year that you can solve this whole stupid checkpoint mechanic by allowing real-time rewind, so there is even less of an excuse for developers to go back to this kind of arcade machine gameplay. I can hardly believe that a serious developer would want to release a AAA game in 2016 where you can’t save anywhere. It seems totally wacky to me.

        • Snowskeeper says:

          I don’t think the “rewind time” mechanic would work in most games, and I generally don’t super mind checkpoints in more action-oriented games, but yeah, games like Watch_Dogs 2 should totally allow custom saving during missions.

        • FriendlyFire says:

          You seem to think it’s an oversight or a problem, but it’s a conscious design decision. It heightens tension and ensures players aren’t stuck into an unwinnable state.

          For WD2, that means it saves only at key checkpoints during the mission which are usually relatively far apart. I personally enjoyed it; I have a tendency to save obsessively if given the ability, so being forced to take it slowly and carefully gave me a much more interesting challenge.

          If that’s not your cup of tea, it’s just that you don’t like this kind of challenge, not that the devs are bad.

    • Blain says:

      I don’t think the non-violent methods are more challenging. You can force any single opponent to look at their phone with a button press, which makes stealth quick and easy much of the time. You can make any car take a wrong turn or drive away from enemies using it for cover with a button press. Calling in a couple van loads of police turned an objective in a hostile gang hideout into a little wait followed by a little walk.

      So I wouldn’t say it was harder. But restricting myself to stun weapons and hacking only did at least make the game feel more distinct.

      • FriendlyFire says:

        Non-violent means leave enemies behind which can easily creep up on you at the worst time and fuck you up. You don’t have a lot of time to hide, and once alerted the AI tends to comb through the map fairly well.

        If you just go in with big guns and explosives, you can easily take down entire swarms without much trouble. Confuse them or turn off the lights and mow down the whole crowd, there done.

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        DuncUK says:

        I would agree and I do question whether using the ‘call police/rival gang’ ability can truly count as non-violent… personally, I find the game more fun if I don’t use it. The exception is if it’s private security I’m up against, in which case they very rarely resist the police and it merely results in one of their number being carted away.

        I do find the levels of AI aggression to be especially immersion breaking. Even a violent street gang shouldn’t want to risk a police confrontation over a matter as trivial as trespassing and for private security it makes zero sense. It’s especially ridiculous that both gangs and security instantly recognise you as a Dedsec member the moment you transgress, if my face is that memorable then why do the police have such a hard time remembering it from one moment to the next?

        The game is a great sandbox to muck about in, but is not in any way a believable or cohesive world.

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          basilisk says:

          Yes, I find the gangs’ levels of aggression quite absurd as well. Most of the time, though, if you just want to pick up a money bag, you can run into the place, trigger the mass distraction hack, grab the thing and rush out before anyone notices you’re there.

          I call that technique “fighting ridiculous by ridiculous”.

  2. Blastaz says:

    How much is the game itself mechanically trying to be a non violent GTA rather than that being something which people are trying to project on to it?

    • FriendlyFire says:

      It gives you a bunch of options, but beyond that makes no real statement about being nonviolent. The characters themselves are fairly harmless and don’t fit with murderous actions, but they won’t remark on it or react to it.

      If you wanted to roleplay as Marcus the way he’s setup initially, you probably wouldn’t try killing people. You might use a gun as self-defense, but that’s more or less it. However, there’s also plenty of violent options, guns, explosives, and what have you if that’s your choice, and the game never punishes you for it.

      • cekman says:

        The game does immediately swarm you with police if you step too far out of line, so they’re not being totally neutral.

        • HothMonster says:

          It really doesn’t though. I mean when you get the cops on you they are pretty good at making things difficult but I’ve had 5 stars in the area without any attention on me numerous times. Most of the times the cops are called they respond to a crime with no suspect.

          You can sit around and massacre people until cops start showing up and as long as no one called the cops on you specifically, or lived long enough to finish the call, you can just dance on the pile of corpses while they look around. Then you can start murdering the cops and as long as you blow them up or no one sees you headshot them

          I’ve driven over a line of people on the sidewalk got out and sat on the car and the cops only look around blindly because I don’t currently have a gun exposed. Then my drone drops a bomb on them and the game still doesn’t swarm me with police.

          I really like the way the police work in this game and am not knocking them at all but to say the game is quick to punish wanton violence is silly.

  3. cekman says:

    I strongly agree with this whole review. My experience was just like Adam’s; I had the most fun finding non-violent solutions, but I still resorted to spasms of pointless violence when I got bored.

    The only thing I’d add is that the game has a weak ending. I don’t just mean the ending of the story, though it is weak. (I spoil nothing when I tell you what it consists of: Marcus gets to gloat at the main villain, then makes a stirring little speech to DedSec.) The game is more a string of adventures than a story anyway, which is fine by me because I find the setting, theme and characters plenty strong enough to carry it.

    What I object to is that the final mission, Motherload, is weak. First, for the only time in the game, you play as characters other than Marcus: first Sitara, then Wrench. But both play just like Marcus, only with fewer toys and abilities, and both sections are small, brief and fairly straightforward, so they don’t offer up any more challenge or any real change of pace.

    Then they give you one last level to get through as Marcus, and they escalate things only by throwing every security guard in creation at you at the end. It’s not a culmination of all the tricks you’ve learned; in fact, by that point, you can’t really be clever at all. Or maybe just I can’t. All I know is, I got through only by sneaking as long as I could, which wasn’t long, then making a mad dash for the exit under a hail of bullets.

    It’s a failure of imagination. They weren’t able to build on the toolset they created. The final mission ends up being just another mission, and not one of the better ones.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m down on the game – I had a great deal of fun with it. Just know that they’re not saving their best tricks until last.

  4. hoho0482 says:

    Just ordered 1070 equipped pc which, I think, comes with this. No doubt will try to be stealthy, but as with all open world games,after twenty minutes, will be bored stupid and trying to steal b52 to carpet bomb the map.

  5. Cik says:

    We’ve played this game before. Why not just have a header about something to the effect of, waste your cash on another re-hashed game.

    • Snowskeeper says:

      Because not everybody has played this game before, because the first game was worth playing (though not for the original asking price, certainly), and because many of us were wondering if it did any better.

  6. Snowskeeper says:

    That’s disappointing. For all of Watch_Dog’s failings, they were very good at making Aiden Pearce feel like a traumatized psychopath with a hero complex. The plot felt almost like an attempt to explore the logical conclusion of the “angry vengeful vigilante” genre, although that might just be me wanting to give Ubisoft Montreal more credit than they deserve.

    Not saying that a more cheerful, pastel crew isn’t badly needed, but from the sounds of things, they changed up the cast without changing how things are actually done.

    • sosolidshoe says:

      Read the other comments – they actually did, very much so, the author just evidently wasn’t bothered to put in the effort.

      • April March says:

        Either that, or a single commenter was really in love with stealth systems that most players would find dull and wearisome. Frankly, I’d believe either of these.

  7. DigitalSignalX says:

    My hope upon hearing about a sequel was that the lethal option would get the same treatment as Mirror’s Edge: you can only pick them up as they drop, use their included ammo till depleted, and be horrible at accuracy but your own bag of tricks will always be far more effective.

    • April March says:

      That’s pretty much Sleeping Dogs, except you’re not bad at accuracy and your toybox consists of kung fu. (But yeah, your game sounds excellent.)

    • Lestibournes says:

      What I loved about Mirror’s Edge isn’t the limits on fighting, it’s that the game encourages running away is the preferred method for dealing with danger. This took away the stress of fighting and worrying about the danger that may be hidden behind every corner and let me relax and enjoy myself, and then I discovered that I actually really like the combat in Mirror’s Edge and found myself going back to replay scenes just so I can pick up a gun and try to kill each and every enemy that appears in the game. Since combat wasn’t mandatory, I was able to enjoy the game as a shooter, while most shooters feel too stressful for me. Then in the 2 missions where combat does appear mandatory, I was already so relaxed and so into it that it didn’t feel like a big deal even if just running through wasn’t an option.

  8. Marclev says:

    I bounced off this in the first few minutes after the tutorial mission sadly.

    The game asks you to go find some clothes, so I wander around taking in the sights and sounds, find a few shops, and after a while more of wandering it’s a clothes shop. But there’s no way to get into it. Confused I keep looking around and after a while it turns out that what I was meant to do was open the map and find the specific clothes shop it wanted me to. So my sense of immersion immediately dissapeared at that point.

    Then the only way to get to where I was meant to get seemed to be to steal a car or motorbike, which you could do without any consequence by just grabbing a parked one, and felt completely out of character for someone who didn’t want to draw attention to themselves and was presumably fighting against evil, at which point I realised that despite what it says in the press and the gimmick of hacking, it was just GTA clone #546, and got annoyed at the game and quit.

    Sadly I bought it from GMG as they had it cheaper than Steam, but they don’t do refunds so I’m stuck with it. Lesson learnt – hopefully my experience above will help someone else.

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      basilisk says:

      That’s a pretty bizarre reason to write off a 40+ hour game that costs a fairly decent sum of money.

      This (buying trousers) is quite literally the last thing you are required to do before the game drops the training wheels and lets you free-roam. There’s a bit more when you first get to the HQ to 3D print your jumper and drone, but that’s it.

      You basically haven’t even finished the prologue and yet you already think you’ve seen everything the game has to offer? I mean, it’s your decision, but I find it a most peculiar one.

      • Marclev says:

        I think the problem was also that I came into it straight from Dishonored 2 and that game was so good it set the bar way too high for my expectations of Watch Dogs 2. I’m going to pick it up again after a few days to see if I was being overly harsh, but yeah initial impression just left a bitter taste in my mouth.

        I also didn’t like the fact that all the security guards shoot to kill on sight in the prologue, even if while you’re just sneaking around the car park of the office building. Some more subtlety seemed needed there, at the very least a “Hey you, what are you doing here?”. In the real world those guards would be hauled in front of a court on murder charges (and the game is ostensibly meant to have a real world setting)!

        Of course that may have just been the prologue, but it was very immersion breaking for me.

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          basilisk says:

          Sadly, the shooting on sight problem plagues the entire game. It’s telling that the conversation around W_D2 by and large revolves around one core thought – why are there even guns in this?

          Because yes, this very much undermines the game’s stealth systems. There’s still a lot to like, though.

    • cekman says:

      “Then the only way to get to where I was meant to get seemed to be to steal a car or motorbike…”

      There is another way. There’s an app called Car On Demand that will instantly magic up a vehicle near you at no cost. You start off with only one or two models available, and unlock more by buying them at car dealerships. (You also get the ridiculous Cyberdriver car after completing that early mission, and there are a handful of specialty vehicles you can unlock by stumbling across them in the wild.) No theft required.

  9. Vesuvius says:

    For me, the worst dissonance between action and story in the past year was disappointingly the new Deus Ex. Nothing like being encouraged to break into every building, destroy walls, steal and resell all items… and then have to help people in those houses who are being robbed or driven homeless.

  10. Chorltonwheelie says:

    That’s long winded way of explaining to us how you haven’t understood GTA V at all.

    • Snowskeeper says:

      Could you explain why you believe that, please? Because I’m still under the impression that the developers of GTA V didn’t understand GTA V.

  11. Lieutenant_Scrotes says:

    I do find it irritating when someone complains about ludonarrative dissonance because they had the freedom (without coercion) to act in a way contrary to how the protagonist is characterised.

    • Snowskeeper says:

      It’s problematic that you can slaughter hundreds of people in the freeworld, then come back to a story mission to find that your character is still behaving like he believes life is sacred, and his companions aren’t at all freaked out by his murderous rampages. That is, objectively, dissonant.

      • Lieutenant_Scrotes says:

        That is true, but if it is important to a player that there is narrative resonance then they should behave in a way that behooves the characterisation of the protagonist; not complain that the game gave them the freedom to act contrarily.

        • Snowskeeper says:

          … No; if it’s important to a game to have a character, it is its responsibility to make sure it doesn’t break it.

          When Watch_Dogs portrays Marcus as a benevolent Robin Hood-ish figure, then encourages the player to go on murderous rampages, it is breaking its character. There are loads of things the game could have done to avoid this problem, but it chose not to.

  12. GPU says:

    Lol, I thought watch dogs 2 release was a joke, just like I’ve seen some “gta VI” videos which were just gta V with mods.

    Nice.