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.