Watch Dogs 2 – Hacking Away Higher Expectations?

2017-10-29

Note: This review contains spoilers for Watch Dogs and, oddly enough, Now You See Me 2. If you haven’t experienced either of these and would like to, I’d strongly suggest you stop reading now. If you have, or just don’t care, enjoy the review! Also, all screens and videos were taken from the PS4 version of the game.

I was a huge fan of Watch Dogs. From the moment the game was announced, I knew that it would be special – to me at least. And while it released to lackluster reviews and general hate, I found it a unique departure from the march of Assassin’s Creed iterations Ubisoft had been relentlessly pelting the gaming world with.

For me, the game had a bit of everything: action, stealth, driving, hacking, and a decent story.

There were problems, to be sure, but none of them could quite dull the magic that the game held for me. Even as it came to a close, I knew that I was ready for another entry in the series. And when the next destination of the game’s protagonist, Aiden Pearce, was teased during the credits, I was already on board.

But, in typical Ubisoft fashion, Watch Dogs 2 is a departure from previous game in the series. Instead of sticking with Aiden Pearce and building on the solid framework laid out in Watch Dogs, Ubisoft decided that the series needed a fresh start.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Some of the Watch Dogs 2 Hipsters

Most sequels propel a series forward through gameplay enhancement and character growth. Watch Dogs 2 does the former in spades, but trades a single brooding hero for a group of over-eager hipsters hell-bent on “sticking it to the man”.

Unfortunately, this specific change makes the sequel feel somewhat uneven.

While gameplay is a remarkably solid affair that only grows in depth as the player unlocks new abilities, the limitations of the characters to carry the story forward is almost immediately apparent. The main protagonist, Marcus, is recruited by the rogue hacker group Dedsec at the offset of the game because his goals align with theirs.

It’s a straightforward concept that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, however, is that the Dedsec presented in this game is a far cry from the shadowy, mysterious, and sometimes menacing, group from the previous game. These wide-eyed youngsters are nearly the exact opposite. Instead of hacking from the shadows, this group prefers to be as vocal and visible about their endeavors as humanly possible.

Personally, I found this new take on the series grating. There were a few tender moments that approached tenable, but most of what passes as a story is very difficult to care about. Which is a shame.

Grand Theft Technology

Luckily, most of the story takes a backseat to the fantastic gameplay in Watch Dogs 2.

The first game in the series was merely an introduction to hacking. While the mechanics were fun, they left much to be desired.

Watch Dogs 2 takes the rock solid base of the first game and kicks it into high gear. This time around, the skill tree is truly massive, and Marcus’ abilities are bolstered by an RC car and a drone lifted straight out of Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Add to that a sizeable arsenal of weapons, and Marcus becomes an impressive agent of destruction.

The Watch Dogs 2 skill tree

At first glance, non-stop action seems like the main means to an end, but proper use of the hacking abilities at Marcus’ fingertips can get the job done just as effectively. Most of the time, this route takes more patience, but the result is nearly always more satisfying.

Often, missions are presented in such a way that the player is encouraged to hack, infiltrate (via drone or RC car), or sneak to an objective. And the potential routes are often tricky, littered with puzzles or other obstacles that have to be cleverly circumvented. Failing that, gunplay is always a solid way to clear a path forward, but it’s very easy to become quickly overwhelmed by a non-stop flow of reinforcements if the fight isn’t ended quickly.

Trouble in Paradise

(Spoilers Begin)

The biggest problem with the gameplay in Watch Dogs 2 is the story. For it to feel meaningful, I have to care about where it’s taking me.

In the first game, I actually found Aiden Pearce’s story to be compelling. Aiden’s participation in one final job led to the death of his niece during a failed attempt on his life. Allusions to this are hinted at early in the game, and from there the story organically grows to encompass Aiden’s family, friends, Blume’s ctOS system, and even some of the local bigwigs in Chicago. By the end, it’s clear just how far Blume can reach with its new, all-powerful computer system. As the credits roll, it seems that Aiden has accepted his fate as someone who must combat the system that Blume is so intent on spreading across the face of the planet.

And for players that scoured the “real world” segments of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, a clear connection is made between the Templars and Blume. As a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series and Watch Dogs, I was blown away by the potential direction the series could take. Many, myself included, are acutely interested in an expanded look at modern times in the AC universe. For a brief moment, the Watch Dogs universe seemed poised to head in that direction.

Paradise Lost

When Watch Dogs 2 was first announced, Aiden Pearce was nowhere to be seen. And instead of being set in Europe, as hinted at in the credits of the first game, the game was to be set in San Francisco. Additionally, Aiden Pearce was to be replaced by Dedsec, the shadowy hacker group from the first game.

But even Dedsec is far different from what players were introduced to in the first game. The Chicago chapter of Dedsec was a far more serious (and somewhat more militaristic) version of what the player is introduced to in San Francisco.

Out on the west coast, Dedsec is more laid back and prefers to expose corporate injustice through very public means: grafitti, videos, data dumps, theft, and even public humiliation. While far from harmless, the general feel of the group is that they are doing the lord’s work via “sticking it to the man.”

B

However, instead of creating a story that appeals to players, the game presents tired issues that are facing Americans on a day-to-day basis. Since we are living in an age where nearly every aspect of who we are is monitored or sold to the highest bidder, the game feels more like it’s beating a dead horse than making any real point. Especially considering the nebulous way in which the game consistently attempts to make said point.

The biggest casualties of this are the main characters. None really have an opportunity to shine because there are no real personal motivations behind any of the actions they are taking. At some point, it does become personal, but this point comes far too late in the game and is nearly immediately swept under the rug in order for the anti-corporate crusade to be picked back up with greater fervor than before.

Anything You Can Do

The central hook of Now You See Me is magic. Most people love magic and find the act of mystery behind it to be insanely compelling. Both the first movie and its sequel use this gimmick to drive the story forward in new and interesting ways, much in the way the Watch Dogs series utilizes hacking to support the tech-heavy storyline.

The difference between these two movies is how story is intertwined with the main gimmick.

Now You See Me 2 is almost a direct continuation of the first movie. The Four Horseman have been waiting for an assignment from the Eye, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to act. When they finally are given the task of revealing the CEO of Octa corporation for selling user data, they are exposed by a shadowy figure that seems to know absolutely everything about them.

One thing leads to another and the Horseman are whisked off to Shanghai.

There, a mysterious antagonist (played by Daniel Radcliffe) greets them and presses them into service. They either steal a super special computer chip for him – one that can give him access to nearly any computer system – or die.

To a degree, I found the overarching story of NYSM2 to be generally similar to Watch Dogs 2 – a small cast of main characters is tasked with standing up to an antagonist that wants to control everything (specifically personal data, markets, etc.) and is very much in danger of getting to that point.

The story presented in Now You See Me 2, however, is far more compelling because it focuses so much on the characters. It makes the events of the movie extremely personal to every single character there. The Horseman wind up agreeing to steal the chip because of their need for vindication. And later, they continue to work together because they realize they can’t function as separate entities (not to the same degree, anyway). The main antagonist is acting because the Horseman victimized his father (Micheal Caine) in the first movie. Mark Rufallo’s character turns to Morgan Freeman because an enemy is the only one with the information he needs to get to the people he cares about.

There are a lot of threads spinning all at once in the movie, but all are important to the overarching story. Unfortunately, Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t have the same kind of focus that’s all too apparent in Now You See Me 2. And that’s really a shame, because the story that Watch Dogs 2 is trying to tell has such great potential, but often winds up being too ham-fisted for its own good.

So, if you’re looking for a decent story about control of information, Now You See Me 2 is the better choice.

(End Spoilers)

The San Francisco Treat

Under the Golden Gate Bridge in Watch Dogs 2

Ubisoft picked a perfect place to set the newest game in the series.

I really like the city of Chicago in the first game, but it often felt sterile. Not so with San Francisco. Every single inch of the sequel’s locale feels vibrant. Alive. And I can’t help but appreciate the attention to detail Ubisoft has squeezed into the digital avenues I’ve spent so many hours roaming through.

a selfie in Watch Dogs 2

There are brilliant colors, busy streets, and familiar locales (if you’ve ever been to San Francisco). Even the pedestrians interact in ways that make them feel far more alive than in similar games. Take this interaction I stumbled across:

Ubisoft has crammed so much depth into its virtual recreation of San Francisco that it’s hard not to be impressed by the scope of it. Exploring the city is a treat and there’s almost always something new and interesting to find.

Ubisoft in Watch Dogs 2

Fond Farewell

Despite my many criticisms of the game, I was sad when the credits finally rolled. Enough of what worked wormed its way under my skin to the point that I was sad so see the world, and it’s hipster-millennial cast of characters, fade into obscurity.

Many of the problems I highlighted above were similar to the problems Final Fantasy XV wound up having. And much like that game, Watch Dogs 2 gets by because of the way the small, tight knit cast of characters constantly interact with one another. Individually, they may lack enough personality to be truly likable, but as a group, interacting dynamically with one another, there’s a semblance of camaraderie that’s truly enjoyable. Marcus is often alone on his missions, but constant radio chatter from his buddies in Dedsec fill the silence. And whether what they have to say is witty, insightful, or just droning, I found myself enjoying the feeling that I wasn’t alone in my journey.

Now that the story is over, however, Marcus is alone. And that’s sad.

Now that I’ve completed the game, I doubt I’ll revisit it in any significant capacity. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any replayability. In fact, there are more than enough extra things to see and do to keep most gamers busy for quite a few hours. And, considering the seamlessly integrated multiplayer system that offers PvP as well as PvE content, I’d say that the long-term payoff is pretty solid.

But, to me, the story feels finished.

At the end of the day, Watch Dogs 2 is a decent continuation of the series, but winds up feeling more like an expansion than a true sequel. That being said, I did enjoy playing it and would definitely suggest it to anyone who’s been eyeing the game with anything remotely approaching interest – I’d just suggest they pick it up at a deep discount.

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Comments

  • Doughlas MacAlister

    This is the first time I have seen someone to use word “good” to describe NYSM.

    October 30, 2017 at 5:38 AM
    • I enjoyed both movies and wound up seeing the second one shortly after I finished WD2, so I thought it an appropriate comparison considering the content.

      October 31, 2017 at 1:37 PM