I have to admit that when Watch Dogs was originally announced at E3 2012, I immediately found myself boarding the hype train. Unfortunately somewhere along the track, the hype train derailed, badly. Watch Dogs started out as an ambitious project that would delve into the paranoid world of hacking. What Watch Dogs actually turned out to be was yet another generic open world game with a few neat ideas, but worst of all it had a boring, non-relatable and generic protagonist. Fortress of Solitude was lucky enough to be invited to spend some hands-on time with Watch Dogs 2. Based on our two hours with the game, it would seem that Ubisoft has learned from Watch Dogs’ missteps and made some significant changes to the overall gameplay.
Hey there Holloway!
One of the worst offenses the original Watch Dogs was accused of was having a shallow, uninteresting lead protagonist, one that very few (if any) people could relate too. Watch Dogs 2 remedies this with the introduction of their new protagonist, enter Marcus Holloway.
Marcus is your average young African-American, with above average hacking skills. After being falsely accused of a crime, Marcus quickly realizes that the Blume Corporation’s rapidly expanding ctOS is not only an intrusion of a citizen’s right to privacy but a threat to their very freedom. It’s this infectious belief that what he is doing is right that makes him such an endearing character. Marcus and his Dedsec team aren’t all business and no play, there are some really light hearted moments and conversations between Marcus and his posse of hackers. This is a welcome shift in tone from Aiden Pierce’s all-the-too serious tale. I was really surprised how quickly Marcus and the Dedsec gang grew on me.
Hack the city
Although Marcus has access to all manner of weapons and gadgets it’s his ability to hack almost anything that makes him a powerful foe to those that cross him. As in the real world, nothing is safe from hacking. Marcus can hack cell phones and discreetly steal money from unsuspecting victims. Want to get somewhere in a hurry, then simply hack the traffic lights, San Francisco truly is a hackers playground. Hacking also plays a huge part in completing missions. Trying to sneak into a restricted area? Then why not hack into the camera system to see where all those pesky guards are. Want to get rid of one of these guards? Simply hack into the nearby fuse box and watch it go boom as it knocks out the unsuspecting guard, or if you are feeling really adventurous then you can hack a car and let it run over him.
It’s these moments where I realized that hacking added another layer to the gameplay, and increased the number of choices you have when deciding how to take on missions. I never felt forced to use hacking, but not using it would have been foolish as it could lead to some interesting moments. Hacking is no longer a nice little distraction but a mechanic that is woven into the fabric of the game.
The choice is yours
One of the redeeming aspects of the original Watch Dogs was the fact that each mission/encounter felt like its own little puzzle waiting for you to solve it. Watch Dogs 2 builds on this aspect by giving players, even more, choices in how they take on missions. One of the first missions I played tasked me with breaking into a ctOS building. I decided to be all sneaky (like an urban ninja hacker) and quietly made my way to my objective. This time around sneaking is made really easy and uses a similar mechanic to the system found in Deus Ex Mankind Divided. Press a button to stick to cover, aim where you want to go next, press the button and watch Marcus run.
Now of course as can be expected there came a time when the crap inevitably hit the fan and all hell broke loose. Luckily Marcus is just as good at hand-to-hand combat and using weapons as he is at hacking. I was able to quickly take down my foes with a mix of melee combat and the use of a Tazer gun. A later mission had me breaking into a film studio to download some data that could help Marcus’ cause. This time I decided to use more off my hacking skills to distract guards and even got to use Marcus’ new toy called the RC Jumper (a radio controlled car) to explore the environment. It was in these moments where I was given freedom of choice that I found Watch Dogs 2 shined the brightest.
There’s a whole city out there
Now I have never been in San Francisco (although I would desperately like to go there), but the San Francisco in Watch Dogs 2 felt amazingly alive and its environments begged me to explore them. The city has a personality that was sorely lacking from Chicago in the first game. Marcus can interact with the various NPC’s roaming the myriad of streets and parks. These NPC’s even interact with each other, chatting about the current events or just making small talk. Each of the districts I was able to visit felt quite unique, from the main city with it’s towering skyscrapers to the more open Silicone Valley, each felt distinct enough to make me want to wander off the beaten path and go investigate my surroundings. Exploring these interesting locations would obviously not be fun if there wasn’t a vehicle to go exploring with, and I found myself, in true GTA style, hijacking various vehicles including SUV’s, an electric sports car (obviously modeled on the Tesla) and even a motorcycle or two.
Now I found driving in the original Watch Dogs to be all over the place, and this was one aspect that made me want to quit playing. Luckily driving in Watch Dogs 2 feels less floaty, meaning, less like a chore and actually more fun. Sure it is still quite difficult to escape the police when they start to inevitably chase you down, but at least you don’t have the controls making it even more difficult for you. I was actually able to on multiple occasions outsmart the fuzz and successfully make my escape. There are moments when players will probably find themselves traversing the city by foot. Marcus seems to have learned some of his traversal tricks from another familiar Ubisoft franchise and although he is not quite as agile as say Ezio, he does traverse his surroundings a lot quicker and more fluidly than Aiden ever could.
In my time spent playing Watch Dogs 2 I hacked cell phones, cameras and just about anything you could think of. I met some strange and colorful characters that made me want to learn more about who they are and their motives. I sneaked into restricted areas, knocked out guards and barely escaped with my life. I saw beautiful vistas, stole some cars and saw some actual dogs (lots of dogs, no really loads of dogs) Although two hours wasn’t nearly enough time for me to form a solid opinion about the game, I did find that the time I had spent playing the game had made me cautiously reconsider climbing back on the old hype train. With a new interesting and relatable protagonist, better hacking and driving mechanics and environments that beg to be explored, Watch Dogs 2 seems to be everything its predecessor wanted to be. Here’s hoping that Marcus can do what Aiden couldn’t.
Thank you Rene at Megarom for arranging the hands-on session.