Watch_Dogs 2 is significantly better than the first game, but ultimately an uneven missed opportunity.

Watch_Dogs is one of my least favorite games I ever finished. I hated almost everything about that game, from Aiden Pierce and his terrible attitude to the lame story to the stiff combat and bland driving to the boring open world. There were a few minor highlights. I thought the Ubisoft tower climbs were moderately entertaining, liked the voyeuristic aspect of profiling people with your phone, and enjoyed a couple missions like the one where you fight a gang in a junkyard full of traps. Overall it was a bust, though, and even though I bought the sequel in a sale before I played the first one I figured I would never actually play it.

But once Watch_Dogs: Legion was announced and then became one of the major multi-plat games for the new console generation I decided I might as well try Watch_Dogs 2, since I owned it. If I liked it I might be able to convince myself to pick up Legion. I gave it a try, bounced off it, and then forced myself to get back to it a few weeks later and actually finish the game. After spending a bunch more time with it I can say that Watch_Dogs 2 fixes a lot of the problems with Watch_Dogs, but only enough to make it a decent, rather than terrible, game.

WD2’s San Francisco is a major upgrade over the first game’s Chicago, with a much brighter and more cheerful vibe and lots of fun local color and stuff to see. It’s one of the best “realistic” modern open world cities I’ve played in a long time and makes exploration and driving a lot more fun, especially with the ScoutX objectives that have you taking pictures of famous landmarks and really exploring the city.

Watch_Dogs 2 is a good looking game with a nice version of San Francisco, but it's a style of game you've played dozens of times already.
Watch_Dogs 2 is a good looking game with a nice version of San Francisco, but it's a style of game you've played dozens of times already.

WD2’s cast of characters is many times more engaging than WD’s. The first game had Aiden Pearce, his family, and a bunch of other people who were either villains or just boring non-characters. It was grimy and unpleasant to spend time with those people. WD2’s cast of young whiz kid hackers are fun and diverse, with main character Marcus being a lighthearted kind of goofy leader and the other NPCs all being reasonably well-written and acting. Supporting characters outside the main team tend to be a bit thinly characterized but are still far better than those in the first game.

The story is a bit more fragmented than Watch_Dogs 1, made up of a large number of short arcs with 1-4 missions each. These small story arcs range from silly to serious and differ broadly in quality. Some have fun moments of schadenfreude where a rich jerk of a CEO is given his comeuppance. Others end with an air of menace, where the game’s big bad threatens Marcus in various ways. A few try for actual pathos, including one where a character Marcus has spent time with is killed and Marcus must find his killers and avenge him. None of this is great, but it’s an improvement over Watch_Dogs 1 and it works reasonably well for a video game story.

The Dedsec hackerspace is a place to go talk to your NPC Dedsec hacker collective crew. Actually having some NPCs Marcus works with is a massive improvement over Watch_Dogs 1.
The Dedsec hackerspace is a place to go talk to your NPC Dedsec hacker collective crew. Actually having some NPCs Marcus works with is a massive improvement over Watch_Dogs 1.

Where Watch_Dogs 2 falls apart for me is in the gameplay and mission design. It’s just not a very fun game to play, and the things you do in it are incredibly similar from mission to mission. This is an open world GTA style action game with a bit of a stealth/hacking gloss. You drive around the city and most of your objectives involve going into a building full of heavily armed goons, pressing the triangle button at a couple locations to “hack” something or other, and then escaping. You have guns, but the shooting is not great and Marcus is very fragile, often dying in just a few hits, because it’s not really meant to be played as a shooter. Instead it’s mostly a stealth game, but one where you’re not just limited to sneaking around and avoiding people or taking them down with the game’s single button press takedowns. The tools you’re actually supposed to use are hacking, which basically amounts to hitting L1 to target a person or some environmental object, and your drones, one of which flies but can’t interact with physical objects and the other of which can only roll around on the ground and jump but can pick things up or circumvent security on some physical switches.

The hacking stuff is pretty similar to the first game, allowing you to draw enemies towards environmental hazards that you can then detonate, or sometimes distract an enemy or detonate explosives she has (though that won’t always kill her.) Other than the drones, which can be used to distract enemies and eventually can carry weapons themselves, the big addition this time is the ability to call the cops or a gang to attack enemies, once you unlock that ability. It’s a real change over the prior game, and once you get the highest tiers in the skill tree you can actually take down a lot of enemies from a safe distance this way. At first it can be pretty fun to summon high level gang members and help them lay waste to your enemies, by cancelling calls for reinforcement or distracting enemies at critical moments with blasts of sound through their headsets. It almost feels like a very basic action RTS, like a much more limited version of Brutal Legend or something. Eventually it wears thin because of its limited interactivity and how long it takes, though.

Like in the first game you can hijack cameras and use them to target NPCs and hack their phones. Like in the first game this often feels like more of a gimmick than something fully integrated into the gameplay.
Like in the first game you can hijack cameras and use them to target NPCs and hack their phones. Like in the first game this often feels like more of a gimmick than something fully integrated into the gameplay.

The drones can also be fun to use, especially the copter which you can use to scope areas while remaining undetected and steal data keys to let you unlock doors and progress. The best missions of the game are those that can be completed only through hacking and drones, like a mission where you need to steal some data and an item from an FBI safehouse and can do it just by sneaking in your copter and “jumper” wheeled drone to bypass security and grab the item.

The problem is that the vast majority of the game’s missions are not like that. Instead they’re missions where Marcus has to physically infiltrate facilities and do stuff, and they’re substantially less fun. For a game that’s supposed to be built around hacking and the environment, the game actually offers relatively few environmental hazards to hack, and taking out enemies that way is boring and laborious. Instead, other than hiding somewhere and chaining together gang hits, the best way to clear out enemies is often just to shoot them, in a game where shooting is far from the game’s main strength. Because Marcus is so fragile the cover shooting system is often very frustrating, and the environments are open enough that enemies can often flank and kill Marcus before you even really know where they’re coming from. Almost every time I got killed in the game it was from someone I didn’t see or hear before they opened up on me. The best strategy, then, is often to find a defensible area like a dead end room or hallway, and lure enemies towards you, while you shoot them in the head with an assault rifle. The enemies can call reinforcements and often do so from cover, so this can take a long time and be pretty boring, but I almost always succeeded when I did this, and almost always failed when I tried to be more aggressive, or even tried to use stealth and hacking more (since Marcus can be discovered while hacking and enemies are pretty good about checking even out of the way areas.) I tried to use stealth in the game’s infamous Alcatraz missions, which many people found frustrating, and got killed almost immediately. I then tried the “lure them into a funnel” method and cleared the area without any trouble at all. This was my experience with most of the game through the end. Try to use the game’s more interesting systems and get frustrated. Shoot everyone (or have a gang do it) and the whole thing is a bit of a cake walk.

Staking out a safe position and shooting people with an assault rifle is a very effective way to play the game, but it ignores the key mechanics that set Watch_Dogs 2 apart and is also in strong contradiction to the narrative's tone.
Staking out a safe position and shooting people with an assault rifle is a very effective way to play the game, but it ignores the key mechanics that set Watch_Dogs 2 apart and is also in strong contradiction to the narrative's tone.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the game’s missions were more diverse, but as mentioned above, they aren’t. There are a few types of missions besides the “go to a place, get in, do something, get out” type, but they are a relatively small part of the game. There is one mission where you drive a car in a point to point race through San Francisco, and that was alright because the game has okay driving, though it is primarily used for a few side activities and just to get around the city when you’re not using the generous fast travel system. There are a number of missions where you have to “hack” things, which involves playing a pretty bad pipe rotation puzzle minigame that’s spread throughout the environment. This looks cool but makes the hacking kind of annoying because you’re running back and forth or using your drone or cameras to switch perspective and actually see the puzzle, leading to it all taking longer than it feels like it should. There are a few missions where you are not physically present and hack in to a security camera where you can jump to other security cameras, interact with a few objects in the world, or control a generic version of one of your drones. These amount to pretty simple puzzle rooms and are fine for what they are but have very limited interactivity.

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These "circuit" or pipe puzzles are clever in theory but annoying in practice because you constantly have to switch perspectives to get to the piece you're supposed to rotate. They come off as more like busywork than brain busters.

A lot could have been done to improve Watch_Dogs 2. More creative missions. More/better hacking abilities or opportunities. Better combat could have helped. The melee takedown is especially frustrating because it is a series of canned KO animations, and if you get stuck in one of the longer ones it’s perfectly possible to get spotted and shot to death while the animation of you choking someone out with a yo-yo is still slowly playing. None of those things exist. The game has a lot of clothes you can buy or get as mission rewards, which is cool, but in general it’s not easy to make a lot of cash so buying vehicles or new guns can be prohibitively expensive. Simple Riddler-Trophy style traversal or puzzle challenges are rewarded with upgrade points, which is fine. There’s a taxi minigame. It’s all very basic. The non-mission stuff to do in the world is mostly boring, so even if it’s fun to explore there’s not much to find.

The game also features an integrated in world multi-player suite that I found so annoying that I turned it off a few hours in. It tries to be kind of like a Destiny style game, with other players randomly appearing in your game, but all they do is create chaos in a game where the scripting already isn’t great. I once went into the hobby shop that leads into the gang’s “hackerspace” only to find everyone dead because some rando had spawned into my world and slaughtered them. Talk about immersion breaking. The online multiplayer seems okay for what it is, and I may mess around with it at some point, but having it intrude into the single player game while you’re trying to do missions is just incredibly annoying and frustrating as a default setting. If it hadn’t been possible to turn that stuff I would never have stuck through the game. It’s not just the intentional griefers, it’s the game constantly bugging you with alerts to go do shitty multiplayer stuff.

Outside the default on multiplayer issue Watch_Dogs 2 has serious ludonarrative dissonance problems. The tone of the game is mostly upbeat plucky “gang of young adults get in way over their head and find a conspiracy” but there’s a lot of killing in the game, and a lot of downer stuff. There’s a random side mission where you hack into a home’s security system only to see a guy committing suicide using fumes from his car, and if you don’t save him fast enough he dies and the mission ends and you are rewarded with a few thousand “followers” (the game’s version of XP) which I guess means you broadcast a snuff film to the Internet and a bunch of people really liked it and wanted to see more. The body count for missions can be huge (though most can be finished with no lethality if you’re much more patient than I am) and it makes the stakes for some of this stuff just seem not worth it. It’s great that you exposed the evil CEO of Haum was spying on his customers, but not so great that you killed a few dozen innocent security guards and cops along the way. You take a lot of risks that might make sense in a game where nobody died, but seem really absurd considering the number of bodies you are likely to pile up. Is this really worth murdering dozens of people? Mostly no. You also have a problem when, as previously mentioned, your friend gets killed but everyone stays cheery and upbeat and never mentions him again after they get revenge. Aiden Pearce, the character from the first game, appears in a side mission and you kill some people alongside him and then get all giddy like you just hung out with your favorite celebrity rather than helping a vigilante brutally slaughter some people who might be bad guys but are still, you know, people. As the game goes on the plucky young adults all start to come off as a bunch of psychopaths.

Marcus being the kind of guy who would smirk in a selfie with a giant robot spider would be a better characterization if he wasn't also the kind of guy who would kill a dozen cops during a petty mission to embarrass a douchebags. The game's violence is often out of sync with its story.
Marcus being the kind of guy who would smirk in a selfie with a giant robot spider would be a better characterization if he wasn't also the kind of guy who would kill a dozen cops during a petty mission to embarrass a douchebags. The game's violence is often out of sync with its story.

I think that Watch_Dogs 2 could have been something special if it weren’t an Ubisoft open world game. The story of these plucky hackers and even the hacking mechanics seem shoehorned into the framework of a GTA III clone. Although I enjoyed the open world itself, there’s not really a lot of opportunity for fun mayhem in it, especially since Watch_Dogs cops tend to be much more annoying than fun to fight. The game’s unique mechanics just aren’t well integrated into its structure. Watch_Dogs 2 even tones down the ability to use hacking during car chases from the first game. It adds the ability to use hacking to steer enemy cars remotely, which is cool, but the button prompts to use steam pipes or traffic lights to disable enemy cars have a very tight window, and enemy cars are aggressive and can spawn right in front of you. I died in one mission because it forced me to drive a very slow vehicle, and even when I would evade the vehicles behind me it would just spawn additional enemies right in front of me.

If instead Watch_Dogs 2 had been much less violent and really leaned into the hacking gameplay, and maybe even ditched the open world, it would have better matched the narrative themes to what you do in the game. Fewer enemies or even just having enemies who weren’t prone to shooting Marcus on sight when all he’s doing is sneaking into a tech company would have made stealth more manageable. A greater variety of tools and gizmos would have been more fun than the game’s two dozen or so guns, most of which are relatively useless once you get your hands on a decent assault rifle, which Marcus keeps conveniently stuffed down his pants when he’s not shooting. There’s a point towards the end where Marcus gets angry and indignant that he’s been placed on a terrorist watch list, fuming that it’s so unfair what they’re doing to try and stop him. Given that Marcus killed a couple hundred people over the course of my game he came off as snotty and entitled in that moment, but I would have rather played the game where what he said made sense, and where the mission right before that hadn’t encouraged me to lay waste to dozens of security guards in a big violent set piece.

The game is at its best when you're actually hacking and gathering information, rather than breaking and entering or blowing things up.
The game is at its best when you're actually hacking and gathering information, rather than breaking and entering or blowing things up.

Despite its flaws Watch_Dogs 2 is much better than the prior game. It has good characters (if you ignore the dissonance), serviceable gameplay, an okay story, and a really good world with a nice soundtrack. It would be fair to call it an average game but I think even more fair to call it very uneven. Overall I’m positive on the game, but I also stopped playing for almost a week before tackling the last 2 mini-arcs because the game just felt tedious by the end. If it had committed to being more lighthearted and focused more on hacking and drones and less on guns and violence it could have been a very interesting and original game. As it is it’s just another open world game with a few interesting twists and an above average story and cast. That’s not a terrible thing to be, but there’s a lot of missed potential.

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