Watch_Dogs 2 seems more spinoff than sequel, learns some lessons, and trips over similar pitfalls as its predecessor
Allow me to get one statement out of the way early here, so you can decide whether or not you want to keep reading: I really liked Watch_Dogs. Maybe most of it comes from playing to reviewer's interests, but Ubisoft's 2014 techno-thriller open world game managed to synthesize near-future dystopianism and dense underworld dealings and conspiracies in a way few games attempt.
With a change of scenery and 2 years of real-world technological advancement, Watch_Dogs 2 moves from a revenge tale from the criminal underworld to taking a look at the cutthroat world of software startups in Silicon Valley. Instead of dour, revenge-seeking, lone-wolf vigilante Aiden Pearce, Watch_Dogs 2's Marcus Holloway is downright jovial in his role as point-man for the west coast branch of the hacker collective DedSec.
The opening of Watch_Dogs 2 tries very hard to draw the largest line in between it and its predecessor imaginable in the game's opening few hours. There are attempts to make your crew seem like enjoyable people to be around (with questionable success), a much more vibrant looking environment, and logs talking about how San Francisco DedSec thinks Chicago DedSec are a bunch of joyless assholes with too many rules. However, it's in these opening hours where Watch_Dogs 2 falls head first into so many of the same traps the first Watch_Dogs was derided for stepping in.
The main problem being this: Marcus and DedSec are painted by the game as being unequivocally the heroes. They are the knights in shining armor here to help the oppressed, steal from the rich, reset the balance of power, and tell everyone to be excellent to each other and party on, dudes. It's hard to hold that up with the fact that you can 3D print a grenade launcher to rampage against a rival hacking group, use your quadcopter drone to to chuck IEDs at security guards, or put out a dangerous criminal APB on someone.
If, say, these actions were available to a dour, revenge-seeking, lone-wolf vigilante trying to find the people who killed his wife and daughter, with repercussions being that the more you used them, the citizenry would be more likely to call the police on you on sight, I could maybe let it slide. But they're not, and there's no system for that in place. You can essentially level the security force of a corporation, with collateral damage, and the end of mission news spiel would still paint you as this underground hero, exposing the corruption of the system.
Perhaps the image, no matter how you act, is held up by members of your team. As opposed to Watch_Dogs, where Aiden worked with about three people through the entire game, Marcus has an entire hacker collective on his side, with a few key members acting as mission control and starring in the pre- and post- mission cutscenes. The core DedSec crew stands out as one of the game's biggest strengths in one moment, and a crippling weakness the next, as they bounce between genuine, heartfelt conversations about race in the startup industry, to humorlessly riffing on one of their main antagonist's genitals for a minute and a half straight, to earnestly debating the age-old question, “Alien vs. Predator?”
Moving past all that, there is an interesting world in Watch_Dogs 2, it just takes a bit of time for it to pick up. Somewhat ironically, the moment at which the story starts to pick up follows the arrival of unofficial Watch_Dogs series mascot, Ray “T-Bone” Kenney, who provides a bit of a grizzled grounding to the idealistic youngsters of DedSec. (That's a sentence I never thought I would write.) It's his arrival where the game shifts from retreading some ripped-from-the-headlines missions involving things like not-Scientology and not-the Sony Pictures email hack, into following up on the conspiracies mentioned throughout the first game, with a heaping helping of ripped-from-the-headlines missions.
There are also some serious mechanical improvements in the open world. There are far fewer diversions and side activities, instead holding a focus on chains of side quests that add flavor and additional background on world events, as well as some various forms of racing to gain money and “followers,” Watch_Dogs 2's experience equivalent. Marcus is constantly equipped with an infinite ammo, one shot-reload stun gun that is by far the best weapon in the game, making any time you break stealth somewhat easy to reset, as well as the “Thunderball,” his functionally identical replacement of Aiden's collapsible baton.
Marcus's drones, an RC car and a quadcopter, are also fun new tools. The RC car can perform physical hacks, while the quadcopter allows for quick and easy scouting out of an area, meaning that some missions can be performed without ever even setting foot in an area. It's an incredibly satisfying feeling knowing that you just stole key data from someone while sitting on the roof of their building, with no one the wiser.
It's a lot of these changes that make me think this game would have been better suited as “Watch_Dogs: DedSec” or something like that, as opposed to a “Watch_Dogs 2.” Outside of being an open world game with a focus on stealth and hacking, and bringing in some of the loose plot threads halfway through the game, it seems like the first in a new series, as opposed to a sequel. Maybe that's the whole point, people cursed the Watch_Dogs name so venomously post-launch that they needed to make a shift to see if they could recoup any amount of goodwill.
Watch_Dogs 2 is not the monumental improvement like the jump to Assassin's Creed 2 was, and that's probably fine. It takes an inordinate amount of time to hit its stride, but once DedSec shifts from “whiny assholes sticking it to the nebulous concept of the man” to “organized hacker group performing mid-sea heists and revealing international conspiracies,” the game starts to click. At the same time, I can't help but feel like they threw the baby out with the bathwater in the sequel transition. Other open world series parody current events in some over-the-top ways, I think there's more interesting stories to be told at the intersection of the criminal underworld and technology.
But hey, I really liked Watch_Dogs.