Watch Dogs 2 review

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date Nov 15, 2016

Above all else, Watch Dogs 2 is a game about being young, angry at the system and certain that you know what's best for the world.

How much you like it may depend on how much you can relate to that state of affairs.

As in the first game, Watch Dogs 2 places you in the role of an underground vigilante, a hacker abusing security flaws in phones and computer systems in a quest to expose corporate corruption. And like the first game, Watch Dogs 2 collides headfirst with the same moral dilemmas faced by hackers in real life: Should you exploit a broken system just because you can? Who is it OK for you to go after? How far is too far?

Unlike its predecessor, however, Watch Dogs 2 ditches the deadly seriousness, even as it struggles with a few heavy issues. The first game's moody revenge tale has been replaced with a tongue firmly in cheek, skewering Silicon Valley and the tech industry at large. This new tone feels like a more natural fit to both hacker culture and the open-world genre, and it leads to a sequel that's a lot more fun — even if it shares some of the original game's flaws.

Marcus is a more down-to-earth, infinitely more likable main character

Following the events of the first Watch Dogs — in which a rogue hacker completely took down a private security system rooted in the infrastructure of Chicago — tech company Blume rebuilt its omniscient computer system, ctOS, and spread it to cities across the United States. Watch Dogs 2 is set in the Bay Area in California, where an Oakland-based hacker named Marcus Holloway joins up with the black hat collective DedSec to once again face off against ctOS and Blume.

Where Watch Dogs protagonist Aiden Pearce was a gruff, lone-wolf vigilante out for revenge, Marcus is a more down-to-earth, infinitely more likable main character. He and his DedSec buddies are — forgive me — millennials; they're obsessed with pop culture, they've got style, they make fun of each other.

They spend a lot of time equivocating about whether they're hipsters.

Watch Dogs 2 is not a lonely game. When he's not working alongside his teammates directly, Marcus is at least in constant communication with them. Whole hours of the game are given over to building out these characters, to the point where I didn't even realize I was starting to genuinely appreciate them. Characters like Sitara, a DJ and artist who provides DedSec's graphic design sensibilities, grew on me as naturally as a real-life group of new friends. Heck, I even learned to love Wrench, an initially cringe-worthy, loud-mouthed ball of energy who wears a Daft Punk-inspired face mask that flashes emoticons through its goggles.

Watch Dogs 2 screenshot

The objectives you tackle in Watch Dogs 2 are about as varied and goofy as the cast of characters. From infiltrating the hilariously pretentious campus of an in-game Google clone to climbing the Golden Gate Bridge to leave your mark on the city, main quests and side missions cycle through setpiece moments at a breathless pace. You're rarely asked to revisit an area twice, and the game leaves little room for repetition in its campaign.

Importantly, Watch Dogs 2 pulls back just a teensy bit from the "fill the map with icons" approach to open-world gameplay that has come to define publisher Ubisoft's stable of open-world titles. There's still plenty to do in the game, plenty of ways you can lose yourself exploring the world for hours. But it's never overwhelming, and what's there largely involves working your way through cleverly designed spaces that feel less generic than almost everything in the first game.

Alongside its fresh approach to world and objective design, Watch Dogs 2 also opens its world up immediately. Aside from one or two small upgrades that you'll unlock shortly into the game, you can drive anywhere on the map and access everything from the very start. From Sausalito to Oakland to San Mateo, you can go anywhere in the Bay Area right away, and each location is full of recognizable landmarks and unlockables to uncover if you feel like messing around. As someone who's lived in San Francisco for five years, I took a lot of joy in tracking down familiar sites. Watch Dogs 2's virtual version of the city is condensed, no doubt, but it absolutely captures the flavor of a place I love.

Marcus' toolset to explore and interact with that world has evolved from Aiden's, and mostly for the better. The most important weapon in your fight against ctOS is your phone, which allows you to hack into anything connected to the city's infrastructure — which is to say, almost everything. Need to get past a guard who's patrolling a hallway? Hack a nearby electronics panel, have it make a noise that draws the guard's attention, and then make it explode and electrocute the guard until they pass out. Need a bigger distraction? Tap into a nearby car's computer equipment and send it barreling forward into some explosives. With some digging, you can uncover dozens of routes through any one encounter, and it's extremely satisfying when a smart strategy comes together.

Watch Dogs 2 screenshot

The multiplayer experience and bugs

Watch Dogs 2 expands on the first game's unique take on multiplayer, where players can "invade" each other's games and attempt to hack data from another player. On top of that, there are co-op missions and a "bounty hunter" mode, which places you into games where players are causing too much open-world chaos to hunt them down alongside the police.

In my limited experience with the multiplayer thus far, it's a fun if inessential part of Watch Dogs 2. Invasions, in particular, offer a nice way to spend a few minutes in between missions, and even playing last week prior to the game coming out officially, I was running into others doing them and opportunities to do them myself regularly.

However, my online experience has been limited for one major reason: The PlayStation 4 version of the game has a major bug where jumping into and out of these seamless online matchups sometimes causes extreme stuttering and slowdown that can only be fixed by a full restart. Ubisoft discovered this bug alongside press and turned off the multiplayer for most of our review time. The publisher expects to have it fixed by the time the game launches for the public, but just in case, be prepared to turn off online elements if you run into this.

Given these issues, we're setting this review as provisional for the time being. We'll return and reevaluate how things are running in the weeks after launch. However, it's worth noting that even outside of multiplayer there are some recurring tech issues with the game's frame rate. I encountered serious slowdown whenever I was driving a fast car, and often found the experience degraded the longer I played in a single session.

Beyond these familiar hacking tools, Marcus has two special additions in the form of drones: an RC car for ground exploration and a quadcopter for getting a bird's-eye view. Hacking your way through missions in Watch Dogs always felt like a puzzle; the drones allow Watch Dogs 2 to embrace this idea even more, putting you in situations where combat capabilities are completely removed and the only way through is careful navigation and manipulation of things in the environment with your drones. They're great tools that push for even smarter level design with more paths to success.

Watch Dogs 2 also turns into a more literal puzzle in a frequently used hacking minigame. To take control of more advanced servers, Marcus must connect circuits to each other, flipping around "joints" to ensure that the power flows in the right direction. These are straightforward but serve as a nice change of pace between the tenser sneaking around of the core game. The game occasionally tries to add some difficulty by making these minigames timed, but I was never really challenged by them.

What I did find challenging — and not for the right reasons — was Watch Dogs 2's shooting. While the game focuses on moving stealthily through areas and hacking, Marcus can also carry a lot of powerful weaponry by 3D-printing various guns (one of the more laughable bits of the game's take on modern technology, though it does exist in real life to a limited extent). Outside of one or two points, I was never forced to use guns. However, as things progressed, I was placed into increasingly tough situations where the game prodded me to give in and start shooting. "You're in the heart of an enemy compound, surrounded by dozens of guards," it seemed to say. "Wouldn't it be easier to just break out the guns?"

guns in Watch Dogs 2 are a complete failure of imagination
Watch Dogs 2 screenshot

In a game full of clever twists on open-world and stealth gameplay, guns in Watch Dogs 2 are a complete failure of imagination. The cover-based shooting works fine, but it's far from noteworthy; it's a boring use of time in a world with so many more interesting ways to interact. It also feels completely at odds with the more genial tone of this game's group of hackers. When the crew is uploading a virus to mock a popular social network or downloading files to expose a corrupt politician, they come across as a likable band of would-be Robin Hoods. When they're shooting down dozens of cops, FBI agents and generic gang members with abandon, it becomes a little harder to get behind the cause, so to speak. The cutscenes almost always paint DedSec as an Anonymous-esque group of peaceful hacktivists, which begs the question: Why are guns here at all, beyond the stun gun that you start the game with?

That's not the only place where Watch Dogs 2's tone falters. Many of the missions Marcus takes on are more problematic than the game cares to note. In one, you hack into a teenage girl's webcam to scare her, to "teach her a lesson" that she shouldn't stream herself online over a webcam.

DedSec's gross, victim-blaming reasoning: Running your webcam is insecure, and someone might stalk her.

In another uncomfortable series of side missions, you hack ATMs and decide whether each random civilian trying to use the ATM deserves to receive a bunch of money or to get an arrest warrant and have all their money taken away. You make these choices based off tiny snippets of information and a few seconds of dialogue.

Watch Dogs 2 pays some lip service to the idea that these hackers must struggle to avoid becoming what they hate. By using all-powerful software to manipulate the world, could they be as bad as the corporations they're fighting against? But in the end, lips service is all it is. Over and over, DedSec embraces the role of judge, jury and (when you decide to use guns) executioner, with little real self-awareness.

In a purely comedic story — and one with less emphasis on killing people — this might work, but every time Watch Dogs 2 tried to be more serious, I got ripped out of the game's silly alternate reality.

Wrap Up:

Watch Dogs 2 improves on its predecessor but doesn't go as far as it could have

Despite its struggles for tonal consistency, Watch Dogs 2 feels, well, true. I remember being as young and angry as the lead characters, full of so much energy and pain that I couldn't quite determine what direction to focus it in. I remember believing that I knew the best way to do things, believing it so firmly that sometimes I fucked up and hurt other people. In expanding the first game's clever hacking options and through a story about taking on a system overwhelmingly stacked against the people, Watch Dogs 2 strikes an even more powerful chord at this precise moment in time. And if it went just a little bit farther in embracing that story and found a better balance between silliness and seriousness, it would be essential, rather than just cathartic.

Watch Dogs 2 was reviewed using a pre-release retail PlayStation 4 copy of the game provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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