Reviews// Watch_Dogs 2

Posted 19 Dec 2016 11:28 by
The hype for Watch_Dogs 2 was relatively low key. After a big E3 reveal that took several visual cues from the first appearance of Grand Theft Auto V Ubisoft was rather quiet. This is perhaps understandable, given the rather negative reception that the original game, which was promoted heavily, received. Watch_Dogs promised a lot - a new open-world city based on the city of Chicago with a story that would reflect real world developments in technology and explore the intersection between growing authoritarianism and corporate profits.

Unfortunately the hero of the game, Aiden Pearce, was rather uninspiring and was saddled with a very predictable revenge story that failed to take advantage of the solid design structure put in place by Ubisoft Montreal. The game was a great deal of fun once the player had gained mastery over the control system and understood how to best utilise the hacking system. However, the game still played rather like a re-skinned Assassin's Creed release, lacking the confidence to break away and go in a different direction.

With new hero, Marcus Holloway, Watch_Dogs 2 attempts to not only fulfil the promise of the first game, but to create a new identity for the series, a new direction distinct from other open world adventures. It largely succeeds, with some important caveats.

The beginning of Marcus' adventure did not make me particularly confident that Ubisoft had listened to criticisms of the first game. Superficially the game is brighter and more colourful largely because of the shift in location from Chicago to San Francisco. This is a welcome change, however I found myself in the same situation I do with most Ubisoft games.

The amount of onscreen icons, information prompts, maps, audio feedback etc. is quite overwhelming. One of the strengths of the Grand Theft Auto series has always been the way in which the world in which you inhabit is slowly opened up, with new missions teaching new skills on a gradual difficulty curve. Opening the map at the start of Watch_Dogs 2 presented me with a feeling of information overload.

Perhaps this is intentional, as a means to present how complex the digital world is. However, it is also slightly dangerous as the lack of focus can potentially lead to players getting lost or just giving up. The controls, although not complex, are not particularly accessible and require some time to learn. While on the surface Watch_Dogs 2 appears to be a sandbox game it has more in common with an RPG, particularly because of the way in which the player's skills are slowly upgraded over time, adapting to the individual's playing style.

This is an open world game that requires time and commitment before the player can really begin to feel they are in full control. While it is possible to just jump in and cause chaos, the game rewards more committed play in a way that I have not yet experienced with a game of this style before. It becomes more enjoyable with repeated play.

Mission design in Watch_Dogs 2 does not really advance considerably from the first game. This is less of a problem as this was one area where the original excelled. Marcus Holloway is certainly a more likeable and interesting character than Aiden Pearce. His character evolves and changes over time as he reacts to the consequences of his actions whilst working as part of the hacker group 'Deadsec.' This organisation featured prominently in the first game as both an ally and, at times, an enemy.

Here Deadsec is presented as a generally unambiguous force for good, battling against corporate control of American society. However, although their goals are arguably laudable, the methods by which they try to achieve them are highly questionable. It is on this point that Watch_Dogs 2 runs into a bit of a tonal problem. Although the tone of the game is significantly lighter than the first, the subject matter it deals with is most certainly not. Deadsec accuses corporations of immoral and illegal behaviour and yet the group, and Marcus, are directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. If the game were easier to play non-violently then this point could be countered, but I found it extremely difficult to achieve this.

Despite these tonal issues, the characters of Watch_Dogs 2 are largely excellent. I was fully expecting to dislike the members of Deadsec - they all appeared to be rather lazy hacker archetypes. However, the writers deserve a great deal of credit as the writing is extremely self-aware. By the end of the game I did begin to feel sympathy and attachment to the characters, something I have rarely felt in rival open world games.

This is largely achieved because of the excellent dialogue but also because of the way in which the story develops. The game eschews the usual videogame clichés of twists and turns and instead provides the player with a story that slowly but logically develops to a satisfying conclusion. The skills that the player earns throughout the game allow an amazing level of creativity when undertaking missions. I have yet to play another open world game where I have felt that I had so much control over the environment. Because of the way that hacking abilities are acquired over time there is a real sense of progression. At the start of the game I avoided being seen by potential enemies, by the end I felt invincible as I could control everything around me so effortlessly.

On a technical level the city of San Francisco is impressive, although rather empty. It is fortunate that the main story is so engaging because aside from some rather lacklustre side events (racing, photography) the city lacks alternative things to do. It is the aspect that rather lets the game down, as following the completion of the main story missions and the various side quests I did not feel any great desire to continue exploring the world.

Multiplayer is well integrated as the player can either compete with others by hacking them or cooperate by working on specific online-only missions. Whilst these missions are reasonably fun the variety is rather limited and as such I found myself avoiding online confrontations when possible, as I was more eager to advance the main story. On release the game seemed to be having problems with multiplayer but these now appear to have been fixed.

Watch_Dogs 2 does indeed largely succeed in creating a new identity and direction for the series, a direction that I very much hope is pursued in future releases. Although there are some rather awkward tonal problems regarding the story it is nonetheless extremely engaging and enjoyable. Other games this year may be more technically accomplished or artistically impressive but Watch_Dogs 2 succeeds because, overall, it is tremendous fun. Ubisoft has now
delivered a game that matches the hype of the original Watch_Dogs. I am excited to see where it takes it next.

+ Rewards creativity.
+ Engaging characters and story.
+ Excellent skill tree.

- World is rather barren.
- Awkward story tonal shifts.
- Multiplayer feels a little redundant.

SPOnG Score: 9/10

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