With so many promising games coming out over the past few weeks I thought Watch Dogs 2 would take a backseat to Titanfall 2, Skyrim Special Edition, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. But after spending hours creating chaos in the streets of San Francisco, it’s become one of my favorite games of the year.
Ubisoft has hit the sweet spot of the open world genre with imaginative level design and a stunning San Francisco setting in Watch Dogs 2. While it contains a lot of your standard open world shenanigans, Ubisoft Montreal has completely turned the Watch Dogs franchise around by improving on nearly every negative aspect of the original.
You take control of Marcus Holloway, an Oakland hacker profiled for a crime he didn’t commit by the ctOS 2.0 security system that controls and monitors San Francisco. To fight back, he joins the hacker group Dedsec and finds out that the creators of ctOS, the Blume Corporation, are selling the data they gather to insurance companies, healthcare providers, and financial institutions so they can use it against you. In order to take ctOS down, Marcus and Dedsec do whatever they can to gain more followers and expose the evil ambitions of the Blume Corporation and everyone involved.
Except this time around everything is a lot less serious, Marcus is a funnier and far more likable protagonist than Aiden and the story is full of charm, perfectly suitable for the colorful setting.
Dedsec’s primary goal of gaining more followers lead to some fantastic mission from variety, from stealing the Watch Dog 2’s version of Knight Rider’s KITT in order to make your own movie trailer to defusing a bomb before it blows up a bunker full of sensitive data. Ubisoft Montreal let their creativity flow with both main story missions and side plots, taking a lot of inspiration from recent controversies in the Bay Area and beyond.
It’s not just the mission variety that makes Watch Dogs 2 stand out, it’s the freedom you're given during those missions. Many times throughout the story you're given some sort of compound to infiltrate, like a gang hideout with bugged ATMs that you need to destroy or a small building on the side of the road with security contractors protecting a lot of cash. There so many options to proceed with no matter who you’re trying to sabotage or steal from, you could send a drone above to scope out the area and set traps with nearby electronics or you could call the police on one of the bad guys, starting a gunfight without firing a single bullet yourself.
Many times you’ll need to hack into a server database while gunfire whizzes past your shoulder, and this is where Watch Dogs 2 stood out for me as more than just a GTA clone. Hacking takes multiple forms, there are the small aspects like forcing cars to take sharp right turns and baiting enemies to a switchbox only for it to explode in their face. But during several missions you’ll have to decipher security lines to open up doors, unlock home networks, and diffuse explosives. They are simple puzzles that add a lot without introducing overcomplicated gameplay mechanics.
Welcome to San Francisco
Most times I booted up Watch Dogs 2, the story missions went untouched. Like I do in most sandbox titles, I did everything I could to get the biggest police response possible, and I had a lot of options I’d never seen before in an open world game. Setting up gang hits on random NPC’s walking down the street is one of the craziest things I’ve done in a game, at one point I successfully created a full on war between the police and one of the games gangs near Jack London Square in Oakland.
The primary issue with the freedom you’re given in this big open world is dealing with how the game handles it. If the action on screen got too hectic with a few too many guns blazing everything become unintelligible with lag. Sometimes those hiccups continued after the action had died down (seen below).
The technical issues didn’t stop there. Major slowdowns, screen tearing, odd audio glitches, and other odd graphical hiccups really distracted from the things that made this experience great. I had to restart my PS4 a handful of times to get the game running correctly. At one point after a particularly nasty rundown with a police chopper, loud helicopter rotor and engine noise continued over every other noise in the game including cutscenes.
But those issues were just minor inconveniences during my time in San Francisco, and Ubisoft has me addicted to a sandbox game that I didn’t expect to care about a few weeks prior.
Watch Dogs 2 improves on every aspect from the original game, San Francisco is a world I want to spend time in and Marcus is a protagonist I actually enjoyed. It’s charming and imaginative all while not taking itself too seriously. If you’re looking for a sandbox adventure to fill some of the time until Red Dead Redemption 2, then Watch Dogs 2 might fill that craving.