Watch_Dogs 2 Review — Overpowered Hacking Fun in a Parody World

on November 25, 2016 4:45 PM

Watch_Dogs has changed. Gone is the dark and depressing setting of Chicago, and the equally dark and fairly depressing Aiden Pierce, replaced by the bright and diverse San Francisco, and by a hipster-gamer-nerd named Marcus Holloway who has charm, but only if you can stand the combination between hipster, gamer, and nerd, multiplied by a rather cartoonish flair that potentially makes him super-funny or super-insufferable depending on what you do and don’t enjoy.

Old enemies have also changed, with Blume Corporation and CTOS 2.0 controlled by an even more hipster stereotype that can choke people with karate chops to the neck, wears a ridiculous hairstyle and greets with “Namaste.” His e-tentacles extend to manipulate fictionalized versions of Google, Facebook and SpaceX, fueling powermongering schemes and mad fantasies of control and surveillance.

The rest of the characters, both good and bad guys, are almost all extremes (besides a couple of exceptions), colorful and glaring, but admittedly very funny, from an alleged psycho wearing a mask with Japanese smileys covering his eyes, to the autistic genius who could hack Fort Knox in a whiff.

Watch_Dogs 2‘s story can be very funny, on the condition that you don’t take any of it seriously. You play a parody, surrounded by parodies, fighting against parodies in a parody world.

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If you dare to take the story even a little bit seriously, the ludo-narrative dissonance makes Nathan Drake look like an innocent infant. Marcus fights a villain specifically designed to appear as the most insufferable a**hole on the West Coast, but the game encourages the player to be an even worse a**hole to basically every virtual citizen of San Francisco.

From cruel pranks to mass murder, you can perform countless nefarious acts, and that’s honestly where most of the fun of the game is. And there is zero consequence, besides having to be annoyed by the sirens and loudspeakers of the cops for a couple of minutes, since it’s way too easy to elude them anyway.

Basically, Watch_Dogs 2 is a hacker’s wannabe heaven in which you can use your mostly unrealistic abilities to wreak all kinds of havoc and destruction pretty much ignoring the story, that is almost just a pretext to put more gameplay on your plate anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, Watch_Dogs 2′s narrative aspect can actually be fun, and its characters can be interesting and likable, but you have to absolutely leave any trace of seriousness out of the door in order to truly enjoy this light-hearted romp between the fictional conspiracies of Silicon Valley.

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Funnily, the game even tries to tackle some relevant themes like racism and more, but they tend to get lost among the memes and the lulz. Ultimately, it’s a complete 180 compared to the grimdark story of Aiden Pierce. For many, it will be better, but it depends on how much you can take all the silliness.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you: Watch_Dogs 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously, and in today’s market, this can be refreshing.

While the game’s visuals aren’t the absolute top you’ll see nowadays, they’re certainly very fetching. Especially the representation of San Francisco. Its diverse environments and colorful neighborhoods is definitely pleasing to the eyes. This is mostly thanks to a solid lighting solution that binds everything together well, and a great deal of effort put into world building and detailing.

It’s very visible that the development team went to painstaking lengths to offer environments as diverse and interesting as possible. When you travel across San Francisco and the surrounding areas, you won’t really need to look at the map to know where you are, because neighborhoods are very distinctive, and have plenty of landmarks to find your way around.

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Characters are slightly hit and miss. They are expressive, which goes in line with the light-hearted approach of the game. When they deliver a pun, they certainly do so in style. And yes, this also goes for Wrench and his emoji facemask. Sitara is unfortunately the exception. While she is the only lady of the “party,” she tends to be a very dull-faced, and this detracts a bit from her charm and unique style. The Aspergers-affected Josh is less flat than she is. I’m not joking or exaggerating.

There can be a bit of “uncanny valley” effect here and there, but it’s limited enough not to be excessively disturbing. All in all, the delivery from the cast is satisfactory.

One note of merit is support for PS4 Pro. We’re still in the infancy of Sony’s souped-up console, so many games don’t offer much of an improvement. Watch_Dogs 2 uses that extra power wisely almost completely removing aliasing, that is a bit jarring on less powerful consoles. It may seem a subtle difference, but it enhances the overall looks of the game massively when you see it on your TV, even at standard 1080p resolution.

This is something I hope to see in more games on PS4 Pro going forward. While it’s hard to expect groundbreaking differences, solid, visible improvements like in Watch_Dogs 2 are great, and make you feel that you’re not missing out too much if you’re not playing on PC. Incidentally, all the screenshots in this review have been directly captured on PS4 Pro running at 1080p.

The audio compartment is pretty much what you’d expect from a game with Watch_Dogs 2‘s theme. If you can imagine a kind of music a hipster from San Francisco would listen to, chances are that something like that is in the game. Of course there is a bit more variety than that, and the soundtrack is pretty well put together, with the added charm of continuing to discover and unlock new songs when you explore.

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Considering Marcus’ nature as a gamer, hacker and overall nerd, I would have expected and enjoyed a lot more “nerdy” music from games, TV series and similar. Maybe not even licensed, but reproducing that kind of style. It would have enhanced the character and the game’s soundtrack as a whole, taking two birds with one stone.

Voice acting is really good, and works very well with the overall expressiveness of the characters, bringing them to life and making the occasional uncanny valley moment much more bearable.

One thing is for sure: Watch_Dogs 2 has one of the best open worlds in the market. Not only it’s vast and diverse, but it’s well designed. Developers put extra attention in making the world’s structure quite functional to it being fun and interesting to navigate.

There are also a whole lot of ways in which you can interact with the world, especially thanks to your hacking abilities. It’s a whole lot of fun to just explore, and find ways to wreak havoc, witnessing how the world’s systemic algorithms react to your interference.

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While this really conflicts with the story and with Marcus as a character, messing with San Francisco’s virtual inhabitants is is simply delightful, in a very sadistic sort of ways. While the hacking “powers” provided by Watch_Dogs 2 aren’t all that different or innovative compared to the first game, they seem to better interact with the AI, and with the world’s inner workings.

This additional ways to control the world around you definitely make traveling around around San Francisco in this game much more interesting and less prone to “getting old” than doing so in most modern-themed open world games. I never once thought to use fast-travel (which is available), and that says a lot.

Driving gameplay is probably one of the biggest improvements since the first games, with cars that feel much more natural and interesting to drive. At times it’s just enjoyable to pick up a performance ride and speed through the traffic, or go on a calmer and slower cruise to see the sights of the virtual city. There is much to see, and doing it by car feels very good.

Boats are also available, but honestly they feel kind of useless, besides reaching the occasional location surrounded by water. They’re fun to use, but the limited amount of destinations means that unless you go out of your way to hitch a boat ride, you’ll simply ignore them most of the times.

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Considering the scope of the open world and its beauty, I found myself feeling the lack of airborne vehicles, and it’s a pity that we don’t get a helicopter or two to see San Francisco from above. That said, it’s not difficult to understand why the folks at Ubisoft opted to leave them out, as they would simply make 90% of the traversal and climbing puzzles pointless.

One of the biggest differences between this game and its predecessor is the use of remote controlled drones, the RC Jumper and the Quadcopter. The first provides a wheeled (and jumping) access to areas where going directly would be too dangerous, and can even physically hack triggers and terminals. The Quadcopter is more dedicated to reconnaissance purposes, marking guards from above and planning routes. It cannot physically hack terminals, so physical infiltration is normally required after scouting with the flying drone.

They certainly provide a good amount of additional options on how you can tackle infiltrating a heavily guarded area.

In contrast with the quality of the freeform experience, Watch_Dogs 2 suffers from a few weaknesses when content becomes structured. Missions are not as diverse as they could be, and they almost all come in a set of variations of the same theme that sees Marcus infiltrating an off-limits area, using his gadgets to reach a terminal to hack, and then do his thing, often dealing with a hacking puzzle. Of course I’m oversimplifying, but repetition does end up being an issue on the long run.

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The other issue is that hacking is really, really fun, but it’s also really, really overpowered. Especially the ability to call the cops or rival gangs on your targets is so effective that it can very easily break missions, even more so after you level it up.

In almost every guarded area that you need to infiltrate, you can simply start calling a few waves of unwilling reinforcements on the guards, and after a little while they’ll be completely wiped out, leaving the target ripe for the taking.

Add to that the fact that the cops will often call reinforcements of their own when coming under fire, meaning that there will be quite a few cases in which you can simply call the first batch, hope that your target doesn’t like being arrested and reacts violently, then kick back and relax until the whole place is wiped out and you can waltz in with zero effort.

This is a case in which the systemic and open nature of Watch_Dogs 2 plays against its structured missions. Of course you can show restraint and not use the reinforcement hacks, but having to refuse using the tools you’re given to restore variety and fun isn’t very conducive to good gameplay.

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On top of that, even if you don’t call the cops or rival gangs to help you out, there are more fairly overpowered methods that ultimately do tempt the player to fall into a routine, and approach almost every mission using pretty much the same procedure. Unfortunately, it does work, and the situations that force you to up your game and change-up your methods are few and far between.

Don’t get me wrong: the fact that almost every mission is a blank canvas that you can approach in a myriad of different ways is great, but in this case it really opens the door for routinely exploiting the same skills over and over, and the only way to really enjoy things is to force yourself to attempt different approaches on your own.

Another weak spot in Watch_Dogs 2 is shooting gameplay. Aiming feels floaty, and most weapons simply lack kick, and I mean physical oomph, as developers probably tried to reproduce the feel of 3D Printed guns. They have been successful in that, but they are rarely very satisfying to shoot. They’re made of plastic, and that’s exactly how they feel.

Like hacking, many of them also feel overpowered. It’s very easy to use the scoped assault rifle, which is also silenced, to clear up an area of enemies from cover without even raising an alarm. If you prefer to go in guns blazing, the stun grenade launcher will send everyone to take a nap in seconds.

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Ultimately, the two problems above merge and compound each other into a bigger one: there is no reward for actually playing Marcus the way that Marcus is.

In the story he’s portrayed as an idealist hacker who would rather protect citizens, boldly showing a digital pixelated middle finger to the big corporations while slipping in and out of their servers unseen and undetected. Yet, in actual gameplay, absolutely no mechanic discourages the player from being the worst thug in the Bay Area. Even worse, there’s really no reward encouraging you to keep the dead (civilians included) count down and to choose stealth over mass murder.

Luckily, online gameplay comes to the rescue to change things up considerably, and those who rushed to finish the game at launch ignoring this feature that was missing for about a week, really missed out on some of the best moments Watch_Dogs 2 can offer.

While invasions aren’t very different from those you saw in the first game, the addition of new tools makes them more varied, tense and interesting as you scramble to find the hacker that penetrated your system or hide from your target after grabbing his data.

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Bounty hunts are fun, prompting up to three players to kill or protect another who acts as the bounty target. Unfortunately, the fun tends to be very situational, as the initial conditions in which the bounty is triggered can easily affect its balance too radically.

Overpowered hacking skills also rear their head here, as it’s simply too easy to tamper with the target’s driving, making it impossible or extremely challenging for him to achieve a clean getaway.

Yet, the real fun is to be found in seamless co-op, that works extremely well. Missions that would be repetitive and routine-inducing by yourself, become exciting and engaging when you have to deal with the unpredictability of another human player.

You can sit back and play support, or infiltrate yourself and play point. You can both decide to push into enemy territory piggybacking from guard to guard, and it’s a whole lot of fun

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Of course there is always the dude who rushes in gun-blazing, ruining your carefully planned stealth infiltration, but that’s the nature of the beast, and it’s still good for a laugh and a shootout.

That said, this means that if you’re not planning to touch the online aspects of the game (or you can’t), the game will lose part of its charm, and you could easily consider the score at the top of this page half a point lower.

Overpowered hacking and fun multiplayer aside, Watch_Dogs 2‘s real star is the open world map, that almost makes the game worth playing on its own. Ubisoft’s rendition of San Francisco really is the best virtual playground I can think of for any budding hacking god wannabe-meets-mass murderer, with the caveat that Marcus isn’t supposed to be a mass murderer, but the world doesn’t seem to really notice the difference.

It’s certainly not a perfect picture, but despite the wacky balance and the flaws, Watch_Dogs 2 manages to be a very enjoyable experience, and a game definitely worth its price tag with its rich content and carefully crafted world at your physical and virtual fingertips.

At times it almost feels like the delightful God simulators of old, only with an enormously expanded scale.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.