A Hacker’s Playground

Set in a world similar to our own, Watch Dogs 2 casts you as a young hacker named Marcus Holloway. He and his DedSec hacker group attempt to expose truths by breaching the security of large corporations and government administrations – all with a powerful smart phone that grants godlike control over San Francisco’s citizens and infrastructure. Brimming with opportunities to mess with machines on a large scale, the freedom of Watch Dogs 2’s open world is alluring and fun, with some improvements over its predecessor, but has missteps in other critical areas.

The original Watch Dogs fell short of presenting the hacker fantasy many envisioned. Hacking abilities had limited results that were more repetitive than engaging, and loose driving mechanics gave the impression that you were skidding on ice. These flaws have been addressed, with hacking put at the forefront of gameplay, and vehicles that handle much smoother on the road.

Watch Dogs 2 gives you plenty of ways to cause compelling havoc. You can control something as large as a crane, or cause an enemy’s phone to buzz to create a small disruption. Performing quick hacks with the touch of a button makes hacking easily accessible. You can also be precise, with deeper options including proximity traps and luring enemies towards imploding electrical fuses. Remotely controlling vehicles to spin them out of control is an immensely amusing way to lose pursuers during a car chase. I enjoy how Watch Dogs 2 gives you enough creative fuel to achieve the wackiest hacks, from blocking off entryways with forklifts or altering a foe’s data to become the target of a gang. This sense of variety and seeing the immediate repercussions of your hacks makes you feel powerful, giving you the illusion that almost anything is possible.

While Marcus is a step up from the empty personality of Aiden Pierce (the first game’s hero), he has problems of his own. Marcus is meant to have a strong sense of justice after being wrongly profiled as a criminal by the smart city and surveillance system, ctOS. However, this contradicts his actions that come across too delinquent and impulsive to be meaningful, such as scaring a teenage girl to teach her a lesson about online predators. Although the theme of exposing corruption through hacking is timely, its expression through Marcus’ actions is never nuanced enough to give much insightful commentary, instead remaining more juvenile in tone.

Your main goal is to gain as many DedSec followers as possible as you expose the dirty secrets of one corporation to the next, but it feels more like a popularity contest than hacktivism. You take on the role of a glorified prankster, though the game seems aware of its own absurdities. Though it can get some laughs, tipping the scale in favor of goofiness meant I never sympathized with DedSec’s end goal of taking down Blume (the makers of ctOS), or connected with any of the characters, who are presented as whiny millennials angry at the system. Instead of being likeable, they are too obnoxious and petty to be meaningful companions.

Watch Dogs 2 is more concerned about making you laugh than making a statement, but some of its jokes are more cringe-worthy than clever, such as one character wearing a digital emoji mask. Its off-the-wall humor is outlandish, such as stealing a talking car from a famous film and flashily riding it across town to make headlines. As the game progresses, it tackles heavier topics, such as being investigated by the FBI and exposing how a social media giant helped rig an election, but Watch Dogs 2 never loses its ridiculous tone. It shines best when it satirizes real-world events, such as a mission that is an obvious spin on the Martin Shkreli controversy or when you infiltrate a Google-like company.

Missions can be tackled as you please, either stealthily or with guns blazing, though the quieter approach is far more enthralling due to its emphasis on hacking. The cover-based shooting works well, though it feels bland in comparison to the hacking mechanics, and offers little in terms of novelty. At one of the many ‘hackerspace’ HQs, where fellow DedSec members can be found, you can use a 3D printer to build an assortment of standard weapons, such as sniper rifles, assault rifles, and shotguns. Outside of aesthetic skins, you can’t modify these guns in any way. This is disappointing considering the amount of customization found elsewhere in the world, including the wide rage of apparel to dress Marcus in, from crocs to a biker vest.

As for melee, Marcus has a nifty string attached to a billiard ball which he aggressively swings at foes or uses the cord to choke them. These are thrilling animations, but they leave you vulnerable in a shootout since they take a few seconds to play out, so melee is most useful when you’re out of sight. You can play through the entire game non-lethally with Marcus’ stun gun, but you see no repercussions for a lethal versus non-lethal approach, which makes this distinction nearly meaningless. I preferred the more practical lethal approach, but going the non-lethal route adds more of a challenge and makes more narrative sense for Marcus.

Marcus’ flying drone and tiny remote-controlled car are by far the best additions to your repertoire. These gadgets can reach higher levels or tighter spots that you can’t access by foot. Both are helpful and enticing to use, such as distracting enemies and fooling them into following the RC car as it shouts profanities at them in a British accent. The RC car has an extendable arm, so you can pick up objects or hack junction boxes without physically being there, and the drone can scope out areas as you prepare your plan of attack. Some missions can be completed using these gadgets alone, and finding the route to success is an entertaining challenge.

Features Offline
At launch, the seamless online features of Watch Dogs 2 – including a new multiplayer mode called Bounty Hunter – were pulled offline temporarily due to lag and crashes (co-op was unaffected). As of press time, we didn’t have a chance to test these features out completely, but they compose a relatively small piece of the whole Watch Dogs 2 experience.

Hacking invasions return, which are fun hide-and-seek sequences, where you either attempt to find the hacker stealing your data, or are the perpetrator yourself. The downside is you can’t exit out of these invasions once they begin, leaving you with no choice but to play out the match and rendering you unable to start other missions until it’s over. You can, however, opt out of several different online modes completely in the settings.

We also played a few solid co-op matches that are exclusive to a handful of side missions. These are substantial and fun, and can be played solo or with a friend. Often you are infiltrating a compound or entering a guarded area, to either find and extract data or destroy something. When playing with someone else, I enjoyed coordinating with my teammate, such the other player using a drone to get a bird’s eye view of the area and directing me where to go.

In comparison to the original’s drab setting of Chicago, San Francisco is a major improvement. The city and its surrounding neighborhoods are filled with personality, from downtown’s colorful street art to Silicon Valley’s tech empires, making this world a joy to explore. San Francisco is teeming with activities, including kart racing, sailboats, motorbikes, and drones, offering several courses with differing difficulties that are fun to play. Four different kinds of races don’t provide much variety, but side missions are more substantial. An emphasis is put on environmental puzzles, from a recurring connective pipe puzzle mini-game that offers just enough challenge to be engaging, such as having to use a drone to maneuver around the closed circuit and change the angle of lines where necessary. I also enjoyed making my mark in graffiti, which you can do by finding your way up to specific high vantage points, and you have to use hacking tools or a keen eye to find your way upward.

As fun as exploration can be, I was disappointed on the technical front. While reviewing the game on PlayStation 4, I encountered significant framerate drops that occurred more than once, which is disrupting during shootouts and jarring if you’re behind the wheel. That wasn’t the only issue I encountered, either; a game-breaking bug that deleted several apps from Marcus’ phone (without any way to retrieve them) left me restarting the game completely. According to Ubisoft, this bug is “extremely rare” and should be patched soon, though it did disrupt my experience.

Watch Dogs 2 addresses many of the issues of the first game, putting hacking at the forefront, but its narrative struggles to stay engaging. Although the cast is unlikeable, the parodies and its ability to not take itself seriously brings charm. The stellar hacking mechanics can make your actions, such as taking control of a satellite in outer space, feel grandiose and unstoppable in entertaining ways.

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