Watchdogs 2

De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Ubisoft (Mon­treal) For­mat PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Re­lease Out now


PC, PS4, Xbox One

Mere min­utes into Watch Dogs 2, we’re flush with cash. As we drive along the Golden Gate Bridge, the car in front of us is high­lighted, a tap of L1 drain­ing the driver’s bank ac­count. There are plenty of ve­hi­cles on this iconic stretch of San Fran­cisco steel, and by the end pro­tag­o­nist Mar­cus Hol­loway has got a good few grand in his pocket. That abil­ity won’t last long – un­lock an early up­grade and in­stead of hoover­ing up cash, you can hack a ve­hi­cle to make it veer off-course – but the mes­sage it sends is clear: you don’t need to worry about money in this game. Cash is of­ten the pri­mary mo­ti­va­tor in a typ­i­cal open-world ad­ven­ture, but Watch Dogs 2 is any­thing but typ­i­cal.

You’ll still need dosh, ad­mit­tedly, in a world whose achingly trendy fash­ions will see you fork­ing out $500 for a hat, and whose 3D-printed weapons and gad­gets are priced into the tens of thou­sands. But it’s never hard to come by. Un­lock the skill that au­to­mat­i­cally high­lights NPCs with well-stocked bank ac­counts and you can pick up thou­sands by sim­ply driv­ing through down­town on the way to your next ob­jec­tive. High­value pedes­tri­ans are marked out by a blue box. Line them up in your sights and you’re given de­tails about their job, their in­come and a snip­pet of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion – on their fre­quent In­ter­net search terms, or some­thing they col­lect, or a re­cent life event. And so, know­ing you don’t need to take money from every­one you see, you start mak­ing snap judge­ments, based on your per­sonal pol­i­tics and the scant de­tails you have on peo­ple. An in­sur­ance bro­ker with a gun col­lec­tion? Sorry, old chap, but you’re broke now. A sys­tems ad­min who’s just bought a condo? You need the cash more than we do. Moral­ity is noth­ing new to the open-world genre, but this is no mid-cutscene di­a­logue prompt. It’s baked into the en­tire world at street level, and does more to let you de­fine Hol­loway’s char­ac­ter than any amount of A/B con­ver­sa­tion choices could.

Not that he needs much def­i­ni­tion. Full of life, am­bi­tion and per­son­al­ity, Hol­loway and his co­horts in the DEDSEC hack­ing group are a world apart from the orig­i­nal Watch Dogs’ dour lead Ai­dan Pearce. Mileage may vary – one man’s ex­u­ber­ant youth is an­other’s punch­able meme-spout­ing mil­len­nial – but they’re at least en­ter­tain­ing, and in the con­text of their pre­de­ces­sor, they’re a ray of light for a game, and a genre, that should be about hav­ing fun above all else.

They’ve got Pearce licked for tech, too. While the first game’s pro­tag­o­nist could do an aw­ful lot with his one-but­ton hacks, Hol­loway has a much greater ar­ray of tools at his dis­posal. Here, as be­fore, a sin­gle tap of the L1 but­ton will per­form a quick hack of an ob­ject, ve­hi­cle or NPC. Hold the but­ton down, how­ever, and up to four op­tions ap­pear, se­lectable us­ing the face but­tons. A car can be made to turn left or right, speed up or brake; an NPC can be dis­tracted with a funny text mes­sage, have their bank ac­count drained, or be framed for a crime or snitch­ing on a gang. Hol­loway can also call on the Jumper, a con­trol­lable RC car that can be up­graded with a speaker that dis­tracts en­e­mies with toffo-ac­cented put­downs, or his quad­copter drone. It means, in the­ory at least, there’s a far greater de­gree of flex­i­bil­ity in your ap­proach to Watch Dogs 2’ s puz­zle-like mis­sions.

But the re­al­ity is a game that of­ten feels more pre­scrip­tive than its pre­de­ces­sor. While you have plenty of tools at your dis­posal, and are fre­quently able to use them to im­pro­vise your way to your ob­jec­tive, many mis­sions have been de­signed with a sin­gle so­lu­tion in mind. One in­fil­tra­tion at the head­quar­ters of a Sil­i­con Val­ley space com­pany saw us try to run a ground-floor gamut of guards, ro­bot sen­tries and mo­tion-sens­ing alarms. A cou­ple of hours later we spot­ted the hack­able crane on the top floor that al­lowed us to trun­dle all the way to our ob­jec­tive with­out fac­ing a sin­gle threat. And when it all goes south, you might as well put the pad down and wait to die. Guns are weedy; Hol­loway, a hacker af­ter all, is squishy; and en­e­mies will call in ar­moured re­in­force­ments at the slight­est provo­ca­tion.

Such mo­ments can frus­trate, but only in the con­text of a game that gives you so much free­dom else­where – and not just in terms of me­chan­ics, but struc­ture too. Ev­ery ac­tiv­ity in­creases DEDSEC’s fol­low­ers, each down­load­ing an app that lends you their de­vice’s pro­cess­ing power, build­ing your strength for a fi­nal as­sault against shady data com­pany Blume. So if a story mis­sion’s got your goat, you can take a few jobs as a taxi driver. Chats with cer­tain pedes­tri­ans yield in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to new sid­e­quests, all of which bump up your fol­lower count. Or you can sim­ply snap self­ies at land­marks, post­ing them on the Foursquare-alike ScoutX. Open-world games have long strug­gled to give pur­pose to your down­time, but here ev­ery­thing you do counts as progress to­wards your ul­ti­mate goal.

Yet the game’s great­est achieve­ment is its set­ting. There’s a dis­tinct whiff of a Rock­star pro­duc­tion to Watch Dogs 2’ s San Fran­cisco, with its scale and pol­ish, its savvy skew­er­ing of pop­u­lar cul­ture in gen­eral, and Sil­i­con Val­ley’s tech fetish in par­tic­u­lar. This, like the real Bay Area, is a world of con­tra­dic­tions, where the su­per-rich of the tech world rub up against the faded ston­ers of Haight Ash­bury and the im­pov­er­ished Oak­land. Un­com­monly for a con­tem­po­rary Ubisoft game, Watch Dogs 2’ s San Fran­cisco feels like a place, rather than the back­drop for a sprawl­ing mass of icons; its denizens feel like peo­ple, rather than mere quest­givers. And it plays host to a game that ad­dresses the prob­lems of its pre­de­ces­sor, as well as nudg­ing its genre for­ward – to a place where you play as peo­ple you like, where ev­ery­thing you do has value, and where money is the last thing on your mind.

There’s a dis­tinct whiff of a Rock­star pro­duc­tion to Watch Dogs 2’s San Fran­cisco, with its scale and pol­ish

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