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