The original Watch Dogs promised a lot when it came to new and interesting gameplay mechanics. While much has been made about how the game looked, as opposed to how it was presented. The cosmetics weren't nearly as important as how the game actually played, and it played...fine.
At this point, the open world setup, made famous by Grand Theft Auto, and made standard by Ubisoft, was given a minor tweak thanks to the ability to hack the environment around you, but in the end, it was little more than a new layer of polish on a tried and true formula.
I remember playing the original Watch Dogs and thinking "if they improve on the good parts of this, the sequel to this could be awesome
I wasn't wrong.
If the improvements between the two Watch Dogs games can be summed up in a single word, it's "fun." I didn't have nearly as much fun with the original title as I had hoped to. Much of that was due to the lead character of Aiden Pierce. His story of revenge wasn't the sort of thing that you look to for a good time.
One of the biggest stars of the show is the city itself. While I can't speak to the authenticity of Chicago in the first Watch Dogs game, I've only been there once, and it was recent. As somebody who has lived and worked in the San Francisco bay area for most of my life, cruising around San Francisco has been a joy. All the major landmarks are there, what's more, the general feel of the city is there. The streets and the people on them belong in San Francisco. The conversations you overhear just while walking the streets feel real. In one case I overheard an NPC telling somebody that she wasn't able to show her visiting father Alcatraz because, as a native, she had no idea that tickets sell out weeks in advance. I have literally had this conversation with people.
The change in scenery informs a number of other changes that combine to make Watch Dogs 2 a much more fun game than the original.
The source of the fun is DedSec, the hacker collective that was a secondary concern in the original game. Lead character Marcus Holloway opens the new title by breaking into Blume, the company running the newest version of the Big Brother CtOS software. After successfully deleting himself from the database, he earns his way into the hacker group and begins to work with a crew of colorful characters.
The objective for DedSec is to build up enough computing power to take down Blume. To do that, they need as many people as possible to download the Deadsec app, which allows them to borrow the processing power of other devices, to do that, they need fans. To get fans, they need to pull off hacks that reveal information people want to know, or just mess with public figures because it's fun.
Of course, just how much fun you have with some of these missions may depend on how you feel about a number of real world issues. One side quest as a pharmaceutical industry guy trying to keep a popular rap album out of the hands of everybody but himself, an obvious reference to Martin Shkreli and the Wu-Tang Clan. Another segment messes with a stand-in for the Church of Scientology. While items like that may not be much of an issue, others, like hacking a teenager girl who likes to stream herself online (dancing, get your mind out of the gutter) as a way to teach her some sort of lesson seem less funny and more cruel.
When it comes to control, there are many improvements as well. Marcus has a more robust ability to hack than Aiden Pierce ever did. Any item that is hackable can be hacked in multiple ways, it can be used to create a takedown but it can also simply be used to distract. One way might draw the attention of other guards, the other not so much. While the hacking mechanics honestly felt tacked on in the first game, it feels more integrated here. While you'll do an awful lot of jumping between surveillance cameras as you did in the first game, it feels like you're still able to accomplish more through that than you were in the first game. More than once you will have opportunities to achieve your objective without so much as entering the area where the objective sits, strictly by using the hacking tools at your disposal.
To aid in this, Marcus also has access to some new tools as well, a two-wheeled Roomba on steroids called the RC Jumper and a quadcopter drone. These are cool new ways to interact with the environment without putting Marcus at-risk, although, there were a couple of annoying points in the game where I successfully maneuvered the Jumper to the goal location, only to discover that I wasn't allowed to do that, and had to then repeat the process with Marcus, which was a bit more complicated. The game is very open to letting you do things your way, nut it's not completely open to that, sometimes you have to do it the way the game wants, which is fine, except when the game doesn't tell you what it wants.
When in doubt you can always shoot everybody with any of the multitude of guns.
the fact is that many of the missions will follow fairly similar structures. Infiltrate a place, get information, escape. While the game is fairly open to how you can achieve those objectives, the fact is you're going to achieve them using whatever skills you have decided to put points into, meaning that you probably won't be using a lot of different tactics, but the same ones over and over again.
If you ever get bored of hacking, there are a handful of additional side missions available to keep you entertained, everything from picking up some extra cash by being an (not called) Uber driver to taking selfies around San Francisco's many landmarks. This is an Ubisoft game after all and it just wouldn't be the same if the map wasn't littered with objectives.
It's unlikely that most people are playing Watch Dogs 2 for the multiplayer, of course one of the selling points of the game's multiplayer is that the modes are built into the single-player in order to be seamless. While this mode is having some difficulties getting off the ground and is not available at launch, I got to use it a bit before it was taken offline and when it worked it worked fine. The addition of multiplayer modes like Bounty Hunter, which allows players to join police chases for other hackers is a welcome addition as are co-op online modes. Hopefully, Ubisoft will have this fixed soon, but for the purposes of this review it's simply not being dealt with, it's a side feature, like the Uber driving bits, and I didn't spend a lot of time with those either.
Overall Watch Dogs 2 is a significant improvement over the fist game, in many ways it's probably the game many were hoping to play the fist time. Now, hopefully, they can build off of that if there's a Watch Dogs 3 and make something truly unique.
This review is based on a copy of the PlayStation 4 version of the game provided by the publisher.