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Watch Dogs 2 review for PS4, Xbox One

Platform: PS4
Also On: Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Medium: Digital/Disc
Players: Multi
Online: Yes
ESRB: M

The original Watch Dogs took itself way, way too seriously. It was dinged as being an overall average experience with a timely theme and some unique open world mechanics, but it skewed too dark. Ubisoft apparently took that criticism to heart and did a complete 180 with Watch Dogs 2.

In the sequel, the drab and serious hacker underworld has been taken over by young, cool hipster hacktivists, though with the same general goal: save the world (or at least San Francisco and the general Silicon Valley area) from Blume Corporation’s intrusive ctOS system — which conveniently has been upgraded to 2.0 since the events of 2013. In Watch Dogs 2, the squad is fresh, the action is pretty over the top, the missions and story are actually fun, and the gameplay has evolved quite a bit for the better.

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Watch Dogs 2 drops you in the stylish shoes of Marcus Holloway, a young, capable hacker who has had his digital life compromised and is then accused of a crime he did not commit. Marcus is then rescued and recruited by DedSec, a small hacker collective in the world of Watch Dogs, to help fight back against the infiltration of ctOS 2.0 in their region. DedSec, as you would expect, is comprised of a motley crew of hackers with differing abilities including artist/DJ Sitara, engineer/fixer Wrench, security specialist Josh, and a couple of others. They primarily hang out in their gadget filled hackerspace… err.. hacking things, making viral propaganda videos, keeping up on social media and working on an app which will they hope will help take the ctOS offline permanently. This HQ just so happens to be conveniently located in the basement of a board game/RPG store.

As you may expect, the topic of security, identity theft in the digital age and the era of the Internet of Things, is as relevant as it was in the first game, but Ubisoft thankfully took a much different mindset in telling the story for this sequel. In other words, Watch Dogs 2 tries to convey the same message but with a much less serious tone. That's not to say it's all fun and games for Marcus, our protagonist.

Just to get it out of the way, Ubisoft’s portrayal of modern hacker subculture falls somewhere between trying too hard and an obvious parody of the community. There are a fair amount of memes and hashtags everywhere in the game, and a ton of l33tspeak and internet slang peppered in every conversation with your hacker buddies. Your player’s progress is tracked with “Followers” which are gathered up by completing missions and performing actions which are shared on fictional social media services within the game. There are a number of reddit references and connections, and the game actually encourages players to visit their official /r/watch_dogs/ subreddit right on the title screen. If any of this sounds annoying, then look out, because it’s everywhere in Watch Dogs 2. Either way, the characters and setting in WD2 are both a vast improvement over the mopey Aiden Pearce and the dull Chicago environment portrayed in the original game.

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Honestly, if Grand Theft Auto V and Watch Dogs fell in love and had a baby, it would probably look and sound just like Watch Dogs 2. The mission structure, humor, pop culture references, interface and environments often look and feel very, very similar to GTA V — except with a younger, technology-oriented cast of characters and plot. That’s really a good thing, as Rockstar’s 2013 open world release has withstood the test of time through almost two generations now.

Watch Dogs 2 is still an Ubisoft-style, open world title through and through. That means a map full of icons, and a queue of missions, side-missions and tasks available to work on at all times. Marcus’ interface into the world is his smartphone (naturally) and the various apps are utilized as menu items which track missions and game progress, and functions as a GPS, camera and music player.

In general, missions in Watch Dogs 2 rely more on stealth and gadgetry than raw firepower, although there’s a comfortable variety all throughout the game. One common thread is the ability to hack the world and take control of nearly any network controlled object in the game world including smartphones, vehicles, doors, traffic lights, steampipe controls, cameras, sentry systems and more. These hacking abilities gives players several methods of tackling many of the game’s missions by manipulating the environment, using drones or jumper RC vehicles and infiltrating cameras to scope out and interact with networks, employees and building systems. In a way, the ability to strategize feels as if it bumps the mission difficulty up to an extent because it requires time and experimentation by the player to find the safest, most efficient solutions. Enemies can be on the aggressive side, and running blindly into almost any situation with a just firearm in hand usually ends with failure, so it helps to step back and evaluate the task at hand. With all the options and gadgets at Marcus’ disposal I personally feel that the game is better off played as a stealth, Metal Gear Solid no-kill style experience instead of resorting to murdering dozens of clueless security guards. But at least players can make their own choices.

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Speaking of tasks, the story-driven and side missions in Watch Dogs 2 are certainly more in line with GTA V than the original Watch Dogs game. Which again, is an improvement here. There’s a healthy dose of humor (which can be sorta hit or miss) and a more interesting variety of things to see and do. With the sheer amount of collectibles and side-missions, which includes a few types of racing, photography, taxi service and other tasks, there is always something worth doing in the game. Since progression is tied to earning Followers, which ultimately unlock Research Points that are utilized to upgrade your abilities, there’s no excuse to just ignore the optional stuff in the game. Like the first Watch Dogs, it’s always fun to just take a walk and electronically eavesdrop on the NPCs which populate each city. You’ll learn a lot about the residents very quickly when watching their text messages scroll by, listening in on their calls and reading their profiles. Marcus can also grab a few bucks from their bank accounts or recharge his botnet without much fuss. Oh, and to spite living in such a healthy environment, apparently half of San Francisco and Silicon Valley have cancer of some sort. #sadface

Even in regards to gameplay, it’s difficult to not compare Watch Dogs 2 to Grand Theft Auto V. Overall, WD2 comes up a bit short with occasionally clunky combat controls and driving. After putting quite a lot of time into Ubisoft’s own The Division, the somewhat similar cover-based gameplay mechanics here feel not as tight. The controls for vehicles are fairly standard, with cars/trucks/bikes/boats that seem to stop and accelerate on a dime and can way-too-easily weave through traffic. As we saw in the original Watch Dogs, vehicles feel a bit too weightless at times with minimal momentum and very arcade-like physics as compared to modern GTA titles. This doesn't break the game by any means, and it's still fun to navigate through the environments, though I was hoping for a noticeable improvement. Ubisoft did include a convenient fast travel option at least which can be used to save some driving time. The focus is definitely on hacking and exploring, not driving or combat in Watch Dogs 2.

Oh, and if you weren’t very fond of the Ubisoft-patented “climb a tower to expose the map” mechanic that shows up in nearly every single open world Ubi title, there’s little to none of that in Watch Dogs 2, yay! Actually, while Marcus can do a little running and jumping, his limited climbing/parkour skills are not used all that much.

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A notable feature in Watch Dogs 2 is the addition of seamless online play, both for co-op and PvP. In addition to harassing other gamers by invading and hacking them during their game sessions (which was present in the first game), there are now a handful of mission types in the game which allow players to team up and perform cooperative missions which will earn you Followers and/or rewards. There are also a couple of competitive options which includes being part of a bounty hunt, which rewards you for helping to take down other players by assisting the police for example. As of this review, however, the seamless multiplayer has been taken offline temporarily due to server issues and apparently a number of bugs and unexplained crashes — which is pretty ironic considering the game’s theme. That’s a shame too, since the new features do sound like fun. Some of the online options do work at the moment, for example co-op sessions with friends via invitation. The online not quite working right won’t affect our review grade in this instance, since it’s on our “nice to have” list rather than our "must have" list for this type of title.  We're sure it'll be sorted out eventually.

With the change in location for Watch Dogs 2, the mostly gray, drab Chicago skyline has been replaced with a recreation of San Francisco, Oakland and Silicon Valley. The cities are generally bright and colorful with beautiful blue skies, lush landscapes, an adequate amount of life, and some interesting and unique pieces of architecture. The environments are very attractive and detailed at times, however the game doesn't look better than Grand Theft Auto V in my opinion. The visuals are clean and attractive on the PS4 and Xbox One with the 30fps target framerate relatively stable throughout. WD2 does look a bit nicer on the PS4 Pro (on a 1080p display at least) since there appears to be some supersampling going on which cleans up the final image to an extent. As for audio, the voicework and acting are decent enough and are of a quality that pretty typical for an Ubisoft title. There's some cringeworthy dialog here and there, though Wrench does drop some legitimately funny lines from time to time. The soundtrack, which is organized into several stations that are available via Marcus' smartphone, is adequate enough for the most part but not particularly memorable. I do need to point out that the controls for changing radio stations while driving is terrible.

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Watch Dogs 2 is far superior to the original and is probably much closer to Ubisoft's original vision than what they released back in 2013. It's still a little unpolished compared to the competition, and the seamless multiplayer not being online may scare off some players at the moment, though the game certainly does a nice job scratching that modern, open world crime drama itch.  Check it out.

Grade: B+

Watch Dogs 2 – PlayStation 4


Manufacturer: UBI Soft
ESRB Rating: Mature
Platform: PlayStation 4
Genre: adventure-game-genre

New From: $47.99 USD In Stock
Release date November 15, 2016.