Friday, 2 December 2016

Watch Dogs 2 - Review

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

Watch Dogs 2 is the game that the original Watch Dogs should have been. Having dumped the sulky, hypocritical murder-man Aiden Pearce for a much brighter, energetic and, most importantly, fun game world, Watch Dogs 2 lets itself breathe a little.

More than anything, Ubisoft’s sequel attempts to rectify the problems that plagued the first instalment. The hacking system, the side quests and the open world have all been given a total overhaul.

The setting sums up this change more than anything else. The sun-drenched locales of San Francisco are a far cry from the moody wind-swept streets of Chicago-France. The game’s cast likewise, is a complete 180 from the previous game, as the plot follows the exploits of a gang of hipster hacktivists taking on giant mega-corporation, Blume. It’s standard cyberpunk fare for sure, but Watch Dogs finally seems to have married its story with its gameplay in a way the original utterly failed to do.

And that gameplay has at least seen a much-needed improvement. Hacking was an interesting but sometimes tangential component to the original game; useful to have, but little more than pressing a few buttons here or there. Watch Dogs 2 fleshes it out a little more, giving you different abilities to tailor-make your desired approach. Go in heavy with shotguns and IEDs or take a stealthy approach, distracting guards with radio chatter or temporarily cutting the power.

It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it gives Watch Dogs 2’s environments are little more strategy and player-involvement than many similar open world games. Taking note of that pipe that can be hacked for your escape route, or distracting a bunch of guards by faking a police call make for a more engaging and fun sandbox to play around in. It’s the traditional gameplay only with a hint of Hitman: Blood Money thrown in, which is never a bad thing.

Likewise, the player advancement has been given a boost. Many open world games throw RPG elements in as little more than a check box exercise, with very little meaning to them. Watch Dogs 2 isn’t guilty-free of this by any stretch, it’s still no RPG, but it at least requires the player to tweak Marcus in their desired way, prioritising skills that they need, (the game separates the available skills into three vague classes; aggressor, ghost and tinkerer), moulding him into their desired playstyle.

The remote controlled drones are the icing on the cake, however. Marcus’ dinky little RC drone, and later on the hover drone, are great toys to play around with, and expand the scope of many of the games missions. My biggest obsession was seeing how many objectives I could complete just using the RC drone to hack into whatever computer I needed while Marcus stayed safe outside.

Whilst the open world aspect remains familiar, with point A to point B missions and general “go here and do this” objectives, Ubisoft have finally saw fit to remove some of the fat and bloat that drags down otherwise interesting ideas. Side quests are around, and they actually feel like side quests for a change; small self-contained chunks of story and gameplay cordoned off from the main plot.

It’s here where the game has you nurturing your inner troll. Hacking ATMs at the push of a button, doling out free tuitions to a struggling student or donating hedge fund managers income to charity, whilst not all that inventive in terms of gameplay, are strangely enjoyable and beat clearing out bland icons on a map like in Far Cry Primal earlier this year.

Fortunately, the online component remains unchanged. Watch Dogs’ online component was one of its best features, mixing Dark Souls-like invasions with Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer format. There’s nothing more fun than hacking another player and watching them tear apart the environment looking for you, all whilst you hide behind a park bench.

This anarchic sense of fun extends to the main storyline, which is broken down into the typical string of missions that play out in an episodic fashion. It’s the weirder and more surreal missions, those that make a stab at social satire, that work the best. The main story’s highlight being when you’re tasked with breaking into what’s essentially the Church of Scientology and proving it’s all a hoax.

It’s the DeadSec gang, though, that gives the game a little more heart. Marcus Holloway is a decent protagonist; funny, geeky and with plenty of quips for good measure; everything that Aiden Pearce wasn’t. Yet, it’s the cast around him, especially Jonathan Dubsky’s portrayal of Josh, a young hacker with Asperger’s, that give the game characters worth investing in.

In fact Josh is possibly a better written character than anyone else in the entire game. Marcus is a fun protagonist but there’s little drive or motivation to his quest to the point where it’s almost more a series of isolated scenarios akin to a TV box set in terms of its story, complete with a villain of the week. The first hour or two of Watch Dogs 2 are also its weakest, primarily because the game rushes through its set-up, afraid that you’ll lose interest in anything beyond the zaniness of its cast.

In fact, the episodic nature of the main plot is what also hurts the game’s pacing later on. This a game that’s fun to mess around in, and has an interesting world, but its central story is all but non-existent, with a bland main villain and a poorly paced final act that builds up only to end suddenly.

Likewise, there’s the impression that the later missions were running out of ideas. There’s only so many places you can have players sneak/shoot their way in and hack something. Whilst Watch Dogs 2 is better than similar open world fare it’s not always free from the same copy-paste mission structure.

There’s a few stabs at left-wing political commentary to compliment the social satire that the game aims for. It’s not perfect, and there’s the constant conflict between the way the characters are portrayed and the fact that you can play the game as a murder-happy psycho. Its jabs at corporate power and state control are minor and rather obvious but well-intentioned enough.

Watch Dogs 2 is a reboot for the series. It brushes away everything that didn’t work in the previous instalment and gives it a new coat of paint. Don’t expect anything too radical here, this is still a game that fits perfectly into Ubisoft’s safe and predictable formula at this point. That being said, it’s also one of the more enjoyable open worlds to play around in this year.

Watch Dogs 2 is definitely a step in the right direction, but it is just that, only a step.


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