You can support Amala Network with a small donation on PayPal or a recurring donation on Patreon! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The announcement was met with tempered interest. Aiden Pearce's initial outing had proven milquetoast at best, leaving little hope Ubisoft could really deliver on the promises made in the sequel's reveal trailer. Undoubtedly, thousands who experienced the first game are hesitant to expect anything better from Watch_Dogs 2.
I'm telling you right now, you should buy this game.
Ubisoft has single-handedly reversed every bit of disappointment they've delivered in recent years—and there's a lot of disappointment to be had.
Assassin's Creed 3 attempted to take on the American story, but found itself rushing to shove Connor into every historical event with the lack of explanation only going unnoticed due to an overwhelming number of bugs. Black Flag succeeded in a more coherent story, including a fantastic present-day experience, while relying too much on repetition of stalking missions and carrying forward a wholly useless weapon system. Syndicate—the expected apology for Unity's mess—stretched a ten minute plot into 60 hours of generally-entertaining-but-often-redundant gameplay that still felt like the overall quest of an ancient being's resurrection barely inched forward.
And then there was Watch_Dogs, which promised a whole new world but underwhelmed players with unfinished graphics surrounding a bland character and less-than-inspired gameplay. It had seemed Ubisoft ran out of steam to generate anything fresh.
How does the sequel compare?
It's as technically solid as a mainline Final Fantasy.
This is a spider bot. It is a fantastic spider bot. A mechanical marvel surely weighing tons yet capable of climbing walls and ceilings at breakneck speed is exactly what Ubisoft needed to win back fans.
You won't get to meet the spider bot until late in the game, but it's best to consider the spider bot as a cherry on top of the delicious sundae that is Watch_Dogs 2's gameplay. What the spider bot represents is a team capable of implementing varied gameplay and story elements you wouldn't expect to exist in the same game let alone make sense.
But they do. And they function on a level almost unseen in previous Ubisoft games I've played.
Clipping exists, such as a random NPC clapping their hand through their phone as you take a selfie on the street. There were even a couple times where I would try to climb something and magically be a little higher or lower than made sense.
A couple times is a vast gulf from the countless times in Syndicate where I was discovered because a body or leg was sticking through a wall. Mostly, the only graphical issues you'll notice are brief moments while driving your RC through an air duct where you'll see a flash of what lies outside the duct. Still rare, and hardly breaking the immersion.
Hacking and stealth are on point, too.
Becoming a one-man army murdering everyone in sight is certainly an option you may choose. My choice was to play as stealthy as Solid Snake. Watch_Dogs 2 accommodated my play-style without question while being capable of accommodating the times where my cover was blown and I had to go full Duke Nukem.
As a stealth player, you'll find countless ways to complete your objective. Some levels, I could hack through cameras, forklifts, and doors to get a clear look at the computer I needed to target; I didn't even need to enter the restricted area of the map and risk alerting security. Other levels required finding places in the middle of enemy turf where I could hide long enough to send a drone or RC off to the objective and still be in range for offloading data.
Challenge was balanced and difficulty properly paced. Even when I felt the odds were stacked against me, patience and double-checking the outlay would eventually find a way to completion and satisfaction with my performance.
But hacking goes beyond forklifts and cameras. Success might require hacking a security officer's cell phone so they get distracted by a text message, flooding everyone's earpieces with deafening static so they can't take aim, turning a fuse box into a static field knocking out the first person to walk by, or making a gas valve explode so the guy with a gatling isn't a bother.
Again, the game delivered with almost no issues. The only frustration came from seemingly arbitrary decisions on walls you can climb. This isn't an invisible wall problem, but a height problem; times where two walls of equal height were present in the same area but for some reason one of them couldn't be climbed upon. There's not much evidence to say these instances were due to designers wanting to only make certain paths and thus increased linearity. It just added a few seconds to exploration at times.
Exploring is fun again!
Syndicate's biggest problem—and really, the issue AC has faced for years now—came from exploration being tedious without much payoff; viewpoints are part of that tedium. You'll make a beeline to a viewpoint, climb to the top, and now that area of the world is no longer clouded on the map. Then you dive into a hay cart, look for the next viewpoint, and do it all again. When a mission occurs in a place whose viewpoint you haven't yet activated, you're gonna have a long trek for what may be a ten second cutscene; you may still have a long trek because viewpoints are few and far between.
Ubisoft decided you should have fun in San Francisco instead of constantly climbing tall buildings just to find where all the side content lies. Moving around the city—whatever the method—will cause your minimap to flash and new content to appear. The design makes sure nothing is hidden in a way that requires walkthroughs or screenshots. If a side quest requires talking to an NPC, you can be sure the NPC will be revealed while you're on your way to a different objective.
Collectibles are scaled down and useful, too! Your skill tree requires Key Data to unlock certain skills. The data's location is told to you when viewing your tree, and will show up on your map when close enough. Obtaining the data has a variance of puzzles. In one, I simply had to hack a closed circuit box so I could unlock an air vent for my drone to fly in. Another, I had to reach it by ramping a dirt bike onto some scaffolding while avoiding gunfire.
Beyond Key Data are other collectibles like paint jobs for your devices and weapons, paint jobs for your vehicles, special vehicles like a Volkswagen van with a surfboard, and money bags. Early in the game, you'll feel as though you have more money than you know what to do with thanks to how easily you've obtained money. Once you start customizing your outfits, buying new vehicles, and building new weapons, you'll go running for money bags and find amazing things along the way.
Fast travel is available instantly, too. You can fast travel to any shop, hackerspace, or side event like kart racing. Maybe you've been all explored out and just want to finish up a side quest? Fast travel to the pawn shop and you're only 100 meters away! If you'd rather drive instead, hack any vehicle around you or pull out your phone and have a car instantly appear next to you.
A way to obtain followers in the game is to take photos (or selfies!) near unique features of the world. Murals, for example. I have no idea exactly how many murals exist, but their art gave such life and atmosphere to the game that I wanted to find more and more! You'll also have landmarks, buildings, and people equally unique. The world felt interactive as I tried to frame a perfect selfie with a guitar-playing goat man or mimic the lean of a giant lightbulb.
Most importantly, color is back and stronger than ever! Murals, buildings, the graphics themselves are vivid and full of life. Exploring became a way to witness the beauty of breaking away from rusty, dark, doom and gloom environments still prominent in gaming as a whole.
The messaging and characters make everything inspiring.
Let's go back to the murals for a second. Here's one concerning gentrification, found on the way to a story mission.
Murals complement the story more often than not. Gentrification—where people are priced out of their homes as wealthier classes are attracted to an area—is a central topic not only talked about but actively addressed in missions.
Watch_Dogs 2 deals with ctOS 2.0, a city-wide surveillance and data collection program provided by a big corporation, used by anyone from police to healthcare providers. One side mission concerns people adjusting the readings from utility meters so water and electricity bills in a low-income area continue to rise; the hope is people will find the bills insurmountable and leave, allowing the land to be purchased and repurposed for high-income condos.
Another topic, from the very moment you start the game, is the abuse of mass data by law enforcement. Your main character is Marcus, a black male who was predicted by an algorithm to be a potential criminal and who has been closely monitored by the system.
The monitoring means Marcus has been stopped and arrested multiple times without cause. As the story continues, you find out just how widespread this problem is, as schools in low-income areas are marked for police to fire at will as the algorithm has decided they're high-risk. This ties into the gentrification issues, as the areas marked are where people priced out of their homes in San Francisco were forced to move.
Capitalism's major failures are another key point. In the forefront is how easily capitalism has allowed corporations to conspire with government in mutually beneficial ways that oppress minorities and the working class. Mass surveillance and data collection means rising premiums for buying a soda or finding ways to deprive safety nets from the vulnerable.
One of the main characters is Josh, described as a man with high-functioning autism, later revealed to be Asperger's Syndrome. He had discovered on his own all the ways ctOS was ruining lives and decided to make videos warning people. The government and corp behind ctOS retaliated by cutting off his welfare while flagging his profile to make him unemployable. Dedsec, the hacker collective you're part of, recruited him both to help protect him and because of his unparalleled coding skills.
Josh's story and place in the game is refreshingly well-handled; his AS never becomes the butt of a joke, he's an important part of many major plot developments, and he's given a realistic personality with everyone else reacting properly when he needs help. He's also representative of how wonderfully diversity has been handled in Watch_Dogs 2.
Your main team is made up of Josh, Sitara, Horatio, Marcus, and Wrench. Each character is fleshed out to the point the saddest moment of the game was realizing it was finished and I wouldn't get to spend more time with everyone.
Sitara, she's a graphic designer and capable coder who does graffiti, branding, and video production for dedsec. Her style makes her reminiscent of early punk mixed with a little 80s.
Horatio, he's works for a major company in Silicon Valley but manages operations for dedsec because he knows what's at stake. He's a black nerd just like Marcus but never gets stereotyped.
Wrench, he's your firearms and heavy-lifting guy. His mask prevents the ctOS facial recognition yet still allows him to display his emotions, and he's got strong opinions on sci-fi.
All together, they make a relatable crew where every player should see themselves reflected. Conversations had me laughing, crying, angry, energized; these are people so perfectly captured by their voice actors that you'll wonder whether you're playing a game or a documentary. They're not an isolated case, either.
Character models vary greatly in the NPCs, with all body types and races represented. People on the streets are just as varied as your crew, while people part of the story are just as diverse. One adversary looks no different than people I've seen on YouTube, gangs shy away from being solely stereotyped as hispanic or black (as my death by a white woman in a bandana made clear), dedsec members you meet for missions are only similar in wearing glasses.
Also refreshing is a transgender character finally written with full respect. She's a recurring character who's never made out to be creepy, evil, a casualty, or otherwise deigned "weird" as so often happens in media. Her role is that of a powerful and successful woman who overcame oppression and now fights on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. Those struggles are outlined, but she's here to show there's hope and things can get better.
The tech industry gets called out.
With such a diverse cast and world, it'd feel awkward if only certain forms of oppression got mentioned. While the mural about techies approaches Silicon Valley's problems of gentrification—and gentrification itself is a major plot point—there are also call outs of the tech industry lacking the diversity it continually promises to improve on.
While tech's lack of diversity isn't exactly made into missions, it's a recurring talking point and focus throughout the dialogue. Horatio (seen in the middle left above) talks about how little is contained at his major tech giant, joking with Marcus and explaining the uphill battle. The algorithms that decided Marcus is a future criminal are commented on for their explanation coming from a lack of black people being hired for coding, also represented by security robots "randomly selecting" people of color for screening throughout the game. Marcus even snaps back at an AI that says it can't recognize his face because it's too dark, asking why Silicon Valley couldn't hire a single brother.
More and more of this can be found throughout your exploration of the city and its buildings. Emails, voice recordings, overheard conversations skewer the tech industry and may surprise people who don't know much about the demographics in major corporations.
But the tech industry is also made to answer for placing profits over ethics. What's most chilling is how accurately the story mirrors recent events and concerns over how little regulation exists to control big corps—and why that regulation seems slow-coming. Without question, I can say this game has the most progressive message of any media I've consumed in the last year. My greatest hope is that the game inspires people to mobilize in whatever way they can.
My greatest complaint is a nonsensical death.
Having just finished up one side quest, I opened my phone and looked for the next mission to tackle. Someone has gone missing and I need to use CCTV video to figure out what happened to them. Turns out, they were kidnapped by a gang and I'm not sure why.
So I make my way to a house owned by one of the gang members, and watch as the person I hoped to save gives their last gasp. A quick revenge, and everyone forgets this person ever existed at all.
I can't explain why the gang wanted them. The game didn't explain why. To be honest, the gangs are kind of a weird situation, where they're important to certain story missions but little is given as to why they'd be a concern for a hacker group attacking big corporations.
Which, ok, we can deal with. But for such an important person to be killed and then never mentioned again? This moment was the only drawback to the entire game. The person who died seemed arbitrarily chosen and the only idea I can come up with is that the voice actor had to leave the project so a quick rewrite was necessary.
The death also slightly hinders the otherwise fantastic diversity in the game, as the character is a person of color unnecessarily killed while a perfectly expendable white character continues hanging around. It almost feels like two roles made out of one character.
Hopefully, Ubisoft can explain why this decision was made.
It's understandable if this is a deterrent, but I hope you'll find the other 99% worth playing.
I wasn't expecting too much from Watch_Dogs 2. Syndicate was an improvement on Ubisoft's flagging AC franchise but didn't exactly get me excited for any future releases. At most, I expected Watch_Dogs 2 to be mildly entertaining if not basically a palette swap of the AC model.
Instead, I'm ready to replay the game 100% the minute I hit publish on this review. I can't wait for the next production from the team behind this game. I've been preaching the good word to anyone who will listen on social media, ready to nerd out over the game with everybody I know.
This is the game I didn't know I wanted, but now will consider the baseline for other productions to meet. Buy this game, play the hell out of it, and maybe you'll feel inspired enough by the message to protest the abuses of power happening in real life.