Watch Dogs 2 review: A genuinely innovative and rewarding experience

£49.99 - Ubisoft - Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC

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The Independent Tech

It would be fair to say that a sequel to Watch Dogs wasn’t topping many people’s wish lists. Sales for the first game may have been high, but it failed to ignite much passion in players. Plagued by accusations of a graphical downgrade on release, and a terrible cardboard cutout of a main character, the game came and went with little fanfare. The good news is that Ubisoft has clearly been listening to players, and have produced a title that is a huge improvement on that first game.

One of the problems with the original Watch Dogs was its po-faced protagonist, Aiden Pearce. Calling him a boring, misery guts might be a bit unfair considering he spent most of the game chasing down his kidnapped sister and nephew, but - as an avatar for players - he was a whining dullard. Watch Dogs 2 ditches hapless Aiden, and replaces him with Marcus Holloway and his crew of hacking Millennials. Speaking in internet shorthand and addicted to memes, they should be insufferable, but their characters are such a refreshing change of pace from anything in the original game, it’s hard not to love the idiots. They feel like a 2.0 reboot of the characters in the 1995 film Hackers, aptly, and are just as passionate about disputing who would win in a fight between an Alien or a Predator as they are about taking down 'the man'.

With a view to exposing private corporations that profit from our online data and use it for nefarious purposes, the gang operates an underground hacking collective named Dedsec. While they may work in the shadows, they appear to have their own merchandise line, and the game’s experience system is built around completing missions to gain more public attention to attract followers (via the group's dedicated app). Doing this means upgrades to your skills and equipment.

The story and references are so in the zeitgeist that it’s hard to think of any recent games with such a dedication to satirical commentary. One of the game’s first missions sees you double cross the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, guilty of artificially inflating the price of essential drugs made by his company. It’s clearly a thinly veiled reference of Martin Shkreli, who hit the headlines for exactly the same reason. There’s also allusions to Trump, Spotify, Facebook, and you can even take on a part-time job as an Uber driver if you want (although here the app is cleverly called ‘Driver San Francisco’, after a previous game from Ubisoft).

One of the innovations of the original game was its hacking feature, so it’s great to see Ubisoft double down on this mechanic. As well as the ability to hack almost everything, this time around a quadcopter and a wheeled drone have been added to your arsenal (after you’ve printed then in your fancy 3D printer, of course). These open up new ways to approach challenges, and can make missions more comparable to stealth stalwarts such as Deus Ex and Metal Gear Solid, rather than the generic cookie cutter ‘steal this truck’ or ‘kill this warehouse of guys’ approach of the game’s peers (although there are still a handful of these too). One thing the first game nailed was the satisfaction of completing a mission just using the hacking mechanic, as opposed to the (also viable) approach of going in all guns blazing. Here, the sense of satisfaction in making a clean getaway and utilising both your drones to do your dirty work is unparalleled, and a genuine change of pace from most other similar games.

Open world games can live and die on their atmosphere and setting. For every one that gets it right, like the Grand Theft Auto series, there’s another ten that fail to build a lively and fun playground. Watch Dogs 2 gets this right, taking place in the heart of San Francisco, the perfect place to lambast the tech boom from. One mission sees you infiltrate the ‘Google-inspired’ campus of a tech giant with dubious moral values, albeit one that gives off a friendly atmosphere with its offices filled with bean bags and colourful slides, which yes, you can have a go on. The humour and sense of place is so well crafted, that in a few years the game will most likely feel like a time capsule for 2016.

Mechanically, the game is well put together, and the sense of control over Marcus and his gadgets is natural and fluid. Gunplay feels tight and satisfying, as does stealth, with a nice balance between the two that caters to either type of player. The multiplayer component includes the option to work co-operatively with other players, or take them on in Hacking or Bounty mode, the latter a new addition that sees you try to either escape or take down another player using any means necessary. While it's clear more thought has gone into multiplayer this time around, it's unlikely to dethrone Grand Theft Auto V for that online open world experience.

There are a couple of small issues that hold the game back. At times, performance can get choppy when there's a lot going on. These moments are sparse, but in our play through on the PlayStation 4 version, we definitely noticed frames dropping in places. Also, the game sometimes throws you a mission which could have been ripped from any other open-world game, which is disappointing considering the generally high level of creativity in Watch Dogs 2.

Ubisoft deserves credit for taking on board the criticisms of the first game and studiously addressing them in the sequel. Watch Dogs 2 could have very easily been just another open world game that did things by numbers, but it’s clear that this is a game made by a passionate team, and their sense of sheer fun bleeds through into the world at almost every turn, creating a genuinely innovative and rewarding experience.

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