What’s the point of being an all-seeing, all-powerful hacker if you don’t aim your powers at the biggest targets possible?
This question went unanswered in 2014’s Watch Dogs, an open-world adventure game that gave its gun-wielding, car-stealing, parkour-hopping hero a super-charged smartphone but failed to make us care about using those hacking powers. Ubisoft’s first shot at the Watch Dogs franchise offered players a chance to fight crime (and have a decent time doing so), but its confusing plot and ho-hum use of tech buzz words didn’t keep players rooted in the experience.
The series returns in this week’s Watch Dogs 2, a game that now lets players fight more than crime. This go-’round, they fight the entire system, man. What’s more, they do so with more powers, more choices, and a much better mix of plot, dialogue, and likable characters.
It’s not a perfect experience by any stretch. Technical hiccups and pacing issues are glaring enough to leave Grand Theft Auto V‘s open-world crown unmoved—but just barely. Watch Dogs 2 builds upon a pretty good foundation from the last game with most of the trappings you’ll want from a zillions-of-hours open-world quest.
Can you hack it?
Watch Dogs 2 stars a gifted young hacker named Marcus “Retr0” Holloway, and the game opens in the middle of his first mission: an audition to join a Bay Area hacking collective called Dedsec. In this mission, Marcus must sneak into a heavily secured server facility and hack one of its main terminals in order to erase and rewrite his giant government dossier. Naturally, the document is full of lies concocted by the powers that be for some reason.
Watch Dogs 2, like its forebear, mostly splits the difference between GTA and Assassin’s Creed. Car theft and gun combat are combined with stealth and parkour, which players use to knock out traditional mission objectives (kill this perp, flip that switch). The overwhelming smoothness of the parkour movement system, in particular, will feel like a revelation to anybody who has gotten used to the stilted movement in city-romping series like GTA and Saint’s Row. Car and combat systems, meanwhile, are perfectly adequate—not quite as rock-solid as GTA, but close enough.
Script kiddies hoping to plug in a keyboard and do some “realistic” hacking will be disappointed; the hacking here is just another super power activated by a button press. Like last game’s Aiden Pearce, Marcus owns a powerful phone that can easily connect to every “hackable” object in the world (and pretty much everything is hackable, thanks to Orwellian governments and corporations colluding to connect pretty much every computing device to the cloud for nefarious purposes). When you hold down the game’s “hack” button, a dotted line extends from Marcus to whatever hackable thing is closest to your sightline.
The first Watch Dogs gave players quite a few hacking options, and Watch Dogs 2, unsurprisingly, offers many, many more. You can still do things like black out an entire enemy-filled zone for stealth’s sake, distract a single guard by making his phone ring, raise and lower a platform, or flip traffic and barrier switches to stymie any cars chasing you. And you’ll still tap into remote security cameras to visually hop around an encounter (and in some cases, do all of your hacks via that camera perspective so you don’t have to set foot into a dangerous zone).
In Watch Dogs 2, you can use earned experience points to unlock even more hacking powers. Make a car accelerate, go in reverse, or take a sharp turn, whether it’s being driven or not. Call in a report on a perp, and that foe will be chased and attacked by cops or a rival gang. Unlock new bomb weapons. Remotely trigger a foe’s smartphone to blow up (sorry if that was triggering for disappointed Note 7 owners).
In addition, Marcus has two major new tools at his disposal: a remote-controlled car and a flying quadcopter drone. The former is a nice alternative to drive into dangerous territories that require Marcus to do hands-on hacking (which the car can do by way of an extendable arm). While the car is pretty mobile, complete with a hopping ability, it can be destroyed with a single bullet or hit. The quadcopter is far more mobile, but it can only fly so far before Marcus loses its signal, and it can’t complete many of the “hands-on” hacks in many missions.
Hopping between security cameras to case a joint is still pretty cool, but Marcus’ pair of gizmos make the game’s remote-stealth aspect that much more fun. Plus, Ubisoft has done a good job organically limiting the crafts so that they aren’t too all-seeing or powerful. You can’t entirely rely on remote abilities during some of the game’s tougher missions, but they typically prove helpful and oftentimes in clever ways.
My biggest complaint is that Marcus’ wider arsenal of hacks often makes missions too easy. The “call in a report” power, in particular, can easily be used to distract and kill entire armies of foes who hang around a tough outdoor mission. (That being said, I rarely got tired of calling in a rival gang and watching dozens of AI characters blow each other up.) Watch Dogs 2 tries to offset some of its best powers by making them cost more “energy,” which is regulated by a refillable meter. Much of the time, this doesn’t matter much; you just have to point your phone at enemies and steal some of their energy via a quick one-button hack.
But once the game gets tough, some of those strategies reach their natural limits. Maybe when you call in a rival gang, the mission’s main bad guys just call in reinforcements to counter. If you burn through hacking powers a little too quickly in an underground bunker, Marcus might find himself out of ways to restock his juice. Watch Dogs 2 takes too long to reach the point where its missions push players’ creativity and power use to the limits, but once it gets there, you’ll find yourself enthralled by the effort required to beat a tough mission.