Developer(s): Ubisoft Montreal
Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Release Date(s): November 15, 2016
Watch_Dogs 2 is Ubisoft’s latest infliction upon the world of gaming, a sequel (although crucially not a spiritual successor) to the widely disappointing Watch_Dogs. Gloomy Aiden Pearce has been exchanged for young, hip Marcus Holloway, hacker at large and lover of retro pop-culture, hence his hacker handle ‘Retr0’.
Full disclosure, Watch_Dogs 2 is such a sprawling mess in terms of game design that there’s a lot to deal with, and considering this game’s budget could have fed all of San Francisco’s homeless for a month, whether that expenditure is justified needs to be scrupulously analysed. After all, if the game world is anything to go by, clearly there’s a massive homelessness problem in the Golden City. If you want a critique of the game’s writing in terms of both character and narrative, click here. TLDR: The writing is abysmal.
Jack-Sh*t at All Trades, Master of None
Watch_Dogs 2 doesn’t strictly have ‘central’ gameplay, because no one of the gameplay facets, be that hacking, controlling your RC or aerial drone, sneaking, driving, shooting or puzzling, is being done more than 50% of the time. Furthermore, each element is too distinct aside from the sneaking and some parts of the hacking to really be considered different facets of the same gameplay. Perhaps more importantly, each facet is also too underdeveloped to be central too the game. Ubisoft pulled itself in far too many directions this time.
Regardless, the general process of the game is that Marcus is given a mission by DedSec or discovers one peering at people’s private lives. The mission will require you to get to some objective or objectives and either personally interact with (usually, hack by sticking in a USB or holding your phone up to it) or destroy them, within an area patrolled by hostile guards or behind one of the game’s puzzles. After running, fast-travelling or driving to the location, you scout the area for guards, layout, hackable objects and so on using your aerial drone and the world’s most useless security cameras, then you get to the objective through stealth, hacking objects to create distractions or take out guards, or murdering everyone in your path. Should you get noticed you’ll need to make a getaway by stealing a vehicle and hacking more objects to throw pursuers off. Completing a mission nets you followers, this game’s equivalent of experience points (which is pretty smart actually) and cash. Enough followers earns you research points which can be spent to grant new hacking powers and upgrade old ones, and cash can be used primarily to buy new guns.
Can I Hack it? No you can’t.
The hacking is very lacking in polish for the supposed unique selling point of the game. Too often movable hackable objects such as the swing stages are put in only as a means to access the mission area, rather than something you can really use to clear the mission. On the other hand, the hack that makes a guard’s cellphone ring is far too over-used due to its effectiveness. It’s one of the starting hacks, yet distracts a guard completely for a long duration with easy, quick use that even distracts them when they’re in the process of spotting you. Some parts of the game you can simply forget about stealth if there are a low enough number of guards, by making sure you hack in a distracting phone call just before they end up spotting you. The late game ‘mass-hack’ that turns of the lights goes beyond overpowered, however. This hack is so powerful, essentially making Marcus invisible for a generous period, that after using it twice allowed me to clear a massive mission with no difficulty nor skill, I banned myself from using it.
The hacks that call in either the police or a gang hit don’t seem to actually do anything of benefit. The police only arrest the one guy you target, with no shoot-out ensuing, and cause the remaining guards to begin moving erratically, doing nothing for you if you were trying to stealth, and if you’re being more violent in your approach and get spotted the police actually will shoot you while letting their arrest target flee. Calling in gang hits is even worse – it gets rid of the one you called the hit on, but in exchange the thugs who show up to do the hit stick around (that must be a bug, right?), and again the remaining guards start moving erratically.
Far too many missions, including some quite a few late-game story missions, can be brute-forced with the RC hopper. A lot of the game’s mission objectives can be hacked by RC rather than Marcus in person, and should it be destroyed by a guard, Marcus will infinitely respawn a new one after a few minutes. This all means, for many missions, even if you’re incompetent with the RC hopper (which isn’t hard to use), you can clear the objective without ever incurring risk. You can achieve something similar for missions requiring you to destroy objectives by attaching explosives to your aerial drone, all of the while sitting Marcus out of sight and away from danger. These piloted tools, supposedly facilitators to the central challenge of getting Marcus to hack the thing, are instead more bricks in the firewall blocking the player from a worthwhile experience, and reduce it all to just a glorified timer.
The game does have a solid electronic soundtrack to set the hacking vibe (although if you choose a more violent play style the music often clashes). However, the majority of the songs are not original tracks, and how hard is to make an electronic playlist?
An Unclean Bill of Stealth
The stealth is boorishly basic, following the pattern of parking up behind something chest-high, hacking to create distractions for the one or few guards that would see you, then moving on to the next piece of cover. There are some stupid bugs however that can seriously muck up the stealth. Security sensors and guards can, depending on the kind of wall, actually see you through it, but only sometimes, adding a frustrating element of random chance if the artist decided to design a wall with a few holes in it. Furthermore, when attempting to stealthily move your RC hopper through an area, it’s too easy to move quickly enough to simply never give anyone enough time to spot you.
Shooting in Watch_Dogs 2 is, surprise surprise, also underdeveloped. The mechanics are your basic stop-and-pop. Enemies hang around outside of cover for generous periods and hesitate to shoot. Health recovers extremely quickly. The initial guns are fairly weak, but in the early game the free stun gun with infinite ammo is perfectly adequate, and actually not that useful – shooting an enemy will alert others nearby, so you’re better off using the melee takedown – which renders the assailed dead, despite looking like it should knock them out. However as soon as you earn enough money, which doesn’t take long, and buy one of the heftier guns, rampaging through the levels becomes if anything too viable. Make use of the lethal hackable objects in the mission area and use a hack to call a gang hit at the right time, and things can become a blood bath. So long as you take down anyone before they call reinforcements, you can flee from the destruction very easily too.
The shooting in Watch_Dogs 2 is problematic. It’s too easy. The whole stealth element to the game is redundant from an optimal-strategy point of view, and the shooting element of the game is redundant from a challenging point of view. Furthermore, the game’s narrative grates excruciatingly against this play style. Shooting is made even more unappealing by the vomit-inducing names the guns have been given, like ‘4N00bs Pistol’.
Watch_Driver: San Francisco
Driving takes a backseat in Watch_Dogs 2. Cars accelerate furiously and stop on a dime, giving this awkward, staccato sense of motion that you need to come over at first, and removes much of the momentum that makes tearing through the city streets in a hijacked sports car fun in other sandboxes, and that’s just one of the issues with the game’s driving. There’s a lack of consistency in what is and isn’t breakable; giant, cast iron street lamps can be taken down by a slow moped, yet piles of wooden planks are immovable. The AI for civilians avoiding speeding objects is terrible; more often than not pedestrians will jump in front of a moving vehicle rather than away from it.
However the staccato driving does make sense given how small the world map is. If it only takes minutes to go from one destination to another, you don’t want to overshoot when you hit the brakes. Overall the driving is the aspect of Watch_Dogs 2 with the highest level of polish, because it’s not strictly another direction the game attempts to go in, but instead there to facilitate other gameplay aspects. Still, casual driving can be fun in games with open worlds, and it’s a shame it isn’t much in Watch_Dogs 2.
Stick a Puzzle on that Dog
Most facets of Watch_Dogs 2’s gameplay are be poor, but the puzzles sink to another level of shoddy. Puzzles come in two forms in the game. One set are an adaption of the Far Cry tower puzzles, where you have to use the environment and available tools to get to the prize atop the San Francisco rooftop, and the other set are Network Bypass puzzles. Both puzzles are a flop.
The rooftop puzzles are far, far too rarely a challenge, instead typically being solved by simply having progressed enough to have the right available hacking tools, going through the obvious steps presented, or by brute-forcing the puzzle by finding one of the cherry pickers scattered about the city to carry you to the roof. On top of this the rewards (either cash, upgrade points, or objectives for the most boring side mission in the game) are never significant enough to really encourage players to undertake them. Cash is plentiful, and more importantly redundant once the aerial drone and a decent weapon have been bought. You only get one upgrade point per reward, whereas missions give you far more, making progressing with missions a much more worthwhile time investment. At no point are the puzzles really puzzling, unless you’re missing the hacking upgrade necessary, in which case you can’t actually solve the puzzle!
The Network Bypass puzzles are even worse, requiring you to rotate parts of a grid to make the flow of power get to an objective. The puzzles have no actual parts you need to intellectually solve, instead just requiring you to go through the steps of rotating the obvious parts. The best the game can muster are occasional time constraints, which anyone with half a brain-cell will be able to succeed within, and if not, only within one of these puzzles are you actually penalized. There is no solving a Network Bypass puzzle. You just go through the routine, mindless motions, and it’s done. That’s not a puzzle. That’s an insulting, artificial speed bump.
If you’re Going to San Francisco…
The San Francisco sandbox the game’s set in isn’t much of a world to inhabit. Dozens of small visual failings deprive the world of an organic feel. The little internet bios that pop up on the populace are immersive at first, but the illusion is quickly broken once the first of far too many bios clearly doesn’t relate to the person you’re interacting with. There are too few random NPC dialogues, and each conversation is too unique, meaning you will notice the same dialogue, repeatedly, from different people. The supposedly nerdy board game store DedSec operates from under sells plain Monopoly. Grounded birds always appear in exact same formation of five. The small failings add up to a very plastic-feeling world.
This lack of organic immersion is only exacerbated by how the poor AI will often single out Marcus, pushing this plastic reality in to something like the Truman Show. When driving like any other vehicle, civilians will still leap away from your vehicle as it drives past them, and police will readily allow a criminal you’ve got them to arrest flee should you walk into their view, at which point they will immediately open fire on Marcus, regardless of surrounding civilians. It’s hard to enjoy yourself in this world when it constantly singles you out.
It’s also hard to enjoy the world visually. Ubisoft promised better graphics for Watch_Dogs 2 after the bait-and-switch Watch_Dogs 1 pulled. I can’t attest as to whether the graphics are improved between games, but there are a lot of visual cock-ups in Watch_Dogs 2, particularly with the graffiti that adds a splash of colour to San Francisco. Notably, a later side mission requires you to deface billboards and the sides of buildings with DedSec artwork, which when ballooned up to the appropriate size makes individual pixels become visible due to the low resolution of the images, resulting in some awful looking creations.
Lastly San Fran just seems a really unhappy place. Why set a fun game here? There’s a lot of trash strewn about, and almost all of the random NPC conversations are negative in tone. The place is swamped with criminal gangs you can’t actually get rid of. Cops have itchy trigger fingers. There’s a huge homelessness problem. It’s miserable.
Who Didn’t Let the Dogs Out?
Gravest of all of the game’s failings, you can’t even watch that many dogs in Watch_Dogs 2. In my travels around San Francisco, I only discovered three different breeds of dog to watch, meaning my interest in following the titular objective of the game was quickly limited when I ran out of new kinds of dog. While you can also pet dogs, something like Nintendogs will give a far more fruitful dog-watching experience.
How to Play
As I mentioned before, the lethal approach to the game is way too easy, and also, as I discuss here, so discordant with the narrative it’s actively uncomfortable. Not to mention, I’m not a huge fan of murder anyway. So, I constrained myself to a non-lethal play through, in the hope of more challenge and a more comfortable time. When that became too easy (pretty much straight away), I also forced myself to have to stealth every mission that called for it perfectly.
At some point after I’d committed to this non-lethal perfect stealth play style, when I was distracting guards with phony phone calls and a fabricated police bust, having scouted the area with my aerial drone and gained the ability to unlock the electronic doors by infiltrating with my RC hopper, all set to electronic music, it became apparent there is the hint of solid game here (Although, how ‘apparent’ is it really if I had to place artificial constraints upon my play-style to see it?).
That is an interesting game concept, where the player’s successful stealth is determined more by their long-range interaction with an environment (such as triggering a guard’s smartphone as a distraction) than usage of personal tools and techniques (such as using the side roll to quickly get past an guard’s view), which was the method of Metal Gear Solid games. But a lack of development focus has left the experience in need of a preliminary polish just so it would be clear what is in need to further polish.
It’s my belief that this briefest glint of a worthwhile game must be the light that has blinded so many critics in to giving this game anything above 5/10. Unless they’re being bribed, blackmailed, or… gasp! Hacked! Or was the original Watch_Dogs just that abysmal? However I would argue strongly against finding positivity in this barest whisper of a hint of a ghost of a possibility that there might be a good game buried in Watch_Dogs 2. We must contextualize the merits of this and any game with what it took to get there, and Watch_Dogs 2 took far, far too much.
Super Bunnyhop ventured that taking guns out of Watch_Dogs 2 would be a good idea. I whole-heartedly agree, but go one step further. Take as well the open world, take the characters, take the narrative, take the pseudo-puzzles, take the fully modeled genitalia, take the kart racing, and put those resources in to making a complete, polished stealth hacking game. Currently Watch_Dogs 2 gets vastly outdone at every turn as Ubisoft throws resources in every direction. You want to have fun driving recklessly through an open world? Play Just Cause. Stealth in an open world? MGSV:TPP. Shooting in an open world? Borderlands. Action-adventure stealth where you use magic (let’s be frank, the hacking in this game is basically that)? Dishonored.
I will not say there is nothing in Watch_Dogs 2. To do so would forget the corpulent decadence of Ubisoft. What there is, is a vast waste of resources, squandered all to create some barest speck of potential, screaming in pain as it struggles to grow in cramped, crushing conditions. Such cruelty should not be forgiven, and such wastage should not be highly scored.