Sometimes a game can resonate with a theme or movement in the industry. Now and again this synergy can even come from other forms of media and social phenomenon. Back when the X-files was riding an unprecedented wave of fascination with UFO's, games like X-com Enemy Unknown tapped into this energy. As our world becomes more connected so too does the threat of cyber crime: hell, you can even have your toaster hacked these days. The planet is on the brink of a cyber revolution and it's for this reason alone that the world of Watchdogs is such an intriguing proposition. So does the new game in the series learn from the mistakes of its predecessor or again trip over its own ridiculous ego?
Ubisoft has clearly learned some lessons from Watchdogs. The drab and gritty Chicago that was home to Aiden Pearce has now been replaced by a vivid representation of San Francisco. The warmer climate and colourful streets of this lively American city change the whole feel of the game and hint at a far more play friendly vibe. In this game, you play as Marcus, a man who is nifty on his feet as well as his laptop.
So here's the problem, from the very first moment Ubisoft have portrayed Marcus as a loveable rogue. Someone who gets excited about technology, about the latest film trailers and sticking it to the man: but Marcus is no killer. Yet due to the open world nature of Watchdogs 2, killing and maiming are almost certain at some point. Indeed, due to punchy vehicle controls that have carried over from Watchdogs; it is highly likely Marcus will wipe out a few hundred pedestrians in his first mission. I guess the counter argument would be that you don't actually have to kill anyone (if you walk everywhere). Ultimately I feel like Ubisoft have had an identity crisis here, they wanted to keep the open world violence of a GTA game but at the same time make our new hero more likeable: these two design choices clash and lead to something of a disconnect. The protagonists of GTA 5 were nasty, career criminals who would kill with little hesitation: Trevor would even occasionally eat his victims. In this way, Rockstar managed to make the likely violent actions of the player mesh with the character on screen.
One way around this (maybe for Watchdogs 3) would be to give control over to the player and let gamers create their own avatar. As always, if you do add the option to not kill people the gameplay that link with this path still needs to be fun and rewarding. However, I suspect a developer like Ubisoft would never dream about such a change and so I'd say at the very least make the protagonist fundamentally bad but at the same time interesting. Aiden Pearce was just a bit of a twat if the truth be told.
While on the subject of personally it this might be a good point to mention Marcus's new partners in crime. The motley crew of Deadsec recruit Marcus in the tutorial and then act as his support while making his way through the game's various missions. I admit that I initially wrote these characters off as colourful cliches but very soon I'd grown to like them all. As you start to push against other organisations out there you meet some fairly unsavoury folk and it has to be said that while the acting is a little over the top they are at least memorable and fill the role well.
So with a predictably predictable story and some fairly evident character contradictions how does the game actually play? For me, open world games live and die by the way the environment reacts to changing conditions. Like in the first game, with the press of a button you can 'hack' many objects and systems around you. Some have been directly carried over from Watchdogs, such as exploding gas pipes or causing electrical junction boxes to fry people stood nearby. The menu of hackable objects has also now been expanded to moving cars, driving service vehicles and even robots. This opens up a huge wealth of possibilities to the player who can think outside the box. Maybe lure a guard in front of a stationary car and then cause it to shoot forward or just let a local gang known this person is now on their hit list.
Sometimes it's just hilarious to see cause and effect happening right in front of you. While stood in a book/game shop I accidentally pulled my gun. Immediately the customers who I'd just been chatting to started nervously making their way to the door. One guy accidentally knocked into another fella's table sat at the front of the shop, who stood up and started hurling abuse at the first. The guy who'd been sitting down then decided to lamp the other (knocking him out cold) at which point a woman who had seen this called an ambulance which attended and managed to bring him around. I then came across an annoying couple at a local beauty spot arguing about getting lost, so I decided to put the guy on the police wanted list. Within minutes the police arrived and arrested the 'arsonist' who under protest came quietly: while watching in horror the wife then (out of nowhere) decided to shove one of the officers and run away - so they gunned her down (oops). This all happened in real time and these are just a few examples of the many situations I have seen where the game's systems bounce off each other to create a domino effect.
Even when just walking around I have been blown away by just how much is going on in the streets off this would be City of Fun. Couples making out in back alleys, groups of friends playing football or camping out up in the hills, joggers running with their dogs down the beach: honestly the list seems almost never ending. Even when taking a selfie, if someone sees they are in shot they might strike a pose for you or even just tell you to fuck off. If you do pick up Watchdogs 2 I strongly urge you to spend some time just exploring the many sights both on and off the beaten track. Unfortunately, when you have been playing for hours you will start to see text logs and voice conversations repeat themselves: this will always be the case with scripted games but I always hope that developers will add new content like this in the future to keep things fresh. I would also say the way energy guards become aware of your presence needs some work because often when one knows you are there they all do. This can be very frustrating when you think you've followed the rules and yet you still end up neck deep in fat security guards with itchy trigger fingers.
Frame me pretty
With Watchdogs 2 Ubisoft has set out to create a smaller and more compact version of San Fransisco for the player to delve into. Those of you who have been to this wonderful city will know just what a beautiful (and often bizarre) place it is. While this certainly isn't the full city; the developers have done a fantastic job of getting most of the essentials in place. You can cruise across the Golden Gate Bridge in the early morning sun (complete with haze) or sit down at the pier watching the famous sea lions, gaze at the bizarre (and often truculent) street performers or get lost in the maze of backstreets. I even sailed a yacht out into the bay for a visit to Alcatraz: something I still need to do in real life.
One thing that made GTA 5 such an impressive world to behold was the insane attention to detail and the arguably unnecessary spaces they created. Yet many (including me) loved the fact that there was a fully featured reef to explore or how you could literally sail out from the coast for miles. Now Ubisoft have not beaten the masters of 'open world' at their own game but there are certainly some impressive strides in the right direction. Street art is a big thing in San Fran and this wonderful medium can be seen all over the place while playing, you are even encouraged to take pictures with one of the apps on your phone.
So when Marcus isn't completing missions that push the main story forward there is also a huge amount of activities to try. These can range from side missions, sailing (with a fully working wind direction gauge), drone racing and much more. You can open Marcus's phone at any time and download apps which open certain services and content. One of these lets you offer up you driving skills to NPCs: kinda like a high-speed taxi driver. These were actually a really fun distraction: in one you have to get a stranded bride to the church on time but it's the conversations you have on route that add to the entertainment factor. I also love how you can now open your phone while running or driving which allows you to select waypoints or use apps without stopping. It's worth noting that sound and music in Watchdogs 2 is excellent with an impressive list of tracks built into the equally excellent media player on your phone: you can even create custom playlists or steal tracks that are playing near to Marcus. When racing through tunnels you can hear the sound pallet instantly change and I'd say the only area of the game where the sound is below par is some of the weapon noises come off a little flat.
One of the sticks for this game is that that Marcus (and his Deadsec buddies) are chasing followers. The more followers they get the more they can use this collective processing power to commit more outrageous acts against Blume and CTOS. Yes, this is hypocrisy at it's height but at this point, I'd given up trying to rationalise the actions of our young anti-heroes. You earn followers for pretty much everything you do, you can even travel the city taking pictures of the various landmarks that the developers have added from the real San Fransisco. As you gain followers you unlock research points which like in the first game unlock now skills and abilities. The scope of these upgrades was actually disappointing for me as they were either brought over from the first game or just too tame to have any real effect on gameplay.
As I have mentioned, the whole essence of this game is a more lively and youth driven vibe. This is shown by with the prevalence of social media and the rebellious nature of your group. One very neat feature is being able to utilise a 3D Printer back at the Deadsec HQ which can make anything from weapons to remote control vehicles. The drone and hopper can both be used in many clever ways during missions: you will usually find access point has been worked into each mission but even on the fly (sorry) you can make some good use of their capabilities. The drone/hopper can also be upgraded with a few new tricks but like the research tree, in general, I would like to have seen a bit more scope for such a cool new addition.
Invaders must Die
Without a shadow of a doubt, the best part of Watchdogs 2 is the way it seamlessly merges the single player game to multiplayer encounters. This was actually my favourite part of the first game and I was thrilled to see it return. As you play the single player game you have numerous options for initiating multiplayer: you can visit purple icons on your map, search for encounters on your in-game phone or even be prompted to join one by the game itself. These interactions come in various forms; from hunting down players who have reached a certain level of wanted in their own single player game, hacking information from them or even joining another player to work in co-op. My favourite of these by a mile is the hacking other players while they play. Unbeknown to the other player you appear in their game and are told where they are, you then need to get within sight of them and initiate the hack. On doing so a shrinking perimeter is created in which you must hide while you download the information from the player who's task is to find you and kill you.
There are so many clever tricks a player can use to remain hidden: in one game I saw that the person I was hacking getting a little close so I switched to an overhead CCTV camera for a better view. From here I forced a parked car to speed off in the opposite direction making the player think I might be panicking and making a bid to escape: it worked. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun in multiplayer and it is something that will keep me playing Watchdogs 2 for a long time to come. Of course, the flip side is that you can also be hacked when playing the game, usually when you least expect it. If these invasions are a little too much you can always turn them off in the options menu but in my opinion, you'll be letting the best of Watchdogs 2 pass you by.
Is it PC?
Can I just say, what a huge relief it was to boot up Watchdogs 2 on my PC. This year we have seen a too many atrocious PC ports and from some developers who really should know better. Here we have a great example of how good a game can run and play on PC. With wide open vistas, excellent texture work and plenty happening on screen Watchdogs 2 should really push most PCs on framerate: yet the game runs beautifully on maximum settings. Ubisoft has gone to town to include many features that take advantage of what the platform can offer, such as 4K support, uncapped framerate and a tonne of visual tricks like as ray-marched volumetric fog', HBAO+ and TXAA. I must admit, I had to look up 'ray marching' but it basically allows light to penetrate objects so to offer a far more realistic end result - in this case fog. Ubisoft has also made the controls and UI very PC orientated which is such a welcome move. Maps and menus in game work as they would will a real mouse pointer which makes using them second nature. Specific functions and menus have also been given their own keyboard shortcuts to allow PC users to bring up things like the phone camera or research menu with a button press.
My only real criticism of how the game looks is not regarding quality but more quantity: I just wish there were more damn cars roaming around. The streets of San Fransisco are noticeably barren of other vehicles to the point that when you hack traffic lights there are often no cars there to cause a crash. Why this is the case could be down to a few reasons, maybe to keep framerates high, or maybe it was deemed more player friendly. Either way, I would love more cars to be on the city streets and I am sure some clever modders will oblige in the future.
While on the subject of vehicles it just worth noting that while still not amazing the driving has improved by a good margin from the first game. The handling and damage models have all seen some attention although the collisions still give the impression that everything is covered in a layer of dust. The main problem with the driving I have found is that the input is way too sensitive, even when using a controller. This leads to an almost digital 'press, stop, press, stop' method of driving which isn't ideal. However overall I do like the driving far more in this Watchdogs with some frantic chases lasting many minutes.
If I'm honest I picked up Watchdogs 2 with a chip on my shoulder, I was annoyed about it being delayed for two weeks which for me nukes the relevance of my reviews. Then after seeing that the multiplayer options had to be disabled on console (due to them not working properly) my hope for a good PC port were fading. It is awesome then, to be reporting that my worries have been totally allayed because not only is Watchdogs 2 a fantastic game but it is also running like a dream on PC. More on from that, Ubisoft have done PC gamers proud with specific features and improvements across the board. This is impressive stuff and certainly restores my faith in a development team that had gone through a rocky period.
As I have set out above, the game isn't perfect and while I like Marcus far more than Aiden, I think Ubisoft need to decide what kind of game they want Watchdogs to be. If this game was just a single player romp I would have no problem recommending it to anyone who likes actions games with lots to do. However, with the absolutely stellar multiplayer aspects that have been added and improved this game is a must buy. If like me your coffers are running a little low near Christmas then certainly pick up this gem early in the new year.
Thank you for reading my review for Watchdogs 2 on PC, I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Please check back soon for more reviews, articles and screenshot galleries on the world best gaming platform.