If Rockstar decided to aim their sights at the cybercrime TV show Mr. Robot, Watch Dogs 2 would be what they’d create. That’s very good news for Ubisoft; after a soulless first outing, the open-world hack-a-thon has returned in possession of a vital new asset: personality.
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The focus on bringing character to Watch Dogs 2 is evident in practically every element. First up we’ve got the location itself, transporting our hackers from dismal Chicago to the hipster capital of the sunshine state: San Francisco. Here the sun shines bright, the architecture exhales joy, and dogs play in the streets. Then you’ve got the visual style, which uses graffiti, pixel art, and memes as its bread and butter. And finally there’s the varied approach to gameplay, which allows for an infinitely more fun outing in this digitally-connected world. There’s no doubting the influence Los Santos has had on Watch Dogs 2, and it’s really paid off.
So with access to San Francisco for just under two hours, I took to the streets with main character Marcus for a little hacking chaos. Here are a few things I discovered you can do:
- Hack a sedan and drive it around the city like a remote-control car. For added fun, you can do this while being sat crossed-legged on said sedan’s roof.
- Drop bombs from a drone. Perfect for murdering security guards standing in your way.
- Work as a taxi driver, with one fare involving a YouTuber and a thrill ride through the San Francisco hills. The crashing is a highlight.
- Break into a fortified house defended by 911-calling droids. If they summon the police, you can make their car swerve off a hill.
- Mass-hack in the middle of a busy street, causing all the cars to lose control and crash into each other. Just try to keep out the way.
- Take a selfie in front of the aforementioned car crash, and apply some totally rad filters to it.
There’s a real emphasis on fun through all of Watch Dogs 2’s activities. Its cast of hacktivists are brimming with sweary attitude that just about gets away with being funny rather than annoying, and Marcus has access to all kinds of toys that make San Francisco a playground in a more literal sense of the word.
These toys are all based around hacking, but there’s now far more choice in how you cause digital damage. Pulling out your smartphone typically offers a choice of four options. When aiming at a person you can either call the cops on them or arrange a gang hit, cause a distracting phone call, or syphon money from their bank account. Against explosive items like fuse boxes you can instruct it to make a noise to lure enemies in close, or even set a proximity sensor on it to create a makeshift landmine. This little radial wheel of abilities means, in most cases, there’s literally four times more hacking options in Watch Dogs 2 than in its predecessor.
Freedom of choice goes beyond the context-sensitive hacking, though. Ubisoft have put in a lot of effort to ensure their level design allows numerous forms of approach, be that a guns blazing massacre, a stealthy sneak-in, or a completely hands-off hack extravaganza. We’re all used to hearing these kinds of promises, but having now played some of the game’s main missions I’m convinced they’ve done an admirable job of it.
The missions I tried at the hands-on session come from a package of quests called Haum Sweet Haum, which sees Dedsec go to war with a company manufacturing smart home systems. The first assignment involves stealing a truck loaded with Haum-brand hardware, which I discovered has at least three different methods of approach.
Method 1: The Gangsta
Armed with a shotgun and assault rifle, I vault the fence of the compound and immediately unload buckshot into the faces of the guards stationed at the warehouse. Within a few minutes the entire area’s security force is ready to be sent six feet under, and I’ve stolen the security access key for the main gates. With these open, I’m able to jump into the van and ride off into the sunset.
Method 2: The Sneak
Swapping out shotguns for stun guns, I sneak into the warehouse through an open window and creep around the units in hunt of the guard who has the access key. A quick swing of my billiard-ball-on-a-string and he’s out cold, allowing me to pilfer the key and sprint over to the van’s parking spot. A jolt of electricity from the stun gun here allows me to get past a guard, jump in the van, and take off.
Method 3: The Hacker
For a complete hands-off approach, I sit outside the compound with a laptop and use Marcus’ drone to steal the van. Flying it over the fence, I’m able to use a sense vision to identify where the access key is, remotely hack the guard’s phone to download it, and then open the gate. Rather than have Marcus walk into the compound to drive the van himself, I use the drone to hack the van and steer it out the gates. Now that’s what I call l33t.
There are no doubt several more methods of doing this mission. In the video accompanying this preview you’ll be able to see me tackle it using a combination of stealth and hacking. As I snuck around the compound I noticed vents that I could have driven my little RC car through, hinting at various other ways of completion. If every area has such detailed and numerous pathways into it, then mission replayability will be a huge thing for Watch Dogs 2.
When it comes to assessing your potential approaches, the drone is arguably your greatest tool. While you can’t send it too far away before it loses signal, it allows you to scout an area and see what awaits you ahead of time. And because the drone can hack things too, you can cause distractions or set up traps to thin the crowds before you enter the scene. It feels like a very natural progression from the first game’s CCTV cameras. But while they had limited panning range, the drone has 360-degree movement. This allows more freedom, and is ultimately more fun: two things that sum up Watch Dogs 2 quite nicely.
Ultimately Watch Dogs 2 appears to be a sensible re-think of the series. And by sensible, I mean silly. It trades glumness and grey for fun and sunshine, offers side-quests laden with humour, and stands you side by side with characters who, while you possibly may never care about them, are alive in their individual crazy ways. In terms of pure improvement trajectory, Watch Dogs 2 could be Ubisoft’s best sequel since Assassin’s Creed 2. Now there’s a shock for the system.