Watch_Dogs 2: Open World Redefined (PS4 Review)

Watch_Dogs was an OK game that has a great concept underneath the inconsistent execution. When I reviewed it for the PS3, I was intrigued by the concept, was impressed by the freedom and the skills, but was underwhelmed by both the story, driving mechanics, and a few details that ruined the immersion for me. So when this game was announced, I wasn’t exactly hyped about it, but since I just bought a PS4 a day after this game was released, I felt that it was fitting to give myself some closure.

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Watch_Dogs 2 is an open-world game like its predecessor. Only this time, it is unhampered by last generation console technology and can fully embrace the powers afforded by the PS4 and the Xbox One. You play as Marcus Holloway, an unfortunate victim of the CtOS’s profiling capabilities which tagged him as a potential risk. The setting is now San Francisco, a vibrant city thanks to the power of current generation consoles, that allow it to feel alive and colorful. While the game isn’t visually stunning as “Rise of the Tomb Raider” or “Final Fantasy XV”, it does look better than the first game.

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As I said, this game’s San Francisco is a lot more colorful than the first game’s Chicago, with its colorful graffiti, colorful people, and variety in building design. You won’t get tired driving through its streets or free-running through its roof-tops because there is a good balance of things to see. There’s a nice area for greenery if that’s what you want, and downtown San Francisco has plenty of businesses and establishments that help make you feel immersed. Another thing is that the world feels so alive in the actual sense. NPCs react depending on your actions, and they even have their own “agenda” playing on the background. There are even NPCs who fight, and who resist arrest whenever the police comes (yes, NPCs also call the police for actions that aren’t your own) and you can be a spectator in an unfolding drama. This is meta on a whole new level, in a way that I did not experience in games like GTA V and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (which doesn’t really have a lot of NPCs to interact anyway).

Took a selfie with this couple and they were not amused.
Took a selfie with this couple and they were not amused.

As a Ubisoft game, expect Ubisoft style visuals which, while not bad, is something you’ve already seen in another Ubisoft open-world game. There had been some reported frame-rate drops, but I personally haven’t noticed them myself. My main observation is that the NPC animation can sometimes look too cartoony. There is also an app in-game that can help you add filters to your screen which is cool if you want to play the game in “Hollywood” mode or in “California” setting. The only drawback is that the HUD is disabled when you activate it which might make some sneaking or navigating a bit tricky.

This game IS colorful.
This game IS colorful.

I have not experienced an “Assassin’s Creed Unity” style of graphical breakdown, but certain things may be noticeable especially during the transition from day to night to day.

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Unlike the first game, Watch_Dogs 2 has a wide variety of music. There are pop, metal, and even classical tracks. Nothing beats cruising down the Golden Gate bridge with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik playing on the speakers. The variety also serves to allow players to customize Marcus in any way they want. The only difficulty I had with regards to the music is when you’re in a car, the controls to change the music require a bit of finger gymnastics through the use of the touch-pad and the right stick. Which is a shame because the control settings are pretty intuitive for the most part, with this being one of only two issues I’ve had with it.

The hard-to-spot reticle can be a handicap in shootouts.
The hard-to-spot reticle can be a handicap in shootouts.

That other issue is the targeting reticle which is more of a dot. It makes shooting that much difficult especially during shoot-outs with enemies that have body armor. For the most part, it’s OK, but when the enemies start to swarm you, it becomes a handicap. Most people might adjust to this pretty quickly, but I’ve been a little spoiled by military style games.

Oh look! A preppie with an assault rifle!
Oh look! A preppie with an assault rifle!

The cover system – which I loved in the first game – returns. Coupled with Marcus’ free-running skills, sneaking past enemies is very fun. The hacking is also back with a few upgrades. You now have an RC Jumper to get into tight corners and a quadcopter you can use to both scout, hack, and mess enemies with. There are restricted areas in the game that I cleared through a combination of hacking, forging the police database so they can come arrest specific individuals (namely those who can call for reinforcements), or send gang members for a shoot-out. You are very much encouraged by the game to use your hacking skills to solve problems, and the reward is having a really fun time.

This baby here, will be one of your two best friends.
This baby here, will be one of your two best friends.

The game also has a skill-tree progression in place so you can use research points to help develop Marcus’ abilities further. Whether it is your hacking abilities, marksmanship, or other such skills, it really makes a lot of difference unlike the first game where the hacking skills seemed to be the only ones that mattered until late in the game. That’s helped by the fact that everything feels seamlessly connected and you can make random encounters (such as passing by an enemy held territory) seem to matter. There isn’t any GTA V style random events but unless you’ve been playing this game for about 100 hours after completion, there won’t be any real need to. The fast travel system helps ease the burden of driving from one point to another, and contributes to helping keep the game fresh for as long as possible. For sure, some people would prefer driving from one point to another ala Mafia III, but Ubisoft made sure that you had at least the option not to.

Driving's somewhat better this time around. There are still vehicles that handle like they are on ice, but this one? Nasty. And fast.
Driving’s somewhat better this time around. There are still vehicles that handle like they are on ice, but this one? Nasty. And fast.

Ubisoft has been leaning greatly towards full character customization and although Marcus has his own attitudes and style, the player has total control of both his mode of operation to his fashion style. Gone are the days of Watch_Dogs where the clothes are just palette swaps of the main outfit with minute differences. Watch_Dogs 2 allows you to wear everything from a suit to a leather jacket to hoodies. It helps that you keep it during the cut-scenes, allowing you the sense of having total control over the character.

Unlike Aiden, Marcus actually changes clothes.
Unlike Aiden, Marcus actually changes clothes.

For the last part of this review, we will examine the story. Despite many people criticizing the first game’s protagonist and story, I personally loved some of it. Aiden Pierce became a vigilante because of a personal tragedy, and as cliche as that may sound, it gives him proper motivation to do what he does. Marcus Holloway, on the other hand, was falsely accused of being the primary suspect in a high tech robbery. His misgivings toward ctOS have good basis, but his actions throughout the game sometimes makes me pause.

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Aiden Pierce may have stolen money by hacking bank accounts and may have killed several individuals in his pursuit of justice, but he knew who and what he is fighting for and he holds no illusions about his past and his actions. Marcus claims to fight for the truth but, like his fellow DeadSec members, hold people who do not share their views with some disdain.

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Marcus Holloway is your typical millennial: frustrated by the system, talented but with a sense of entitlement fueled by a strong belief that he is right, and his mission is to make other people view the world the same way he does no matter whether they want to or not. And he seemed oblivious to the consequences of some of his actions. Basically if what happened doesn’t concern him, it’s not going to affect him. Now, this doesn’t make Marcus a brat compared to Aiden who’s got a personality of a cardboard. For me, it makes Marcus a much more likable person with traits I both like and disliked. Kinda like how I loved Anakin Skywalker despite his deep-seated personal issues and nasty temper (and irrational hate for sand). Oh, and while we are on the topic of Star Wars, I’d just comment here that Marcus free-runs like a Jedi, especially when he somersaults down ledges like Count Dooku did in Revenge of the Sith. Nothing says “bad ass” more than that.

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Make no mistake, Marcus is a very likable protagonist and while he and his crew does things you may not really like, you feel happy when they pull through. The rest of DeadSec are a mixed bag that includes the artist Sitara, their “coordinator” Horatio, anarchist Wrench, and socially awkward Josh. They all have their own stories that, while the game doesn’t focus on them, are revealed in concersations and audio clips. Joining them mid-game is Raymond “T-Bone” Kenney, a character from the first game.

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Taking the bad guy mantle this time is Dusan Nemec, the Chief Technology Officer of Blume Corporation. Unlike Damien Brenks, Dusen felt empty as an antagonist. He was just the big bad boss of the game that you had to take down by default. Brenks made me hate him long before the final mission, Nemec? Not so much. But Watch_Dogs 2 did have an antagonist I hated, and that is Lenora “Lenni Kaster”, a gifted hacker and leader of a rival hacking group, Prime_Eight. Oh she’s annoying, her videos taunting you are annoying, and you really want to bury a bullet into her skull if only the game allowed us to do it. The mission arc that featured her was short, and you don’t really interact much with Prime_Eight for them to be serious enemies.

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Unlike past Ubisoft games, the story isn’t told in a complete linear fashion. You are given freedom to proceed as you see fit and missions are unlocked based on what you have already completed in a way that feels like they were direct results of your actions. It’s not a secret that this is the style Ubisoft has been going for ever since The Division was announced. Their next game, Ghost Recon Wildlands, look to embrace that trend and it seems this will be the case for future Assassin’s Creed games as well. For Watch_Dogs 2, this works because it helps keep you occupied before the final mission to take on Blume and you are in no way pressured to take on the next level if you think you are not yet ready.

One of the things I saw while playing with the quadcopter.
One of the things I saw while playing with the quadcopter.

So finally, we go to the obvious question: how does this game compare with GTA V, a game that also features a place inspired by California? To tell you the truth, Rockstar made the superior open-world game, but Watch_Dogs 2 made the better story as well as a superior version of video game California. GTA lets you wreck havoc in the city with a story that poked fun at stereotypes and tropes. Watch_Dogs 2, on the other hand, features a world that isn’t unlike our own, and while it too pokes fun at elements of society and lets you mess with the system to a degree, it still manages to hammer the point that Marcus and his band of hackers are ultimately part of it like everyone else, and the reason why you are laughing while a girl stumbles in front of a live feed is because you’ve seen this somewhere in real life.

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Summary:
Watch_Dogs 2 is certainly a much better game than the first, and a solid release from Ubisoft, over-all. With its cohesive game-play, better animations, better use of the open-world, and a colorful cast of characters, Watch_Dogs 2 certainly makes it worth going back to the universe. It certainly has a few kinks, but not as jarring and bothersome as the first. While I don’t really see this game as Game of The Year material, Ubisoft still has to be proud of what they’ve achieved. They did not lose hope after the first game was critically panned, and made a fun game worth playing.

Playing hero means you will lose someone dear.
Playing hero means you will lose someone dear.