To many gamers, the world of Watch Dogs 2 may seem a little too familiar at first glance. It’s an open-world metropolitan city where players can steal any vehicle they want, mow down pedestrians, rob innocent citizens, and then hideout in a garage until the cops forget they were even chasing you. It’s easy to write the hacking-themed Ubisoft franchise off as a Grand Theft Auto knock off, especially when we’re only two years out from GTA 5, but Watch Dogs 2 manages to succeed where its predecessor stumbles, and really carves out its own space in the sandbox adventure genre. Players certainly have the freedom to treat Watch Dogs 2’s San Francisco like San Andreas if they want to, but the game’s narrative, mechanics, and tone all make it much more tempting to stay in the shadows and hack to victory.
Watch Dogs 2 moves to a new city and introduces a new protagonist. Although cosplayers loved Aiden Pierce’s trademark jacket from the original, trading in that character’s broody, lone wolf approach for Marcus Holloway’s charming sincerity and humor is a major upgrade. Watch Dogs 2 is still about a group of hackers attempting to take on a giant corporate enemy, but the DedSec crew in the sequel are much more lighthearted. The game still tackles some serious issues, which it manages to fumble quite a few times, but in general the tone is light, humorous, and nerdy. The less dark approach makes spending time with Marcus and his crew incredibly enjoyable and feels like a better fit for an open-world sandbox that can get quite cartoony at times, based on the player’s approach.
For gamers unfamiliar with the basics, Watch Dogs 2 is a third-person action game in which players can use the protagonist’s cell phone, and a few new tools, to hack just about everything in the city in order to pull off heists, rescue missions, and all of the rest of the usual sandbox adventures. Looking at an object and then holding down a button (L1 or LB on consoles) opens up a hacking menu and players can decide to make the tech explode, cause a distraction, or a number of other context sensitive actions.
The city in Watch Dogs 2 really feels alive and there are always numerous ways to complete a mission based on how the player has spent their talent points or how they want to approach the job. Players spend research points to decide if they want Marcus to be better at hacking vehicles, fighting, using social distractions, along with other core skills. The violent option is always available, and we fell back on it quite a few times when things went south, but the hacking is so fun that it is easy to forget that guns are even a part of the game.
In addition to the cell phone hacking, Marcus also has access to two drones that bring a whole new level of stealth to the franchise. The RV drone is 3D printed in one of the opening missions and the flying quadcopter can be 3D printed after players save up enough cash (which doesn’t take long if you follow these money-making tips). These tools offer Marcus the option to hide out of sight of guards and security cameras and remote control his drones to do the dirty work. Players can do all the same hacking from the drones and accomplish most missions from outside the restricted zones, but there are still guards to avoid and alarms to keep inactive.
In addition to the drones, players can also 3D print a variety of guns. This is one aspect of the game that feels a bit out of place in terms of tone. Marcus and his crew may not be white hats, but they certainly feel like the good guys, which makes it a little strange to mow down security guards that are just doing their job. In addition to the game’s gunplay feeling out of place in the established world, the cover mechanics aren’t anything to write home about. The shooting works well enough and the game features a similar auto-targeting system to Grand Theft Auto 5, but the shootouts are certainly not a compelling reason to visit the world of Watch Dogs 2. Some missions will put players in a situation where murder seems like the best solution to the puzzle, but those are few and far between and the game may have been better off without them.
On the topic of puzzles, Watch Dogs 2 does feature a recurring puzzle mini-game that adds another layer to the hacking. Most hacks are just a two button combo, but some server rooms are complicated enough that Marcus needs to solve a room scale puzzle before being able to access certain computers. These puzzles aren’t really complicated enough to stump players for very long, but they do serve as a nice change of pace from where another game might insert a boss fight.
Watch Dogs 2 excels at variety and, although there are many repetitive chores that players can choose to do in the open world, the main campaign never feels stale or redundant. Each mission takes players to a new, unique location full of bizarre characters and pop culture references and the lengthy campaign manages to fly by thanks to the immersive environment and the entertaining company that Marcus keeps. In a fall full of high-quality first-person shooters, Watch Dogs 2 is a welcome alternative that gives players something else fun to do besides pulling a trigger.
Ubisoft is still working on rolling out a comprehensive fix to the game’s seamless online multiplayer at the time of writing this review, so we aren’t considering those side missions in our score. We did participate in a few online activities during our pre-launch access, but the feature was removed before we had a chance to fully explore and test it.
Watch Dogs 2 is available now for Xbox One and PS4. The PC version releases on November 29. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.