Review by TKDBoy1889
An interesting take on the genre, with various flaws included
Given the massive amount of controversy that surrounded Watchdogs upon release, especially after it had been massively hyped, I decided to skip it. When the sequel came around, I decided to bite since there was no massive backlash. In truth, this sequel didn't garner much attention at all. It was not heavily advertised and had a low key release compared to the first installment. Given the whole premise of the series, I wanted to try it out. I'm a big fan of open-world games but they need their own identity in order to be relevant, whether it's a fresh style of gameplay or some sort of charm. In terms of having it's own identity, Watch Dogs 2 delivers... kind of. It's a good game with some great ideas, but there's a lot of annoyances that stop it from being as awesome as it could've been.
The whole premise of Watch Dogs is centered around hacking. Instead of just running between areas of cover while unloading enough firepower to outfit a small army, you instead focus on manipulating the electronics around you. Anything that is linked to the central grid can be hacked and used for your own purpose. This is a great idea, and many of it's mechanics are honestly implemented well in this game. It really does feel like the whole world is at your fingertips. You can hack into pedestrians' bank accounts for cash, read their emails, hear what's going on with their lives, etc. You can override traffic lights to cause chaos in an intersection, override locked doors, set up electrical booby traps for enemies and a lot more. Civilians passing by may report your crimes, but if you intercept their call you can stop the cops from coming. It's like the whole city is a massive playground to experiment with in this sense, and it's quite fun. There are even segments that require you to use a remote toy car or drone to access points you ordinarily can't, providing even more aspects of gameplay. As you progress through the games and complete missions, you can even upgrade your skills to allow for even more options such as setting off underground steam pipes on the road to stop pursuers, or even blacking out the whole neighborhood. for a little bit. You can approach situations in a multitude of ways, and in theory this lets you try a bunch of non-lethal approaches to the game. I say in theory because while are the hacking mechanics are in place, the level design doesn't always match it.
For me, the big hook about this game is the ability to approach missions with a patient, strategic approach instead of going in guns blazing all the time. The problem is, Quite a few of the levels don't seem to really agree with that. Some missions just feel like they have layouts that don't let you tactically find your way to your goal without forcing a fight. It doesn't help that enemies can sometimes be alerted to your presence even when a target you take out seems completely isolated, and alerted enemies just love calling for reinforcements when they know you're there. When the game's layout lends itself to a multitude of approaches, it's incredibly fun. When it seems to force you into violence, it feels more like a generic mediocre third-person shooter. That's because while the hacking mechanics are great, the shooting in this game average at best. In truth, a few things seemed to be implemented in an average or mediocre fashion. For instance, the driving in this game is not very fun.
Reception upon release says that driving was improved from the first game. If that's the case, I do not want to know how that game played with it's driving mechanics. Half the time, the driving is decent enough. The problem is that every time you have to make a sharp turn or get nicked from the side the cars like to start sliding around like a drunk on roller blades. I started driving motorcycles almost exclusively because they seem to be the easiest to control, and the least like to completely slide out of control. Because of this, missions that focus on driving such as racing can be more frustrating than fun. It also doesn't help with how aggressive the cops can be. I swear nowadays developers actively seek to make sure that the police pursuers in their GTA-style games are blood-lusted and seek you out with fiery vengeance. Once they are on you, they do not let up and it's incredibly difficult to lose them. I appreciate the challenge... to an extent. Here, the only way I could dodge the heat consistently was to drive like an absolute madman off road and then try to hide in a back alley, hoping they don't decide to turn down said road. When helicopters join the chase, it feels nigh impossible. Thankfully it takes some genuine effort to get the police to actively pursue you, so there is that. Unlike a couple games where the pettiest offense makes you the most wanted criminal alive, here you really have to earn the attention outside of missions. If I can say one nice things about driving, it's that you can adjust your view and even drive in first-person. I know GTA 5 did it first, but the option is always a welcome one.
I must say that the San Francisco area looks quite beautiful. Instead of opting for the typical New York-style setting with a city that is mostly just a massive downtown area, The San Francisco locale lends itself to some colorful imagery and absolutely stunning scenery. I genuinely enjoyed just taking my time to explore the game world, because it's so detailed and had variety. Unlike some game cities where almost every city block is identical, here there are different areas from parks to suburbs to downtown areas, each with a different feel. It makes navigating the world fun and somewhat intuitive. Adding to this is the plethora of side activities, which are a step above many sandbox style games. Unlock the usual repetitive side activities you do over an over again, here many of the side missions are unique. Some pop up as you progress, and others can be sought out just by walking around and using your hacking view to spot them. Many of them have different narratives, ranging from helping a college team with their kart racing, to finding hacked payphones spying on your team, to hunting down a greedy CEO and stopping him from ripping off clients, and even tricking a greedy company owner into donating his own money to research. The side missions feel organic and fleshed out, and not just repetitive activities for padded length. In addition to these side missions you have your usual clothing stores and car stores for purchasing items, pawn shops for selling items you've found, and even coffee shops for a little immersion into being a hipster hacker. All of this is designed in a good manner. You can even take selfies at various landmarks in the city as a more laid back activity on the side.
Matching the beautifully designed city is the solid story, and likable characters. The story, which follows the events of the first Watch Dogs, has a new central surveillance system collecting data on the aspect of every citizen for the purposes of blackmail and politics. Marcus, the main character, is a hacker who was wrongfully imprisoned seeking to join a hacktivist group with the intention of taking the fight to the ones running the system. The story is quite serious and dark, with the all too real premise of shadowy corporate entities spying on citizens whilst claiming to do it for the good of day-to-day life being a rather disturbing threat. Whilst serious, the game never gets too dark and can actually be kind of lighthearted and cheesy. That is largely thanks to the colorful protagonists. The main crew feels like a modernized version of cheesy eighties heroes, hipsters who are with the the time but not 'with the the times,' so to speak. I mean that in a good way. They all have their own distinct personalities and have their own charm. Marcus is a very likable hero, a hacker with a nerdy side but is also all business when it comes to getting things done. The way the group interacts reminds me of family-oriented criminal groups from series like The Fast and The Furious. They tease each other, mess with each other, but they all have each other's backs and they bring something to the table. The cheesy banter they exchange coupled with their serious dedication to their cause is definitely like something from an old-school action movie, combining the silliness with the drama in a wonderfully enjoyable way. The group even has a cool looking underground hideout, like a hacker's version of the batcave. Overall, the story and characters definitely elevate the experience and keep me wanting to play the game, even when it's flaws arise.
There are some other various flaws that should be mentioned, or things that could've definitely been better. The control layout is not the most intuitive, and you may find yourself hitting the wrong button for the wrong action a few too many times. After a while I adjusted, and they are not really terrible, but overall the controls gave me some frustrating moments through the early portions of the game. There are glitches I've encountered, ranging from minor to moderate. Sometimes the parkour aspect glitches out if there are non-static items around, and once when the game reloaded after I failed a mission the entire target area was mysteriously devoid of enemies for some reason. As far as the parkour aspect goes, it's okay and occasionally lends itself to fun exploring but it's pretty generic. Plus, as I said, it glitches out sometimes. Something that really bugged me is that there is apparently only one save file. I really don't understand open-ended games that only allow one saved game at a time. Seriously, is there a reason we can't have at least 3 or so? Also, you mainly rely on either resting or autosaves, and can't seem to manually save your progress. In truth, there's no real pause menu when you're playing the game, which is a little irritating when I want or need to pause the action. I have to access the game settings from the phone hub in order to do that.
Despite all my critiques against Watch Dogs 2, I do think it's a really good game I enjoyed my time with it. The digital hacking aspect is done fantastically for the most part, and when the game focuses on hacking mini-games or lets you utilize its various tactical options to clear an area, it's incredibly fun. There's enough variety in the gameplay to keep it from feeling repetitive. The city of San Francisco is beautifully designed, the story is a nice blend of seriousness and cheesiness, the major characters are mostly likable, and side activities feel organic and unique. The flaws I have mentioned simply prevent the game from being an awesome experience instead of just a good one. It's a thoroughly solid experience, but it could've potentially been one of my favorite sandbox games of all time if not for the constant issues plaguing it throughout the whole thing. Even so, if you're looking for a different take on the urban sandbox genre I can suggest playing this game if you haven't already. The focus on hacking and non-lethal gameplay is a breath of fresh air, and the city is in itself is very interesting. Overall, a very good game. It just could've been so much better.
Final Score: 7/10
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Watch Dogs 2 (US, 11/15/16)
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