Featured image credit: Ubisoft
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Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One
PC Release Date: October 24, 2017
Genre: Action-adventure game
Reviewed on: AMD RX 580, Intel i7-4770, 16 GB RAM, Windows 10 x64, Build 1903
AMD Drivers: 19.9.2
Even though Grand Theft Auto is the king of open world third-person shooters, there are some very notable alternatives in the gaming market which follow the same paradigm that GTA established almost two decades ago. One of them is Watch Dogs 2, which, unlike its predecessor, strives to be more fun and engaging title that in a unique way tackles themes such as technological development, government corruption and real-life hacktivism. Although the game is visually very appealing, its gameplay mechanics are somewhat broken and undermine the experience of being a postmodern rebel in beautiful and sunny California. Luckily, Watch Dogs 2 compensates that with plenty of content which I’ll discuss in detail in this review.
Unlike Watch Dogs, whose main protagonist Aiden Pearce was a somewhat repulsive character, hero of the Watch Dogs 2 is Marcus Holloway, a very likeable African American whose primary agenda is to fight state corruption by means of hacking computer systems and occasionally committing mass murder of private security personnel, which honestly, doesn’t fit in story at all.
Story of Watch Dogs 2 starts with the tutorial level in which Marcus stealthily enters Home Domain Center’s building and accesses its computer database in order to erase his criminal profile which falsely accuses him for high-tech robbery. After that he joins DedSec, a group of stereotypically weird hackers whose purpose of living is to expose corrupt government structures. Although members of DedSec aren’t very relatable, their “social justice warrior” discourse, contaminated with some feminist and LGBT ideas, from time to time provides a refreshing humor filled with witty jokes and subtle cynicism. However, most of the time that discourse is somewhat uncanny and morally very ambiguous. Speaking of Marcus, he is also neither morally good nor bad character, but he tends to lean to do ethically more acceptable side.
In essence, core of the Watch Dogs 2’s story revolves around fictional high tech company called Blume Corporation, and its use of its technological product called CTOS or Central Operating System. CTOS is basically a digital network of computer servers, sensors and databases that very much resembles to the idea of Internet of Things (or IoT). In world of Watch Dogs 2 various organizations such as the state or private companies use Blume’s CTOS to create various digital frameworks such as smart cities, computer databases, financial infrastructure and digital services. As story of Watch Dogs 2 progresses, Marcus eventually discovers Bellwether, a data manipulation program by which Dušan Nemec, Blume’s CTO, alters systems of CTOS in order to help corrupt politicians and criminals to gain more power. Having that knowledge, Marcus with his friends decides to put an end to Nemec’s endeavors. However, in order to achieve that, he is firstly forced to gain allies and supporters on social media platforms by exposing corruption in various organizations such as FBI, Nudle, Tidis and Galilei.
Story of Watch Dogs 2 is intertextually very rich. There are many subtle references to real-world events and corporations, but also to many works from pop culture. DedSec inherits 1990’s habitus of MTV’s generation teenagers and garage computer programmers. Nudle and !NViTE corporation clearly resemble Google and Facebook, while Dušan Nemec’s manipulation of election votes in favor of congressman Mark Thruss most certainly allude to Russia’s interference in the 2016 United States elections.
Watch Dogs 2 clearly functions as a satire of contemporary postmodern society that heavily relies on new technologies but neglects ethics and social welfare. Tackling hot topics such as impact of social media on everyday life, exploiting technologies in order to promote propaganda or carry out terrorist attacks, or even deceive people to fund big capital, Watch Dogs 2 also tends to examine old Marxist themes that revolve around conflict between working class and bourgeoisie. This is most certainly expressed in a very authentic way, however, these themes don’t represent a novelty, not even in a world of video games. Grand Theft Auto has for many years been satirizing Western society culture in very original and humorous ways. In that aspect Watch Dogs 2 might even be seen as its copy. However, Ubisoft’s title must be given credit, since its story is articulated in a very authentic way. There are even some metatextual elements, particularly in mission Ubistolen, in which Marcus has to break into one of the San Francisco’s Ubisoft offices.
Although Watch Dogs 2 has a nicely composed story, it is, however, expressed in a somewhat incomplete way. Most of the dialogues between characters are just too fuzzy to keep your attention on, while there is no dossier or codex in which you could read all of the information that you gained during your playthrough. There is also subtle racism, particularly in the case of villain Dušan Nemec, who stereotypically displays Slavs as malicious and opportunistic people.
Being and open world game, Watch Dogs 2 is somewhat a Grand Theft Auto clone. You can walk freely and explore whichever areas you want. You can drive cars, bikes, trucks and sail boats. You can also customize your apparel. Parkour is also very solidly implemented. You can easily climb fences and smaller buildings and jumping animations look very smooth and impressive.
Since you are a hacker, you have the ability to hack city’s digital infrastructure, other people’s phones, security cameras, terminals and so on. You can modify criminal records of NPCs and have them arrested, you can disrupt traffic lights, blow up underground gas pipes and even operate huge construction cranes. Besides your smartphone, with which you hack devices, you have at your disposal two gadgets – a radio-controlled robot and a quadrocopter drone. Since this game relies heavily on sneaking and stealth mechanics, a RC robot comes in very handy when you have to sneak past guards and access computer terminal in a remote room. Drone, on the other hand, gives you the ability to go into the air and scout your area of operations before you go into action.
Paradoxically, although Marcus is a programmer, he wields lethal guns without any problems. At first you are equipped with a stun gun with which you non-lethally incapacitate enemies you encounter. Later you get the ability to 3D print new weapons, among which is worth to mention assault rifles, snipers and grenade launchers. Wielding these weapons and killing people contradicts Marcus’s role as a nerdy programmer and social justice warrior. This contradiction is, however, never explained, and developers didn’t seem to bother with it.
Although Watch Dogs 2 offers a solid story to follow, its gameplay aspects don’t really shine. Most of the missions you play in Watch Dogs 2 follow the same pattern. You have to drive to a certain location. Then you have to infiltrate a certain building and then, when you are inside, hack a computer terminal and retrieve or alter some data. There are exceptions, however. Sometimes you participate in car chases or have to follow a specific person and retrieve data from his or hers electronic device.
Being a somewhat stealth game, Watch Dogs 2 seems to draw inspiration for its gameplay mechanics from games such as Metal Gear Solid and Tom Clancy’s: Splinter Cell. Gameplay, however, isn’t executed very well. Even on easy difficulty, Marcus feels rather vulnerable and easy to kill. Cover system lacks ability to easily switch cover. Every time you move you have to get out of cover and walk to a particular location to enter cover again. Like Grand Theft Auto V, Watch Dogs 2 uses complex ragdoll physics, which in turn cause Marcus to feel a bit unresponsive and heavy to control when trying to move. This makes hiding clunky. Also, enemies spot you very easily and alert others too quickly. Even drones are easily susceptible. Bodies of incapacitated enemies can’t be hidden, and enemies tend to spawn in large amounts, which in the end forces you to kill them with the barrage of bullets and grenades. Shooting, unfortunately, also feels imprecise, so you’ll waste a lot of ammo.
Overall, gameplay doesn’t feel very enjoyable and from time to time becomes very frustrating. Games stimulates you to avoid gunfight and you stealth. Unfortunately, being completely stealthy is hard to execute. In short, be prepared to repeat same mission couple of times until you pass it.
Driving cars also feels weird. Most of the them feel to slow to drive, while others have too sensitive steering. Riding motorcycles, on the other hand, feels very responsive and good. Just like in Grand Theft Auto, you can listen to the radio while driving the car. Selection of tracks is not very large, and there is even radio station with only classical music. Ubisoft clearly didn’t want to spend too much money on paying music licenses. Overall, game’s sounds and radio soundtrack aren’t very impressive, but for the most of the time they are fine and enjoyable. Besides thirty hours long campaign, game also features multiplayer mode which primarily consists of cooperative play, racing and encounters similar to deathmatch mode.
One of the most important aspects of Watch Dogs 2 are its visuals and world in which the game is set. Without the doubt, this game features one of the most beautiful worlds that I had a chance to seen in video games in past five years. Bay Area, with cities of San Francisco and Oakland visually looks very attractive and lively. Even though these locations aren’t portrayed in their full scale, they look and feel very representative. Forests and mountains surrounding Bay Area also look very beautiful and there is even a smaller scale Silicon Valley in which you have to complete certain missions. Parks, monuments and historic buildings look very detailed and realistic, while people walking on streets of San Francisco look rather genuine. There are pedestrians waiting at the bus station, trams driving around city, people listening to the street performers and tourist taking picture at the historic sites. Watch Dogs 2 does very good job at making San Francisco feel lively. Personally, I find Grand Theft Auto V much sterile in that aspect and wish it was more like Watch Dogs 2.
Even though this game graphically looks absolutely stunning, performance-wise it doesn’t fare so well. Watch Dogs 2 is a demanding title that requires potent hardware. Since it is a Nvidia-sponsored title, it runs somewhat worse on AMD hardware. Playing this game at ultra quality settings at 1080P resolution with average 60 FPS will require you to have Nvidia GTX 1070 or AMD Radeon Vega 56 graphics card. Mainstream cards such as GTX 1060 or RX 580 will output 40 to 45 FPS at ultra settings. Game certainly looks better than Grand Theft Auto V, but it could be more optimized in terms of performance. Read more about that in my in-depth analysis of Watch Dogs 2 graphics performance.
In conclusion of our review, it is worth to say that Watch Dogs 2 offers a solid story that is undermined by a rather clunky and unpolished gameplay. Game does offer memorable moments, but its main quality lies in beautifully designed and lovable world which offers stunning experience of San Francisco’s Bay Area. Offering 30 hours of campaign and a rudimentary multiplayer experience, Watch Dogs 2 will last for a while on your hard drive. If you like open world games such as Grand Theft Auto, then you should really check it out. However, keep in mind that this is a stealth-oriented game, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t live up to your expectations.