How Watch Dogs 2 finds the fun that Watch Dogs missed

“In 2013, Chicago realised the promise of smart cities with ctOS, a citywide operating system merging big data with surveillance, security, and transit programs. With a few hundred lines of code, hackers were able to hijack its central servers and cripple the entire grid. Many believed the attack would be a killing blow for smart city development. They were wrong. Coordinated from the heart of Silicon Valley, ctOS 2.0 has been implemented across the United States, ushering in the ‘Internet of Things’.”

That piece of exposition is one of the first things you encounter in Watch Dogs 2. Obviously, it’s a way of setting up a second “smart city” plot, narratively justifying the continued presence of ctOS despite the events of Watch Dogs picking that apart. Far more interesting, though, is the not-so-subtle comment on Watch Dogs as a franchise. By most accounts, Watch Dogs was a lacklustre game, taking a really interesting premise and squandering it on bland open-world game design and dull characters. “Many believe the attack would be a killing blow for smart city development” – many thought Watch Dogs’ poor reception would be a killing blow for any possible franchise. “They were wrong.” ctOS 2.0 is here – Watch Dogs 2 is here – to usher in a fresh vision of the ideas that Watch Dogs struggled to live up to.

I must admit, I was skeptical at first. I bowed out of Watch Dogs within a few hours because I just couldn’t deal with “2 edgy 4 u” Aiden Pearce and an open world that seemed more interested in loading you up with Things To Do than creating a meaningful connection with the player. Pre-release marketing for Watch Dogs 2 showed a game with a greater sense of fun, but I still had my doubts.

Watch Dogs 2 review on PS4

It turns out that those concerns were misplaced, because for the most part, Watch Dogs 2 does a fantastic job of redefining the series. The basic premise is the same – you’re a hacker running around a smart city, causing havoc and trying to take down The Man – but there’s a renewed focus on fun and lightness that makes it a lot easier to get invested in.

At the centre of all that is Marcus Holloway, an expert hacker who was driven to fight against  the system after being falsely accused of a high-profile crime due to ctOS profiling him as a high crime risk. Despite these quite serious motivations – especially when you consider how his race factored into his profiling – Marcus is an easy-going, fun-loving individual. Aiden Pearce was defined by his desire for revenge; Marcus is similarly driven, but he gets to be more than his backstory.

This obviously comes through a lot in cutscenes, where you see him goofing around, geeking about his favourite movies, and generally just enjoying life. Where his personality really shines, though, is in his animations as you run around San Francisco. Little things, like the way he sometimes backflips off a ledge instead of just dropping down, bring his playful nature to life in wonderfully organic ways. He’s an expert hacker and a wanted criminal, sure, but he’s also a regular guy who likes to have fun, which makes him a far more interesting character to embody and to get invested in.

open world games on PS4

That said, it also leads to some weird dissonance when this same happy-go-lucky guy starts 3D printing heavy weaponry and going on killing sprees. Despite the tonal shift, Watch Dogs 2 hasn’t been able to break away from the obsession with violence that pervades video games. That worked for Aiden, gritty angstman that he was, but it’s really out of character for Marcus, and it’s not something that’s ever really addressed.

The flip side of that is that Marcus is such a relatable character that it’s hard to make a killer of him even when there’s no mechanical disincentive for doing that. Your mileage will vary, of course, but every time I pick up the controller I find that I’m not just playing as Marcus because it’s a game and he’s the protagonist, but I start role-playing as him. “What would Marcus do?”, I ask myself, and that’s a rather compelling argument for not going too far down the chaotic evil route.

This attitude extends throughout the whole game, too. By its nature as an open-world game, you can largely go where you want and do as you please, and the hacking abilities extend that further. You can hack people’s bank accounts and steal their money, listen in on phone calls, fuck with infrastructure, and so on. Again, there isn’t really anything to discourage that from a game design perspective, but the sheer empathetic quality of Marcus provides something of a moral compass. Sometimes it’s funny to disable a set of traffic lights and laugh at all the uptight suits getting mad when the traffic grinds to a halt, but hacking a gas pipe to blow up a civilian’s car – even if they are a bit of a dick – is a step way too far.

ubisoft games on PS4

It helps that the whole city, and everyone in it, feels alive as well. This was one thing that Watch Dogs did well, and Watch Dogs 2 dials that up to 11 simply by being set in such a vibrant city as San Francisco. Every guard, police officer, and random citizen you encounter has a personality. It’s not extensive by any means – a job title, income details, and a brief description of a hobby or some particular character quirk – but it’s enough to make them something more than just faceless NPCs planted to make the city look populated. That makes any interactions with them, brief though they may be, grounded in some sort of context.

If I run into a wealthy businessman who donates to Scientology New Dawn, you best believe I’m taking his money, and I might just give him a sucker punch to the back of the head for good measure. A security guard who’s just trying to put food on the table for his family might be my enemy in terms of the mission I’m undertaking, but I’m going to take extra care to avoid hurting him.

All of these little details make Watch Dogs 2’s vision of San Francisco feel alive. The city itself is beautifully rendered, and though I can’t speak of its authenticity, it makes for a game world that feels welcoming. Part of the reason I keep coming back to the game is because of how delightful Marcus and his DedSec friends are, but the city itself also plays a huge role. Indeed, my favourite parts of the game are those idle moments between missions, where you’re just running around the city, dicking around and having fun.

Watch Dogs 2 San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

Obviously, there’s a serious side to Watch Dogs 2 as well, and this is where I think the game falters. As the stakes ratchet up, the story takes darker turns, but it does so in ways that seem to undermine all the effort put into the sense of fun that’s abundant early on, rather than building upon it. I have no objection to games that are dark and serious (hell, The Walking Dead and Sleeping Dogs are some of my all-time favourites), but it has to be done in a way that’s meaningful, and I don’t think Watch Dogs 2 finds that balance.

The best illustration of this is the handling of one of the side characters, Horatio, which Waypoint’s Austin Walker and Cameron Kunzelman addressed brilliant. I’d urge everyone to read that piece, but in short: early on, the friendship between Horatio and Marcus puts a spotlight on being Black in the United States in a way that’s genuine and endearing, and then it throws that all away for the sake of a gritty plot twist.

Read “What ‘Watch Dogs 2’ Gets So Right, and So Wrong, About Race” at Waypoint.

Watch Dogs 2 wrench

Obviously, the story can’t just stagnate on hackers having fun and pulling pranks; it has to develop, and characters need to grow. My concern is the way those developments are handled. Watch Dogs 2 is so strong in its early hours, but the later parts of the game don’t do that justice.

Nonetheless, Watch Dogs 2 is a game that I’d wholeheartedly encourage. In a lot of ways, it’s a redemption story for the Watch Dogs franchise – it’s a direct response to the criticisms of the first game, and plenty of fun and excitement to be found.

Watch Dogs 2 is developed and published by Ubisoft. It’s available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

A PS4 press copy was supplied by Ubisoft for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.