Release Date: 15/11/2016
Played On: PS4
Available On: PC / PS4 / XBO
Time Played: 46h 35m
Progress: Completed / 92% Trophies
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft

I liked the first Watch Dogs game, however unpopular a statement that might be. I liked it because it was a new IP from a 'AAA' developer who has been churning out the same old games for a long time. Of course, I'm not blind enough to miss that Watch Dogs was another Ubisoft tower-climbing opus, but it showed some promise, despite its flaws. Imagine my surprise when Watch Dogs 2 came along and learned from the controversial mistakes of its predecessor. The sequel removes many of the flaws from the original and offers a sharp injection of personality, interesting gameplay ideas, and plain old fun.

Even though I enjoyed my time with the first Watch Dogs, it wasn't because it was a great game. I'm one of those people who understand the generic and uninspiring template of Ubisoft games, but I enjoy them anyway. I like climbing towers and uncovering maps, revealing countless icons to collect and side quests to complete. That gameplay loop appeals to me, despite knowing that for all the Assassin's Creeds and Far Crys that get made, they're essentially all the same game, just with a different hat. Watch Dogs was no exception to this rule, but it showed promise and I'm glad that they didn't abandon the IP after it received mixed reviews.

In fact, let me take a moment to say that I think Ubisoft are slowly learning from their past mistakes and I feel as though they are trying to push the envelope a little and escape the shackles of AAA boredom. They're only pushing a little mind you, because it's much too scary to try anything too radical without dipping a sheepish toe into the calm waters of creativity first. Whenever Ubisoft throws caution to the wind and tries something actually new, it's usually confined to a small project like Far Cry: Blood Dragon, or the Trials/Blood Dragon spin off. Small titles are a safe way to mess about, but like most AAA studios, they're still terrified of spending too much budget on a gamble.

Perhaps that's a rant for another day, but all of this helps me explain why I enjoyed Watch Dogs, but why I enjoyed Watch Dogs 2 even more. Both games show signs of Ubisoft peeking out from behind the safety of its formulaic series, to show a hint of some creativity.

Watch Dogs 2 could be considered a reboot of the first game, as it continues the theme and story without changing the core concept much at all. The real surprise can be found in the overall tone and design of the game, which is where this sequel shines.

The first game had you play what was essentially a 'hacking wizard' who took everything way too seriously and tried to make you feel some drama over the events that took place. It's kind of hard to care about a character who is as grey as Aiden Pearce, but it's even harder when you're told by the game that you really should care. For me Watch Dogs failed the most when it implemented its most interesting features, as it chose to make the hacking element of the game simple and moronic for the sake of gameplay. This was a good choice because the game is more about running around an open world than it is about writing lines of code to bring a server down. However, it failed at every turn because it wanted the player and all the characters to take the hacking seriously and pretend that you're actually hacking into systems, rather than using some sort of techno-magic with a phone instead of a wand.

With this sort of dissonance, I could never take the game as seriously as it wanted me to, so I was always at odds with the narrative. It's why I didn't care about the story and can't really remember what happened in the first game, even though I enjoyed the gameplay loop and finished all the missions. 

It's no surprise then that the biggest improvement made by the sequel is that the narrative no longer takes itself too seriously. The characters aren't trying to make you feel the drama, or make excuses for the arcade hacking mechanics. Instead Watch Dogs 2 has lightened up and accepted that it's not a serious mix of Uplink and GTA, but its own open world tech wizard fun time, ready to be enjoyed instead of analysed.

Rather than a brooding dirt bag with a hat, the characters in Watch Dogs 2 are an interesting group of outsiders who are battling the big bad corporate controllers of tech. The player character Marcus might arguably be the 'cool' member of the group, but he admires the personalities and skills of his compadres and seems to enjoy being part of a team than an egotistical lone wolf. The same can be said about the eclectic bunch of friends who ultimately serve as quest givers and upgrade shops, but are presented elegantly enough to create real bonds between each other as the group face adversity throughout the story.

These relationships where the real takeaway for me, as I found myself invested in the group and wanting to protect my friends when they were in trouble. The final sequence of missions really expands on this idea and had an incredibly satisfying pay off that I won't spoil here. Suffice to say that while the first game bombed hard on the characters and relationships, the sequel turned it all around and made me care about what happened to each individual.

The gameplay has been given a polish as well, but it doesn't innovate a whole lot, so it's mostly driving around from place to place and using your hacking skills to perform tasks and complete missions. Instead of Assassins Creed's Eagle Vision, you get NetHack Mode, which basically lets you see through walls and highlights points of interest in the environment. It may not be all that original, but it serves its purpose well as the city is covered in hacking puzzles and collectibles that often require a bit of thought to complete.

In a way it's unfortunate that there isn't anything that involves any actual coding or skills that resemble actual hacking, but I can forgive the game for that as it's telling a different kind of story. Looking for puzzles around the city will often clue you into an area where something unique and interesting is going on. It might be a communal garden behind some apartment blocks where residents are dancing, or an angry drunk ranting in an alleyway. The game even utilises an app on your in-game phone that highlights areas of interest, to make sure that you don't miss out on what's happening around you. This all adds to the city feeling alive and like there are things going on with or without your input.

There are a few misses along the way, like the inclusion of guns that you can 'make' with a 3D printer in your base. I suppose it's there to offer a different style of play, but I found that it made much more sense to play the game without firing a shot. There were a couple of missions where I was tasked with killing a gang leader or some other 'bad guy', but I was invested in Marcus and didn't want to do anything that would change my perception of his personality. Instead I went through the whole game without firing a shot, using traps and hacks to take out the bad guys instead of straight up murder.

This sort of conflict between my investment in the character and what the game wanted me to do at times is where the ugly head of Ubisoft playing it safe rises up again. The game is still very formulaic in a lot of ways - there's exploring, collectible hunting, driving around, taking over areas, and solving puzzles, which all make sense (however loosely) within the narrative. Then you're jerked away from any immersion when you notice something (like guns) that seems to be included for the simple purpose of trying to please as many players as possible. I think of it as a AAA game's inability to say "no" to the player. They're so scared of someone not wanting to play their game that they will include dissonant elements in an attempt to tick off another feature on the list.

Watch Dogs is an example of how restrained a big budget game will be when trying out new things - to its own detriment. Watch Dogs 2 is what happens when the same AAA company actually listens to a bunch of feedback and tries to dip another toe in the water. It's an impressive big budget game that does a lot of things right and has taken the IP into promising territory. I just hope that Ubisoft realise that Watch Dogs doesn't need to go off the rails like Saint's Row, but benefits from lightening up a bit and embracing its niche qualities that set it apart from its usual formula.

When the credits rolled on Watch Dogs 2 I put down my controller with the surge of satisfaction that comes from a well-executed story told through an entertaining loop. Watch Dogs 2 succeeded by letting go of its predecessor's hang ups and by iterating on the good parts that make it interesting, while shedding off some of the safe grey templates that hold it back.

Spoiler though - apparently we're not allowed to forget about Aiden Pearce yet, as he gets shoved into a mission for the hell of it along the way. 

Come on Ubisoft, let your freak flag fly! I'm pretty sure that with all the talent working for you, you'll hit something awesome if you put your mind to it and are open to trying new things