Anyone who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area will feel right at home in Watch Dogs 2. The important landmarks are there, even odd intersections that may only stand out to residents. But I don't think you need to be familiar with the real Bay Area to appreciate how Watch Dogs 2's mix of nature and urban sprawl makes for a picturesque, playful open world. Its people and places are colorful and over the top, kind of like the real thing.
And whether or not you understand the references that drive Watch Dogs 2's twisted take on Silicon Valley shouldn't matter either: This outing errs on the side of irreverence and unapologetic fun, trading in the original Watch Dogs' rain-soaked trenchcoat and drab demeanor for a neon-colored assault rifles and a pair of skinny jeans. The new attitude and setting are a great combination that allow you to experience the dream–rather than the nightmare–of living in the digital age.
That doesn't mean the world of Watch Dogs 2 is all peace and love. Its gleeful exterior masks a troubled society in the throes of gang violence, political corruption, and rampant hacking. Our antihero Marcus is, to an extent, part of the problem, but he's mostly on the side of good. With his hacking skills under your control, you spend a lot of time thwarting nefarious jerks by tapping into their networks to hit them where it hurts–whether that means dismantling their criminal enterprises or airing their dirty laundry in public. And when digital attacks fail, Marcus knows how to handle a gun. He's a walking contradiction that hates corruption yet murders without flinching, but his actions are so entertaining that you probably won't care for long, if at all.
Your primary mission stems from Dedsec, a group of stereotypical, hyperactive hackers who target government and corporate entities that see private information as a commodity. With society networked and people rampantly sharing pieces of their lives with third parties, the critical mass of data has overflown into the pockets of evil in Watch Dogs 2, but you're the best digital Robin Hood around, which means almost nothing is out of reach. If you can't hack or shoot your way into a building, remote-controlled drones can get you into hard-to-reach places.
With the help of a botnet derived from Dedsec's social media followers–which you're responsible for cultivating by completing story missions and side quests–you can manipulate digital locks, computers, and security cameras to steal data and spy on unknowing targets. Your handy smartphone is capable of hacking into bigger equipment, too, including massive cranes that can lift you atop tall buildings. If you have a penchant for creating domino effects in games, look forward to repositioning explosive objects with forklifts to set up semi-elaborate traps–if not because you have no other choice, then perhaps for the satisfaction you get from watching your prey wander into harm's way.
Sneaking around guards requires critical thought and precise action, but the more you play, the more you discover ways to work around the heaviest hitters and enemy AI in general.
To survey a scene for potential hackables, enable Nethack mode, and you can peer deeper into your surroundings and pinpoint the location of vulnerable devices and human threats; hackable objects and other points of interest are brightly colored. It's easy to lose yourself in Nethack vision because it gives you a palpable advantage while hacking into hard-to-reach locations, but this trick can feel a little like cheating and ultimately robs you of experiencing the sights and sounds around you firsthand.
Even with Nethack mode enabled, sneaking around guards requires critical thought and precise action, but the more you play, the more you discover ways to work around the heaviest hitters and enemy AI in general. It starts early on when you learn how easy it is to distract a guard by sending a fake call to their cell phone, even when they’re searching for an intruder. Then there are quirks specific to unique events. In a later mission, you can use a quadcopter to unlock a prison cell; the two guards standing by won't bat an eye when a heavily locked door magically opens behind them, making your job far easier than it should be.
However, enemies are great at hugging corners and swarming your hiding place when your cover is blown. In numbers, a group of guards is difficult to manage, and a few missions will surprise you with tricky layouts and hidden variables that force you to consider a Plan B. Marcus is remarkably fit, capable of scaling small buildings provided there's a nearby dumpster-sized object to give him a boost. He can also run forever without a pesky stamina meter and has a habit of doing a backflip when jumping from ledges. He's less graceful when facing guards, unfortunately, due to sticky cover mechanics that don't always react as expected. It's not unusual to find yourself on the wrong side of an object because the game couldn't tell if you wanted to round a corner or snap to a different object altogether.
Resorting to guns to get into or out of buildings balances out time spent sneaking and hacking by adding some exciting moments, but it's shallow in isolation. The shooting feels fine, but plenty of other open-world action games offer more substantial, varied options–Grand Theft Auto V and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain come to mind. There's more emphasis on sneaking and acting silently in Watch Dogs 2; quiet melee takedowns often get you farther than an itchy trigger finger might, especially against armored enemies.
There's no shortage of wacky quests to break things up and offer light-hearted goals, such as rescuing a Tom Cruise-like celebrity from the clutches of a cult.
It also doesn't take long for the police to show up when gunfire breaks out. You can try to hold your ground by hacking and firing back, but even with a heavy arsenal, you’ll eventually have to flee. Driving, in mechanical terms, is all over the place, with only a few rides that offer a pleasing balance of performance and control. The rest are too slow to be useful–or too wild to steer with confidence under pressure.
Motorcycles feel great, on the other hand, offering both speed and easy handling. Exploring the map on a motorcycle–whether it’s searching for stunt ramps or to simply take in the sights–is a relaxing way to kill a few hours in Watch Dogs 2. Don't be surprised if you hop into the game just so you can ride a motorcycle down the Embarcadero at sunset or blow through the lush scenery of Golden Gate Park.
Ubisoft does a great job of presenting the Bay Area in an attractive way that feeds intrepid tourists an impressive variety of sights. However, something’s definitely missing. You won't see a lot of pedestrians or cars on the street compared to similar games. This limits how much destruction you can create, but it also gives you space to drive fast in a city that's usually clogged with traffic. The latter is important not only for sightseeing, but also because it gives you a better chance of running into minigames. You can always check your map and fast travel to mission icons or curious events, but that deprives you of the rewarding sense of discovery Watch Dogs 2 affords. Eschewing fast travel also gives you the chance to get to know your fellow urbanites, either by working for an Uber-like car-sharing service to engage in chitchat and make extra cash, or by walking the streets and hacking into their phones to steal money and listen in on phone calls.
When you get tired of that, you're never far from a motorcycle or go-kart race, or a handful of small side missions. There's no shortage of wacky quests to break things up and offer light-hearted goals, such as rescuing a Tom Cruise-like celebrity from the clutches of a cult or hijacking a talking car–similar to KITT from Knight Rider–from its movie-set storage. You may wonder how a team of determined activists find themselves so readily distracted from their primary targets, but somehow, every mission connects back to the bigger picture. And, really, Watch Dogs 2 doesn't take its own story too seriously, so it pays to sit back and enjoy the ride when things get weird.
Even when playing solo, Watch Dogs 2 remains a fun, energetic game filled with possibilities.
Though the feature wasn't present at launch, Watch Dogs 2 now supports seamless player-versus-player hacking online. You are free to turn this off if you wish, but knowing that you may have to stop what you're doing at the drop of a hat to find the nearby stranger tapping into your phone adds a small but appreciable layer to the experience. The game also offers opportunities to join police chases and take down troublemaking players–don't be surprised when the tables are turned and you see another player on your tail, barreling down steep streets beside a fleet of SFPD vehicles. When you'd rather hack with, rather than against someone, you can take on small co-op missions, but they’re so close to single-player missions in structure that factoring in coordination can seem more like a chore than a benefit.
Even when playing solo, Watch Dogs 2 remains a fun, energetic game filled with possibilities. It's easy see-through enemy AI during missions that are supposed to be challenging, which holds back the game at large, but it's a chance to let loose, logic be damned. Watch Dogs 2's world is a step up from the first game's dreary rendition of Chicago, and even though Watch Dogs 2 can't go toe-to-toe with genre heavyweights, it's hard to walk away from its fun-loving attitude and exuberant cast.