Remember Aiden Pearce's trench coat in the original Watch Dogs? People flipped out about the lead protagonist's leathers when the game was first announced back in 2012 - its subtle movement in the wind, the O-M-G textures. It was the hint that current-gen PS4 and Xbox One consoles were on their way before they were even here. Indeed, people generally flipped out more about that coat than the actual game when it arrived in 2014.
Watch Dogs 2's introduction has been different. The sequel has largely avoided the hype machine, as it was unveiled just five short months prior to its public release. It also ditches Pearce's leathers and the drab Chicago backdrop for some bright pink shorts and the sunnier, unpredictable climes of tech-landscape San Francisco. Bye, bye leathers.
Cue an African American lead, Marcus Holloway, a motley crew of hacktavists, aka Dedsec (who look like they've fallen out of a US TV show's rejects bin), and Watch Dogs 2 feels like the development team has taken the original game's hacking base, added a double dash of Mr Robot and firmly shaken it with GTA: San Andreas. Is that a cocktail for brilliance, or an ill-advised shooter of bullshit?
What is Watch Dogs 2 about?
Let's face it, open-world games are ten a penny these days. Grand Theft Auto has ruled the roost for many years with its grandiose and often hilarious take on reality. Many have tried to emulate its success in various forms, but few have succeeded. Watch Dogs 2 is ambitious in its scope and, crucially, delivers a unique selling point: hacking.
Not only is there a huge cityscape and coastline to explore, there's also a virtual, hackable shadow of that too (pressing the right stick will bring up this view). Everyone is a target: intercept phone calls or SMS, hack bank accounts, take remote control of cars. The game plays on today's modern - and very real - fears of data and identity theft.
It then goes one step further by making mainline gas pipes hackable, resulting in giant explosions; traffic lights are manipulatable (with guaranteed traffic accidents each and every time); and much more besides when levelling-up and choosing new abilities. It is designed to be an entertaining game first and foremost, after all.
In among all this fun and chaos there's a storyline of sorts. Holloway is introduced when infiltrating ctOS headquarters - the company that has an international database of citizens and which monitors the world; it's a play on Facebook meets the FBI - to delete his online profile as a big up-yours to the Blume Corporation. It's all orchestrated by Dedsec, the hacker collective that shares more than a passing resemblance to Mr Robot's fsociety.
Well, almost, except for the character Wrench, who seems to have got lost in an alt-metal BDSM shop.
Is the driving better in Watch Dogs 2?
Traversing this large open-world can be handled in many different ways: run on foot (seemingly infinitely); steal any number of cars, bikes and vehicles; deploy 3D-printed drones; navigate streets and buildings through the camera network to perform remote hacks; even go for a spot of swimming.
As anyone will tell you, the driving mechanics in the original Watch Dogs were terrible - like ice-skating in a pair of Cloggs. In Watch Dogs 2 things have been improved to a degree, but there's never the immediacy to driving that you'll find in a game like Grand Theft Auto. Switching between different vehicle types in Watch Dogs 2 will see you repeatedly crashing into various objects time and again. We often used the fast-travel option on the map as a result, bypassing much of the explorative aspect an open-world permits.
All this thieving inevitably gets Holloway into trouble too: a five-bar wanted meter to the bottom left will attract police attention and they'll come hunting you down at speed. It's here some of the game's not-quite-polished details come to bear. The irksome “this is the police, pull over now,” voiceover is enough to turn the telly down a few notches (it's far louder than other sound effects for no reason); and the police's ability to, somehow, always have a vehicle that will match your speed - even when in some turbocharged special vehicle (we won't spoil the story) - doesn't make much sense. Hiding away from view will assist in escape, which is often easier to do on foot.
Watch Dogs 2 stealth and combat
From the getgo there's emphasis on click-to-cover stealth tactics in Watch Dogs 2. As missions progress you'll want to think ahead by scanning out locations via hacking, plotting routes and taking-down security guards without being seen. The stealth tactics aren't as weighty as, say, in Ubisoft's Splinter Cell, given bodies aren't movable, thus finding a happy balance.
How you play is largely your prerogative too: if you want to find all the guns and go gungho crazy then go for it. You'll have learned the stealth basics from earlier in the game when all you have in possession is a non-lethal stun gun and ball-and-chain. And sometimes being relentless can pay off: the auto-targeting trigger controls make shooting from cover straightforward, while the top-down map display to the bottom left corner allows you to see who is coming at you and from where.
Being cautious does pay dividends though: you'll inevitably need to hack objects when in secure areas, so going unseen will stop this happening without being interrupted. The infiltrate-and-hack missions quickly become one and the same, though, irrelevant of the storyline obscurity peppered around the task. The security guard AI feels fairly on-rails too.
Is Watch Dogs 2 multiplayer?
Similar to the original Watch Dogs, Watch Dogs 2 adds in elements of online play. You can play co-operatively by inviting friends, or there's a new seamless multiplayer option to play with unknown others (a bit like GTA Online).
Problem is, ahead of launch, the so-called seamless multiplayer is anything but: it's so broken due to lag and crashes that Ubisoft has pulled it offline for the time being. The company is “confident” that it will be available for launch, though, including the bounty hunter mode and other side activities that it brings.
That might sound like a huge blow, but, for us, these open-world games are all about delivering on the campaign mode. In that regard we feel that Watch Dogs 2 is a fair game, albeit one that feels a little disjointed. It's a melting pot of ideas that are so desperate to disband from the flaws of the original game that they don't always feel coherent or polished. Perhaps that's a hangover from the original game: Watch Dogs 2 does hang itself on the original's premise and mechanics while trying to be something altogether different.
Watch Dogs 2 is a calculated departure from the original game. It's brighter, zanier, broader-reaching and more focused on fun - without the hype to drag it down this time around.
But it often feels like it's trying a bit too hard. The mishmash of characters, the little leverage the huge web of hackable subjects brings, the hangover of mechanics from the original game that a brighter coat of paint can't always cover.
If you loved the original Watch Dogs then the sequel dons psychedelic shades and ups its game. But in a post-GTA V landscape that's not going to be enough for everyone in 2016.
Watch Dogs 2 is released 15 November 2016 on PS4, Xbox One and PC.
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