Feature Article

Watch Dogs 2 Embraces Its Inner Grand Theft Auto

Digital Robin Hoods.

Watch Dogs 2 wasn't officially announced until early last week, but thanks to the power of E3, we've already had a chance to play a small portion of its story campaign. During last week's livestream, Ubisoft advertised a more likable protagonist, a more hackable world, and a more cooperative experience, all of which took center stage during my brief time with Ubisoft's newest open world third-person shooter.

For those who missed its unveiling, Watch Dogs 2 abandons the windy city of Chicago in favor of the sunny shores of San Francisco, which brings with it a new protagonist: Marcus Holloway. Unlike the relentlessly dour Aiden Pearce, Marcus is young, affable, and politically conscious. Rather than plotting revenge for the murder of his family, Marcus seeks to right social wrongs with the help of his hacker collective, the familiar DedSec (whose messaging bares an uncanny resemblance to real world org Anonymous).

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Marcus' positive energy and jokey nature were immediately obvious during the game's early cutscenes, which featured several members of San Francisco's DedSec contingent scheming to bring down a corrupt politician and a suspiciously Facebook-esque social media site who are collaborating to rig an election. Though some of the painfully hip lingo felt a bit forced, it was encouraging to see that the series grew a much needed sense of humor at some point between the first and second games.

Perhaps more importantly, the world itself felt far more alive than Chicago ever did. In place of Chicago's sterile gray skyscrapers and largely empty streets, San Francisco's rolling hills teemed with color, life, and a level of detail that rivaled The Division's Manhattan. My mission started at the feet of famous SF landmark Coit Tower, a popular tourist spot that, naturally, was covered with people: street vendors, commuters, hapless tourists--there were easily a couple dozen people around me, all of whom seemed believably active.

These NPCs not only helped the world feel alive, they also created gameplay opportunities for Marcus. Where Aiden could only gather random procedurally-generated information from most pedestrians, every single person in Watch Dogs 2 can be hacked, according to the developers. At a bare minimum, Marcus can cause a person's phone to go haywire, creating a sudden diversion while sneaking or attacking. But in many instances, hacks can actually be much more sophisticated.

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While hanging around Coit Tower, for example, I discovered that hacking a vehicle allows you to control it remotely. While you can't drive it freely, you can use your controller's face buttons to send the car lurching in whatever direction corresponds with that button's position on the controller. That's only if you hold down the hack button, though. You can also simply tap the button to send the highlighted vehicle speeding off in a random direction, which should prove useful when you're trying to outrun pursuers and don't have time for a more strategic hack.

Later on, I learned that you can create makeshift traps by hacking junction boxes. While holding down the hack button, various face buttons allow you to detonate, deactivate, or turn the box into a proximity mine that stuns enemies as soon as they enter its electrical field. I'm confident there are plenty more hackable objects I didn't encounter during my demo, but the fact that you can now choose a specific way to hack something adds a layer of nuance to the mechanic that wasn't previously present.

Not only is Marcus a more accomplished hacker than Aiden, he also has a few new tools. Shortly after hacking a sports car near Coit Tower and accidentally crashing it into a pedestrian (which, interestingly, caused an ambulance to show up a la Grand Theft Auto), the game prompted me to deploy Marcus' flying drone. This allowed me to both scout the surrounding area and hack certain objects remotely. Essentially, it's a highly mobile, always accessible version of the fixed security cameras found in the first game (which are still an option here as well).

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Marcus can also employ a second drone that's slightly less mobile but potentially more useful: an RC car that allows him to psychically connect to devices that require a hardline. According to the developers, this drivable drone will come in handy for puzzle-solving and represents just one of several 3D-printed gadgets produced from schematics you can collect over the course of the game.

In addition to Watch Dog's hallmark hacking, the open world driving, shooting, and parkour return as well, though they too have received a few upgrades. The driving, for example, felt markedly more arcadey--which is to say, simple, responsive, and fun--and the selection of cars has clearly grown to include a few more exotic options (San Francisco's stunt ramps might actually seem enticing). The free running felt similarly smooth, with impressively naturalistic animations that consistently adapted to the terrain with impressive fluidity. The controls are simplistic--simply hold the right trigger and direct Marcus with the left stick--but the results proved satisfying nonetheless.

The one open world element I wasn't able to test: the shooting, but only because I chose to avoid combat. Though Marcus can pick up and wield enemy firearms (and possibly even acquire his own later on), many of his tools and talents seem geared towards non-lethal approaches like stealth and subterfuge. He even starts the game with a taser pistol, and the dev team confirmed you can complete the game without killing anyone. There's still a cover system, however, as well as a radial weapon select menu, so shooter fans can still go full combat if they so choose.

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The world itself has evolved as well. The new map includes portions of not just San Francisco, but Oakland to the east, Silicon Valley to the south, and Marin County to the north. Each area offers stores to patronize--including clothing and pawn shops full of customization options--but according to the devs, the map won't be littered with endless mission markers like the Assassin's Creed and Far Cry games. Rather, missions must be discovered organically, which should encourage exploration, especially since you can swap between active quests on the fly using Marcus' smartphone. You may even encounter other players in the process, at which point you should be able to team up with a single button press.

I definitely encountered some silliness during my hands-on time--including some out-of-touch pandering to millennials and some laughable abuses of technology--but overall, Watch Dogs 2 looks promising. Its world is sunnier in more ways than one, its hacking appears to deliver on promises left unfulfilled by the original game, and honestly, the soundtrack so far is impeccable. With any luck, the final product will live up to its E3 demo when the full game launches this fall.

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Scott Butterworth

Yes, his mother is Mrs. Butterworth.
Watch Dogs 2

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