It’s a widely accepted theory that the sequel to a new IP is often the better than it’s predecessor in every single way. Uncharted 2 builds on everything the original sets out, Borderlands 2 expanded character numbers and the scale of Pandora, and I shouldn’t even have to mention the the ‘next year’s version’ of any racing or sports game. That’s why, when Ubisoft officially announcedWatch_Dogs 2 (after Ubi’s usual series of leaks and speculations), the industry was instantly drawing up comparisons to Ubi’s flagship sequel jump; the original Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed 2.
At this year’s gamescom, we got a chance to get out hands on the latest build of Watch_Dogs 2 to find out if it really looks to be everything the original had strived to be; and from the moment I took control, there is an immediate difference. Plunged into a sun-scorched San Francisco, the bright sky and diverse colours of the west coast city are a million miles from the grey skyscrapers and miserable weather of the Windy City original. Marcus, the game’s protagonist, is also the antithesis of the universally gruff and grumpy Aiden Pearce; the ultimate hipster, Marcus comes dressed in obnoxiously bright high-tops, thick framed square glasses, a bag with more badges than a scout would care to admit and a smartphone with an array of apps designed to take control of everything in the city.
Of course, being a product of the 21st century, the smartphone is the central and most important part of the game, it is from here that you not only hack, control and spy on almost everything around you, it’s focal to how you grow as a character. Perhaps the biggest and most significant change was how you level up in Watch_Dogs 2. In order to have access to more varieties of hacking, you need to gain XP, and rather than it being a bar at the top of the screen that grows each time you murder someone, or take down Silicon Valley’s latest liberal tycoon, when you earn XP, it is shown as your social media following growing as wannabe hackers show their allegiance and donate their developing tech. It does seem a little on the nose of capturing the hipster masses and tone of the game, but it’s an interesting take on the tried and true formula, and does fit with the entire SF vibe.
The idea of the Watch_Dogs series is all about the tech world, and there’s no place more in touch with the tech world than San Francisco, with Watch_Dogs 2 managing to capture that essence. As you drive around the city you zip past small tech start-ups, independent coffee shops and vegan bakeries, everything your tech-savvy SF nerd would appreciate.
The first thing I was tasked to do was to cause a distraction so Marcus could fly his drone to the top of a tower and scan the nearby area. This gave me a chance to see the new hacking system in operation. Every object in the original had one possible action, things varying from confuse, distract, kill, or block; in Watch_Dogs 2 though, pressing down the hack button opens up a wheel, not too dissimilar to the weapon wheel in GTA V, offering you a variety of hacks. This means that in your approach, you can be much more tactical, rather than relying on having the correct object by you at a certain time. During the demo, I was able to take control of various vehicles on the road, causing mass chaos in order to escape, before sneaking into an enemy compound.
The mission I was plunged into felt very similar to the locate, infiltrate and steal missions that were the bread and butter of the original. I was to head to some seedy industrial district of SF and to steal some data that would lead to a bigger, badder tech nerd. Marcus arrives at the outpost, severely underdressed in his brightly coloured clothes (all of which can be customised from any number of shops throughout the city, giving you more variety than the original) and it was here where Ubisoft showed me another of Marcus’s gadgets; the RC car. Essentially, this is your present day BB-8 or R2D2; who you can control in order to get the lay of the land, cause distractions, steal data and get onto objects Marcus would struggle with. Twinned with the drone, these gadgets enable you to get different angles on your environment, from the comfort of behind your box, though during this mission, until I got spotted, it felt like an easy way around stealth.
Of course after exploding too many air con units a firefight ensued and Marcus was forced from tech-savvy hipster into cold blooded killer, slaying waves of enemies. At times in the original, it felt like a firefight was the easy way out, and it was a similar situation here. The game encourages stealth and new fangled ways of completing your mission, yet the option to go in guns blazing still remains and blurs the lines of what Watch_Dogs 2 wants to be.
From my brief time with Watch_Dogs 2, it’s safe to say it certainly doesn’t take itself as seriously as the original, offering a more likeable character in a much more vibrant and interesting city. There’s more gadgets, more hacking varieties and more customization all suggesting the series is heading in an upwards direction, but whether the story and mission structure will remain the same is still up in the air. It’s safe to say, if you enjoyed the original or were intrigued but never jumped in, then there’s no reason this won’t be too your liking. But if you’re expecting a huge leap and change in direction, Watch_Dogs 2 might still have too much of the original's DNA running through it’s veins.