This is what you wanted, people – this is what you voted for. No, not Trump or Brexit, but a city run by the Blume Corporation where absolutely everyone is constantly under the gaze of an advanced Big Brother surveillance system. This near future society is a Black Mirror-esque teched-up metropolis where ctOS2.0 connects everyone with everything and knows all about each citizen. And with the corrupt powers that be using the ctOS system for their own ends, somebody needs to fight back – and that's where you come in.
Watch Dogs 2 picks up after the Chicago-based events of the original game which saw young hacker Aiden Pearce hunting for those who hurt his family and taking high-tech enabled revenge. Now, the aforementioned Blume Corporation has installed ctOS in San Francisco and a new hacker hero arises in the form of Marcus Holloway, who was framed for a crime by the upgraded ctOS 2.0. This time Holloway joins hacking group DedSec in order to take the fight to Blume using their own ctOS 2.0 as his weapon.
If you played Watch Dogs then you'll immediately know the score in terms of very Grand Theft Auto-esque third-person gameplay, where the open world is yours to explore on-foot or by a wide range of vehicles. Ubisoft has taken everything that made the first game a fun if not perfect experience and improved on it – which is most apparent in the great visuals and more elaborate missions.
The friendly hacker crew of DedSec is made up of Sitara, who is the marketing brains behind their anarchist brand; Josh, the Mr Robot of the bunch, who does all of the coding, and; the mysterious Wrench, who is the gadget and weapons specialist. Holloway becomes the DedSec operations man, carrying out missions in order to get peoples' attention and get the masses to download their app, allowing DedSec to harness the processing power of thousands of regular folks' phones via a botnet – a weaponized super-system that can take Blume down for good.
The big question here, though, is whether Watch Dogs 2 is good enough to go toe-to-toe with the global phenomenon of Grand Theft Auto V, which has become the gold standard for open world mayhem-'em-up games. Surprisingly, the answer is yes: it's a huge leap forward, packed with grin-inducing pop culture references and more importantly, a very well-honed control system.
Stepping into the stylish shoes of Holloway, you'll soon be wielding hacks like a super power, backed up by a decent selection of weapons, vehicles, and some great game enhancing gadgets that include a 'Jumper' remote control robocar that soon becomes your best pal, and a cool quadcopter drone. All of this tech makes you feel empowered to take on anything, and the easy to use smartphone which is your way of controlling most of the tech is a joy to employ. You start the game with a nifty melee weapon, a kind of yoyo that can incapacitate enemies – but the DedSec crew have invested in a kick ass 3D printer which for a price can knock up anything from a stun gun (for those adverse to going full psycho) through to lethal weapons great and small including assault rifles and sniper rifles.
Hacking is the main "weapon", though, and it is just brilliantly realised. Everyone's bank account, every vehicle, every camera or computer, gas main, traffic light, or security bollard can be activated with a quick press of L1 – which brings up a secondary menu choice so that you can choose what hack to implement. We found ourselves having a great time just pranking the populace of San Francisco between missions, because this is one of the most living, breathing open worlds yet designed. There are civilians who will happily engage in conversations with you, so if you stop on the way in to DedSec's secret HQ (hidden in a nerdy table top gaming shop, no less) you can talk to the punters in the shop about their RPG exploits, collectable card decks, or just hear them rant about how a new version of a game has gone off canon. There has obviously been a lot of work gone into the incidental elements of Watch Dogs 2, and it pays off big time when you hear an argument about which sci-fi monster would win in a fight or eavesdrop on a couple's messy break up.
Weirdos out there who just want to hurt people are catered for, too; we checked in the name of thoroughness, and can confirm that you can cause explosions and electrocutions at will, cause vehicles to veer off the road into crowds, or wage a one-man war against increasing police response – should you so wish.
The controls are easy to pick up, and while the on-foot sections aren't a slick as in Ubisoft stable-mate Assassin's Creed, the driving has been markedly improved over the first game – even if it will not be troubling Gran Turismo Sport for realistic handling. Car chases still feature but are less gruelling than in the first game, and pulling off cop-evading handbrake turns are now a very real option. The drone gadgets are excellent, and you'll soon be making your RC Jumper leap through windows and vents in order to "hackcess" collectable goodies such as points that you can spend on upgrades in a RPG-lite element of character development. The copter drone is a win, too, expanding the options for hacking challenges and general snooping. Speaking of the hacking challenges, once you get the hang of them, the dynamic works well, although the difficulty spikes with some of the time-limited ones, which require near perfect execution.
Graphically Watch Dogs 2 impresses; we played on a PS4 Pro and it sparkled with cool incidental details, lovely long draw distances with hardly any pop in, and a generally stable frame rate. The sense of inertia and speed while whizzing through traffic, causing carnage in your wake, is adrenaline pumping stuff. The game world looks so good that it's easy to find yourself just wandering around checking out the views, which will no doubt spawn a lot of screenshot and video uploads. The cutscenes are nice to watch, too, and are packed with wit and genuinely laugh-out-loud moments which lighten the tone over the first game and would make a fun short film in themselves.
There is an incredible amount of content packed in to Watch Dogs 2, including more compulsive mini games – the racing is a highlight – and challenges such as hacking invasion, bounty hunting, and a crazy taxi stunt drive. The co-op online missions weren't functioning when we reviewed the game, but they've finally been added in now.
So, how does Ubisoft's hacker-em-up play online? In a word: great. You can jump in and free roam just doing what you please with a friend or take on a nice range of missions including destroying drug stashes, rescuing prisoners, or downloading data from targets. You may need to beware getting hacked by a human opponent or infiltrate another player's game and try to hack their data without them spotting you. The multiplayer options add a welcome extra amount of excitement to what is already a fun game.
It's all good, then? Well, there are some issues to note. For example, we found that the AI to be laughably dim-witted, especially early on in the game. And, while the frame rate is generally good, there are times when it snags which is a shame.
Watch Dogs 2 is a solid extension of the series and not the complete load of ctOSS it could have been. It's not quite the Assassin's Creed 2 of Ubisoft's hacking brand, but it's certainly a fun-packed and exciting ride, which benefits from less generic mission design and a vibrant open world to enjoy.