Video games are no strangers to sequels that substantially improve on the moderate successes of their predecessors, and Watch Dogs has come back immeasurably brighter on its second serving. This isn’t simply another pass at Ubisoft’s open-world adventure of ostensibly ragtag hackers taking on titan-like tech corporations — Watch Dogs 2 is a hard reset on what came out in 2014, repositioning this as a franchise worth caring about.
Gone is the odious Aidan Pearce, a growly grump of a protagonist. In comes Marcus Holloway, or “Retr0” to San Francisco’s hacking community, who hooks up with the DedSec collective to infiltrate the servers of the world’s largest tech corps, uncovering the murk that lies within their password-protected files. Marcus is a hugely likeable character — unashamedly geeky, discussing German board games with NPCs and getting giddy over cheesy action flicks, but superbly athletic, too, and handy with a firearm when necessary.
While the game encourages you to hack cameras to navigate dangerous paths to guarded data, and use drones to survey each situation before stealthing through unseen, going in all guns is a viable option — and Watch Dogs 2 never buckles under the heat of a fire fight. Combat, when it breaks out, is fierce, and the driving has been refined so it’s close to Grand Theft Auto V standards, making police pursuits a more enjoyable panic. The one-button Assassin’s Creed-y parkour means that even dead ends can become escape routes.
The game’s concentrated version of San Francisco looks and sounds beautiful — you’ll easily lose an hour taking selfies at tourist hotspots. Marcus’s DedSec colleagues are clichés of a kind, but they each have relatable personalities, moments of laugh-aloud dialogue, and the bonds between them are palpable. As events darken around them, their friendly exchanges, bereft of too much techno-jargon, ensure Watch Dogs 2 retains an enjoyable levity for a long time, keeping the player invested in both their fates and the unfolding narrative slowly consuming them.
It was an unlikely outcome at the beginning of 2016 — a whole 12 months of unlikely outcomes — but Watch Dogs 2 is probably the best game of its kind this year. It’s a whole lot happier than The Division, and considerably less repetitive than Mafia 3, its two biggest rivals. A lot of the hype that carried the original Watch Dogs towards somewhat inevitable disappointment has been belatedly vindicated here, as where that title simply attached its exciting hacking mechanic to a satisfactory game world, this sequel delivers atmosphere, drama and characters worth getting excited for.