Looking ahead at the usual pre-Christmas silly season and it appears it’ll be another bumper period for new releases. But in among the usual suspects and the eye-catching announcements made over the summer, one game seems to have gone slightly under the radar – and it’s Watch Dogs 2. It’s a game I’ve had on my list ever since completing the original and, regardless of what you thought of first one, history suggests that maybe you should too.
Like most people, when Ubisoft dropped a demo for the first game back at E3 2012, I found it hard to believe what I was seeing. Teasing a glimpse of the future, before the current generation of consoles had even been announced, it was like nothing I had seen before. Set in a stormy, modern-day Chicago but with a moody style reminiscent of Blade Runner, the graphics looked spectacular and the gameplay promised something truly new and seemingly unique. It was the poster-boy of an undefined next-generation where games would be photo-realistic, run at 60fps and offer new and exciting experiences that we just couldn’t get on our PS3s and Xbox360s.
However, as a cautious type of guy, I had my suspicions. And, of course, by the time Watch Dogs launched we had learnt that the new consoles were not quite the quantum leap forward in power that we had hoped for, and that 2012 demo really was too good to be true. With the failure to live up to expectations and a sense of injustice from gamers who felt they had been deliberately misled, it probably wasn’t a huge surprise that the first Watch Dogs failed to live up to the hype. I patted myself on the back for not pre-ordering and moved on to something else.
But it was by no means a failure. As well as becoming Ubisoft’s best-selling new IP (then) in terms of first day sales, Watch Dogs apparently went on to ship over 10 million copies – meaning that a sequel was basically inevitable. Also, despite the backlash, reviews were actually pretty decent praising a lot of what the game did while also highlighting the wasted potential and room to improve. The consensus seemed to be that Watch Dogs was not the game-changer many had hoped for but neither was it the mess some had suggested. Not a pedigree breed but a lovable mongrel, with flaws just like the rest of us. It was with this in mind that I picked up the first game on the cheap around 18 months ago.
And when I did, I was very pleasantly surprised. The core mechanics weren’t revolutionary but were still solid and it was a game that was good, dumb fun. Combat was a bit dubious in terms of the story (unless you believe every American is a natural born marksman – and let’s not go there) but was tighter and more satisfying than GTA had even been to that point. Driving was a little floaty but fun when you got to grips with it and allowed for some excellent chases through the streets of Chicago and beyond. The story and main character were clichéd but no more so than 90% of other action titles, and the superfluous open world quests were just as easy to ignore as in every other Ubiworld*. It was, in short, pretty good.
*Seriously, a quick digression here. If I’m on a quest to avenge my murdered niece and uncover a conspiracy, is it just me that thinks it’s a little irresponsible to spend my time arsing around playing chess or taking part in AR races? No, good, because I ignored them for that reason. Anyway, where was I?
However, there were also a couple of things that Watch Dogs did very right that have me excited about the sequel. First off, it was nice to visit and even learn about Chicago. Ok, not the real Chicago and not necessarily a version that residents of the Windy City would want to sell to tourists (I’m guessing – or at least hope – that there are fewer explosions and car chases in real life) but it felt like a living city and which, crucially, was somewhere new. Choosing to relocate the sequel to San Francisco makes total sense for the story but also means I’ll have another new city to explore – albeit one that I’m a little more familiar with both virtually (hello MSR, we miss you) and in real life.
Secondly, the hacking mechanic was a great idea – however patchily it was executed. Those Dukes of Hazard style car chases? Not only would they have been half as fun without the ability to raise bollards, access shortcuts and generally cause mayhem, some of them would have been impossible. Hacking also added variety to infiltrations and shootouts even if in some cases that was just the Watch Dogs version of shooting the big red barrel. And it was cool to hack into conversations and learn more about my law-abiding and not-so-law-abiding fellow citizens – although stealing money from them didn’t have the “should I or shouldn’t I?” moral aspect that I imagine the designers had hoped for.
But, for me, the real triumph of the first Watch Dogs was in the multiplayer modes. Online races were fun and chaotic although not particularly radical or novel. But it was in the other modes where Watch Dogs was felt most revolutionary and closest to the original premise. Once activated in the settings, the ability to have “my” game invaded by another player brought a sense of tension and dynamism to the main game world that I had never experienced before nor had since trading the game in. It was not integrated into the story but consistent with it. Rather than an unconnected session found only through a menu, it blended right into my single-player experience. I loved chasing down my infiltrator in Invasion or stalking someone else in Online Tailing and it is this that I hope they build on with the sequel. And the good news is that it sounds like they will with Bounty Hunter and a number of co-op modes.
Ubisoft have already showed they can deliver what’s needed and the previews are encouraging. With Assassin’s Creed 2, they took a good game with excellent potential and built on it to deliver a gaming masterpiece. Here, they’ve ditched the moody cliché of a character and revenge storyline, upped the focus on hacking, added variety, introduced coop and moved to a new city. It’s also encouraging that they’ve taken their time for this sequel, and are confident enough to give their other franchises the year off from their increasingly harmful annual release schedules.
A story about hacking and wrongful conviction seems right of the moment (thanks to the excellent Mr Robot and shows like Making a Murderer), surveillance grows more invasive by the day and questions remain over the trustworthiness of authority figures. The timing is right then. The pieces look like they are slotting into place. Four years and a “sighter” of a first effort later, I fully believe Watch Dogs 2 will deliver.