The original Watch Dogs was a grossly overhyped open-world crime spree that was guilty of hacking all the worst aspects of E3.
Shown for the first time at E3 2012 — a time of intensive next-generation publicity overheating — Ubisoft oversold its looks and its levels of innovation. Elements of the media fell into line with absurdly gullible proclamation that the company had "won" E3, and that video games were about to make a Damascene transformation.
But it mainly followed pre-existing formulae for action games. Worse, it made serious narrative missteps with a deeply unlikable leading man as well as crude portrayals of secondary characters, most especially women and minorities.
Based on a 20-minute session playing sequel Watch Dogs 2 earlier this week, it's clear that developer Ubisoft Montreal has made significant advances.
Central character Marcus Holloway displays an infectious joie de vivre as he pursues an idealistic and topical campaign to prevent the forces of corruption from abusing modern technology. The game feels more inclusive and relevant to real political issues taking place right now.
Ultimately, this is a fantasy game that gives the player almost unlimited powers to exploit the world and its inhabitants. For developers, offering up too much power to players can pose serious design problems. But Holloway's powers are more about choice than about pure brute force.
Watch Dogs 2 feels more inclusive and relevant.
Such an array of choices makes for a highly complex game that takes full use of the controller's buttons. Watch Dogs 2 requires that the player is comfortable with its many systems and options.
This is also a very big game, mapping a simplified version of San Francisco, Oakland and Silicon Valley into a single world.
In the mission presented by Ubisoft, Holloway is sent a quest option via an app on his cellphone. He accepts. We go into a hack mode that coats the actual world with a gray overlay, spotted with brightly colored cues.
I hack into a clearly signaled individual and am presented with a slice of plot about a signal on Coit Tower that's screwing with people's cellphones. Holloway has to hack into the difficult-to-reach tower, and so we make use of his most essential piece of kit, the drone, to hack into the signal and give us a location for some bad guys. So far, this is pretty standard mission set-up.
But when we get to the bad guys (via a stolen car and a glowing path-guide), who are hiding out on Pier 39, things get more interesting.
When I first arrive at Pier 39 I decide to mess around with the people standing around. As Holloway, I can hack into anyone. The default hack is to send them a text as a distraction, but by holding down the button, I can also steal money from their credit cards.
I press on one mysterious D-pad button when locked onto a busker. It turns out that I've told a bunch of gangsters that this person is a mortal enemy of theirs and needs to be killed. Sure enough, the poor chap is gunned down. I back away, somewhat awkwardly. Cops show up, but they aren't interested in me, so I decide to go shopping at a clothes store.
This is where you deck Holloway out in the usual selection of fashions. Your sartorial choices hold over to multiplayer, although you become someone other than Holloway when that happens. Players can customize their faces and bodies for those situations.
Hacking into a series of cameras, I map out the bad guys. A bunch of useful details are highlighted. A few guards, a dog, some members of the public, a locked door and, at the center of the mission, a computer that needs to be hacked in-person.
At this point, I can go three ways: I can make use of Watch Dogs' cover-shooter design and go kill a bunch of guys using guns, selected from a weapons wheel; or, I can stealth the level and maybe take out the goons using a taser; then again, I can try to get through the whole thing remotely, using my gadgets.
The original Watch Dogs was a decent cover shooter, but I like stealth, so I decide to go in, nice and quiet. I'm not ready to rely on gadgets just yet, which seems more advanced.
I use an RC Jumper to open a door, sneak my way in, taser the dog. Then I lay an area trap and send the RC in to tease the goons. Sure enough, they come running out, and they're finished. As Holloway, I stroll in and get the info.
This was a fun mission. I could've approached it from a bunch of different directions, philosophically, tactically and geographically and I feel sure I'll try this different ways once the game comes out.
Satisfied with my performance, I take a stroll around Pier 39. The giant steel crab that's there in real life is a nice addition. I've lived in or around San Francisco for about ten years of my life, and this does feel authentic-ish.
Characters who show up in this world with purple outlines are real players. A social wheel allows me to wave or smile or dance or team up to go take out a few bad guys.
I make friendly with a guy and we receive a mission prompt before insta-traveling to a new part of the city.
This time, I take on the role of surveillance while he goes in shooting. Unfortunately, the guards spot my clumsy attempts to scope them out and raise the alarm. My man is taking a lot of heat, so I arm my drone with a bomb and drop that bad boy right in the middle of a passel of goons and ... kaboom.
Long story short, we work together to complete the mission and part ways as friends.
I'm not going to start wetting myself about Watch Dogs 2. But I will say that this is an open world that I want to explore. Even if I didn't have a personal interest in its portrayal of San Francisco, I can see that this is a fun and varied space to travel around.
The world of evil politicians and corporations colluding to steal the identities, votes and wages of the people seems like an excellent narrative backdrop for a character who, based on my limited interactions just seems like a way more sympathetic character than the original Watch Dogs' Aiden Pearce.
Watch Dogs 2 is a superhero game in which Holloway has extraordinary powers. Its success will rest in how far it can keep coming up with delights and surprises as the player takes over gadgets, cars, forklifts, cranes and all the other furniture of modern life.
Watch Dogs 2 will be released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC on Nov. 16.