The original Watch Dogs was revealed with a dramatic cautionary message about the dangers of too much connectivity, and the damage a hacker could do by abusing these systems. It was a pitch that took itself seriously.
Then Watch Dogs was released. Instead of being a slick game about cybercriminals, it was a pastiche of gameplay ideas that didn't always fit together well, mixed with a story that was difficult to take seriously and a protagonist who was kind of an asshole.
Watch Dogs 2 corrects for all these weaknesses. It doesn't take itself seriously at all. The heroes are a collection of likable clowns. The themes constantly poke fun at the real world, rather than trying to make pithy statements about it.
Watch Dogs 2 is a very different game from the original — and so much the better for it.
Watch Dogs 2 features a cast you might actually care about.
In the Watch Dogs universe, a communications and digital security company called the Blume Corp. has pioneered a computer system named ctOS that is capable of networking entire cities. DedSec is a hacktivist organization that has the Blume Corp. in its crosshairs.
Marcus Holloway, the hero of Watch Dogs 2, is a hacker from Oakland, California, who's falsely accused of robbery based on bad information stored within the ctOS system. Marcus, ready to hit back at the Blume Corp., joins the San Francisco branch of DedSec — a group with varying degrees of sanity, kind of like something out of Mr. Robot. The hackers work out of the back of a nerd store whose shelves are dense with board games, in a room that practically glows for all the neon graffiti spray-painted on the walls.
The cast of Watch Dogs 2 may be the strongest improvement from the first game. The hero of the original Watch Dogs, Aiden Pearce, felt to me like a sociopath. Marcus, on the other hand, is depicted as "one of us," a geek who's into video games and action movies and nerd culture. He's irreverent, funny and genuinely likable.
Watch Dogs 2 review: Popularity is everything.
Marcus has the ability to hack into power transformers, electrical junction boxes, street lights, traffic bollards, industrial equipment and smartphones. The specific kinds of mischief Marcus can get into changes as he unlocks new skills.
For instance, when Watch Dogs 2 begins, Marcus can listen in on conversations and steal money from people's bank accounts when he hacks their smartphones. He can later unlock the abilities to send a power surge through a smartphone that electrocutes the user, or make a smartphone blare deafening static that momentarily stuns the user.
But Marcus didn't join DedSec just to cause random chaos throughout the city. He and his crew have created an app people can download and use to share the processing power of their smartphones with DedSec. People will only download the app if DedSec makes a name for itself, and so gaining followers by pulling hacktivist stunts is the overarching goal of Watch Dogs 2.
Missions usually task Marcus with breaking into a location to steal data. His hacking tricks provide tools for stealth play, like causing electrical devices to spark and malfunction in order to attract the attention of a guard, and then causing an overload through the device that knocks the guard out. Or Marcus can go loud using conventional weapons and just kill everyone.
Watch Dogs 2, like other open-world games, has a slew of optional side missions and activities like vehicle racing and finding collectibles spread across the Bay Area. There is no shortage of things to do. If you know the city of San Francisco in the real world, you may also want to take some time to just explore the city in the game. The areas of the city I recognize are excellent homages to the real-world locations.
Watch Dogs 2 review: Driving and shooting still need improvement.
If Ubisoft attempted to fix the driving experience from the first Watch Dogs, I haven't felt those improvements in Watch Dogs 2. Vehicles still feel ungainly and imprecise to the point where I don't have much interest in side activities that involve racing. I tend to remain on foot and run for much longer distances than I would in most open-world games.
I'm also not a fan of the combat in Watch Dogs 2. Stealth in video games is generally more challenging than kicking down the door and going in guns blazing, which is why in a game like Dishonored 2, I inevitably get tired of the snail's pace of playing things quiet and just start killing everyone.
In Watch Dogs 2, however, I find myself embracing the stealth options because gunplay feels flat. Guards are predictable, the weapons are dull and a gunfight in Watch Dogs 2 feels more like getting a job done than having fun along the way. But there's another, more important reason I don't like using guns in Watch Dogs 2.
When you see Marcus interacting with the other members of DedSec, talking about their favorite action movies, the best way to spray-paint tags on buildings or government conspiracies, you see a bunch of goofy 20-somethings who don't seem like the kind of people who would hurt innocents.
I don't like shooting people in Watch Dogs 2 because it doesn't feel like Marcus would shoot people. He doesn't seem like the kind of person who would shake off killing a dozen security guards just to get access to a building.
I even get nervous about using Marcus' ability to explode steam pipes under the road — a good way to get the cops off your tail — because I don't want to kill any civilians in the process.
I like that I actually give a damn about the main character in Watch Dogs 2. So much so that I try to make him behave like a good person — even though nothing Marcus does in the game changes who he is in the cut scenes.
Watch Dogs 2 showcases actual diversity.
Marcus, the game's hero, is black. The other night, while playing the game, I came across two gay men holding each other sweetly on the sidewalk. One of the characters you meet in Watch Dogs 2 is a transgender city councilwoman. These are not the sort of things one usually finds in blockbuster video games — most of which struggle with portraying diversity.
San Francisco is one of the most important civil rights battlefields of the 20th century, and it's awesome to see Ubisoft stepping up and portraying a diverse society in its fictional version of the city.
Watch Dogs 2 review: Should you buy it?
Anyone who was bummed out by the first game absolutely ought to give Watch Dogs another chance. Watch Dogs 2 is the game that Watch Dogs probably ought to have been.
Correction: Nov. 22, 2016
Disclosure: Ubisoft provided us a PlayStation 4 copy of Watch Dogs 2 for the purposes of this review.