Watch Dogs 2 Preview – California Livin’ (PS4)

I recently spent six hours playing Watch Dogs 2, and my big takeaway was just how well Ubisoft had captured the essence of San Francisco, and the greater Bay Area. Not just the area’s beauty, which is seen through vibrant street art and interesting architecture, but also the grim reality. Just like when walking the actual streets of “Fog City,” exploring Ubisoft’s recreation meant that I stumbled upon a large homeless community. This isn’t an idealized version of San Francisco, and I feel like it’s far better off for it.

In fact, I spent several hours just roaming the game world since there are so many random occurrences and small stories that happen without the player getting involved. Walking around a street corner and seeing a marriage proposal take place is pretty incredible (and heartwarming since he said yes), and it’s these small touches that make Watch Dogs 2 feel like it takes place in a real, breathing world. I can’t think of the last open-world game that I found so interesting to just exist in, and it probably helped that the game allows the player to just explore without any real fear of getting constantly shot at like in Grand Theft Auto or Infamous: Second Son.

Not every random interaction is as charming as a proposal or a couple playfully eating ice cream, though. Several times I stumbled upon arguments, and these often resulted in violence. It was interesting to watch this mayhem from a distance, as some of the NPCs actually called the police after a fight started, and they arrested the aggressor. This small event didn’t move the story forward or even involve my character, but it highlighted that the Bay Area is Watch Dogs 2‘s best character.

While I often watched these fights happen from a distance, other times I decided to help out the victim like the vigilante that Watch Dogs 2‘s protagonist Marcus is painted as being. When I saw a young woman get hit in the face by her now ex-boyfriend (I had been listening in on their public argument about him cheating on her), I decided to unleash a melee attack on this massive jerk. Sadly, this moment of street justice went awry due to Watch Dogs 2‘s clunky combat, as I ended up pressing the attack button one too many times and I caused Marcus to actually hit the victim as well.

These moments absolutely suck, and for as much of an escape that exploring a virtual San Francisco can be, it can’t escape that Watch Dogs 2 still feels a bit unwieldy at times and doing what I wanted always seemed a bit harder than it should’ve been. Granted, I’m sure some of the unfamiliarity comes from this being my first few hours with the game, but everything from causing an explosion to trying to hack a citizen’s bank account can be hard to do in the heat of the moment. Partially this is due to the game’s hacking menu giving the player up to four different options. While the versatility is awesome, there’s no uniformity as sometimes pressing the cross button will take money from a civilian, while another time it might cause their phone to overheat and incapacitate them. Due to this I was regularly pulling off the wrong hack, and often felt like a total jerk.

One of the reasons why I wanted to avoid being a total dick in Watch Dogs 2 was because Marcus comes across as a largely likeable character. Sure, he can be immature and get white girl wasted at a beach bonfire, but his intention of freeing San Francisco from an oppressive surveillance system is incredibly noble. While I only saw the first few story missions, I was largely impressed with the game’s storytelling, even if I’m also very worried about it.

Wake It Up

One of the early story missions revolves around stealing a “talking” car from a movie studio since the Hollywood blockbuster has a pretty hilariously lame depiction of hacking, and this publicity stunt is supposed to help DedSec, the hacker group that Marcus is a part of, gain support. While the mission was a lot of fun, and had me infiltrating the set, I eventually got into a bad situation where I had no other option but to switch to non-lethal weaponry in order to survive this stupid prank. Marcus, under my control, was suddenly murdering completely innocent security guards in order to steal this movie prop for a stupid reason. This sucked.

Sure, it was possible to get through the entire section without getting spotted or using a non-lethal weapon (which is super slow to use), but I really doubt many players are going to pause the game, click restart checkpoint, and then sit through a loading screen in order to retry the section again. I actually did that a few times, but eventually I just wanted to progress through the story, and it meant that Marcus became a maniac rather than the likeable dude that is seen in the cutscenes.

This isn’t like Metal Gear Solid V where I didn’t mind getting Punished Snake’s robotic hand dirty after a sneaking section went sideways, and it’s made all the more frustrating by the fact that Marcus was attacking people who were just doing their jobs. I often found myself up against police officers, security guards, or other people just trying to do their job. It’d be different if I was fighting some evil organization, but no, it ends up just painting DedSec as crazed individuals that believe that the end will always justify the means. Maybe the story will change and tackle this subject, but nothing I saw made me very hopeful in that regard.

Marcus does have some neat tools at his disposal to help players get through missions non-lethally, though. He can control both a quadcopter and a neat RC car that can hack some objects (although there will always be some hacks that must be done by the man himself). Controlling these vehicles felt fine, although Marcus needs to be in a good hiding spot while operating them, as he’s otherwise left totally defenseless.

With those worries out of the way, I do want to touch on a few additional highlights I experienced. First off, Watch Dogs 2 has actual dogs. I got to see several different breeds of puppies while walking the busy streets, and I was able to pet each and every single one of them. Marcus, much like myself, also talks to the animals while rubbing their head, and I counted about 15 different lines written for this single interaction. Sure, it’s silly, but I love the little touches that Ubisoft have included.

My two favorite missions had Marcus screwing over obnoxious rich people. This is the direction that I hope the game leans more heavily into, as getting to play a 21st century Robin Hood was awesome. One mission had me trick a character, based upon Martin Shkreli, as he attempted to buy new music from a popular rapper, but instead wired over millions of dollars to leukemia research. Another recurring side-mission had Marcus hacking ATMs, where I paid off a broke college student’s tuition and got a millionaire arrested for tax fraud. These were both awesome, and featured zero combat.

Against All Odds

Finally, while walking around one of the poorest parts of San Francisco, I ran into a homeless guy who was baring it all for the entire world to see. Yup, this guy was fully nude, and this wasn’t a Metal Gear Solid 2 situation where Raiden conveniently only showed his butt. I’m talking full-frontal nudity. Much like if I came across a nude person on an actual street, I was pretty shocked when I saw a virtual dong on my screen and couldn’t help but laugh. After the initial surprise, though, I found it way more sad than amusing.

I ended up following this NPC around for about 45 minutes. Other people in the world of Watch Dogs 2 just walked past him as if they had seen this sight thousands times before, others were shocked, and a few started to point and laugh at the guy. He never seemed to care, as he just kept on walking. At one point a stray dog ended up tagging alongside him for about a 10-minute span, but the canine ended up leaving for a clothed owner eventually. I thought his day was finally over once I saw him walk by police officers, but strangely they didn’t arrest him for public indecency.

After I had watched the nude wonder walk many blocks, I ended up causing an end to his day by hacking a car passing by, and causing it to swerve to the right. This ended up hitting the man, and paramedics arrived shortly thereafter. Sadly, he was already dead by the time help had arrived. There is a happy ending, though, as a few hours later I found the exact same character model, although under a different name. I like to think he faked his death just like 2Pac.

San Francisco is hella crazy.

Disclosure: Ubisoft hosted the Watch Dogs 2 event and paid for hotel & airfare.