There's something infinitely cool about hacking. Maybe it's because we've watched a few too many Hollywood films, or maybe it's because we know our way around a script ourselves, but as more and more devices become connected, the whole concept of the hacker just seems to become more and more mythical. And with good reason. After all, the more technology advances, and the more we rely on "connected" devices, the more power the hacker gains - as many a technology company knows, all it takes it a handily placed vulnerability, or an overlooked exploit, to bring entire systems crashing to their knees.
Watch Dogs 2, an open world adventure set in the Bay Area of California (essentially San Francisco, and its immediate surroundings) is a game that toys around with this very concept. Following a plucky group of hackers known as Dedsec - a group that have essentially become known as criminals for their attempts to fight back against the power, it's a plot that plays out like a conspiracy theorist's dream - there's a nanny state gone wrong, a system that's become way too much like Big Brother, and corporations who are all too keen to exploit the data they store.
The story here picks up after the events of the (oft disappointing) first game, where the bosses of San Francisco, seeming oblivious to just how badly things had gone in Chicago, decide that San Fran should become the second city to install ctOS - a massive software program that effectively sees a computer taking control of almost every single aspect to the city - and introduces surveillance almost everywhere you look. Almost without exception, nigh on everything in the city ends up being managed by ctOS - from traffic lights to gas pipes, from security cameras to door controls - and that system collects information about anyone and everyone who lives in the city. But if you had a back door into the system, just imagine the problems you could cause...
As you'd likely expect, though, the system is somewhat less than perfect - and this is where you come in. Playing as a young black hacker named Marcus, you've been convicted of a crime you didn't commit, essentially because the ctOS system said you did it. Hell bent on bringing the system down, you join up with the aforementioned hacktivist collective known as Dedsec, who are trying to turn the populace against the system by exposing its shortcomings - and trying to gain social media followers in the process.
Yet this is where the first problem with Watch Dogs 2 comes in. If you're going to do a "rebels fighting back against the power" storyline, you need a relatable cast of characters to lead the fight back - but in Watch Dogs 2, almost everyone is either completely unlikeable, or a 2D caricature. While the image in your head may be of a cool-but-slightly-nerdy group, Watch Dogs 2 instead creates an anarcho-hacktivist group that seems to be trying so painfully hard to be hip, relevant, and cool, it ends up failing for that exact same reason.
So here, instead of a group of nerds doing what nerds do best, we have the queen of the hipsters, Satara - a woman with a strange haircut and the dress sense of a teenage girl, who's never anything less than irrationally angry; the "high functioning autistic" (their quote) Josh, who's more than a little bit awkward, but knows his way around a program; Horatio, a relatively quiet hacker who prefers to stay out of sight; and Wrench, a punk with a face mask that gives him LED screens in front of his eyes, letting him basically look like an ASCII artwork at any time. As you can probably tell, he's pretty much the only one of the crew with anything approaching a personality.
The problem is, almost all of the characters in the game - bar Marcus and Wrench - seem to basically exist to tick off a "representation" box, and their personalities are never really allowed to grow beyond that. Stereotypical and two dimensional, if ever there was a game that needed a character creator, it's this.
Luckily, a little bit more thought's gone into Watch Dogs 2's gameplay than went into its characters - but still, things haven't really been taken far enough. While we were somewhat less than impressed with the bland and repetitive stealth 'em up gameplay the original seemed to favour, Watch Dogs 2 does at least offer a little bit more variety. Not every mission you play requires stealth, and not every mission sees you having to infiltrate a base of some sort to steal some data - but the vast majority of the game's missions still play out in much the same way. And, much like the original, Watch Dogs 2 finds itself retreading the same tired paths as almost every other open world game out there, rather than letting itself stand out, as a game all about hacking should.
As part of a hacker collective trying to expose, and bring down the system, the vast majority of your missions here will involve infiltrating an area, nicking a bit of information, and then legging it out before you get shot - either by the police, or the folks you're nicking info from. As such, there's a lot of stealth involved - but as a hacker, you have a few tricks up your sleeve.
With everything in the city controlled by ctOS, you have a backdoor into almost every system you could ever hope for. All you need to do is look at a security camera, and at the touch of a button, you can take over it, and access a live feed - from there, you can take over any other security cameras it can see, or interact with other hackable objects from a distance. When you're trying to infiltrate a base, being able to scout out your enemy's locations is incredibly important - but as a hacker, you can do much more than that.
With everything from doors, to cars, junction boxes and even forklift tricks being tuned into ctOS, you have the ability to override and control almost anything you see - and you can use this to either create a distraction, or take enemies out. Junction boxes and underfloor equipment can be remotely hacked to work as a proximity sensor, exploding and electric shocking anyone who comes too close - or, you can simply make them start sparking, to lure more enemies in, before making it explode and taking out several in one pop. Even the individual enemies you come across can be hacked, too - for many guards, you can make their phones vibrate to provide a distraction - or, for some, make them phones explode. Presumably only if they have a Galaxy Note 7.
Of course, as an uber super hacker, you have a variety of other, special equipment you can call on if you want to take a slightly different approach. Perhaps the best of these is your remote controlled "Jumper" - a tiny little remote controlled car with giant wheels, that can be used to sneak into places where a hacker might otherwise get spotted. Able to sneak through tiny vents - and do almost everything a hacker can, include hacking things - it's a real asset to your team, and one that provides a bit of much needed variety.
But while you may have more options than in the original game, the hacking itself still feels bland. An all powerful hacker you may be, but all you really have to do is look at an object, and press a button to take control - there's no actual hacking to do. No dealing with proxy servers, no searching for vulnerabilities in code - you don't even have to really hunt out passwords. All you do is look at a laptop, and press a button, and you'll get the password automatically.
And that's really disappointing, because not only would some sort of hacking-related minigames make Watch Dogs 2 a heck of a lot more fun, but it'd also make you feel more like a real hacker. While you wouldn't want to have to go into a seriously complex mini-game every single time you wanted access to a new camera, simply pointing your phone at a server, or laptop, and magically taking control isn't exactly an accurate take on what a hacker does - and the game's a lot worse off for it. Imagine how cool it'd be having to scout an area out, and use the cameras to eavesdrop on conversations between guards, listening out for an important code you'll need to get through a door. Or, you could send your robot in to pinch an ID card, or steal a notepad, to get you access to a building. Hacking is so intrinsically cool, it's a wonder Ubisoft have managed to make it so bland and boring - for an example of how great this sort of stuff could have been, check out the old PC game, Uplink - a game which took hacking seriously, and was a great little puzzler for it.
While the game's non-infiltration missions also revolve around hacking - car chases let you take control of other cars, traffic lights and even gas mains below the roads, causing a huge explosion that swallows up any cars that may be chasing you - it all falls into the same, repetitive format. It's like there's only a few ways you can approach a mission, and the game wants to ensure you stick to using its selected hacking skills, in the selected ways it wants to allow you to use them. While we're the sort of people who prefer hacking a forklift truck to lift our motorbike up, and then going on a slightly dangerous tour of the city, Watch Dogs doesn't really have any time for you to be messing around - and it all starts to feel more than a little bit repetitive and samey. Yeah, you can send a car driving off into a load of gas cylinders to create a distraction, and yeah, you can take control of a cherry picker, to give yourself easy access to a higher (and potentially quieter) entrance - but there's only so many ways you can use each hack, and so it all starts to feel like you're stuck on repeat.
Usually, in an open world game, if you started to feel bored, this is where you'd head to do some side quests - but Watch Dogs 2 doesn't actually have that much in terms of non-main mission distractions either. While there are a number of side missions for you to take on, most are a bit too similar to the main quests - it's on your in-game phone where you'll find most of the genuinely fun distractions. Here, you'll find things like Driver SF, an app that's basically like Uber, and asks you to shuttle people from A to B, only with certain conditions on each ride (one passenger likes hitting jumps, etc), while another, ScoutX is basically a sightseeing app, and asks you to go and take photos of famous landmarks (setting a handy waypoint so you know how to get there).
But beyond those two, it never really feels like there's that much to do beyond the main story missions and the similar spin-off side missions - which is something of a shame, as San Francisco seems like an entertaining enough hub for a game world. It's packed full of weird and interesting districts and sights, from the kawaii residents of Japantown, to the famous trams that shuttle back and forth - there's even a nudist colony waiting to be found - while the famous sea lions at the harbour always make for a nice photo. Still, beyond the ScoutX app, you have next to no real reason to explore.
We should probably a take a moment to mention that Watch Dogs 2 has also seen fit to crowbar microtransactions into the game, in the form of a number of "premium" clothing choices and vehicle skins, which you can buy as bundles for real cash. There's also a season pass for the game, which will set you back £30 for a handful of missions and skins. Yay.
In all, then, Watch Dogs 2 mostly improves on the original game by way of having a more interesting location, and more of a sense of humour, but doesn't go anywhere near far enough to make itself truly stand out. As a game based around hacking, there's so much potential here to create genuinely interesting, and uniquely puzzley gameplay - yet it's a potential that Watch Dogs has so far managed to totally avoid, in favour of making yet another stealth based open world game.