The first Watch_Dogs boarded the hype train and never managed to get off with its reputation intact, after showing a number of flashy trailers it never quite managed to live up to expectations and delivered a solid if unspectacular game as a result. It wasn't much helped by the completely dour protagonist and the fact that much of the gameplay basically boiled down to Assassins Creed - but with hacking.
The sequel, rather sensibly, was a much more restrained affair when it came to PR and marketing but it also seems like a lot of positive changes have been made in terms of story, characterisation and gameplay. It's pretty much a great example of what you can do if you take your time to construct a game based on solid foundations rather than flashy ideas that never quite come off.
You play the role of Marcus, a hacker who has come to the attention of the Dedsec group from the first game. It seems that the central operating system has been rolled out to San Francisco and Dedsec is not going to take the multiple invasions of privacy lying down. A well-constructed intro mission shows off Marcus' skills in hacking, slealth and combat without every feeling like its holding your hand and after that you are pretty much given free reign of the city with only minimal guidance.
At the touch of a button you can access your phone and a range of apps to check out new missions, call in vehicles or find photo opportunities to help raise the notoriety of your group. There are also skill upgrades to find, stashes of cash to loot, races with drones, boats, bikes, cars and karts, plus a bunch of incidental missions that you can pick up by hacking peoples phones or listening in on conversations. All of this before you even choose to start the main story should you so desire.
It's nice to have an open world available to you from the get go, and the fact you can fast travel around much of it via areas you've previously discovered or the range of bars and restaurants around, means it’s not too tough to bounce around tackling whatever you want to. Which is just as well as the driving in the game feels truly atrocious at times, with poor camera controls and some rather dire handling considering the many tight corners and steep hills that make up the Bay Area.
Unlike its predecessor this game takes a much more fun approach to its subject matter with Marcus hanging out with a range of interesting characters and sharing a bunch of laughs, plenty of beers and more than one late night "putting stuff together" montage - it was like a nostalgia trip right back to the glorious A-Team days. The script and writing does feel a touch clichéd at times, but the main characters are having so much fun it's hard not to just be swept up alongside them. Not to mention the fact you're taking down nefarious corporations that bear more than a passing resemblance to real world companies, so that's fun too.
The gameplay just feels a lot tighter this time around, with stealth a viable option for the entire game as it the all guns blazing approach. Plus, multiplayer activities are seamlessly integrated so you can respond to them on your map or not or actively search for them through your phone as well.
Choice is at the heart of everything Watch_Dogs 2 does well, and you can tackle missions from a variety of different approaches and use your drone and RC car to help out, hack robots and cameras or just take a personal approach. Missions stack the emphasis firmly on being fun no matter what, and never outstay their welcome. By the time the end credits roll around you'll feel like a badass hacker who took on the man and won - which is surely the point, and one heck of a payoff.
This is a sequel that took on board the criticism levelled at the first instalment and created something altogether more interesting as a result. It's still got a few niggles and suffers from that same rather throwaway feel of most Ubisoft open world games, where most of what you have to do feels like filler between missions, but it pulls most elements together with a great sense of style, panache and humour. Hack the world.