Watch Dogs carried the weight of expectation for a whole new generation of consoles on its shoulders when it belatedly launched in 2014. "This will be when next gen finally arrives," fans assured themselves, following a string of delays that pushed the ambitious open world game further from their grasp.
Ubisoft's initial reveal showed a techno thriller in which players could interact with – and influence – the world through the protagonists' phone: revealing the sordid secrets of NPCs and hacking street bollards and traffic lights to aid their mission.
The final product did not live up to the hype. Visually the game had undergone a significant downgrade, its promising concept had been diluted to the point of becoming tedious and, in Aiden Pearce, it starred one of the most unlikeable protagonists in recent memory.
Watch Dogs still had potential though, and most players agreed that – in much the same way it had with the Assassin's Creed series – Ubisoft might be able to realise that potential in a sequel.
After sampling a few hours of Watch Dogs 2, that certainly seems to be the case.
Where the original was dour and po-faced, Ubisoft Montreal's San Francisco-set sequel goes out of its way to pitch itself as something far more fun. This begins with an irreverent tone set by its protagonists – a group of meme-loving, anti-establishment hackers – and extends to the missions set out for players.
Players take on the role of Marcus Holloway, the latest addition to hacker group DedSec, which is set on taking down a corporation called Blume. This sinister company is behind CtOS (Central Operating System), a city-wide network that connects any and all electronic devices, and is naturally being used for nefarious means.
Rather than setting its sights on Blume straight away, DedSec knows it must prepare for the fight. They do this by building a following of people sick of companies selling their data and invading their private lives. The more followers DedSec has, the more of those followers will download the DedSec app that, with the user's permission, allows the hacker group to utilise a device's processing power. This will allow them to take on Blume.
It's a slightly convoluted set-up for an early string of missions that are essentially publicity stunts. In one, Marcus and DedSec steal the stunt car from an upcoming movie about hackers, then pimp it out in DedSec's style and remotely drive it around the city performing stunts and giving the authorities the run-around.
Another side mission is a parody of when pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli (famous for proudly raising the price of a life-saving HIV drug) took hip-hop pioneers Wu Tang Clan up on their offer to buy an album costing $2m that only one person would own, and who would then have the power to share it with the world or keep it for themselves. Shkreli naturally kept it for himself.
In the mission, DedSec hacks the phone of the rapper acting as a proxy for Wu Tang to take voice samples they can then use in a phone call to the Shkreli character. They then trick him into thinking he's purchasing the album, when he's actually sending an enormous sum of money to help fund medical research. DedSec naturally live-streams the whole thing, including the temper tantrum when he figures out he's been had.
The light-hearted nature of the missions and lack of stakes involved is refreshing given the expectation that the DedSec versus Blume would be the focus of the entire game. Naturally, as the game progresses, this becomes the case, but until that happens the lighter feel gives players the chance to get to know the characters and grow confident using the game's hacking mechanics.
These mechanics are more varied and influence the game world in many more ways than in the original. Items in the environment can be hacked to provide distractions, lay traps or just simply explode, and cars can be hacked to shoot off in the direction of the player's choosing, to act as obstacles in chases, or to remove the cover enemies have chosen to hide behind.
Furthermore, NPCs come with the variety of hacking options. Having unlocked this particular ability from the game's progression tree, I happened across a guy playing a guitar in a local park. There was no option to go full Animal House on him, so instead I framed him for a crime, summoning the police who then arrested him as I watched the whole thing unfold from distance.
There's an alternative option that sets a street gang on NPCs, which I tested with a random passerby in another park. The gang arrived, driving right into the park before unleashing a hail of bullets. I don't know what I expected. As they drove off at speed, they hit and killed a dog, so I gave chase and called the police on them, creating a huge scene as full-on urban warfare broke out.
There's depth here, and the abilities Marcus has have a greater influence on the world than those of Aiden Pearce. We weren't able to test quite how much gameplay variety is offered by the full set of abilities, but what we were able to use showed great promise.
Watch Dogs 2 doesn't need to have a hacking system that dominates the entire game however. Obviously it should factor into the game's missions, offering a wealth of options for completing them, but otherwise, when the player is just messing around, relying solely on hacking to provide the fun probably wouldn't be wise.
To alleviate this kind of pressure on hacking to be the sole focus of gameplay, the best thing Ubisoft could can do is bolster everything else: from movement to driving to combat and the open world. It's a good sign that Watch Dogs 2 also impresses in these areas, suggesting there's a great foundation that provides a solid enough open world game even without the hacking aspect.
The world itself impresses most. Watch Dogs 2's San Francisco is so far removed from the dreariness of Chicago that it strikes as instantly refreshing. It's brighter, more varied and just has more personality, a fitting home for a cast of characters that can be described in exactly the same way.
Before playing the game I was worried Marcus would be a blank slate protagonist or an irritating know-it-all like the guy in Infamous: Second Son. Instead, Marcus seems affable and endearingly dorky at times. As with the rest of the DedSec crew, he doesn't immediately strike as a great character, but there's certainly scope for that to change.
Watch Dogs 2 goes out of its way to be fun-loving and charming during its opening few hours. If the goal is to distance the future of the franchise from its meagre past, then it is resoundingly successful. The fresher tone and wealth of gameplay additions serve as the basis for what is looking increasingly like a sequel worthy of the series' obvious potential, and what could be one of the year's best open world games.