Marcus Holloway, better known by his handle Retr0, is a complete nerd. In 40 hours with Watch Dogs 2 he's dropped references to Alien vs Predator and Inception, and geeked out over pieces of code, street art and cars. He's also got more personality than your average protagonist; I've seen him throw dumb shapes for Watch Dogs 2's Instagram-alike ScoutX, and he's rarely seen out of a t-shirt loudly proclaiming "OMG sealions!"
If you ignore the firefights and accidental mass murders, he feels like the sort of guy you might want to be friends with. That's important, because we view the world of Watch Dogs 2 through Marcus's lens and as a result he's a large part of the reason it all works so well.
Marcus wants to make the world a better place, and most of the time he's just trying to do the right thing. Missions involve hacking a friend's teenage sister's always-on stream to teach her about cyber security, stopping a serial swatter and even driving a guy to the hospital in time for the birth of his surrogate child. Marcus is well-acted, evenly tempered and a million miles away from Aiden Pierce, the original game's protagonist
This new flavour of hacker group DedSec doesn't feel like a criminal organisation; more like a bunch of kids that watched Mr Robot, decided they fancied the lifestyle and became sorcerers of technomancy, capable of doing anything with their can-do attitude and a smartphone. Their hideout, tucked away beneath a board-game shop, is filled with stuff designed to show how edgy they are: neon lettering in the corner of the store proclaims Happy New Fear, making zero sense, while posters of memes and brightly coloured art adorns the walls. Dedsec is so committed to the goal of ostentatious branding there's a vending machine in the middle of their "hackerspace" that sells Dedsec clothing.
It largely gets a pass because it's all done with a wry self-awareness that's quite endearing. The primary goal of the game, after all, is to acquire followers. There's some techno-nonsense about how getting more followers gives your hackers more processing power, but I've been fed that Midichlorian nonsense before. You're trying to get more followers, and your direct reward as a player is getting more research points, which you can use to acquire new skills. Research points are quite thin on the ground at first, so your first few early choices feel particularly important, with several of the skills not just incremental updates but abilities; often hacks you couldn't do before.
Dedsec and Marcus's naivety does mean that when you blow up several police cars with steam vents under the road or gun down an innocent civilian, it feels jarring, and not just thematically. In the course of 40 hours with the game I've fired my gun maybe 10 times. Shooting feels wonky, but also you just have so many more choices: why would you want to gun down a sentry when you could mark him as a wanted criminal and have armed police come to arrest them? Why shoot at a car chasing you when you can change the traffic lights behind you or hack the car itself, making it veer off the road and into a car-totalling wall?
The game bombards you with options and many of them are good. Tasked with stealing a truck of electronics I drove down to a well-defended dock with heavily-encrypted gates that I'd need to find the access key to bypass. Thing is, the police have access to every door in the city, so I used Marcus's quadcopter drone to fly above the dock for a better viewpoint and flagged the man in charge as a cop killer, prompting the police to storm the docks. They put the guy in an SUV and drove him off for a cavity search as I remotely drove the delivery truck to my hiding place and got in, having never even stepped inside the restricted area.
The story and open world setting have the feel of a Grand Theft Auto title, but less mean-spirited in its viewpoint. Watch Dogs 2 takes swipes at Knight Rider, Scientology, Facebook and Google: all instantly recognisable despite the changed names. The fictionalised version of San Francisco too, feels like the city's greatest hits, recreating famous landmarks in excruciating detail while skipping out the more prosaic parts so that you're never too far from somewhere interesting. There's a verticality to the city that's impressive too. Marcus is apparently one of the more athletic computer hackers ever, and with a skill granting you remote control of a city full of scissor lifts, cherry pickers and window cleaning cradles, there's plenty of scope for aerial adventures.
In terms of customisation the game is strong. I spent most of the game clad in the aforementioned and probably-ironic "OMG SeaLions" t-shirt, but I occasionally mixed it up for a woollen jumper with a horse on it. There are other (presumably cooler) clothing choices in the game, but I appreciated being able to dress him up in a variety of outfits.
What I liked a bit less was the game's soundtrack. Perhaps I'm just getting old, but there weren't many licensed songs that I recognised and a result listening to the in game radio stations was less of a draw.
Most of Marcus's toolkit and the in-game menus are accessed through his phone via apps. You can order new vehicles, take photos or pick up missions. The main missions come through your DedSec app, but you can also pick up driving missions through the brilliantly named Driver: San Francisco app, which functions like Uber, albeit named after Ubisoft's last visit to the Bay Area. These missions all offer fairly unique challenges, and although the pacing of the game slows down massively during the second act, playing the game is so much fun I didn't really begrudge the change of pace.
Talking of slowdown, during our review period, there were some frame-rate issues for some users which led to the multiplayer being turned off for long periods. Ubisoft is hopeful these problems will be fixed before launch, but in my experience I only encountered problems once. However, when I was able to play I found the persistent multiplayer fun. I hacked a few enemies and was nearly hacked once myself, before giving chase into a tunnel and hacking my foe's car, causing it to flip end over end.
I was expecting Watch Dogs 2 to be more enjoyable than its predecessor, but I didn't expect it to be so well designed and full of heart. Watch Dogs 2 isn't reinventing the open-world game and fans of Ubisoft's special brand of go-places-and-pick-things-up gameplay will feel right at home, but it's one of the best examples the genre has to offer – as long as you don't want to shoot anything.