Ubisoft has made a habit of turning compelling premises into money-making franchises, with the first Watch Dogs putting a spin on the usual open world, third-person shooter by giving players not just control over a character, but the game world itself. With Watch Dogs 2 the ongoing struggle between ctOS and Dedsec is headed to the California coast. An judging by the game's trailer, the shift to San Francisco (and new hero Marcus Holloway) will be bringing a lighter mood than the first game allowed.
But it won't just be the setting that shows how the developers at Ubisoft are responding to their fan base, with new online game modes taking the seamless multiplayer pursued in Watch Dogs to a new level. Players will no longer be called upon to help out a fellow hacker in the field. This time, fellow players will be slipping into your own game world to do what the police can't: bring you down by any and all means necessary.
You're driving or running the streets of San Francisco as hacktivist Marcus Holloway, fleeing from the police and willing to destroy everything around you to make it happen. But as the carnage grows, so does the police presence now determined to bring you down until - an online player slams into your car with their own, having arrived on the scene to collect the bounty on your head like only a human-controlled player can. At least, that's the idea Ubisoft is pursuing with Watch Dogs 2's newest addition to online multiplayer: Bounty Hunter.
During a recent preview event before Ubisoft took South Park: The Fractured But Whole and For Honor to Gamescom 2016, we had the opportunity to try out hand at the studio's upcoming titles (read our impressions of South Park here and For). But as we strayed from one demo station to the next, it was hard to miss one particularly interesting sight: the Watch Dogs development team seated in front of their own game, swapping laughs and, occasionally, a shook fist or sharp insult.
When we sat down next to them, members of the team explained that the reactions on display were the exact goal for Watch Dogs 2--part of it, at least. Because the players of the first game taught them one thing: no matter how sophisticated you make a video game city, an online matchmaking system, or the mission demanding two or more players working in tandem, players will turn that sandbox into one thing: chaos. Rather than fighting it, the developers are embracing that chaos... and even building a brand new online game mode to make the most of it.
That game mode is, fittingly, titled Bounty Hunter. Apparently seeing the homicidal tendencies of online players in general (and perhaps noting Grand Theft Auto modders who adapted Watch Dogs into that game world) and deciding it was to be encouraged, the new online mode doesn't just LET players hunt eachother down and eliminate one another with extreme prejudice: it's rewarding them for doing it.
The name of the game is, once again, seamless multiplayer. While playing your own game (and having allowed online multiplayer and Bounties to impact your experience), players can activate a Bounty on their own head by simply gaining so much police attention, that players in search of a bounty to collect will be alerted, and join your game to seek you out for the prize. If that's not reliable enough, players are also able to trigger a bounty on themselves through their in-game Contacts. And once triggered, it's only a matter of time until all Hell comes crashing down (a lesson we learned while playing for ourselves).
For the Hunters, searching for a Bounty adds a waypoint to the map, highlighting the Bounty's current location. As many as three Bounty Hunters can begin to track the same target, and once the chase begins, a host of Followers is on the line (the in-game system used to advance players through the story and upgrade their abilities). If that sounds simple, remember that this version of San Franscisco can also be hacked by the hunters AND the hunted - not to mention the police pursuing you every step of the way.
For those being hunted, there a number of choices: run for it, and gain your winnings by breaking lines of sight, and managing to outrun and completely escape capture (which gives Followers). Or decide to stand your ground and fight off your would-be captors (also granting Followers). Or, if going solo isn't your style, then trigger the Bounty while paired with a co-op partner. In that event, the one who triggers the bounty is the prize, with their partner designated a Defender, charged with keeping enemies at bay on foot or in a vehicle (again, it all grants Followers).
We took our cues from the developers we hunted, and took a 'run fast and furiously' mentality when placed on the business end of the bounty. But within seconds, it was clear just how much the world of Watch Dogs offered a different experience than the other open world chaos simulator (GTA). For starters, the ability to hack doesn't disappear for either the hunters or hunted, making any chase behind the wheel a risky one. It's easier for the pursuers to trigger hacks up ahead, from exploding water mains to simple vehicle hacks killing the gas or steering of the target vehicle. It's a bit more difficult to effectively hack defensively when being pursued, making a co-op partner in crime infinitely enticing.
In nearly every mission, the open-ended hacks, vehicles, and all-around carnage led to the kind of laughs and insanity one would hope for. From swerving vehicles into oncoming traffic, diving off of bridges to shift foot chases to speedboats, and watching in awe as a city bus plowed through an intersection as a Bounty made their escape... with the Defender laying down cover fire from an open window. With every vehicle on the street at your disposal, and one quick turn sending the pursued on a collision course with the countryside, it was hard to wipe the smile from our face as we and our own co-op partner gave chase.
Knowing that even if we failed, Followers would be added gave the entire experience the kind of sandbox, 'free play' feeling it should have, with each chase/firefight/insane vehicular circus taken as just a temporary dose of fun (not a make-or-break mission with campaign implications). If the idea is to encourage all players to try their hands on either end of the chase, our few hours with the mode showed each one to be worth the ride. With a co-op partner you can trust in a life-or-death scenario, the fun factor can only climb (a dream come true for players who may find the campaign a bit dry for their tastes).
By keeping the mode to just four players (1v3 or 2v2), it's also easier to both escape or pursue, or if you're feeling especially brutal, hunker down and take out one Hunter after another. It may onyl be a psychological distinction, but finding this kind of encouraged carnage in a largely straight-laced, story-based sequel can't help but feel more inviting and carefree than that of Grand Theft Auto's own sandbox, tinged with a hard-to-bear hostility. Will the modes be comparable in scale or variety? Of course not. But if the game is cat-and-mouse, Watch Dogs 2 looks to offer a worthwhile addition for multiplayer fans.
Watch Dogs 2 releases on November 15, 2016 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.