Watch Dogs 2 is the Watch Dogs I wanted the first time around. It puts all of its focus on being a “l33t haxorz” while never taking itself too seriously; it’s filled with real pop culture references and nods to real-world events that engage me as I play; and it starts a crew of grounded, likable characters that are exactly what I envision when I think of a hacker. Some specters from the previous game still exist, particularly in combat and a bit in driving, but Watch Dogs 2 improves on the original game in every way that counts.

The first Watch Dogs presented itself as a Grand Theft Auto game with a few more toys to play with. The protagonist Aiden Pearce was a gravelly-voiced vigilante with revenge on his mind, and his serious tone carried throughout the game. In the sequel we have a core group of DedSec hackers who are the complete opposite of Aiden, and I loved that about them.

Wrench is the anarchist of the group, shielding his face behind a mask straight out of the Daft Punk playbook and repeatedly showcasing his desire to blow stuff up. Josh is a high-functioning autistic teenager who is a whiz with code and building. Sitara is the de facto leader of the group, a strong-willed woman with a keen sense of justice. Finally there’s the actual protagonist Marcus, whose down to earth demeanor and quick wit make him instantly relatable. All four DedSec members are interesting characters whose stories I genuinely wanted to explore in depth, and that’s a big leap from the first game.

-Ubisoft Montreal

Watch Dogs 2 places a huge amount of importance on levity, keeping things light and funny even in the midst of firefights with guards and rival hackers. A perfect example is the nuanced discussion between Marcus and Wrench on whether the Alien or Predator will win in a fight. It’s the kind of back and forth I’d expect to hear at my local hobby shop perfectly represented in the game, and there are instances like this throughout. Early on the group is helping a famous movie star and Marcus can’t help but rattle off some of his favorite movies from that actor. Little touches like this brought me closer to the group, as if a group of my friends and I was the hackers instead, and I started to genuinely care about them as a result.

That tongue-in-cheek humor comes out even more clearly in the game’s campaign, which takes shots at real-life events. Consider the first three mission sets: messing with a rich pharmaceutical exec who jacks up medicinal costs and buys new rap songs for himself; infiltrating a movie studio filming an anti-hacker feature and steal (and leak) their emails, and taking on a corrupt church making empty promises. If those aren’t ripped from the headlines like a Law & Order episode then I don’t know what is.

Gameplay in missions is structured exactly like the original Watch Dogs, although I found the focus to be much more on stealth, hacking, and gadgetry rather than gunplay. Hacking is everything in Watch Dogs 2, essential to success in some pretty hairy missions, and frankly that’s how it should be. I could hack devices from cameras, I could turn security systems off to pass through an area, and I could even deploy two new mobile gadgets to give me an advantage. Both the Jumper RC car and Quadcopter drone are awesome additions to the repertoire, as both let players stealth their ways into restricted areas, get what they need, and get the heck out of Dodge. They’re both easy to maneuver and very good at getting at hard-to-reach places, even the Jumper with its high, uh, jump can get to the top of a stack of boxes fairly easily.

Hacking affects engaging enemies more than ever in Watch Dogs 2, as I didn’t fire a single bullet until the third set of missions. I hacked electrical panels to explode, cell phones to distract, and even cars to move on their own in any direction. Backing a parked car into an unsuspecting enemy is pretty funny to watch no matter how many times I did it, and new hacking abilities make that possible.

-Ubisoft Montreal

It’s lucky for the game that shooting can take a back seat to hacking, because shooting adds nothing to the overall experience. It’s typical cover-based point-and-fire, with targeting that hones in right on the enemy and turns the battle into a carnival target shooting game. There are deadly weapons like pistols and rifles, and there are non-lethal ones like the stun gun, but none of them are really interesting. The few times I found gunfights to be unavoidable were the low points of the experience, as I wanted to get back to hacking as soon as I could.

I could not be happier with the direction Ubisoft took with Watch Dogs 2, casting off the serious tone of the first game and replacing it with bright colors, fun characters, and light humor. Combat is pretty boring, but the multiple hacking options almost making shooting obsolete in the right hands. The few online experiences I tried were alright too, but the seamless multiplayer Ubisoft pitched isn’t available yet for me to really analyze. What is here is a solid second outing for this saga of hackers, giving me new hope for the future of the franchise.

[The seamless multiplayer experience has not been available for this review, as Ubisoft found a bug pertaining to that portion of the game last week. In an official statement by the publisher it’s explained that “during the pre-launch phase of Watch Dogs 2, we were disappointed to discover an issue tied to the seamless multiplayer feature that caused the game to lag and crash periodically. In order to eliminate that issue at launch and for players to enjoy a smooth game play experience, we have decided to wait to launch the seamless multiplayer feature so it would not impact the core gameplay experience.”

If I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure that it’s such a big loss. Based on the few purple online-based missions I’d come across in my experience, the locations will be the same, the weapons will be the same, and the non-human enemy experience will be the same; you'll just have a human partner along for the ride. We'll revisit this review if the online truly makes or breaks the experience, but right now we're confident our assessment of the game will barely change once this is fixed.]

This review was completed with a digital copy of Watch Dogs 2 provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.