Since its stealthy debut on the Ubisoft stage of E3 2012, Watch Dogs wowed audiences with a world of aggressive hackers up against corrupt politicians and enterprising corporate overlords who run the cities of tomorrow. But when players got the game many were underwhelmed by its revenge story tropes and broken visual promises that did little to distract from the narrative disconnect that was a tech-expert hero with a magic remote control. Four years later, Watch Dogs 2 takes another stab at a world monitored by ctOS; with a serious shift in tone and a whole new hacker crew Ubisoft hopes to fix the bug in their gaming code.
After Aiden Pearce (the protagonist of the first game) shut down Chicago’s ctOS – a fully integrated “smart city” operating system – Blume (ctOS creator) debuts ctOS 2.0 in San Francisco, just a heartbeat away from the people in Silicon Valley who control it all. Marcus “Retr0” Holloway (Ruffin Prentiss) is an Oakland-based hacker who’s been unjustly flagged as a potential criminal threat by ctOS 2.0’s pre-crime algorithm. As he becomes aware of this he’s put to the test by DedSec, a hacktivist group that wants to see if he’s skilled enough to remove himself from Blume’s servers. Once his trial run is completed, he’s recruited into DedSec’s San Francisco chapter.
Along with Sitara, Wrench, Josh and Horatio, Marcus sets out to expose Blume’s theft of personal data in hopes of tearing it out of the city’s infrastructure for good. Their activities soon draw the attention of Dusan Nemec, Blume’s CTO and the chief architect of Bellweather, a secret program powered by ctOS 2.0. When Dusan appears to have them beat, DedSec manages to impress Raymond “T-Bone” Kenny, a former Blume engineer and the corporation’s most infamous adversary. T-Bone settles in as the resident veteran hacker who helps these young hacktivists coordinate their attacks on Silicon Valley, targeting key corporations, politicians, and criminals running Bellweather, which is eventually exposed as a scheme to consolidate political and financial power from all over the world in as few hands as possible.
When Bellweather is revealed to the public, Dusan is arrested and Blume is placed under investigation. DedSec’s victory has earned them the trust of the masses, but the fight for transparency in a world of secrecy has just begun.
Gaming moves fast, which means players have short memories. But if one were to recall a trailer from Watch Dogs they would’ve expected a serious, gritty approach to crime and hacking to follow. This was before the days of Mr. Robot which made it feel pretty novel at the time. Looking at the press lead-up to Watch Dogs 2 felt like a violent shift in direction for the series. It absolutely is, and it’s exactly what the series needed.
While Mr. Robot shows there’s room for serious tales about hacking corporate power players, Aiden fell far below the mark of Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson. So with a another stab at the world of hackers, writer Lucien Soulban went for heroes with charisma. Marcus, Wrench, Sitara, T-Bone and the rest come a lot closer to people I’ve known in tech than the crew from the original. They’re no fSociety and they’re not the gaggle of jokers from Hackers. DedSec San Francisco is the happy medium in between, where each member plays a logical and crucial role to getting the job done.
Though Jordi Chin, Aiden’s partner from the first Watch Dogs, was an addition that would’ve fit in this sequel, in Marcus and his DedSec crew we’re given hackers with geek and nerd cred while also being able to speak on technology and politics with some authority.
And while the heroes are great, Watch Dogs 2’s villains like Dusan and Lennie fall short. They don’t get much screen time. So while what little they present is promising, it’s never given an opportunity to grow. Though taking down a low-energy Donald Trump, pranking a Martin Shkreli stand-in, or working with a Tom Cruise wannabe to take down a cult with corporate ambitions is fun, none of the villains measure up to the evil that are their deeds.
ctOS 2.0 makes sure every aspect of the Bay Area is up for digital purchase, finalizing the commodification of people’s personal lives which started in Chicago years before. This means people are manipulated to vote for one candidate over another thanks to algorithms powering social media; eating habits and leisure activities are packaged and sent to insurance companies, raising people’s premiums; insider trading has grown from emails between traders to complex networks run by mathematicians that mine for data to illegally make profit no average person could ever hope to replicate. These were issues presented in the original game, but the sequel actually managed to take issues that might matter to a group of hacktivists and presented them in an interesting way. It never crosses into the realm of preachy though, showing a consistency with this version of San Francisco while understanding that these issues should matter to everyone. It also helps that this is a story the gaming community could use right now.
All of this is a welcome change from Batman in a trenchcoat wielding a magic remote, though fans of the original still get nods in their direction if they know where and when to look.
A big criticism of Watch Dogs was the difference between the E3 demos and the final product. Watch Dogs 2 seems to be Ubisoft learning its lesson finally. What we’ve got from gameplay demos it consistent with what’s shipped to PS4 and Xbox One, and it still looks great. Draw distances are near-optimal, screen tearing hasn’t occurred during my playthrough, and frame rates are consistent. Those who play Watch Dogs 2 get to enjoy well sculpted characters in a large and diverse world that’s only bested by likes of Grand Theft Auto V in its diversity of terrain and locations on the same map without compromising visuals. Watch Dogs 2 makes you want to explore all its corners just by what it looks like.
In addition to a great graphics, we have a unique spread of stylish propaganda designed by Sitara. By taking comic and pop art, DedSec manages to tag San Francisco in a distinctive color that makes the city stand out no matter the time of day.
Seasoned actors playing each part goes a long way in selling a story and making a game world feel lived in. Add to that a cast of characters that vary greatly from one another and there’s an array of voices that make the hours spent playing more immersive. Weapons and vehicles don’t carry this forward, unfortunately. Most come off sounding like they were ripped from a MP3 folder in the original game. Luckily this won’t distract Marcus. Thanks to a neat touch, Marcus slips in his bluetooth earbuds and can use the MP3 player on his smartphone to listen to radio stations or songs individually. Unlike most open world games with this feature, this acts like an actual smartphone’s MP3 player, meaning Marcus can score missions with his favorite songs whether he’s in a car, on motorcycle, or on foot. And this library can be expanded as Marcus goes about the world. With the SongSneak app, Marcus can download songs as he hears them in the game world and add them to his library. Then there are scripted moments in the game where the music is scored for you, like when Prodigy kicks on as Marcus descends into the heart of a military complex.
But if licensed music doesn’t sound just right, Hudson Mowhawke has brought a score that is less moody than Brian Reitzell and packs on the attitude and the energy. This pairs well for players that want to make the most use of Marcus’ parkour skills and want to focus on chaining their movements. In short, your ears will never be bored.
Driving has been fixed. Turns feel tighter. Vehicles float reasonably from lane to lane. It’s a big step in the right direction from the original, though cars still bump off one another and it takes a great deal of effort to cause a crash that results in more than a loose grille. For most of my playthrough, I found myself sticking to motorcycles as they maximized the benefits of the new driving system while slipping past the issues that still persist. But the best method of movement comes from the new parkour system. It still relies on the same mechanics lifted from Assassin’s Creed (hold a button to run and climb) but Marcus moves with a set of animations that are far more diverse than Aiden’s, perhaps showcasing a youthful vigor to his athleticism that was previously absent. This time around, freerunning from enemies or through missions can be a new tool for overcoming obstacles that may have been ignored before.
Guns have also been given some attention this time around. While Marcus has the standard selection of weapons at his disposal, he doesn’t come off as trigger happy as Wrench. So it makes sense that this young hacker has a few non-lethal weapons to choose from, like his monkey fist, stun gun and a non-lethal-charge-dispensing grenade launcher. Regardless of the sidearm chosen, shooting mechanics are fairly tight with aim assist not doing too much of the work. But playing an expert hacker in a smart city is pointless if it’s all about guns and bombs; Marcus is most threatening when utilizing technology.
The magic remote returns to Watch Dogs 2 but with new applications that make it work better this time around. Gone are the Ubisoft addiction to tower collecting, now players treat every mission as a subnet. In order to progress they’ll need to find network keys for a particular location if they want to use their hacking skills to the fullest. To help them lay the groundwork, players will have access to an RC car and a small drone. Either has a different set of capabilities that makes them suitable for different approaches to tactics and locations. It keeps each encounter fresh, as relying solely on one simply isn’t an option. And that’s the idea behind the gameplay. When people, their possessions, and the city they live in is all connected on the same operating system, someone like Marcus can log in and make use of anything he desires. Parked cars become weapons and construction equipment serves as a suitable method of travel. No matter the situation, Marcus can always think his way out.
Watch Dogs 2 gives players what any audience wants from a sequel. It discarded everything that was broken, kept everything that worked, refined it, and expanded it in a setting that felt unique but consistent with the world already established. This is a version of the Bay Area that makes players want to spend time exploring all it has to offer in what’s arguably the most fun AAA game to come out this year. And while it is fun, there’s genuine critique of institutions and people that live on headlines.
While no one’s going to don a low-poly skull mask and creep around Facebook’s campus in search of information about who’s buying all their aggregate data, it’s nice to see a medium that’s constantly critiqued for being frivolous make clear sense of the near-incestuous relationship between power, money, and criminality. In a time where all we do online is subjected to eyes that have influence over so much in our lives, it’s nice to have a reminder presented in a way that doesn’t try to browbeat its players, but remind them that they have the ability to remain informed and are entitled to demand transparency over the institutions that govern them.
Watch Dogs 2 – 8/10
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