Among the overwhelming tide of popular-gaming opinion, the original Watch Dogs is remembered with a pretty bitter aftertaste. After a hugely impressive debut demo back at E3 2012, Ubisoft set the internet ablaze with hungry fans eager to get their hands on this hugely promising and entirely original IP. From there, however, Watch Dogs stumbled into a long downward dive before finally belly flopping into store shelves in 2014. Amidst a long wait and several painful delays, a very vocal swathe of disappointed gamers quickly clambered atop their internet rafters to pronounce Ubisoft’s latest IP endeavour an abject failure.
A long list of critiques quickly tentacled their way to the fore of discussion surrounding Watch Dogs. What emerged was a huge list of player grievances – one that could give the founding fathers a run for their money. Citing everything from flat characters to half-baked mechanics, downgraded graphics to missing particle effects, the angriest of players even went so far as to dub Ubisoft’s brand new IP an outrageous case of “false advertising”. Two years later, and the lofty pronouncement of “disappointment” is never far from mention when the original Watch Dogs is brought into conversation.
Unsurprisingly, many gamers are enormously skeptical when it comes to Watch Dogs 2. Speaking of which, E3 2016 has recently seen the floodgates open for information pertaining to Watch Dogs 2. What scant few details existed before June 9th have now solidified into a number of certainties: it will be released on November 15th, 2016; it will feature a huge array of new hacking abilities; players will fill the boots of Marcus Holloway as he attempts to shut down ctOS 2.0 and, most importantly, the game’s setting will be moving from the dreary greys of Chicago to the bright lights of San Francisco. (You can find the full details here.)
That’s right, San Francisco. Amid the unforgettable waves of hate for the original Watch Dogs, and inevitable tides of cynicism that have splashed-back onto the forthcoming Watch Dogs 2, it’s pretty easy to forget that the original did anything right at all. But the fact is that there was one thing that the original Watch Dogs absolutely nailed – Chicago. In my mind, Watch Dogs delivered one of the most charming, most convincing and most atmospheric next-gen renditions of a virtual city that I have ever seen. Take a stroll down Watch Dogs’ Chicago streets, and you’ll see what I mean. (Or, perhaps, if you don’t own the game, flick through the video below.)
On a scale that I was genuinely surprised by, Watch Dogs’ city streets were teeming with character. Funny, entertaining, interesting or even sometimes harrowing NPC interactions littered every block. Simply going for a stroll in order to soak in the sights, sounds and civilians of Chicago was one of Watch Dogs’ truly underrated joys. The first time I stumbled upon an impromptu NPC-to-NPC rap battle felt like a genuinely special moment to me. Even right through to the game’s end, I was still encountering awesome new clips of random dialogue that succeeded in bringing this sketchy world around me to life. What’s more was that no two crevices of the city ever looked the same; cut and paste jobs were few and far between in this cityscape. While much of Watch Dogs’ gameplay might have proved lacklustre at times, Ubisoft Montreal’s superb presentation values never ceased to captivate me. In the void left by a flat protagonist, Ubisoft’s Chicago stepped up to become the biggest and most entertaining character of them all.
So here we are, over two whole years later, and Ubisoft have just announced that San Francisco will form the canvas for their latest cyber-hacking extravaganza. Ubisoft’s move to such a new and radically different setting might just be the freshest thing Watch Dogs 2 has to offer. And that is not at all a bad thing.
A quick glance at the opening moments of Ubisoft’s E3 stage demo is all it takes to confirm that Watch Dogs 2’s San Francisco will be just as lively as what came before. An opening pan of San Francisco’s coastline reflects dogs scrambling about in energetic play, tourists posing for group photos, a waitress cleaning a table, even a homeless man swiping some coffee from a rubbish bin. Despite the demo-master’s assurance that what we are seeing is “not scripted”, the sheer volume of such minor details is relentless. Everything feels thoroughly alive.
Existing at the cultural centre of America’s western shores, San Francisco is a city of remarkable social diversity and profound contradiction. Though the city sits just a stone’s throw away from the affluent tech Mount Olympus that is Silicon Valley, it also happens to be a choke point for some of America’s most burgeoning social issues. Drug use and homelessness scar almost every block of this historic city. Amid the unreal beauty of San Francisco’s landscape and the incredible wealth that saddles Silicon Valley, there is an uneasy, hidden narrative of extreme social decay and outrageous inequality. The potential for Watch Dogs 2’s characters to be funny, unique, larger than life, deeply tragic, or even all of the above is very, very real. Ubisoft have the chance here to weave together a world that is even more interesting and even more absorbing than what they managed in 2014. They have a chance to really say something about the state of social and racial politics in California (and, indeed, America) today. Considering that Watch Dogs 2 features an African American protagonist (from Oakland, no less) who utilises home-brew-hacking techniques as a means to take on giant tech-corporations, it looks like Ubisoft is more than poised to explore these uneasy tensions.
If what we have seen so far is any indication, it appears that Watch Dogs 2 will benefit from its San Francisco setting in more than just presentation. Players will now have access to some of Silicon Valley’s kookiest innovations. Everything from vehicles, to quad-drones, to just about any NPC are now fully hackable. And you can forget about buying weapons from the store like some kind of old-timey cowboy, an entire arsenal of weaponry can now be 3D printed straight to Marcus’ fingertips. Setting your game at the nexus of modern technological innovation has its perks, it seems.
With Ubisoft Montreal’s proven pedigree for creating captivating, charming and incredibly exuberant open world cityscapes, I have no doubt that Watch Dogs 2’s San Francisco will present an experience all of its own come November 15th.