Each time game makers take a swing at the city-based, open world genre, the immediate assumption is that they’re aiming to emulate Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series. While Volition’s Saints Row franchise and the sadly defunct Sleeping Dogs by United Front have tried to steer clear of that, such comparisons are unavoidable. The same could be said about Ubisoft’s original Watch Dogs, whose mismanaged attempts at distinguishing itself resulted in a deeply flawed game unsure of its own identity. But Watch Dogs 2 has managed to pull off something that took, say, Volition three instalments to accomplish. Ubisoft’s new flagship hopeful has now grown comfortable in its own skin, creating its own brand of personality while solidifying a strong relationship between the player and the city around them in ways in which even Far Cry and Assassins Creed haven’t managed to achieve.
Few developers react as quickly to criticism the way in which Ubisoft did after Watch Dogs 1. Set aside the abhorrently misleading E3 2012 demo, the first game was a significant letdown despite being a perfectly competent open-world game. Its tone was sour and repulsive, its depiction of Chicagoans was borderline offensive, and the game’s hook of hacking the world around you was disappointingly limited. Watch Dogs 2 repeats none of the mistakes from the first, but its most admirable course correction is the way in which the game projects its understanding of American millennial culture.
The character trailer for Watch Dogs 2 came off as far too try-hardish, a desperate about-face to distance itself from the first game as much as possible. The emojis, the middle fingers, and the cartoonish punk rock hacker culture were off-putting at first. But much to my surprise, the writers of Watch Dogs 2 have owned their concept within the theme’s context, and ultimately delivered on an endearing and compelling stage presence that has made me care about its characters in a way I never have on a game of this scale.
Appropriately set in San Francisco, Marcus Holloway goes to great lengths to prove his worth as a hacker for the group DedSec, whose brand lives and breathes on combating “big data”. The crew is unofficially led by Sitara Dhawan, a flamboyant individual in her own right, but one who pales in comparison to some of DecSec’s other colorful personalities. Josh Sauchak’s social awkwardness is counterbalanced by his ingenious hacker abilities, and of course you have “Wrench”, who’s the seemingly unhinged face who wears a digital emoji mask. What’s exceptional about Watch Dogs 2’s light-hearted characterization is the range of each of DedSec’s personalities. Marcus and Sitara aren’t defined by their race or heritage, nor is Josh defined by his Asperger’s; they’re defined by the way they interact with one another, criticize and jest one another, and ultimately support one another. It certainly doesn’t hurt that virtually every single performance, unnamed NPCs included, are highly entertaining. It’s the most fun I’ve had watching a game in a good long time.
Watch Dogs 2’s characterization informs its admirable handling of social commentary. Though San Francisco is an overused setting in games and media in general, no game has depicted ‘The Golden City’ the way in which Ubisoft has. GTA this is not, where we see explosive satirism for the sake of shock value. Unlike Rockstar, the topics here are handled with a surprising amount of finesse and responsibility. References to pop culture and current events don’t just make “name drop” cameos on radio stations and random NPC dialogue, although this does happen often enough with the interactive citizens to make the city feel alive. But some topics also have entire mission sequences dedicated to them, giving the writers some breathing room to flesh out their commentary more comprehensively. Where Scientology and America’s most hated entrepreneur, Mark Shkreli, are depicted light heartedly, transgenderism and blackness are sharply discussed without belaboring a message.
The writers do stagger a bit with maintaining DedSec’s mission statement and identity. Since this is a video game, there’s an unwritten obligation to give context to the variety of encounters. DedSec’s brand fluctuates dramatically between the mega corp takedown angle of Mr. Robot, and the exaggerated lifestyle of what a modern day version of 1995’s Hackers would look like. But what Watch Dogs 2 does extremely well is maintain an unwavering commitment to uphold what I call ‘ludonarrative consonance’.
The open world genre is one that suffers the most from ludonarrative dissonance. Niko Bellic’s constant complaining of the gangster lifestyle turned him into a psychopathic hypocrite as he blew away goons from various mob affiliates. Far Cry 3 was particularly off-putting when Jason Brody miraculously turned into a jungle assassin. Watch Dogs 2 does a better job of addressing this issue than any game I’ve ever seen of its type: you don’t ever have to kill a single person. Sure, there’s the occasional jogger next to her dog that you might fishtail without consideration, but thanks to tools like stun grenades and Marcus’ insanely accurate taser, Watch Dogs 2 aligns with DedSec’s Robin Hood-like cause – these are just a bunch of kids looking to expose big name corporations. Ubisoft game franchises are principled in giving players choice in problem-solving with premeditative tactics, and this leaves Marcus with a plethora of options at his fingertips.
Let’s be clear here, Ubisoft doesn’t take away from your inner sociopath to dish out mayhem in San Francisco streets. Early in the game, you get a 3D printer that literally generates high powered weaponry to allow you to cause the exact kind of chaos you want. But the biggest departure in Watch Dogs 2 is Marcus’ toys, the Quadcopter and RC Jumper. These two gadgets allow the protagonist to go completely hands-off in almost all of his encounters with their ability to operate both autonomously and in tandem, regardless of the lethality in the path you choose. Using the Quadcopter for reconnaissance and surveillance feels just right for someone who’s supposed to be poking their nose in places where he shouldn’t. But the Quadcopter is never used at the expense of the RC Jumper, which can pull off decent platforming to infiltrate areas in order to interact with terminals and computers directly.
This offers a different take on the Ubisoft formula that presents you with a patrolled space and begs you to toy with it. You can reveal targets, drop stun grenades or C4 charges, and maneuver various work equipment with the Quadcopter from above, lead enemies into traps and complete objectives with the RC Jumper, all before having Marcus clean up the rest if you please. It’s worth noting that these guarded areas represent the basic canvas for the vast majority of the missions and encounters in Watch Dogs 2. Main story missions are slightly more elaborate while adding different variables to signify player progression. This is true for most, except one mission in particular that’s set in a spaceship manufacturer. Anyone who’ll play Watch Dogs 2 will remember this mission as the one that has completely fulfilled what many envisioned this franchise to be in the first place. I won’t say much more than assuring you it’s superb.
Of course, player progression is also signified by all the other means in which Marcus can manipulate his surroundings. Watch Dogs 2 introduces a satisfying upgrade system that’s eager to push you to explore your hacking capabilities. By way of ‘Followers’, you’ll open Marcus’ access to different skillsets, which always award enough skill points to unlock at least one ability each time you level up. Abilities are also locked behind ‘Key Data’ collectibles that you’ll have to locate in the environment similarly to how you’ll complete most side missions. Watch Dogs 2 thankfully grants enough opportunities for you to outfit Marcus with almost all the hacker skills the game has available, allowing you to pick and choose how you’ll infiltrate and reach your targets.
If playing remote hacker isn’t your thing, you may use abilities such as Mass Disruption, which pulls everyone’s attention away from you and to their phones for a small window so that Marcus can slip by unnoticed. But my favorite is Gang War, which allows you to put a hit on a marked character, calling well-armed gang members to the scene. This ability is particularly impressive as it shows just how ambitious Watch Dogs 2’s A.I. is. Eliciting a gang war causes a rattling disturbance to the city’s ecosystem. Once civilians notice the violence, they’ll scatter and call the police. And once the police arrive, you’ll bear witness to a three-way gun battle that rapidly escalates on the city streets.
Watch Dogs 2 gives plenty of opportunities for you to enact network shenanigans in both side missions and its co-op multiplayer. Each of the co-op modes – which can be turned on and off individually at any time – livens the city’s activity even further. My recommended way to experience Watch Dogs 2’s co-op is to simply engage in the game’s Operations. These miniature heists can be completed both solo and with a partner, but each initiated Operations mission has a high chance of pulling in another player. Completing an Operations heist has almost always resulted in me forming a Journey-like bond with my partner where the two of us ride around the city engaging in various missions types from survival stand-offs to bounty hunts where either you or another player are relentlessly chased by police. It’s a seamless good time that offers you more chances to play with Watch Dogs 1’s staples such as triggering intersection car crashes and jamming helicopters mid-flight. And thankfully, the online functionality is more stable after two weeks of post-launch server failure.
Watch Dogs 2 is more than a colorful, better realized opposition to the first. Watch Dogs 1 gave a glimpse into what a game would look like if you exploit various objects in the world around you from a distance. Here, Watch Dogs 2 allows you to manipulate entire clusters of A.I. systems without being in complete control, all while using lots of fun tools and toys one would imagine a fantasy hacker would use. But this sequel is also arguably Ubisoft’s best effort in cultural representation in both technology and in script. The game’s social commentary, while comical and inconsequential, sends a clear message that these developers get it. The publisher seems to have dedicated itself to emulating broad societies in a smaller scale, and in that regard, Watch Dogs 2 is Ubisoft’s finest work.
A thinking man's open-world game
Ubisoft has created a hugely accomplished hacker's paradise.