One thing you’ll learn about the games industry if you pay attention for long enough is that gamers absolutely love being angry. That’s not to say that it’s not always warranted, of course, as we see in cases of drastic overhype. Look at the original Watch_Dogs, for instance, a significant contemporary example of backlash resulting from an over-marketed and overhyped title. It was a pretty forgettable open-world adventure with hacking elements sprinkled on top that would have landed with a moderate splash…but Ubisoft went out of their way to play the game up as The Next Big Thing, and as a result media and gamers alike jumped at the chance to ravage a game that wasn’t anything special and – downgraded significantly visually besides.
You’d have thought that would be the end of the franchise…but gamer outrage doesn’t necessarily equal low sales, so here’s Watch Dogs 2! Hell, maybe gamer outrage inversely predicts sales numbers, so stay tuned for No Man’s Sky 2 one of these days.
WD2 (stylized as Watch_Dogs 2) stars Marcus Holloway, an African-American hacker who joins up the Bay Area branch of the notorious Dedsec hacking group. San Fran is under control of the Blume Corporation, a bad guy megacorp who returns from the previous game, and Dedsec works to take them down Anonymous-style. Marcus and his Dedsec pals are all pretty endearing, and while I’ve seen some commenters complain that the humor and snark feels forced, I can’t say I agree. There’s plenty of nods toward “geek culture” to go around, but I never felt like Watch_Dogs 2 was trying too hard.
Your work with Dedsec plays out a lot like the first game given a little TLC. Marcus is a drastically more skilled hacker than the original game’s Aiden and your repertoire of technology-fiddling techniques is significantly larger in the sequel. You’ve still got the iconic Blackout power to shut the whole city down for a bit (inevitably killing countless hospital patients, but who’s counting) and the ability to set off environmental objects as makeshift bombs, but now you’re able to use remote-control vehicles to hack from a distance or even control cars, trucks and other larger contraptions directly.
That latter vehicle-hacking ability gets my vote for the best addition to Watch_Dogs 2, by the way; it’s hilarious and versatile, allowing you to clear the way during a heated car chase, take out the cops if you’re under fire, or spring a deadly trap in the form of an unmanned car suddenly turning on and slamming into an adversary. Naturally, you’ve got guns and a flail to deal with baddies more directly as well, but Watch_Dogs 2 is much more fun when you’re being creative.
There’s plenty of work to do with your hacking abilities as well. The game’s campaign jumps from one hilarious situation to the next, ranging from stealing the (renamed) car from Knight Rider to stealth ops against the (renamed) Church of Scientology. Success earns followers for Dedsec, with the combined processing power of their mobile devices being used to generate skill points. You can also drive for (renamed) Uber, search for new music with (renamed) Shazam and engage in the classic Watch_Dogs hide-and-seek multiplayer.
This game’s divergence in tone from the first is probably the biggest reason I’d call it a more enjoyable game. Watch_Dogs 2 is funny where the original was dead serious the vast majority of the time. This isn’t a game about hunting down the bad guys who killed your niece, it’s a game about accruing tons of Twitter followers by performing hilarious hacking stunts. Ironically, this leads to inversions of many of the bizarre tonal shifts that plagued the first Watch_Dogs; where Aiden Pearce was a grim character on a serious mission who’d sometimes stop to deface electronic billboards with memes, Marcus is a witty trickster with entertaining missions who carries 3D-printed firearms and mows down civilians at your command.
I’m not going to condemn the game for this; it’s not my style to do so, I appreciate the option being there, and your array of nonlethal options is considerable enough that you don’t necessarily have to go balls-to-the-wall gunslinger to get the job done. Further, I’m still of the opinion that gaming as a medium isn’t mature enough that we need to overly concern ourselves with lofty concepts like ludonarrative dissonance. It’s still a miracle when you get a relatively fully functional game on launch day for your $60; let’s take baby steps, crawl before we walk, and make sure we’re able to achieve basic levels of quality assurance and enjoyable content before freaking out that the hero of a GTA clone is allowed to shoot people should the player choose to do so.
It’s still pretty strange, though, and I definitely didn’t go on rampages with Marcus the way I would with GTAV‘s Trevor…but at the same time, I didn’t rampage much with Franklin (a slightly-less-bad bad guy and GTAV’s only “nice” character) or Michael (a smooth-talking sleazebag rather than a psychopath) either.
Continuing along a line of discussion I told myself I wouldn’t engage in regarding this game, though, Marcus isn’t even necessarily that nice. He says and does a lot of funny things, sure, and he’s not overtly cruel if you don’t play him that way, but it’s still expected that you’ll rob innocent people, corrupt their gadgets with viruses and peek into their private data…all the while condemning and openly opposing a big corporation that does essentially the same thing. It’s a little hypocritical if you think about it, which might be intentional; it’s certainly relevant to today’s society, where we’re starting to see the dark side of the “plucky underdog” in the gaming, nonprofit and even political spaces. Sometimes, when you think about it, the little guy is just the big guy with better PR.
Something also must be said about the demographics portrayed in Watch_Dogs 2, though yet again I swore I’d focus on the gameplay (damn it). You’re playing as a black guy, which sometimes comes up during the plot. Mafia III did this recently as well, but in terms of producing a game that’s fun to play and socially relevant without being preachy, Watch_Dogs 2 is the clear winner. There’s no sanctimonious warning before the game opens, for instance, but more importantly the gameplay and technical proficiency of the game don’t feel like they took a back seat to an effort on the part of the developers to make a Socially Conscious Videogame.
The idea that video games can get a point across about social issues without smacking the player across the face with it is a relatively new one, and I can’t think of many games other than Watch_Dogs 2 and, to an extent, Deus Ex Mankind Divided that do it well. As someone who’s gotten especially tired of being condescended to by games, game developers and gaming media ad nauseum over the past few years, it’s refreshing to play something that speaks to me like an equal rather than a naughty student. I’m certainly more responsive to the ideas the game presents when I’m not being blindsided by a lecture, and I think I’m not the only one who feels that way.
I mentioned that Watch_Dogs 2’s gameplay and technical proficiency are both on point. That’s entirely the case; it’s gorgeous on consoles and awe-inspiring on PC, running at a nice and buttery 60FPS on the latter if you’ve got the hardware to back it. One of the aspects of the first game I really enjoyed was the level of effort put into making Chicago so enjoyable to explore, and that carries through in full effect to Watch_Dogs 2. It’s nice to just turn on the game’s fantastic soundtrack and drive or walk around San Francisco.
Honestly, I’m a little surprised that this game turned out as well as it did. Watch Dogs 2 follows Ubisoft’s established open-world game formula as many games have before it, but it offers a level of charm and style that’s hard to come by in the modern industry. It’s also one of the few examples I could give of a game that offers relevant commentary on modern society without stumbling around with clown shoes on or talking down to the player. It’s certainly better than the first game. Check it out.