Watch Dogs was a series that Ubisoft clearly hoped would become a new flagship franchise for them, alongside the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and their myriad of Tom Clancy titles. The first Watch Dogs was released to decent reviews from critics and a general panning from fans. Despite that, it smashes a number of records and went on to sell a mind boggling amount of copies.
A sequel seemed inevitable, but as the game began to come under flak for not looking nearly as good as it did in previews, and for feeling like something of an Assassin’s Creed re-skin with assassin gadgets replaced with hacking elements. Despite an overall incredibly successful launch, goodwill for Watch Dogs soon went the way of the dodo.
Watch Dogs 2, then, came as something of a surprise. As much of a reboot as it was a sequel, the game transplanted itself from the dreary world of po-faced protagonist Aiden Pearce’s Chicago, moving to the thriving tech hub of San Francisco. The “good guys” hacker group of DedSec moved from shifty conspiracy nuts to a group of young, hipster twenty-something year olds with a penchant for 4Chan-esqe escapades.
Essentially, the whole thing became much more lighthearted, and a lot of the thematic changes are what makes Watch Dogs 2 just a little easier to swallow. Sure, it’s still “movie hacking”, but this time, it feels a little more plausible. Watch Dogs 2 has the sense to rip stories from the headlines and change them into missions for our new black protagonist, Marcus Holloway to undertake with his new DedSec buddies.
An early mission is an obvious parallel of the Martin Shkreli and Wu Tang Clan fiasco. Where the real life Big Pharma mogul upped the price of a life saving drug, and then decided he was going to buy the only copy of Wu Tang Clan’s latest album for 2 million dollars. To make matters worse, he then leaked it to celebrate Trump’s inauguration.
It was a slice of super villain style evil that left many of us in the real world shaking with impotent rage. Watch Dogs 2 allows you a smidge of catharsis by mirroring the events in the game, allowing you to get some karmic retribution. You trick a Big Pharma CEO into wiring millions of dollars to a cancer charity by hacking a rapper’s phone and creating a convincing sound board. You watch the whole thing unfold in real time as the evil exec gets his comeuppance.
There’s suitable justice elsewhere, exposing a dangerous cult, teaching a young girl about internet safety by scaring the wits out of her, and exposing a new HAUM automated system for collecting personal data and selling it to insurers to hike your premiums. Ordering too much pizza? Your health insurance just jumped.
It all feels a tad like Black Mirror, but with a tongue in cheek tone. Ubisoft clearly want us to feel like DedSec are the good guys. Just a bunch of hipster hacker genius’ subverting the system and using technology to take down the corporations that are using it to keep us under their thumb. However, there are many times when this tone jars heavily with your actual actions in game. A little more on that later.
There’s no way in hell you’re going to get me to believe we’ll ever have a smartphone that can hack gas pipes, traffic lights, car controls, and remotely swipe money from people’s bank accounts, but other elements of the hacking feel a little bit more grounded in reality.
An overnight hackathon to crack open a HAUM robot prototype feels genuine, with a montage of our DedSec friends shotgunning energy drinks, pizza, and coffee, with moments of elation, frustration, and quiet, subdued teamwork. It’s an incredibly subdued, well done scene, and it’s the first moment of many in the game where you really start to feel for these guys. Despite their hipster trappings, the charm of DedSec shines through. It’s just a bunch of loveable rogues using humour and brains to send up the puppet masters of the game’s world.
It’s bizarre, that for a game that carries the democracy and power of its technology as a central theme, so often it’s concessions to modern gameplay expectations are at complete odds with the personality of the characters. In almost every encounter, Marcus can choose to go the route of stealth or non violence, using gadgets, drones, and stun weapons to keep things clean. However, he’s still well versed in melee combat and will knock police officers, security guards, armed gangsters, and civilians unconscious without much work.
If you choose the path of violence, on the other hand, you can whip out an assault rifle and gun down innocent police officers and guards with reckless glee. Special abilities that allow you to detonate grenades on a guard’s belt or detonate gas pipes are perfect for upping the body count. However, DedSec lose much of their childlike glee when you slaughter minimum wage security workers with a submachine gun 3D printed with a garish design from their very own machines.
The game never addresses this narrative dissonance, not that I would expect it too, it isn’t what Watch Dogs 2 is about, but I find it hard to believe that DedSec would get more followers for their app by having a body count in the dozens in the name of exposing a dodgy cult or hacking a life management app. It’s almost as if Ubisoft shoots themselves in the foot by making the game so grounded in the zeitgeist, by making the characters so likeable and relatable.
Still, it’s all movie hacking, and if you want a game that gets into the real nitty gritty of coding, programming, and how it all works, you’re looking in the wrong place. Watch Dogs 2 approach to hacking comes down to twenty something year old nerds messing up global corporations from a relatively obvious central San Fran hide out. If you want a game where hacking is a little more realistic, check out Quadrilateral Cowboy. If you want to hack phones and feel like you’re a member of the anonymous army, look no further.
Watch Dogs 2 is a great game by the way and you should probably play it.