If you’ve played the original Watch Dogs, you know that the big bad villain was able to leverage the city management software “ctOS” in order to take over every traffic light, emergency system, and screen across Chicago. It was some real apocalyptic, dystopian stuff.
Watch Dogs 2 opens with a gambit: people just sort of didn’t care about all of that “one person techno-terrorized a whole city like a Batman villain” stuff, and now there are lots of “smart” cities all across the United States. San Francisco is one of them, and Watch Dogs 2 avoids potentially having to deal with the plot legacy of the first game by nimbly hopping across the country and into the character of the young DedSec hacker Marcus Holloway. Armed with your smarts and skills, you can gear up for some hacking.
Let me be as clear as possible: Marcus Holloway is my favorite game protagonist in years, and it’s all because of Ruffin Prentiss’ voice acting. I increasingly believe that one of the core problems in open world games is tone. Players want to do varied things: serious missions, strange sidequests, and pure mayhem. Open world games are attracting players based on those expectations, and you have to create a narrative framework that can support it all. Grant Theft Auto V did it by having three characters and three different narrative “tones” that a player could embody, and it worked to some limited degree.
The Watch Dogs 2 team solves that problem with Ruffin’s performance as Holloway. He’s serious when we’re deep in the depths of Silicon Valley’s military-industrial complex mysteries, and he’s light when we need to hear someone debating the merits of Aliens versus Predators with his friends. It’s the direct opposite of the first game and how it fell apart based on the monotone blank slate of Aiden Pearce.
Watch Dogs 2 is a battle between DedSec, a cross between a classic computing club and Anonymous, and Blume, the company that created ctOS. There’s not much to say about the basic structure of this massive information war-as-game because it’s profoundly simple: DedSec wants to blow the lid off the entire operation, and you do a run of missions where Marcus and his zany crew of buddies interferes with Blume’s relationships with not-SpaceX, not-Google, not-Facebook, and others. The super cool and charming Holloway’s scrappy gang is paired against a bunch of soulless executives and a 30 Under 30 technology advocate with a man bun, full beard, and yoga-centered activewear (you can probably date the time when this character’s designs were locked in down to the second). It’s a simple narrative, but it provides you with a reason to go on specific missions within the vast open world of San Francisco.
These missions all have the same basic structure. You go to a location, scope it out, and hack whatever modem or computer or server is there. You “hack” in this game by looking at a hackable object and hitting the hack button. That might open a door, create a distraction, or blow up an electrical box. Playing the game is about managing how often you’re hacking and how you’re using the environment to your disposal, but it’s mostly just figuring out the best context for each of your tools. It’s not a super deep system, but it has just enough complexity to make it nonautomatic; I had to think about every hack I did rather than just doing them, and for me that’s a sign of a good mechanic.
You use those hacks to get to the goals I mentioned above, because between you and that modem are a million different security devices: motion sensors, locked doors, weird little robots, security guards with guns, and a myriad of others. These missions are functionally just puzzles in three dimensions, and they succeed and fail based on how much they feel like puzzles. For example, the grounds and grand cathedral of a fake Scientology-esque religion were structured just like a real cathedral and grounds might be. The long sightlines of enemies and scarce cover where I needed it looked and felt just like any number of real campuses, but it made for a trial and error experience that I just wanted to be over. It felt like it was trying to be a simulation, and it was weaker for it. Several other levels, like the not-Facebook headquarters, felt very fine-tuned and puzzle-like, with rooms, enemy placement, and environmental resources scattered in such a way that there was a “correct” way to sequence my actions and hacks. It required every bit of problem solving skill that I had.
My problem solving skills were the most important things that I had at my disposal during the game. While I solved most of the original Watch Dogs with silenced pistols and an occasional shotgun, I had to take a wildly different approach to the sequel due to my own fragility. Unlike the previous game, the player can’t take on ten armed enemies at once. Marcus Holloway has the hit points of a piece of balsa wood, and it creates some very interesting encounters where I was having to tactically use my stun gun, switch to a shotgun for a quick blast, and then run for cover where enemies couldn’t see me. And that was only when I knew that I had no way of stealthing or hacking my way out of the situation. When the game is really clicking, it is dynamic and intense, a perfect blend of thinking and reacting.
At the same time, the thin amount of protection that the player has from gun-toting enemies means that I experienced a whole hell of a lot of frustrating deaths. This is not normally something I would write, but I have to make this as forcefully clear as possible: the checkpoint system in this game is pure horse shit. Many, many missions are multi-staged, and for a large chunk of them a death between stage 2 and 3 puts you right back to the very beginning of the mission. I would say that a full quarter of my playthrough of this game was playing through the first two very easy stages of a mission so that I could get to the hard-as-nails third part. I wasn’t getting better, and I wasn’t learning the game’s systems better. I was just wasting my time.
This brings me to a larger point about the game. The narrative tells us the DedSec are happy-go-lucky liberator-y hackers who just want to get the most information possible into the hands of the people of the world. It tells us that their methods are sometimes messy, but that they’re always for the greater good. It’s hard to reconcile that with the ability to play this game as a murderous assassin who infiltrates the tech industry and headshots hundreds of guards. Ubisoft are pushing some real “stripped from the headlines” narratives in this game, and it would make infinitely more sense to completely eliminate gunplay from these games at all. You could limit players to the “nonlethal” melee and stun weapons, or you could simply design other systems that could make pure stealth differently augmented. The gap between how I can play the game and how the game’s narrative presents itself is wide, and I could feel that friction every time a cutscene played.
As I wrote above, I think that the only way this all coheres together is because of the Marcus Holloway character, and even with that in mind I think that Watch Dogs 2 runs into some of the exact same narrative problems that the first game did. Despite its more self-contained modular story structure, it has the same feeling of being stapled together from disparate parts. There’s a twist followed by a tone shift directly in the middle of the game that had me genuinely angry in how it altered some character dynamics in the game (I’m hesitant to say more in a review, but I imagine many people will be talking about it very soon). That anger wasn’t soothed by the fact that the game seemingly forgets all about that twist, and I’m left wondering about how this game’s story was jigsawed together over the past few months.
Back when it was released, many critics (including myself) noted that the original Watch Dogs constantly threw women under a bus, and it seems like the developers of Watch Dogs 2 took that to heart while creating the cast of their sequel, which is filled with a diverse group of people with a wide range of personality traits. I think that there are going to be many, many debates in the wake of the game’s release about several different characters and whether Ubisoft got them “right,” and game developers should probably pay attention to those conversations.
It’s difficult to evaluate Watch Dogs 2. I have a very similar feeling as I did about the game’s predecessor, but for entirely different reasons. I don’t think that the game quite coheres together in a meaningful way. I think that Watch Dogs 2 wants to say a whole lot about the contemporary world, but it never moves away from generic statements like “information good” and “military-industrial complex bad” to say anything specific. In fact, it has some profound convictions about not saying much at all. The positions it lays out remind me of competitive debate: forcefully presented but never all that convincing.
Watch Dogs 2 was developed and published by Ubisoft. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.