Late to the Game: Hack the Planet! - Watch Dogs 2 - Reviewed

Fear of technology and what the future holds is very real in the modern day. The Internet and technology are everywhere in our daily lives, and its dark side has reared its ugly head of late. Smart devices are pervasive--people let computers and algorithms control their thermostats, cook their food, and even manage their social interactions. As more and more holes are poked in these webs of ‘internet things’, we are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of internet and information security. Internet for thousands of individuals, companies, and schools have been proven to be able to be taken down through the power of insecure devices and clever hacks, and considering the political climate and disease at which people view the future, they are right to feel that fear in many ways. Watch Dogs 2 is very aware of, and plays on, this fear.

I don’t think even the developers themselves were aware of how topical and on the nose their game would end up considering how the events of 2016 have unfolded. Watch Dogs 2 is an open world game about using your hacker skills to fight the man and help the common citizen. It exists in a modern world rife with trends and topics of the day, at times exhaustively so. As myself and many others use video games as form of escapism, completing missions with objectives to hack rigged voting machines or disrupt smart home systems felt a little close to home for my tastes. Perhaps it was their goal to make people uncomfortable, or to remind players that our society is barreling towards this kind of future at breakneck pace, but nevertheless it was a real bummer to be reminded of what’s happening, and what is potentially to come into reality, when I was trying to dive into a virtual fantasy world. Being that games are developed over a number of years, there was likely no way for Ubisoft to know how the election coverage and hacking that occurred in 2016 would turn out, but I have trouble not noting it since it had a legitimate effect on my playing and enjoyment of the game.

Watch Dogs 2’s portrayal of San Francisco feels more real than their previous take on Chicago

As stated, Watch Dogs 2 is an open world game, and while it may be an overused comparison, it would be apt to say it is another game built on the foundations that Grand Theft Auto built. There might be some switches flipped and knobs turned on the ‘ole game design machine, but ultimately Watch Dogs 2 is a relatively run-of-the-mill open world game mechanically. They dialed the setting into San Francisco, the theming into 4chan script kiddie nonsense, and the characters into fun, albeit extreme, caricatures of movie and comic book hacker types. You take control of Marcus Halloway, a young adult from Oakland using his hacker skills and connections to try to clear his name of unlawful criminal associations. In the process, he is targeted by the hacker group Dedsec, a group featured in the original game, to be a potential new member to help them ‘hack everything’ as the game’s tagline proposes. Dedsec themselves are a hacking collective that operates publicly in a fashion similar to organizations like Anonymous or WikiLeaks, hacking for fun but also trying to make serious waves in the world by exposing the secrets of their corporate villains. This was a nice change up from Watch Dogs’ limited view of Dedsec, but it is the people that make up the SF chapter that steal the show in Watch Dogs 2. 

Dedsec uses a mix of pixel art, pop art, and graffiti to develop its own unique style

Fairly early on in the game you are introduced to the amazing and colorful cast of characters, something that the original game was sorely lacking. Diversity is on the mind of developers more so now than it ever has been, and it was nice to feel like there was a diverse band of characters without feeling like the diversity was tacked on or focus grouped. While they are not trying to make too many serious statements, I appreciated Watch Dog 2’s moments of reflection. Ubisoft played it safe on most levels, but I still appreciate a big company that tries to do something meaningful in a game that was designed to appeal primarily to the major gaming demographics. It features an high-functioning autistic character that is approached with class, and even makes some commentary on what it is like to be a person of color in the white-dominated silicon valley. The characters feel real in a way that has been happening in the indie space of gaming for quite some time, but to see how well developed and personal the characters are in a big-budget title like this was a breath of fresh air. The banter is real, and being something of a techie nerd myself, hearing Marcus talk shop about European board games and argue about Star Trek did more to characterize the cast in one brief conversation than the entire extent of Aiden Pierce’s exploits in Watch Dogs.

From activists to anarchists, Dedsec attracts quite the band of passionate misfits

The characters and organization have their own style, their own rules, and they have a goal to take down the 1984-esque big brother bastards. The whole tone of the story and group is the perfect blend of happy-go-lucky hacking, and people genuinely trying the make the world a better place. Its endearing in its positivity, and that is what makes it all the more disappointing when the game opens up into a world of guns, gang violence, and vehicular manslaughter. There is a massive disconnect between the perceived ethics and motives of your organization and the actual means of which you can accomplish your goals. There is an overarching tone of ‘hactivisim’ and fighting against the government and big evil corporations, but in doing so you are encouraged to 3D print untraceable firearms and use improvised explosive devices to kill relatively innocent security guards. This didn't feel like clever juxtaposition, it was just unabashed acknowledgement of its roots as a video game for pure entertainment, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. You are given non-lethal options for just about everything, and while I do applaud the devs for quelling some of my digital genocidal guilt, but it didn't feel like those options were encouraged or rewarded in any means. For the most part this was expected for the genre, but considering how much more we got from the story and characters, I was expecting it to do a better job down grinding down the rough edges.

The gameplay and gunplay has made some strides in those absence, including better cover and sneaking mechanics, but it is still not on par with dedicated shooter or stealth-action game. Watch Dogs 2 is by no means a stealth game on the base level, but there are numerous sequences where playing stealthily was encouraged. The toolset that you are given via controllable drones and hackable cameras allows for a multitude of options to tackle any situation, but as with many unpolished stealth games, it breaks down as soon as something goes wrong. You can run and gun in a non-lethal fashion, but it was often more trouble than it was worth to try to maximize your use of the stun gun. Later game enemies take several more shots, the best way to deal with them as Marcus was just to use a melee takedown, of which there is no non-lethal option. Straight up bike chain yo-yo to the head or choking them out was almost always the most liner way to deal with threats in the game, and I had to break my own rules at times to avoid slowing the pacing of otherwise-simple missions to a halt.

Pacing in general was something I struggled with the game. The main mission storyline started off really strong and continued to hold my attention throughout a large portion of the game, but around the beginning of the third act, the fatigue set in. The back half of the game felt like a slog, and it commits the same sin of many modern games where it just didn't know how or where to end. I can’t get too detailed without spoiling, but after a certain watershed moment in the later half of the game, the story just loses its focus and fun. While I still enjoyed my overall experience, it was at times a slog to get through the end of the game, and it was not uncommon for me to regularly switch to other games between missions out of boredom.

As a whole, Watch Dogs 2 improved on the disappointing and humorless first entry in the series on every level. The tools are varied and easier to use, the cast is well-characterized and genuinely likable, and it even has something of a fun and coherent story. While I have had some harsh things to say about it, I did have an enjoyable time with the game, despite the exhausting themes and flawed final act. I hope Ubisoft continues to learn from their mistakes, and maybe the next iteration of Watch Dogs could be something truly special.


-Justin Wicker

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Release Date: November 15th, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: Playstation 4