Who’s Watching Whom – A Watch Dogs 2 Review
Ubisoft surprised everyone this E3 with the shocking announcement regarding a sequel to the highly-hyped-mostly-flopped Watch Dogs. By the time of the announcement, the game was nearly finished, and by the time of the announcement, Ubisoft already vowed to fix every wrong turn they took in the first installment–including the increasingly long list of downgrades and unfulfilled promises. And as of the time of this review, Watch Dogs 2 has done it.
The industry and community is well aware of the fiasco surrounding the international development team and its previous releases, but–as Ubisoft stated at E3 this year–they would be pulling a 180 with future games. Watch Dogs 2 is the start of this trend. It is essentially the Assassin’s Creed 2 of the series and represents the turning point for the Watch Dogs series as well as the company. The team has definitely delivered on this promise.
In the original Watch Dogs, script kiddie Aiden Pierce found an exploit in Chicago’s ctOS 1.0 and used it to its full potential, which–in its early days–was marginal. The tech was new and lacked complete optimization. Couple that with the fact Aiden was never a tried and true hacker–really only motivated by revenge–overshadowed by Clara’s expertise with proper hacking skills, and we have ourselves a system that tries to be immersive, but hardly scratches the surface. The sequel changes all of that.
Enter Watch Dogs 2’s Marcus Holloway, a legitimate hacker with an already established reputation under the pseudonym ‘retrO.’ The San Francisco sector of notorious hacking group DedSec were keenly aware of retrO’s prowess and recruited him to their cause: undermining ctOS 2.0 and showing the world how many rights the public has lost with constant connectivity. Already, we can see the stark differences between the two narratives. While both have clear motivations, they could not be more opposite–one, selfish–the other, selfless.
This, even on its own, sets the bar higher for Watch Dogs’ second iteration. It trades something more akin to internal struggle for something more altruistic. A Three Muskateers ‘all-for-one-and-one-for-all’ approach that ultimately sets the stage for deeper character development and a more immersive world, without which the sequel would not have resounded as well.
That’s where Watch Dogs 2 really begins.
DedSec and its newly-appointed member Marcus dive headfirst into taking back control of human lives. This starts with gaining followers through their proprietary phone app. With each follower comes processing power. More processing power means more opportunity to take down the notorious company behind the implementation of ctOS, Blume. We learned from the first Watch Dogs, Blume basically committed privacy invasion on a massive scale through always-online-connectivity. Well, ctOS has evolved from its early Chicago days into a completely upgraded, next-level version. Smart houses, smart cars, drones, RC vehicles…literally everything is online. It seems that with ease of functionality and consistent online capability come at a steep price: freedom.
You see, while ctOS 2.0 is bigger and badder than its lowly Chicago-based brother, it is also hiding a nasty secret. In order to keep crime off the streets as efficiently as possible, the system uses predictive analytics to surmise whether individuals may be prone to criminal activity. It uses social media interaction, any CCTV captures, even home security cameras as a basis for determination. There’s a catch, however, and its one that infringes upon basic human rights. A determiner could be the smallest, thoughtless upload on Scout X (one of the game’s apps that goads the user to traverse San Francisco in search of landmarks to photograph) to a simple Nudle (the game’s version of Google) search. It strikes a little too close to reality, doesn’t it?
This is what DedSec was created to defend against. This is why they fight.
Throughout the campaign and its tied-in side missions, players learn more about DedSec and its members. We begin to understand, relate, sympathize, and empathize with each of them. I have even grown to care for them as if they were also my friends. This is something sorely missed from the first installment, and one that truly helps this one find its footing. Without characters players can relate to, their cause is less important. Ubisoft really focused on all aspects of a resonating narrative and it shows.
In games though, narrative effect is lessened if gameplay is unintuitive and obtuse. Once again, Ubisoft heard fans’ outcry with the original’s deficits and set out to right those wrongs. Gameplay–especially hacking–has been completely revitalized and renewed. It is seamless, intelligent (even if the AI isn’t, at times) and really helps set the stage for DedSec’s takedown of Blume.
Hacking in the first installment was minimal; as mentioned earlier, it actually fit the narrative, as ctOS was barely burgeoning in its lifespan. Now that 2.0 arrived in San Francisco, nearly everything is hackable, as always-online-connectivity continues to grow throughout the bay area. On top of all hacks from the previous installment, Marcus can place an APB, or even call a gang hit on citizens and enemies alike. He can control cranes, scissor lifts, vehicles, and window washing lifts remotely, bouncing between any and all through the touch of a button. Marcus has a remote-controlled “jumper” that allows him to infiltrate nearly unseen, as well as perform physical hacks without having to enter the area. He also has an RC drone at his disposal, allowing him to scope areas, tag enemies, and perform basic hacks like triggering a generator explosion. All the environmental hacks above can be performed through the RC vehicles, as well as CCTV cameras, allowing even deeper player fidelity and autonomy.
The hacks feel much more immersive and intuitive, especially when infiltrating an enemy base. Countless times I was able pervade hostile territory with the RC jumper, never actually stepping foot in the base. It really made me feel like a true hacker; a poltergeist with an appetite for exposing treason. Certain missions do require Marcus to be physically present, but once the jumper and drone have done their jobs, opening locked doors, finding the path of least resistance, infil and exfil are much easier tasks. Of course, the game allows you to go about a mission any way you wish; guns blazing is a certifiable option, though care was taken with the stealth mechanics this time around and much cooler and intuitive to use.
Throughout these missions, Marcus has a constant line to his DedSec friends; they will discuss the mission, make witty banter, even console each other about their skepticism. They truly rely on each other and missions are set up in such a way that draw this out. It is a breath of fresh air from Aiden Pearce and his stoic personality. I always say, well developed characters drive narrative much more effectively than plot itself. If we players can’t relate, what’s the purpose? If Watch Dogs 2 does anything for the gamer during play, it is purposeful. The entirety of the game’s narrative is allegory and opens our eyes to the possibilities of technology.
In the end, that’s what this game is really about: exposing our dependence on technology and the eventual probability the same technology is used against us. This, in and of itself, was worth the purchase for me, but more than that, the game excels where its predecessor did not. While driving (though still infinitely better than the first) and AI still struggle to find an identity from time to time, narrative, character development, and graphics have all been improved and I could not have been happier with this release.
I give Watch Dogs 2 a