Hackin’ in is what’s happenin’ in San Francisco, thanks to those knuckleheads at Dedsec. If you haven’t been tuned into the “dark web,” you might not be “woke” enough to know these aren’t just some “skiddies” here to pass out “Zero Days,” and tap into ATMs. I mean, they do that, too, but the protagonists of Watch Dogs 2 are more about fighting systemic injustice. They also throw around a lot of token hacker, and Cool Teen Terms. That way you know they’re legit.
This unabashed passion for taking on The Man — using memes, fan fiction, and graffiti —may seem trite. It very often is, but Watch Dogs 2 smartly walks a line between having its cast seem optimistic and naive. The San Francisco cell of the hacker group known as Dedsec has seen single CEOs take the fall for entire companies, and watched the public move on from one scandal to the next Hollywood blockbuster before.
Their mandate, then, is to keep on sticking it to corporations, again and again, until the small changes add up to something big. They’re fighting “the system,” not an enemy that can be as easily identified as… Well, most video game antagonists. They even try to keep a sense of humor about it. The game itself follows suit with plenty of inside jokes about Ubisoft games. The fictional Uber app is called Driver: San Francisco, of all things.
Knowing that their job of taking down CEOs, and shadowy government agencies will never be done makes Dedsec seems smarter than their goofy collection of memes and hacker slang. Not to mention it make it awfully convenient for Ubisoft to justify Watch Dogs 3, 4, Brotherhood, Primal, and so on.
Lucky for Dedsec, they’ve got a big, bright avatar of injustice to funnel their anger towards in the form of ctOS. This is the “internet of things” that networks every element of Watch Dogs 2‘s fictional San Francisco together. It allows stand-ins for Google, Facebook, and the like collect data on citizens to manipulate elections, gouge health insurance prices, and further militarize the police.
It’s also the reason Marcus — your own avatar for the duration of the game — can exercise some degree of control over his surroundings through the magic of hacking. Just press L1, and you can bring down helicopters, or disrupt intersections with overwhelming traffic. Not to mention the cops probably chasing you because you took a selfie, while dancing, on top of the scissor lift that you drove through a flash mob.
Watch Dogs 2 is full of characters that have fun, and plenty of ridiculous one-button hacks to make your own enjoyment in typical open-world fashion. It’s the structured, Ubisoft-approved missions, especially the side content, that are lacking in entertainment value.
At this point I thought that Ubisoft had perfected the low thrum of enjoyment that comes with checking activities off a list, but Watch Dogs 2 feels like a step back in that regard. The company has repealed most of those tired mission types shared between its open-world franchises — like climbing towers in Assassin’s Creed, and Far Cry — but failed to replace them with anything better, or even all that meaningful. Instead, basically every “Side Operation” boils down to reaching some inconvenient perch, and either pressing L1, or holding Triangle.
Then there’s the game’s “Seamless Multiplayer” which, when it’s working at all, isn’t actually so seamless. Now that these three cooperative and competitive modes are finally up and running, it turns out that it’s up to players to opt in and out of multiplayer tasks via their in-game smartphones (which is the not-very-convenient interface used to launch most activities in Watch Dogs 2).
Once you’ve loaded into a session (again, not that seamless) the multiplayer plays same as any other non-mandatory content strewn across digital San Francisco. It’s the same competent shooting, competent driving, and not-very-competent stealth. Watch Dogs 2‘s side content — multiplayer or otherwise — isn’t as good as it ought to be with Ubisoft’s track record, but the feel of the game retains that practiced “smoothness” the developer has achieved after 10 years of making very similar games. Things like driving, and shooting rarely, feel bad, even when they aren’t used for anything meaningful. .
The exception to the rule of side missions in Watch Dogs 2 is “Invasions.” I’m not actually sure that’s what the game calls it, but anyone who’s played Dark Souls will recognize it as the same idea — wherein one player spelunks into another person’s game and attempts to steal experience points from them.
At least that’s how the fiction has it. Neither party actually stands to lose anything, although both can earn what ends up being a pittance of “Followers,” the game’s name for XP. The invader’s job is to hack their rival, then hide out until the leech is complete. The better a job they do of not getting detected, the more Followers they earn. Likewise, the… Invade-ee earns experience for finding and/or pulverizing the rival hacker.
There are, in fact, many single-player missions that play out just like this in Watch Dogs 2. But like the rest of the “seamless” multiplayer modes, there’s the added wild card of a real, human player tracking your movements. Trying to blend in behind crowds, or giving your mark the slip down alleyways hits notes of tension not otherwise found in this practiced, measured, and focus tested soup of side missions. Too bad they’re still hardly worth the time they take to load into, in terms of possible rewards.
Besides those invasions, though, the side content is uniformly lackluster. More than that, it lacks the same spirit of the main game. That is to say, it’s mean in a way that Watch Dogs 2 typically isn’t. One quest calls for you to punish an online bully who’s been swatting people, for instance, and the solution is… To swat him right back.
Meanwhile, missions in the main game don’t play much differently from several side missions strung together. You infiltrate the headquarters of Definitely-Not-Facebook, dodge guards (or shoot them, or forge a kill order from a street gang, or hack a fuse box to electrocute them…), and ultimately either press L1, or hold Triangle. It’s no more fun on its own than the side missions — especially since Watch Dogs 2‘s gunplay, and checkpoints are equally punishing — but context makes a world of difference.
Ubisoft has written a goofball gang of domestic terrorists that care deeply about their own cause. It would have been so easy for the developers to work in some twist about how Dedsec doesn’t actully matter, or to nudge players into laughing at their earnestness, instead of with it. Instead, they accept the smallness of their actions, and keep pushing through. Both because they hope that every little bit they do helps, and because it’s better than sitting back in despair.
Even the lackluster side content can’t sabotage that positivity completely. The gunplay comes closer, however, and not just because our socially aware heroes slinging lead feels so out place.
Relying on guns becomes an odd guessing game all its own. Marcus is brittle in open conflict, while his “stealth” knockouts take so long to finish that they’re sure to get him spotted. The optimal solution to most story missions, then, is to send in a remote controlled drones to do his hacking for him. Enemies that spot an RC car in restricted areas won’t tie him to the device, after all, and it can complete most of the objectives for him. Which, again, nearly always consist of hitting one of two buttons in front of a computer console.
Some objectives, however, still require a human touch. It’s just very rarely clear which is the case until you’re actually in sight of the thing. It’s a coin toss as to whether you’re about to waste time scouting with a useless drone, or getting yourself killed by ever-reinforcing guards who, for some reason, are authorized to throw grenades around San Francisco.
The best missions in Watch Dogs 2 happen on the outskirts of the city. There, instead of guns, you can freely use hacker magic to send cars careening into outposts, or bomb targets by suicide-ing your own quad-copter with a remote mine attached. There the open-ended promise of Watch Dogs 2‘s control over an entire city, ironically, matches the same degree of unfiltered fun the characters are having in the cutscenes. Sadly, they’re few and far between in this extremely lengthy open-world ride.
I find myself wishing that Marcus and company — with their concrete values, and willingness to enjoy themselves — were in a better game. One that more often matched their own excitement. But this is the reality, and since it’s an open-world game, there are ways for players to make the most of it. There’s a lot you can do with the ability to hack anything, and take a selfie of the scene.
You’re alright, Watch Dogs 2. Just not as alright as Marcus, and his band of passionate goofballs.