Set in a beautifully realised open-world San Francisco, Watch Dogs 2 can be a lot of fun…if you know where to look.
Watch Dogs 2 is possibly the most thematically confused game I have ever played. You play as Marcus, a cool and likable guy who also happens to be a prodigious hacker. At the beginning of the game he’s recruited by DedSec, a group of cyberpunk “hacktivists” intent on exposing malpractice in evil corporations and bringing truth to the masses. These characters range from the irritating to the ridiculous, and reek of a down-with-the-kids desperation.
To be fair, the game should be praised for tackling (however meekly) issues most games avoid like the plague. Racism, gentrification, online predators, organised religion and more all get a look in, but are generally tossed aside to fit the game’s more jovial tone. At one point Marcus and a friend have a seemingly off-the-cuff conversation on who would win a fight, Alien or Predator. It’s the kind of back and forth designed to make you warm to these people, but really it comes across as sub-Tarantino forced banter. It makes you wonder who the game’s target audience is.
DedSec’s refusal to acknowledge any sense of irony or self-awareness is problematic. One of the major themes of the game is privacy, and what might happen if we don’t protect it. Big companies are one-dimensionally portrayed as the villains here. They collate data and invade the privacy of their customers for their own nefarious ends. But the characters we’re supposed to root for soon lose the moral high ground by invading the privacy of literally everyone they meet. They hack cell phones, webcams, ATMs, even satellites to get the data they need to fight the good fight. In his first mission, Marcus hacks into his own profile on the (evil) Blume servers, only to find they have profiled him to such an extent there are a list of crimes they have flagged him as a probable perpetrator. It’s Minority Report given an interesting racial overtone, but then Marcus proceeds to spend the next 25 hours of the game committing a string of increasingly serious crimes, basically rendering Blume’s profiling system pretty effective after all.
Worse than any of this, however, is the game’s handling of weapons and violence. It has been much-discussed, but bears repeating: why does Marcus have access to guns? Watch Dogs 2 goes to great lengths to portray these people as the good guys. The story is very unambiguous that way. And yet in their base of operations they have an industrial sized 3D printer they use to make anything from assault rifles to grenade launchers. This, it could be argued, gives the player the freedom to approach the game however they like. You can take the stealth approach, or go in all guns blazing. You don’t have to use the weapons.
If you choose the violent path though, the game stops making narrative sense. If Marcus goes on a killing spree, the game doesn’t acknowledge it in any meaningful way. This is only a problem because it’s such a story-driven game. A lot of players will shoot people and blow stuff up, which is fine, but it renders all that effort of characterisation and plot redundant.
Despite all this, Watch Dogs 2 is a very enjoyable game. When you’re wandering around San Francisco, completing side-quests or taking part in mini-games, it can be a lot of fun. It is such a vibrant and colourful world that simply driving around as a sort of virtual tourist can be rewarding.
There is also the ever-present possibility of something unexpected happening. This because of two things: an abundance of lively NPCs, and seamlessly integrated multiplayer.
In order to complete one of the in-game achievements I was tasked with taking a photo of someone vomiting. These superficially pointless errands can often be the most entertaining ways of exploring a game, so I headed to the waterfront where I hoped to find, amidst the late-night bars and dodgy chowder vendors, a suitably nauseated individual. I stalked the boardwalk, camera at the ready, feeling like a creep.
I spotted a drunken homeless woman swigging from a brown paper bag, and decided to follow. She looked like the type. After ten minutes of aimless wandering I began to question not just my enthusiasm for the task, but for video games in general. I was about to give up when a car pulled slowly alongside us, and before I realised what was happening I heard screams and people scattered and the poor woman who I had been following so closely was shot, her head snapping back in a spray of red mist. After a moment of gormlessly staring in confusion, I hightailed it out of there, more gunfire breaking out behind me.
From a safe distance I turned and looked back at the bedlam unfolding. It seemed my would-be puker was simply caught in the crossfire of a turf war between two gangs. I was looking at a scene straight out of Heat – a shootout across a busy highway, pedestrians diving for cover, police cars now milling into the fray. What were the chances of us walking into this? Would it have happened if we were there or not? It was an exhilarating moment of emergent gameplay – the perfect combination of chance and spectacle.
The forgotten joy of hide-and-seek
Multiplayer in Watch Dogs 2 is an absolute delight, and everything it should have been in the first game. It is seamlessly integrated into the single player campaign, meaning at any time other players can invade your game world and cause all sorts of chaos (and vice-versa).
One of the modes has a rival player attempt to download data from your phone, while remaining within an ever-decreasing radius. You have to find this player before the time runs out. They could be hiding in a car, a shop, or just blending in with other pedestrians. Whether you’re the hacker or the hacked, it’s a joy to play. Seeing someone run around like a headless chicken trying to find you as the clock runs out is immensely satisfying, and can be at times almost unbearably tense. It is essentially a game of hide-and-seek, and executed superbly.
Then there’s Bounty Hunter. If you’re causing significant amount of chaos and have a three star police wanted level, other players can join your game and attempt to bring you down. Where Hacker Invasion is all about stealth, this is pure carnage.
On one of my casual walkabouts around the bay area I was notified of a nearby bounty, and decided to give chase. Joining a swarm of police cars and helicopters, it was a high-speed pursuit through a ridiculously picturesque San Francisco. Smashing through outdoor cafés, leaping over the tram-lined hilly streets, power-sliding into alleyways, it felt like a scripted set-piece. But whoever I was chasing was too fast, and a far better driver than me, and I lost them. Before I gave up I decided to hedge my bets and cut across the city, hoping they’d try and get on the freeway to lose their pursuers. They did just that and were soon burning down the multi-lane highway. I was fast approaching – the two little dots on the mini-map inexorably drawing closer.
What happened next was one of the most incredible and implausible things I have experienced in any video game. I barrelled towards the highway, hit the slip road leading up to it with such speed I launched into the air, and it felt like slow motion – I saw the other car, with the full retinue of the police force behind him, and as my car started its downward arc I hoped against hope at what might happen. The two cars converged at the exact same spot, my car totalling his, winning me bounty.
Afterwards I just sat there, heart beating, trying to piece together what happened. From a chase beginning the other side of the map, to this. I had lost him, and gambled he might take this route, but the chances of the two of us coming together in such a way were astronomically low.
This was the most satisfying thought: here was a real player, who experienced the same chase from the opposite view. I thought of what he saw, what he might have felt as my car came into view, floating through the air like a scence from some Dukes of Hazard and Blues Brothers crossover. Then the shock and sheer incredulity as both cars came together in a mangle of metal and sparks and he realised he lost.
Any game that can produce moments of magic like that is easy to recommend. And it’s easy to recommend how to get the most out of Watch Dogs 2: ignore the main story. Play the first handful of missions, complete a few side quests, and then just enjoy what the game does best. Take in the sights, create your own stories, and enjoy the multiplayer.