WATCH_DOGS 2 – Worth the bucks?

First of all, I miss Aiden Pearce.

Which is why, after having finished WATCH_DOGS 2, I promptly returned to Chicago, police chases and gangster shoot-outs. Don’t get me wrong, WATCH_DOGS 2 is a highly entertaining open world game. It also does a lot of things better than its predecessor.

But it still is one of the biggest disappointments of my 2016 gaming season. Here is why.

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Ah, there he is! Aiden Pearce gets a cameo in WATCH_DOGS 2 and I love how the emoji displayed in his profile reflects his usual mood.

The story (maybe not entirely spoiler-free)
Who else thought it weird that WATCH_DOGS 2 was released after the presidential elections? As it is, I started playing the game just as people began accusing Facebook of having somehow influenced the election’s outcome for lack of control over fake news/blatant lies published via the social network…

Why mention this?

Well, in WATCH_DOGS 2 surveillance giant Blume is busy developing the Bellwether algorithm further, which, if you care to remember, led to Chicago being governed by a Mob-owned mayor back in the first WATCH_DOGS, also thanks to Blume. This time, the Bellwether hits San Francisco and, once more, the man in charge is in charge only by the grace of Blume or, more specifically, by the grace of Blume’s CTO, Dusan Nemec.

In swoops the local chapter of Dedsec, which is led by a young woman (!), Sitara, who is both an artist and a hacker. She also apparently loves wearing really short shorts and an off-shoulder sweater. There are three guys on her team: Horatio, who likes to joke that he’s the only black guy in all of Silicon Valley, a weirdo (there’s always one in the crowd, right?) who calls himself Wrench and a kid named Josh, who seems a little slow and introverted but is actually the best hacker on the team. Contrary to the grim Dedsec crowd in Chicago, these diverse and cool kids are (I’m guessing) meant to be the spitting image of Ubisoft’s target audience and, to further their goals, they need to gain followers by performing stunts, pulling pranks and for taking selfies.

(I miss Aiden Pearce.)

They are only the supporting crowd, though, for this is all about Marcus Holloway. This smooth-talking young man with a decidedly sunny personality is new to the chapter and he takes charge immediately, meaning he wants to take down Blume for what its ctOS did to him (He was wrongfully persecuted for cyber crimes he didn’t commit, apparently solely because the ctOS’s algorithm didn’t like his profile: black kid, Oakland homie, hacker) and to prevent it from wronging others too. Which is a noble cause, but unfortunately it lacks emotional involvement. Also, Dedsec apparently didn’t get anything done at all before he arrived, so I can’t help asking myself if this is maybe the lamest setup for a hero’s journey ever, when the young, idealistic hero in question actually is the heroic savior (and mentor) from the very start.

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This selfie-pose actually reflects all there is to know about Marcus Holloway…

So, at Marcus’s urging, Dedsec starts kicking the hornet’s nest and begins to uncover the plot mentioned above. They also soon realise that they are the only ones who can save mankind from evil corprations bent on taking away people’s right to choose and think for themselves (And here I thought Ubisoft wanted to give the Assassin’s Creed-franchise a break this year.). They also learn that they are not match for Dusan Nemec, who swiftly moves to put them back in their place.

The very moment the crew is ready to give up the fight, legendary hacker Raymond Kenney, self-proclaimed public enemy number one of Blume, chooses to join them. He gives them much needed purpose and focuses their attacks on where they can really make a difference. And gain followers, of course.

Thanks to him and thanks to Marcus’s enterprising nature and hacking skills, the crew manages to score a series of victories. But then fate strikes one of them from their ranks and things turn ugly… I could actually hear someone say: “Guys, now that we are nearing the end of the game, we really need some dark and emotional event to thicken the plot somehow”. So, while this was indeed very emotionial and the revenge sweet, it felt a little off. Just a little. No, actually, it did not fit at all.

(I miss Aiden Pearce.)

The crew then moves on to reveal the truth about the Bellwether and takes down Dusan for good. (Dusan, mind you, not Blume, there’s still room for a sequel, I’m sure.) This entire operation requires a number of varied and, to my mind, very well-conceived and crafted infiltration and hacking missions that I really, really enjoyed. This was also true for the ending, which is no big bang, but true to the game’s focus on hacking rather than hands-on violence.

The protagonist
When coming up with the hero for this fresh installment of the franchise, Ubisoft really made an effort and tried to turn things around by 180 degrees.

WATCH_DOGS’ main protagonist Aiden Pearce is a lone wolf who is deeply marked by a life lived on the wrong side of the law. He is paranoid, has remarkable self-control and no reservations whatsoever when it comes to killing. He is also fiercely protective of his family and does everything he can to keep them safe. Given his line of work that ambition is, of course, destined to fail. All of that is made pretty clear right in the beginning.

By contrast Marcus Holloway, who is a skilled hacker with an easy-going nature, got a taste of what it really means when people trust algorithms more than common sense and their own judgement. Contrary to Aiden Pearce, Marcus is therefore a true victim of Blume’s ctOS. Which I thought pretty awesome, as an idea, because it gives him personal purpose in this fight.

But while he and Dedsec are constantly being painted as the good guys, especially Marcus’s remorseless attitude regarding the use of violence and blackmail are questionable. This becomes very apparent when innocent Josh asks whether they are still doing the right thing and Marcus replies that they have to use any means necessary, since the enemy will do the same.

So, is he the good guy, is he the bad guy? Or is he just like any of us players, who cannot be held accountable for whatever stupid, abusive and violent pranks they pull inside the virtual world? Personally, I believe it is supposed to be the latter, since there really is no moral compass in this game, no punishment or consequences, such as the notoriety system in WATCH_DOGS, which, in hindsight, maybe was not such a bad idea after all.

But then, Marcus is not really the star in this game, is he?

Actually, the only really interesting character is Ray Kenney. After all, he’s a veteran in the war against Blume. And if you’ve played WATCH_DOGS and its story DLC, Bad Blood, and if, like me, you are desperately searching for someone you can identify with in WATCH_DOGS 2, at least in terms of involvement, you’ll realise that Ray Kenney is the heart of the franchise.

Bam!

There you go.

The gameplay
The gameplay has improved immensely. Marcus’s new tools, the drone and the Jumper, are perfect for infiltrating and hacking targets and locations from a safe spot, and whenever I’ve accomplished a mission without anyone even realising what hit them, that gives me a sense of being incredibly clever. I like that. A lot. Of course, if, like me, you tend to hack absolutely anything your profiler gets a glimpse at without even reading what you are about to do, you’ll have accidentally killed a few civilians by frying their pacemakers.

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Careful who or what you hack…

I still suck at driving cars and shooting guns. And I think Marcus’s custom-made melee weapon is a funky complement to his overall funky attitude. Marcus is also incredibly agile and a freerunner with some awesome moves. Unfortunately, he’s so quick, I regularly beat up the wrong people when I tried to intervene in one of the disputes that frequently break out between civilians in the street. I also frequently climb onto cars instead of seeking cover behind them, which can become awkward, especially in hostile territory and during shoot-outs.

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The police notoriety displayed on the map on the left is not actually a result of my horrible driving, but a sign of a coop heist turned sour.

Without the notoriety system of the first game, Marcus is, as mentioned, free to do whatever he likes before anyone even thinks of calling the cops on him.  The police chases themselves are fun as ever, although I feel Chicago had more obstacles you needed to watch out for and circumvent, which makes them less of a challenge. Even for me.

The world itself
So far, I’ve been to San Francisco only once for a weekend and this is exactly how I remember its vibes. The colors are beautiful, the boulevards grand, the hills of Silicon Valley lovely and the sun is shining almost all the time.

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Sunny California! Gotta love it …

While it is a vast map, I consider the fact that Ubisoft enabled Fast Travel points from the start instead of going with their usual events of “hack ctOS towers”, “light bonfires”, “synchronise viewpoints” and so on, a mistake. While these events are incredibly repetitive, they at least force players to move through the district and discover it for themselves. I suppose I could drive from Point A to Point B, but as I wrote, I suck at driving and I am lazy. So, in WATCH_DOGS 2, I jump from one Fast Travel point to the next, without ever really exploring the map. Which is a shame, considering how much effort was put into it.

As far as NPCs are concerned, I’m happy. While Ubisoft chose to keep most of the NPC texts and audio dialogue from the first game (maybe to cut costs?), the studio added a ton of sometimes really hilarious interactions between NPCs, to be discovered while  wandering the streets of San Francisco, Oakland and Silicon Valley.

There’s another reason why wandering is a good thing, even if I don’t do much of it, since you will discover new side missions on the way, most of them involving Blume, rival hacker group Prime 8, several gangs and the Umeni corporation.

Prime 8 is also one of the enemy faction encountered in the coop and online missions, which are a lot of fun to play. Much more fun than the game itself, sometimes.

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Spider Tank, anyone?


What I like and what I hate

While WATCH DOGS 2 has improved greatly in terms of gameplay and I really like sunny San Francisco, some flaws from its predecessor remain as bad as before and some are even worse.

One thing is the sexism. In WATCH_DOGS, women are always victims. They, and only they, are mugged at the ATM, they panic when Aiden takes away their phone and then there are, of course, the auction and the various exploitive scenes in the Rossi-Fremont buildings and during privacy intrusions. I hated that. There are also neither female cops nor female gangsters in WATCH_DOGS. At least the latter has changed in the sequel. I like that. I also thought it cool that Dedsec’s boss is a woman, until Marcus pushed her aside and Sitara took on the role of the annoying big sister/mother, who’s always nagging and doesn’t let the boys have fun. A classic in terms of sexist stereotypes.

Which brings me straight to the stereotypes themselves.

WATCH_DOGS is full of cliches and stereotypes and WATCH_DOGS 2 also delivers, while making fun of it at the same time. Take villain Dusan Nemec. Dusan is a hipster (!). A hipster with a man-bun who practices yoga and apparently never sleeps. He also throws a mean punch. Also, Marcus and Horatio constantly get into ironic banter about the racism they find themselves subjected to. Making light of these things is, maybe, meant to be funny, but ridiculing stereotypes while using them to characterize people at the same time is not really clever. But then, I have a feeling that, in politics as well as in pop culture, ridicule has replaced true wit a long time ago. I hate that.

The verdict
I have played WATCH_DOGS 2 once and, once finished, did not really feel the urge to play it again. That is a bad sign.

The reason for that? Well, I am a sucker for stories, but in WATCH_DOGS 2, to be even able to continue the main story after the initial prologue, you need followers. To do that, you have to engage in certain activities, from races to taking selfies (!), to coop and side missions. And there are never enough followers!

I remember that, during my first, and so far last, playthrough, I just wanted to play the main story. And that I became really furious because I had to gather more and more followers just to be able to continue! No wonder I lost interest inthe story itself, after some time.

Actually, if not for that very emotional incident mid-game that drew me back into the narrative, I probably still wouldn’t have finished it (For the record: I meant to give the game a second try a litte while ago, but I got incredibly bored very soon).

In short: WATCH_DOGS 2 is a good start in the right direction for this franchise, but either it wants too much or else it should stop pretending to have a story at all and just be about a bunch of hackers having tons of fun in San Francisco. Maybe next time we’ll get a game centered exclusively on Ray “”really-good-at-hacking-and-loves-to-blow-things-up” Kenney?

I sure would like that.


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