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Watch Dogs 2: The Kotaku Review

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Watch Dogs 2 is just a game, sitting on a screen, asking you to love it. Sometimes begging.

Ubisoft’s new techno-action hackapalooza often succeeds at being likable, occasionally in spite of itself. It functions both as unspoken apologia for its scattered and frustrating predecessor and as yet another step along Ubisoft’s march to open-world game design domination. It is beautiful and sprawling, yet often buggy and unpolished. It tells a story that is equal parts unusually relevant and instantly dated, with a cast of heroes who are equally grating and likable. It introduces some brilliant new ideas, yet is missing basic features I’ve come to take for granted in other, similar games.

Watch Dogs 2 tells the story of Marcus Holloway, a cocky young hacker from Oakland who’s got a bone to pick with the system. At the start of the game, Marcus is recruited into DedSec, a fun-loving San Francisco-based hacker collective that operates more or less like how your dad imagines Anonymous. They wear edgy clothes, plan high-profile pranks to stick it to the man, and work out of a hackerspace off Dolores Park. They hate the likes of Facebook, Google, and all other major tech companies, which they see as betraying the public trust by repackaging their users’ data for nefarious ends. Marcus sums up DedSec’s mission statement pretty well: “Big data is invasive and shitty.”

Thus begins an open-world saga that has Marcus and his crew driving around an immense digital re-creation of the San Francisco Bay Area engaging in cyber espionage, car chases, data heists, and the occasional shootout. The story takes cues from 90s flicks like Sneakers and Hackers and, for the most part, stays true to those influences. This is Ubisoft’s first foray into Grand Theft Auto-like satire and away from the more straight-laced trappings of Assassin’s Creed and the first Watch Dogs. The villain is a man-bunned yogabro whose first name is basically “douche,” and companies like !NVITE and Nudle stand in for Facebook and Google. The satire is low-key and obvious, but given how good the real Bay Area has become at satirizing itself, it works well enough.

The tone is all japes and jokes, as the cast of talented misfits argue about Star Trek and Aliens vs. Predator while exposing corrupt politicians and outwitting the FBI. DedSec’s members dress in fashionable threads and have arguments about their #brand. Their lair is covered in stickers and neon paint. Their goal, like many a scrappy SF upstart before them, is to attract more followers on social media and to get people to download their app.

It’s a seismic tonal shift from the Fincher-esque grimdark of the first Watch Dogs, and while the sequel’s fun-loving vibe makes for a breezier and more lighthearted game, it’s occasionally an overcorrection. This game is trying so hard. It’s grinning and dancing for you, but you can see its veins popping. Aren’t these guys FUN?, it asks. Aren’t you having FUN? Isn’t this FUN and SILLY? It doesn’t help that the lingo and overall vibe are a few years past their expiration date. Everything is hashtag-this and omg-that, all epic fails and hella goods and l33t pwns.

Much of the initial awkwardness is eventually smoothed over by Marcus and his merry band of DedSec co-conspirators. They’re a colorful bunch that had fully won me over by the time the credits rolled. Each of these characters has some aspect of their identity that opens a door to a more thorough examination: Marcus is a black guy from Oakland living in lilywhite San Francisco; Sitara is an Indian-American woman leading a group of tech-savvy men. The white guys in the cohort are working out their own identity issues—Wrench has built himself a customized face-mask and his constant jokes betray a deep vulnerability, and Josh is autistic and has trouble keeping up with the rest of the group’s ironic humor and pop culture references.

The script lightly bounces along without stopping to examine any one character too deeply. Similarly, the writers choose not to meaningfully address the lopsided power dynamics built into their narrative. Marcus is on a mission to expose nefarious data companies because a crime-fighting algorithm unjustly profiled him as a likely criminal. In the process, he upends countless lives, steals thousands of dollars from innocent people, kills some cops, and can even get innocent passersby arrested by tagging them with the same false profiling that targeted him. The first Watch Dogs often tripped over itself when trying to simultaneously justify and critique its protagonist’s actions, so it’s understandable that the writers would elect to sidestep the issue altogether in the sequel. It feels like a missed opportunity, even as I understand the inclination to keep things light and surface-level.

Watch Dogs 2’s recreation of the Bay Area is among its more straightforward pleasures. I lived in San Francisco for 10 years out of college and know some parts of the city like the back of my hand. It was a treat to cruise around my old town looking for all my old haunts, though I wonder if it’ll have the same impact for someone who hasn’t lived there. If you haven’t been to the real thing, Watch Dogs 2’s Bay Area may feel like just another unremarkable, semi-tropical open-world video game city. As a former SF resident, it was an unexpected treat.

The city has been compacted, but Ubisoft often gets the “feel” right—from the window-legs in the Haight to the Muni trains on Church to the confusing street-cleaning signs. At one point in my travels I overheard a discussion of the complex politics of Mission burritos, followed by a couple of guys wondering why the bars all close at 2 a.m.. (“I hate after parties,” says the guy.) Throw in a couple of complaints about rent and they’ve covered 80% of San Francisco small-talk.

The majority of Watch Dogs 2’s missions have Marcus infiltrating a building or compound in pursuit of someone’s data. Usually that means reaching some servers or a hard drive located deep within the building, behind several layers of security. Players are given an unusual degree of freedom in attacking each challenge. Marcus has a standard third-person stealth-game move-set: He can crouch behind things, climb over low crates and furniture, and pop from cover to cover with the press of a button. He also has the ability to hack into any security system or phone, hopping from camera to camera while snagging passcodes from wandering guards and using various environmental hazards to lure, distract, and incapacitate foes. Once you’ve scouted a building, you’re free to direct Marcus however you please, crouching behind cover and carefully moving toward your goal.

In addition to a handful of weapons and gadgets, Marcus brings two very important allies to each mission: his aerial drone and his remote-controlled car. These robots open Watch Dogs 2 up substantially, and represent its best new idea. The drones are hot-keyed to two buttons on your D-pad, can be operated at long range, and stay active even as you switch from one to the other and back to Marcus. This means you’re essentially able to control three characters at once, seamlessly hopping between them as you make your way through a level. Your aerial drone scans the area and drops a couple of stun-bombs for you to trigger as you wish. Your R.C. car skims through an airduct and comes out behind a couple of guards, ready to cause a distraction. Marcus hides behind a couch in the middle, poised to make his move when the time is right.

Grand Theft Auto V made headway with this sort of idea by giving players control of multiple protagonists during some setpiece missions. Watch Dogs 2 evolves the concept by letting the protagonist carry the other two characters around with him. It keeps the game fresh and distinct, and I’ve yet to tire of creeping and hacking and scouting. Missions are open-ended and tactical, and theoretically allow for all sorts of imaginative strategies.

Unfortunately, Watch Dogs 2 is saddled with a ridiculously hostile checkpoint system that often punishes death by sending you all the way back to the start of a mission. I lost track of how many times I slouched back into my chair after losing up to a half hour of progress, poised to quit and go play another game. I can probably chalk up an hour or two of my overall game-time to replaying sections that I should never have had to replay. Missions progress in phases—you’ll infiltrate a building, snag a passcode, unlock a server room, solve a large environmental puzzle, then steal the data you came for. Thanks to the checkpoint system, it is possible to do all that, then die on your way out of the building and have to start over from scratch.

It wasn’t just frustrating, it eventually began to limit the risks I was willing to take. Sure, I could try this tricky gambit I planned out with my R.C. car and some stun-mines, but if it doesn’t work, I’ll risk losing my last 20 minutes of progress. Better to just play it safe, which in Watch Dogs 2 usually means exploiting the artificial intelligence.

I started off frustrated with Watch Dogs 2’s AI for one reason, and ended up frustrated for the opposite reason. I was initially struck by how limited the alert stages in the game were: If an enemy spots you, most of the time every guard on the floor will be immediately hostile and will charge toward your location. (Something similar happens with civilians, who flip their shit at the drop of a hat or the skid of a car-tire.) Guards’ hyper-awareness puts a chill on a lot of more aggressive stealth techniques I prefer to use, because it’s rarely worth risking taking out a guard in the first place. What’s more, Marcus is unable to move a guard’s body after he kills or incapacitates them, so every downed enemy dramatically increases the likelihood of a raised alert level.

Eventually, however, I learned how to easily defeat and confound armies of foes. As I became more familiar with the game’s systems, enemy AI stopped feeling overly alert and started feeling overly dumb. I’d brazenly attack rooms full of armored soldiers then run to a corner and hide until they “forgot” me and resumed their patrols. I often wasn’t willing to risk true stealthy play because of the bad checkpointing system, so I wound up beating several of the most challenging missions through brute force and AI exploitation. First the game was too hard, then the game was too easy, but both complaints come back to the same issue: Watch Dogs 2’s AI isn’t what it needs to be.

Those shortcomings are frustrating because Watch Dogs 2 is so generally enjoyable. I’m particularly taken with the game’s fleshed-out co-op system, which lets you and a friend cruise around the map while taking on missions designed for two players. Both players are given access to Marcus’ entire toolkit and whatever upgrades they’ve unlocked. Between the two of you, you have four drones and two humans; practically an army. I played a couple hours of co-op over the weekend and in no time my buddy and I were coordinating and executing elaborate strategies—you spot me with your aerial drone and then distract the guards, I’ll sneak in from behind, then meet you around back for our getaway!

Each co-op mission winds up feeling like a more casual, two-person Grand Theft Auto Online heist. They’re tactical, smart, and they embrace player creativity. (Unfortunately, the game’s “seamless” PvP and co-op modes aren’t yet working, which means that even a couple days after launch, players can’t invade strangers’ games or get pulled into police chases to apprehend rogue players. When I’d been able to sample those modes prior to launch, I had a good time in spite of some bugs and performance dips. None of it is particularly deep, but it’s good fun.)

In single-player, each big operation contains a series of smaller missions, which helps your to-do list feel structured and interconnected. In addition to the main story missions, Watch Dogs 2 contains an absurd amount of side missions, challenges, and hidden collectables. Unlike its scattered predecessor, most of these disparate challenges hold together as a coherent experience. (Some of the sillier ones, like go-kart races, still seem pretty random. It’s not a big deal.)

Side missions usually have Marcus scouring the city for hidden clues, planning infiltrations, or figuring out how to get to the top of a tall building. Collectibles are always difficult to reach, and require either careful environmental problem-solving or infiltration of some sort of guarded compound. Each side mission is also accompanied by some chatter between Marcus and his amigos back at HQ, and each one puts some sort of twist on the established gameplay. Now you’re hunting someone who’s doxxing DedSec members over automated pay phones. Now you’re climbing to the tops of buildings and leaving graffiti. Now you’re planning an ambush to take down corrupt cops.

So much of Watch Dogs 2 is well-considered and well-designed that the game’s missing features and shortcomings stick out. There’s that lack of mid-mission checkpoints, along with Marcus’s inability to drag and hide bodies. One under-explained system has various Bay Area gangs going to war with one another, like an echo of a gang-warfare metagame that was never fully implemented. Oddly, Marcus has a variety of non-lethal weapons at his disposal but no option for a non-lethal melee attack.

That last thing underlines one of the most fundamental tensions in Watch Dogs 2, which is that Marcus Holloway just doesn’t seem like he’d ever want to kill someone. With all apologies to Ezio Auditore, Marcus might be the most instantly likable protagonist Ubisoft has introduced. He’s a kind, relatable dude with a good sense of humor. He jokes around with his friends and seems to genuinely care about them. So while he and his band of misfit DedSec hackers seem like they’d be happy pulling pranks and humiliating their opponents, they do not seem like they’d be cool with murdering Google security guards and assassinating SF cops.

I’ve built up a pretty strong ability to separate story from gameplay over the years, but when it came to Marcus and his friends, I just wasn’t able to do it. Watch Dogs 2 makes it difficult to get through an entire mission without killing someone, even with the nonlethal options you’re given. At any moment, you can 3D-print a grenade launcher and go on a murderous rampage, should you so choose. You don’t have to do any of that, but you can, and it feels odd to be given gameplay options that clash so directly with the carefully crafted cast and story.

Watch Dogs 2’s occasional tonal disconnects are best exemplified by a set of mid-game missions called “Eye for an Eye” that feels like it comes from an entirely different game. The whole thing is set in motion by a jarring tragedy that threatens to permanently derail the otherwise light-hearted narrative. All at once Marcus is infiltrating an Oakland drug-ring run by stereotypical Latino gang members, blowing up crates of cocaine and completing multi-target assassination missions. The detour ends as abruptly as it began, and the game awkwardly swerves back into its lane of corporate espionage and info-wars. Rarely has a set of video game missions felt so clearly like it was written and designed separately from the rest of the game.

Those pacing and tonal flaws stand out because the majority of the game is unusually consistent. The main thrust of the storyline stays true to the good-times introductory missions. Even as the stakes raise, it rarely deviates from its established corny, 90s hacker vibe. I’ve come to genuinely like the main characters, largely because the writers actually took the time to show them being friends. They joke and make up nicknames for one another, often making reference to ongoing conversations and debates that we as players weren’t made privy to. They seem like they have interior lives, which makes them feel like real people. It’s strange that this should be an unusual thing for a game like this to do, but there you go.

I liked Watch Dogs 2, though perhaps not quite as much as it wanted me to like it. It is a significant improvement over its predecessor, filled with challenges that tested my problem-solving skills. It compensates for its technical shortcomings with a raft of interesting new ideas and a near-endless supply of things to do. Its motley crew of hackers won me over with their unflappable enthusiasm, and its loving recreation of San Francisco made me nostalgic for a city that I’m generally happy to have left behind. All that, and little flying robots, too.