Ubisoft's sequel borrows from Rockstar's oeuvre to make a richly enjoyable open world game, despite its online troubles.
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Three weeks before Watch Dogs 2's release, hackers co-opted millions of connected devices around the world - principally security cameras, but also other web-connected domestic devices - and combined their power in an attack that took great swathes of the internet offline. For most of us, the attack, by perpetrators whose identity remains unknown, was both a short-lived inconvenience (Netflix, Twitter, Reddit, Spotify and even the UK government's website were successfully brought down) and a sobering reminder of the risks of installing wifi in a kettle. The game's development team, by contrast, must have been giddy with satisfaction. The news story precisely mimics the plot of the game in which you play as a member of an elite Bay Area-situated team of hacktivists known as DedSec, a name that echoes real world groups such as GhostSec and LulzSec, who plan to takedown a prying corporation ("Like Big Brother and Little Brother all rolled up into one") by using the internet of things.
Your character, Marcus, a black twenty-something wunderkind hacker (his race is not incidental; it's sometimes used to lightly comment on bigotry) is DedSec's newest recruit. His aim is to inspire as many people as possible to install the group's malware-riddled app on their phones in preparation to issue the mother of all DDoS attacks. Watch Dogs 2's timely theme is not entirely a fortuitous accident. This is an open word adventure that liberally cribs from recent headlines, barely bothering to disguise recent tech-related scandals as it recasts them as missions. From chasing down a rap-loving pharmaceutical company executive, widely hated for raising the price of leukaemia drugs, to hacking into the emails of film studio executives, Watch Dogs 2 is that rarest of things: a blockbuster video game that threatens to have something to say.
Nevertheless, while its missions are framed by current affairs, the vignettes still sit within the tradition of video game power-fantasy. DedSec consider themselves vigilantes, clandestine bringers of justice who serve people their delicious comeuppance, as the hackers see it, where the law has failed. This is hacker wish-fulfilment, the final surge in the mainstreaming of geekdom, where the programmers, with their newfound style and confidence, finally get the software keys to the city. In contrast to its murkily earnest predecessor, Watch Dogs 2 chooses to wrap the fantasy in a breezy, brightly coloured and cautiously satirical manner. It follows Rockstar's genre-defining lead in establishing a tone that allows the game to poke at big issues, while simultaneously evading the risk of accusations it's taking itself too seriously.
San Francisco and its surrounding area, much more than the Chicago of the first game, elicit a greater harmony between place and theme. This is the closest that Ubisoft has yet come to matching the ambitions of Grand Theft Auto 5, not only in terms of geographical size and richness (the play area includes San Francisco, Oakland, a slither of Marin and, naturally, Silicon Valley itself), but also in the way that the game simultaneously celebrates and lampoons the city, as well as the temperament and obsessions of its inhabitants. It's there in the incidental barks of passers-by ("Hey, how's the start-up?" says one jogger to another. "You know me, more algorithms, more profit!") It's there in Blume, the game's trim-bearded, litigious Californian billionaire entrepreneur, who pursues his Silicon Valley utopian vision without much concern for others. And it's there in DecSec itself, a kind of Anonymous splinter cell viewed through the eyes of an Urban Outfitters ad-man.
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DedSec aren't mere poseurs, however. Marcus and his friends come with armfuls of tech-related skills. These usefully shift the game's dominant verb away from shooting. While there are weapons in the game (brilliantly, all of your guns must be 3D printed via one of DedSec's headquarters) the emphasis is on using non-violent means to achieve your goals. Most missions involve breaking into buildings either by using one of your radio controlled contraptions (an RC car then, when you save up enough, an even more useful drone) to sneak through air vents in order to open doors and steal files. You can also co-opt any of the tens of thousands of CCTV cameras that watch the city and use these to hop around buildings while booby-trapping junction boxes and grates to disable guards, or stealing files. A click of the right stick drains the world of colour, showing you interactive objects and, where relevant, electrical currents which, in some cases, must be redirected in order to power crucial objects such as gates and lifts.
It's possible to blast your way past security guards, but this approach obviously runs against the grain of the fiction, which is elegantly rigged to provide non-lethal, more creative solutions at every turn. You'll spend most of the game sat, cross-legged by a bush outside the building you're hacking into - a welcome change from the violent norm, albeit one that inevitably becomes repetitive in its own way by the game's end. As you accrue followers by completing missions (as well as side-ops, the game offers a range of online operations to this end, where you can - once launch server issues are resolved, at least - pair up with any players who seamlessly turn up in your city) you win research points which can be used to broaden and improve your skill set yet further. Ubisoft's over-familiar, fog-of-war clearing towers are gone, replaced by Nudle Maps, one of a clutch of apps that can be installed on your phone and through which most of the game, including missions and upgrades, are managed.
The risk with all vigilantism is that you come to mirror the forces against which you fight. So it is in Watch Dogs 2 where, in time, Marcus gains the ability to disregard the privacy of everyone he meets. You can nonchalantly drive down the street while looting the bank accounts of the pedestrians you pass in order to fund your endeavours (invest your research in the right places, and you'll even be able to identify the richest people around you). Or you might remotely hijack a car, shifting it into reverse while yanking the steering wheel to the left, in order to create a diversion. Or you might call a false APB on someone who rubs you up the wrong way. DedSec sees itself as above the law (although, as in GTA, if you're caught in a crime, you'll need to outrun the police just like any of RockStar's less-sophisticated outlaws) but the game never quite grapples with the Robin Hood-esque ethical conundrums it kicks up.
Ubisoft's San Francisco doesn't quite have the heft and finesse of RockStar's Los Angeles. Yes, Watch Dogs 2's Golden Gate Bridge at sundown is as exquisite as Los Santos' Vinewood sign at sunrise. But this world smaller in scope, more brittle in aesthetic, and doesn't have the kind of fine-detailing that only comes from a team allowed to work on a world for years after most companies would consider it finished. Blame the homogeneity of open-world games in 2016 for inviting these endless comparisons.
Where Watch Dogs 2 leads the field is in closing the thematic gap between our world and the open world, and in offering players more ways to hit their targets than those delivered down the barrel of a gun. It may veer in posture between truth-telling satire and flimsy flippancy, and its script may have the occasional cringe-worthy flourish ("We're hackers: we outthink, we out-dare.") but Watch Dogs 2, at its best, demonstrates where blockbusters can straddle entertainment and commentary, and pull both off with a degree of success.