Is it possible to love a game, or even like it, if it feels like your preferred way of playing is completely in contrast to that of its creators? What if you felt they did everything right, bar one or two design decisions you could overlook or play around: can you truly recommend someone else play it? I’ve been conflicted after finishing games plenty of times in the past, but I don’t know for my gaming career I’ve ever been as conflicted as I am since playing Watch Dogs 2.
On both a personal and critical level, the original Watch Dogs was disappointing. A grey city festooned by brooding, unlikeable heroes and convoluted, half-baked mechanics left a sour impression at the start of this console generation. Creating a successful sequel seemed to be a Sisyphean task for any developer. However, by wisely choosing to wholesale abandon almost aspects of the original in terms of tone, style and location, Watch Dogs 2 at least had a fighting chance.
When compared to Aiden Pearce of the first Watch Dogs, a bucket of wallpaper paste would be a more enjoyable lead character. Thankfully, Marcus Holloway and his DedSec hacker crew are bursting with personality and charisma, filling the desperately required void left from before. Following on from the events in Chicago in 2013, ctOS has been rolled out across San Francisco, integrating a single, city-wide operating system across anything with a wi-fi signal and a microchip: Traffic lights, gas lines, security cameras, the lot. When Marcus and his crew discover that ctOS 2.0 is being used for nefarious purposes and to arrest people for crimes they haven’t committed, they decide enough is enough and they’ll take down the system.
What makes this relatively rudimentary story work is the fun interconnectivity between the different characters that make up DedSec. Marcus, young, black and tech-savvy has a larrikin attitude and approach, making playing as him far more enjoyable than your average protagonist. One collectible in the game, a four-square style check-in app, requires Marcus to take a photo of various landmarks across the San Francisco area. Rather than just taking regular landscapes, however, the camera defaults to a selfie cam, with a dedicated button for pulling faces and poses. It’s such a small feature that fills in such rich detail on both the world and Marcus himself, making him feel far more charismatic and likeable, whilst simultaneously feeling modern and in-tune with popular culture. For a game about tech and hacking, Watch Dogs felt stodgy and uncool. Watch Dogs 2 feels in tune, and modern to today’s culture. That’s a tough ask for a video game.
Marcus’ crew helps set the tone for the game. Horatio, with the all-time great hacker name of “Ratio”, is consistently cracking jokes and lightening up the group. As the only other black member of the group, Ratio and Marcus’ shared race maintains a constant point of attention throughout the game. One scene at Watch Dogs’ Google Campus equivalent sees the two characters deriding the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley with equal parts charm and rancour. Another DedSec member, Josh, is a hacker with autism, however, his condition is never used as a storytelling point or pejorative – rather, it’s just a character feature that helps flesh out the universe. Wrench and Sitara, the two remaining crew members, feel a little more generic in their characterisations, but they still have their highs across the game.
As the crew’s hacking exploits grow in complexity and as the plot ratchets up in tension, the game does a surprisingly good job at creating a villain you want to see get his comeuppance. In some situations, the game errs a little too close to the bleeding edge of reality: one of the final sequences of missions sees DedSec trying to stop an outside party from directly influencing an American Election, for example. This isn’t necessarily bad design (who could have predicted how crazy this previous American election would become), however, it did remove me from the narrative more than a few times. If biting commentary on modern life is what you’re looking for, arguably no game does it better than Watch Dogs 2.
The plot is a little too long, with what feels like three or four complete mission chains too many. I took my time and engaged with almost all of the side content as I played, however, this may have been to my detriment. After around two hours of playtime, I had unlocked every power, weapon and gadget I would use until the end of the game. Just as with its predecessor, Watch Dogs 2 does a particularly poor job of pacing out the “curve” of the players power. Rather than a nice, steady rise over the length of the game, Watch Dogs 2 feels more like a steep line upwards, followed by a long, long plateau.
This is compounded with arguably the greatest case of narrative dissonance I’ve ever experienced, and ultimately my biggest issue with Watch Dogs 2. The fun-loving and jovial DedSec crew routinely sneak into secure areas to hijack data and destroy sensitive equipment with a variety of distraction techniques, special drones and stun guns if necessary to take down a threat. Or, right from the get-go, you could 3D print an M16 and grenade launcher to boot, then go to town killing everyone in sight. It’s in complete, 180 degree opposition to the tone and characters the game puts into place, and completely ruins any sense of immersion or enjoyment I could derive from it. The idea of the fun-loving DedSec crew, who spend entire missions doing nothing but putting up graffiti suddenly deciding to execute dozens of security workers was complete insanity. I immediately abstained from using any form of guns, confining myself to intelligent stealth-work, hacking and a stun-gun if necessary.
The complete tonal dissonance between fun-loving Marcus geeking out over a stupid movie trailer to stone-cold murdering civilians with an assault rifle was completely out of line. It stinks of cowardice on the behalf of the developer, and a lack of trust in the audience that they could not create an open world game without ritualistic murder. Two of the final missions in the game took me dozens upon dozens of tries each to complete non-lethally, but I had a point to prove: Not every game has to let you shoot anything. For a title that fights so intelligently to appear modern and in touch, this was as far out of order as it could possibly get.
Tonal errors aren’t the only problem Watch Dogs 2 faces. The controls are far too complicated, reeking of the problems that the later Assassin’s Creed titles faced. There are simply too many things mapped to the controller at once, so the entire system becomes overburdened and unintuitive. I didn’t realize until I was well over 30hrs in that there was an entire system of emotes and dances I had been ignoring the entire time, mapped to a face button! Meanwhile, trying to run and climb ledges at the same time requires a feat of minor digit-based dextrous madness. The hacking abilities also feel antiquated and oddly unintuitive, with almost every object in the environment sharing the same four abilities. It’s too clunky to use effectively, and relatively lacklustre when used at all. For all the modernity and polish that is poured into the fantastic rendering of San Francisco and its core characters, a little more focus on these interactive moments would not have gone astray.
Watch Dogs 2 is a fantastic open world, with a great set of characters, a pretty good story and mediocre controls. There are clear, knowing design decisions that have been made to evolve past the sins of its forefather that should be celebrated. However, the relative stagnation of gameplay and significant errors in the tone of its world leave me conflicted. Watch Dogs 2 has a whole lot of detailed, nuanced things to say about modern life and our tech-reliant world, but it’s ultimately too afraid to truly put the trust in its audience to listen without being able to kill men, women and children. Perhaps with a bit more polish and a bit more trust, Watch Dogs 3 will be the amazing game this deserved to be.
Watch Dogs 2 was reviewed on Xbox One with a review copy, provided by the publisher.