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The fear of being watched by powerful bodies is no recent development. Central to many religious beliefs, thousands of years old, is the idea that we’ll be punished for doing wrong by particular holy writ. In civil society, laws are meant to help govern and shape our actions, the conceptual all-seeing eye of justice often preventing horrific acts. On a related note, governments assert it’s for the security of society that they monitor our activities, movements and actions. After all in George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother was never about control, but “safety” and “protection” of the people. Yet, today, we all know what Big Brother really means.

Within recent years, the finger on the pulse of citizens’ movements has often turned into a vice grip, with armed police and security itching to pull triggers on weapons they should never have, against people who offer no threats. Black Lives Matter’s message pointing out police brutality against people of colour has resonated throughout the world; Muslims have constantly highlighted the incredible hardship they face while merely trying to travel. Protection of the people has turned into protecting against the people.

Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2 attempts to engage with these issues, far more than it did with its first lazy installment. Indeed, so terrible was the first game, so different in tone from its sequel, Watch Dogs 2 might as well be an entirely new franchise. Indeed, not only do you not have to have play the first game, it’s better if you haven’t.

Watch Dogs 2 – Setup

Watch Dogs 2 is a third-person, open world sandbox game, that uses stealth, combat and “hacking” (i.e. magic by virtue of “technology”) to navigate the world. The game world is massive, with dynamic weather, day-night cycles, NPCs performing a range of activities and so on.

In Watch Dogs 2, players take on the role of Marcus – a young black man in modern day San Francisco, profiled by an all-seeing surveillance system as being a danger to society. Indeed, moments into the game, the system designed to monitor potential and actual threats concludes Marcus is a danger just by being a young black man. Anyone who’s aware of the current issues facing black Americans knows the reality of this all too well: Machines, after all, cannot erase the mortal, racist stains of their makers.

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A hacktivist group – that amalgamates Anonymous, Occupy Wall Street and annoying high school kids who discovered “punk” was a thing – has decided to fight this system. They’re called DedSec. Marcus wants in – the tutorial and prologue serve as a test DedSec provides Marcus, cleverly allowing players to come to grips with the game’s mechanics. Once you’re in, the whole of San Francisco opens up.

The world is large, but does something quite interesting. You don’t have to drive from one corner to the other. Fast travel can be activated at any time, transporting you to nearby shops, which are liberally scattered throughout the map. This undermines so much of what I find frustrating about open-world games, where the map is a useless open space, designed to pad out play time as you travel from one actual play activity to another. Here, you are not penalized in any way when you hop around the map at any time. It made playing less tedious and I can only hope other devs see the importance of relaxing rules about fast-travel systems.

Further, areas are distinct. You’ll know when you’re in the rich tech sector dominated by execs versus the poorer ones, with litter and ugly cars. This makes the world constantly interesting. Of course, the game is a joy to look at, with lots of colour, beautiful lighting and fantastic textures. Faces and hair still could use some work, but are otherwise are OK.

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Watch Dogs 2 – Story

The story is a bit difficult to nail down, since it plays out more as a series of loosely connected activities than a solid plot. In fact, the “big bad” is more the concept of the powerful encroaching on the freedoms of the powerless than it is a particular man. Sure, one man in the game is set up as the villain, though he’s a pretty uninteresting menace and plays out more as the embodiment of corrupted power than an actual person.

In essence, the story is DedSec is trying to get more people to download their “app” so that DedSec have enough… power (?) to take on the big corporations ruining freedom. Basically, it’s the world’s most elaborate SEO marketing scheme.

Every time Marcus and DedSec reveal some shady deals with a giant corporation, they get Followers. Wonderfully, you even get Followers by taking selfies at certain landmark spaces – thus playing into modern day social media culture beautifully. You even get comments if it’s a selfie versus a normal angle.
Followers are the game’s replacement for experience points, letting you reach certain levels, meaning you can upgrade Marcus in various ways, such as improved reload times and hacking abilities.

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The story setup is a bit silly, but that doesn’t matter. The lack of story doesn’t mean bad writing. Indeed, the characters are well-written, charming, self-aware and caring. I laughed numerous times and rolled my eyes at their ultra nerdy discussion (Marcus and his friend Wrench have a long debate about “Aliens versus Predator”). The game is also unafraid to explore Marcus’ blackness in the ultra tech world of San Francisco – it was refreshing to hear frequent talk about the very low number of black workers in Silicon Valley for instance.

Additionally, individual missions are often interesting, leading to plenty of “oh my god” moments. I’d rather not spoil what these are or where the game takes you – needless to say, I was incredibly surprised and happy it did so.

Also, prepare to take on stand-ins for Facebook, Google, Donald Trump, Martin Shkreli and others. But also look out for plenty of unmarked side-missions. One of these that I found most moving involved suicide, where Marcus uses his hacking skills to alert a loved one to another’s peril. Also, I got to hack an ATM to pay a foreign student’s outstanding tuition fees!

There’s plenty of joyful moments like these and it’s wonderful to see it used so frequently in a game pulling itself out the shadow of a grimdark techbro mindset.

Watch Dogs 2 – Hacking

The most unique aspect of Watch Dogs 2 is the “hacking” element. This is Marcus’ magical ability to manipulate a range of tech things in the world. From cars to people’s headpieces, traffic lights to garage doors. The number of items you can affect is quite large, but even within these, there are options: for example, you can make someone’s phone vibrate to display some distracting message or make it overheat; you can turn a robot off or over-charge it so that it rams into nearby enemies. Mixing these systems leads to plenty of fun and tense situations.

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The game focuses on variety, even to the point of letting you engage in non-lethal combat. Marcus is armed with a stun gun, some hacks allow him to trigger non-lethal shocks and his main weapon is a weight-ball attached to a chain. Of course, murder is possible but it’s wonderful to see that non-lethal is a viable option. Murder is too easy, whereas trying to play non-lethal makes the game harder but more rewarding (for example, you could blow someone up and stop them permanently, but that alerts more enemies; but non-lethal is temporary in some instances, meaning they could wake up at any second and then tell their friends.)

Marcus also gains access to tiny robots: a tiny ground vehicle and a flying drone. The wheel robot can physically engage with the world, which is sometimes necessary in order to access certain areas (doors are unlocked by “hacking” a terminal, but that requires physically being there: the little wheel buddy can get where Marcus can’t. It can also pick items up.) The flying drone serves more as surveillance than anything else. It highlights enemies and, when upgraded, can see through walls. Of course, once you upgrade both of these, you can probably complete entire missions with them without Marcus being anywhere near the mission area.

Watch Dogs 2 – Multiplayer

Multiplayer was supposed to be central to the experience and it’s a shame that, at the time of writing, it’s not really available on PS4. There have been new updates which have broadened it somewhat, but it does not have the seamless interaction we were promised yet. This is where you can drift from your game into another’s – so far, that’s happened once with someone who had a “bounty” (a PVP game type, where you must kill another player.)

Nevertheless, what I have played was enormous fun – working easily especially with friends. It’s particularly enjoyable if someone acts as the eye in the sky, while another is the foot soldier. I recall one mission where I monitored the battlefield, while a friend snuck through. Frequently, just as he was about to be spotted, I could trigger a blast into enemies’ ear-pieces, letting my friend either escape unnoticed or take them out. I was making cars drive to distract guards, closing doors to prevent my friend being seen and so on. It’s a lot of fun on both sides, adding variety to a game that is already varied.

Multiplayer and single player mission types do obviously consist of go here, kill these people, repeat. But, as I said, Marcus need almost never enter a play field. Using your hacking skills that can enter cameras and Marcus’ robots, you can cause chaos and mayhem, summoning police or rival gangs to engage in conflict, letting your little wheel buddy sneak in through the chaos to steal or hack what you need.

The animation is some of the most stunning and realistic I’ve seen, especially with Marcus able to free-run beautifully across roof-tops and obstacles. The little animation from the robot when it hacks is also so adorable.

Furthermore, for an open world Ubisoft game, I encountered almost no bugs. The game worked after a modest day one patch and has been fine since (and there have been more patches).

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Fun while saving the world

As I highlighted the characters are very well-written, conveying a range of emotion and depth. But what I find important is linking it to the game’s central focus on joy and punk elation. Marcus constantly conveys how much he’s enjoying himself and that rubbed off on me. About to enter a mission area, he tells one of his hacker friends to play him a cool track, as he puts in his headphones; he is super nerdy about a particular Hollywood star and his movies; he and his friends geek out over machines and robots.

This doesn’t mean there are no serious themes. Only that grim and seriousness are not the dominant ones. The hackers point out there’s no reason to avoid having fun while trying to save the world. Added to this the colours, humour, fun side-activities – from kart racing to being an Uber driver with quirky passengers – and the game’s focus comes into view. It was genuinely refreshing not focusing on revenge or other dark aspects.

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Conclusion

Watch Dogs 2 is my big budget game of the year: it focuses on joy, fun and laughter above all else – while remaining strong on its focus on interesting, dynamic systems. It has a core cast I cared about, who are well written and love each other. It even includes a trans councilwoman, whose gender is never an issue or even a topic for Marcus or other hackers. She aids Marcus in taking down a Scientology stand-in!

It’s gorgeous to look at, with an incredible soundtrack – one you can play at any point thanks to Marcus’ phone. With wonderful voice-acting, performance capture and texture, this becomes a complete package.

Aside from missing the seamless multiplayer, Watch Dogs 2 delivered on everything I wanted in a sequel. Refreshingly, it’s an open-world game not bogged down by samey mission-types.

Sure, you do have to navigate enemies to hack or pick up items – but all of these are different, requiring changing strategies to complete. You’ll be using your brain a lot, as the game even includes puzzles you must solve to open systems. Watch Dogs 2 is a must-play and, in a year that’s been as incredible as this, that’s saying a lot.

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