Earlier this month, Ubisoft released a sequel to its open-world hacking adventure, Watch Dogs. Gone is the city of Chicago and the dour grimace of vigilante Aiden Pearce. Watch Dogs 2 instead focuses on Marcus Holloway, a youthful hacker living in the bright and beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. As part of DedSec, players complete missions around San Francisco with the aim of destroying the city’s advanced surveillance system.
We’re down with the change of scenery and much-needed hero refresh, but Watch Dogs 2 is still building on the flawed foundation of the original. We asked ourselves if the game actually fixes those problems and how well it succeeds on its own.
In what ways does Watch Dogs 2 most improve upon the original?
Andrew: There are a number of reasons why Watch Dogs 2 is more enjoyable than the original — better missions, the controllable drone, a great soundtrack — but really the most important reason is a shift in attitude. The original Watch Dogs was a joyless game starring a miserable character. Aiden Pearce was angry, violent, and devoid of personality. He was like a low-level villain from another game turned into a lead. Watch Dogs, starring Angry Man in Baseball Hat.
But in Watch Dogs 2, the hero is Aiden’s total opposite. Marcus Holloway is charming and personable, someone you want to spend a lot of time with. And whereas Aiden seemed to care about nothing but avenging the death of his niece, Marcus is fighting for more than just himself. His goal is to expose corruption amongst the tech elite. It’s a lot more relatable than simply killing a lot of bad guys to avenge a loved one’s death.
It’s not just Marcus, though — overall Watch Dogs 2 is a less serious, more friendly game. The main cast of hackers is a group of adorable goofballs, and missions have you doing things like racing go-karts and swindling sleazy tech moguls. You can wear Crocs and go down a slide in knockoff Google headquarters. It’s fun — which is important for a game that spans dozens of hours.
‘Watch Dogs,’ starring Angry Man in Baseball Hat
Chris: I second all of the above, but I also want to give credit to the game’s designers who figured out what differentiates this game from its contemporaries. Let me backtrack. I played the first couple hours of Watch Dogs 2 twice — long story, lost save file. The first time, I slogged through missions, often getting caught and annihilated as I tried to make my way from point A to point B on foot. The second time, Andrew, I heeded your advice and rarely entered a mission area. Instead, I viewed locations as giant puzzles — similar to Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions, or I suppose a more recent example would be Volume. With my drone, I’d monitor guard’s patrol routes, and with my RC car, I’d zip across office spaces, through air ducts, and onto computer servers, where I’d collect data or plant a virus or do whatever it is hackers do. And once I had what I needed, I’d turn off my drone, get in my car, and zip way. You can still play Watch Dogs 2 like the first Watch Dogs, as some murderous killer who uses hacking to take life in elaborate ways. But what impresses me about Watch Dogs 2, and what I hope will become an even greater MO for the franchise's future, is the decision to turn the GTA formula into a puzzle game.
What did you think of Watch Dogs 2’s version of San Francisco?
Megan: I lived in San Francisco for about two years, so I’m really invested in the attention to detail. It really trips me out. I’ve had a hard time reconciling how well Ubisoft captures the look and feel of San Francisco with how inexplicably it removes or modifies large swaths of the city's historic buildings and cultural touchstones.
Part of the reason I was so stoked for Watch Dogs 2 was because of the setting. It felt like a way for me to revisit my old home. In the real San Francisco, there are areas like the Embarcadero, the Mission, Union Square, that I know well enough to navigate blind drunk in the dark. In the game, entire blocks are gone. I spent an obscene amount of time prowling around the city searching for my old neighborhood, or investigating every inch of Dolores Park. And there were moments that felt special for me. I biked across the Bay Bridge. I walked down Market Street to the Embarcadero and spent some time near the water. I liked looking around at my virtual companions, the tech bros and hipsters who feel true to the San Francisco I knew.
But when the game didn’t match up with my memories, the fantasy would stutter. I understand why it’s different. These changes must obviously be made with an eye on making the overall game experience better. Who wants to spend all their time hiking up one hill after another if it serves no purpose in-game? Not to mention the cost of re-creating a city block by block! It’s just that the game comes close enough to reality, that I now want a true virtual SF for days when I need a break from NYC.
Andrew: I’ve spent a bit of time in San Francisco for work, and while I agree it doesn’t get all of the details right — which, like you said, would be practically impossible — it really does nail the feeling of being in the Bay Area in this decade. Neighborhoods are easy to identify, the signage of fake stores and businesses looks right, everyone drives in the bus-only lane. Some of the area’s defining features also made the game itself better — the hilly terrain led to quite a few cool car chases for me. That said, I didn’t go and explore areas looking for their real-world equivalents. But as set-dressing, Watch Dogs 2’s Bay Area felt convincing enough.
everyone drives in the bus-only lane
Some of that also came down to the people in the city. Practically every conversation was about a startup. Where else would that happen?
Chris: I was genuinely impressed by the diversity and authenticity of architecture. Outside of Grand Theft Auto, open-world games tend to feature a few handcrafted monuments and landmarks surrounded by slightly modified copy-and-paste structures. Here are some houses. Here we have offices. Now and then we get a restaurant or two. But Watch Dogs 2’s San Francisco is, like the city, a smorgasbord of styles, from the modern glass behemoths in Silicon Valley to the stucco of Palo Alto to the row homes in the heart of San Fran.
How does Ubisoft’s portrayal of hackers stack up against others in pop culture?
Megan: I couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Robot the entire time I played this game — not because of any overt similarities, but because of how all these characters look.
In a serious hacker show like Mr. Robot, you have the perfect portrait of an angry young man. His go-to uniform is a hoodie. If he weren’t the beautiful and perfect Rami Malek, he would blend into the scenery of any New York neighborhood flawlessly. So it goes for the rest of his crew, a group of average humans who you wouldn’t give a second look if you saw them in the subway.
And then you have the, uh, colorful bunch of Watch Dogs 2 in San Francisco. Why does everyone look like they’ve just left a Hot Topic and are waiting at the mall for their moms to come pick them up? If you see Wrench with his emoji-like mask even once, how could you ever forget him? This seems like the biggest problem to me about this colorful hacker squad. They’re all too memorable. They stand out, rather than blend in.
Everything about their kooky outfits and rage against the man tattoos screams “trying hard.” At least Marcus has solid style and taste.
Why does everyone look like they’ve just left a Hot Topic?
Chris: Are these good representations of hacker culture? Definitely not. Like you said, Megan, they are about as a subtle as an all-vuvuzela orchestra. But they are memorable, and compared with every other popular depiction of hackers, they are likable to boot.
I want to mention Saints Row, the first open-world series to recognize the value of likability in open-world games. It took the developers a few tries, but by Saints Row, they had established a warm and mostly inclusive tone — surprising, considering the series launched off a sales pitch that boils down to “GTA but naughty.” Watch Dogs 2 borrows heavily from the Saints Row playbook, allowing players to have lengthy conversations about irrelevant and irreverent topics, my favorite being a deep-cut debate about the Aliens vs. Predator universe. The creators of both series seemed to understand that if you ask players to spend dozens of hours in this world, then you should at the very least provide characters worth caring about.
Watch Dogs 2 isn’t the first open-world game we’ve seen crib the Saints Row playbook, and I’d wager it won’t be the last.
As part of your hacking abilities, you can dig out minor facts about anyone in the city. How did this affect your opinion of people you interacted with, and how do you feel about boiling people down to a single line?
Megan: I love this, and I’m glad to see it back from the first Watch Dogs. This is a really powerful way for any character to make a first impression — how often do you get any sort of personality read on an NPC?
I like how much these one-liners make me grapple with my own perceptions. Finding people that had geek hobbies like cosplaying or convention going made me feel a sort of kinship; stumbling across do-gooder volunteers made me more protective of them, careful. This goes both ways, of course. In one case, I accidentally ran someone over (sorry!) and then hopped out to survey the damage. A quick hack showed me that the guy I hit, still unconscious on the ground, had been convicted multiple times of assault. My random act of violence, even though it was accidental, suddenly felt alright. That’s kind of terrifying.
Andrew: I’ve always liked this idea in theory, but in practice it doesn’t actually impact how I play the game at all. It turns out that reading a single line about a person doesn’t create much of an attachment for me. Maybe I’m just callous, but I drive around in Watch Dogs and Grand Theft Auto with the exact same sense of reckless abandon.
It might be the way so many of the snippets feel binary, like they’re trying to paint a non-playable character in a very particular light. It feels superficial. If I’m going to feel bad about running someone over in a Jeep, it shouldn’t matter whether they have cancer or are struggling with mortgage payments or have an extensive criminal record. It’s a human life either way.
It’s also a feature I get bored with over the course of the game. I might spend some downtime early on scanning people, but when the story really ramps up and I’m swamped with side-missions, it’s the last thing on my mind.
Do you feel weird shooting folks when you’re supposed to be an activist hacker?
Megan: The fascinating thing about hackers, the scary thing, is that they can hurt you without ever touching you. They don’t need to assault you, because they can instead expose your private information, take over your accounts, damage your life. They’re powerful because they can attack from a country away, not because they actually pose a physical threat.
I’m all for shooting everything in sight when a game calls for it, but it feels unnecessary in this particular setting. Raging against the government by hacking their systems and exposing their wrongdoings makes me feel righteous, in control, liberated. Shooting someone while I’m breaking into a building makes me feel like a murderer. It’s a lazy tool to make Watch Dogs 2 “fun” that drains it of the personality it works so hard to establish. Does it make me cynical to be bored of being able to shoot everything and anything I want?
I was left wondering why every weapon didn’t have a stun alternative
Andrew: The worst parts of Watch Dogs 2 are when you are firing a gun. For me it’s less about the tonal dissonance — after playing every Uncharted game, I’m used to it — but more because Watch Dogs 2 is so boring as a shooter. It loses everything that makes it special as a game.
My favorite part of the game is when I’m able to complete a mission without even being physically present. I sit down outside of a building, pull out my laptop, and use tools like drones, security cameras, and whatever else I can to infiltrate an area and cause all kinds of havoc. It’s an empowering feeling. It turns hacking into an incredible power that’s almost like magic.
But when Marcus pulls out a gun, all of that goes away. In these moments Watch Dogs 2 turns into something painfully generic. Fire some bullets, duck behind cover, reload, repeat. It’s a cycle I’ve repeated countless times in other games — ones that do it a lot better — and not something I’m keen to do in Watch Dogs. If I do have to kill someone, I’d rather do it by running them over with a hacked smart car.
Chris: If you save enough in-game money, you can purchase a stun grenade launcher, but I was left wondering why every weapon didn’t have a stun alternative. In children’s cartoons, producers often take a minor step to show everyone is actually okay: a villain’s plan crashes, for example, and we see a parachute pop over the ocean. I wonder why we don’t see a similar approach take with equally cartoonish video games.
I’ll actually use this as an opportunity to direct our readers to Polygon’s review. Phil Kollar called the guns a “failure of imagination,” and I couldn’t agree more. Finding ways to make non-lethal weapons compelling would have demanded a level of creativity that is never displayed in the game’s combat. It’s like the game’s creators imagined two types of players: the ones who will play entirely stealth, and the others who will go guns blazing. But people can enjoy action without fretting over a body count, and gun-nuts will love more options than the traditional fare.
If Ubisoft does go forward with Watch Dogs 3, I hope they start by reimagining combat. And after that, maybe they can find a setting outside of the states. Or maybe international settings is Assassin’s Creed’s thing.