HACKER THRILLER

‘Watch Dogs 2’ Isn’t as Smart As It Thinks

While a marked improvement on the original, this open-world hacker adventure could have been so much more.

When Watch Dogs was announced in 2012, it felt like one of those real “next-gen” games. The promise of a big, interconnected city full of small, interconnected people you could check in on with the touch of a button was incredibly exciting and something that seemed impossible on the hardware at the time. It would also address in a meaningful way one of open-world gaming’s biggest struggles: giving life to the innocent bystanders. Giving them randomized biographies and you the chance to see the occasional snippet of a secret chat or personal phone call had the potential to make the city feel actually lived-in. With the weight of the world’s expectations on its shoulders, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the game released to mixed reviews. But there was one clear consensus: Man, the sequel’s gonna be good.

The first in any franchise is often still trying to find its footing, but practice makes perfect and these last few years have led to a far more refined experience. In many respects, Watch Dogs 2 is the game that everyone wanted the first time. It feels familiar (but better), and it comes with a radically new context. Watch Dogs was a revenge techno-thriller. It was like a modern Grand Theft Auto, trying to take a genre that encourages silliness and makes it distinctly not-silly. It creates a disconnect between the game and the narrative it tries to tell. You want to do things that don’t make sense in the story, but you create your own story with your actions. The version of protagonist Aiden Pierce that Watch Dogs wanted you to follow was never the one you wanted to follow.

So Watch Dogs 2 changed tactics. It’s not serious at all. You follow Marcus, whose colorful personality seems like overcompensation for the original’s milquetoast main character. He and the other misfits who make up the hacker group known as Dedsec are telling a far less dramatic story, and one that’s much more enjoyable to be a part of. If Watch Dogs was Grand Theft Auto, its sequel is Saints Row—something I realized around the time I was remotely controlling a talking car stolen from a movie set off a pier ramp as fireworks exploded around it.

Now, why would I be doing that? For Followers, of course. In the modern era, that’s what matters most. You pull your big stunts to get the views to get access to the people and their technology, which you can leverage for your movement to take down the real bad guys. (Dedsec does illegal things, sure, but they do it for a just cause.) Sometimes those stunts are like the aforementioned car show, entirely divorced from reality. Then, there are the other moments, like when you are tricking a pharmacy CEO who jacked up the price of life-saving medicine into thinking you’re a hit rapper who will sell him some exclusive new tracks (sound familiar?), or when you take on a money-obsessed religion which “audits” its members and whose most notable member is a major action movie star.

Intersecting fantasy with reality, primarily in the form of wish fulfillment (don’t we all want to trick Martin Shkreli out of millions of dollars and donate them to a Toxoplasmosis charity?), is a fairly easy way to make a game feel like it’s got its finger on the pulse. But this is a double-edged sword, because one person’s timeliness is another’s laziness. If stories are going to pull from the world, they need to do so for reasons other than “We couldn’t think of another interesting thing, so here are last year’s headlines.”

This brings up the more fundamental question of parody vs. satire: Watch Dogs 2 falls pretty firmly in the former camp, despite the fact that there’s no blockbuster game franchise with more potential for sharp and meaningful satire than this one. Grand Theft Auto is known for its societal takedowns, but it feels comparatively ancient when put against the so-very-plausible technology of Watch Dogs. There is so much that the game could be saying… which makes it all the more disappointing that it says nothing.

The game talks about things, to be sure: Characters make proclamations about privacy and security and good and evil and the philosophy of those things. It all sounds well and good (and vaguely reminiscent of a stereotypical millennial’s Facebook wall), but the material deserves better. In making a game that depicts barely fictionalized versions of actual events in a representation of reality that seems all-too-plausible, the good folks at Ubisoft have given themselves a responsibility to do something more than just throw a veneer of commentary on top of their shiny digital toybox.

You’re hacking corporations to take down a system, but you’re also just hacking random people around you for your own amusement and/or betterment. And you don’t feel anything for having done so. There’s no internal conflict, certainly not for Marcus and not for you, the player, either. To some degree, this is the most interesting thing about Watch Dogs 2.

Think of it as a different payment method: Friends of mine have told me that they avoid paying credit because it’s just so easy to spend money when you’re swiping a plastic card. Paying in cash makes the cost feel real. Getting money on the street in Grand Theft Auto is like paying cash. You have to kill the person whose money you want. You might shoot them, but more likely you’ll beat them to death. There will be screams. There will be blood. People around you will run away. The police will probably be called. You get the money at the end so it’s “worth it,” but you work for it.

Taking money from people in Watch Dogs is like swiping a card. Actually, it’s easier. You get their money literally just by pressing a button. Sure, you can beat them to death with your yo-yo-like weapon if you want to do it the old-fashioned way, but that’s messy and complicated and unnecessary. Heck, you can steal people’s money entirely by accident while trying to do other things, like blow up steam pipes hidden beneath the street. And no one knows. No one ever will know. Even when that digital avatar checks their bank account, all they’ll know is that they’re $48 poorer. They won’t think back to the man walking around with his cell phone out, because that’s everybody these days. It’s just so easy.

Plus, you can get little glimpses into their lives. This was one of the things that made the original game so appealing, that every innocent bystander had an identity. Here’s Terry Ishikawa, an AV technician making $73,500. In his spare time, he posts to knitting forums. I take money from him. Over there is Marjory Cook, an economist making $131,000. She has a marksmanship badge. Rather than money, I see the middle of a text chain: She’s complaining about autocorrect, because “beverage” came out as “beaver.” It’s painfully relatable, and I feel that… but I don’t feel like it’s coming from Marjory Cook. I see a person’s name, read some details, listen in on the chat, but I don’t feel like it’s coming from her. It feels empty.

Watch Dogs had a reputation meter, which tracked how the public reacted to your deeds and was intended to drive your actions down some kind of moral (or immoral path), but it was toothless. It went up and down and had only a marginal effect on your experience (as is so often the case with such systems). Watch Dogs 2’s Follower count here is equally meaningless, though for a totally different reason. You get Followers for doing all kinds of illegal things, but no matter what you do, you only gain them. That number will go up by thousands (or tens of thousands) and won’t go down. You might stealthily take down an entire building without a single bullet being fired, or you might remotely detonate a security guard’s grenade on their belt (why security guards have grenades I still don’t know) and then massacre everyone in sight. It doesn’t matter.

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If that were the point, it would actually be one heck of a message, one that seems particularly appropriate right about now, but it doesn’t feel intentional. It feels like a capitulation to the player, because the game-playing public would be irate if they started to hemorrhage followers for doing the wrong bad things instead of the right bad ones. Reviewers would slam the game for making them do extra work with vague rules. The all-important Metacritic score would go down. Someone would probably lose their job. But it would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

We live in a world where the rules are unclear, where what goes viral and what doesn’t seems to be entirely random. Dedsec’s stunts are tailor-made to get people to follow them, and part of me imagines that there’s a YouTube-style “If you enjoyed this video, check that Like button! If you want to see more, check that Subscribe button!” ready to append to the next big clip. But not everything that people think will go viral does, and wouldn’t it be fascinating if sometimes those projected follower counts were wrong? Certain stunts overperformed and others underperformed. Others that expected astronomical results actually went negative, and so the gang had to work even harder for the next trick. This could be clearly defined by the developer, or even randomized, offsetting the failures with enormous wins to have an ultimately similar number of followers, so the player doesn’t get too frustrated.

Or it could go further: What if the rules were specific to you? What if my Adoring Public loved violence and yours abhorred it? I wouldn’t get followers unless I participated in a bloodbath, and you wouldn’t get any if you did. As members of Dedsec, the characters (and you) would have to figure out what the people wanted, and give that to them. It would make all of our experiences unique, and it would make for a game that really gets at the heart of viral content.

But we don’t have that. The Watch Dogs 2 we have is much simpler and is less concerned with the heart at the base of its mechanics. It’s content to be a better version of the thing that came before it, and it certainly is that. Plus, it’s funny. Sometimes the humor hurts a little bit, but there are other times where it’s genuinely clever. The original went all-in on its seriousness, and the sequel did precisely the opposite. While I may wish that it had gone all the way to satire instead of just stopping at parody, I can’t help but respect the efforts and enjoy the successes.