Ubisoft and their open world games don’t have the best reputation out there. Mocked in the game community for cookie-cutter mission types and derivative game structures, based on unlocking segments of the game world and one by one ticking off collectables and side quests. Ubisoft became synonymous with assembly line game production that valued quantity over quality.
After redeeming themselves a lot with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the sequel to lukewarm received Watch Dogs is their next step in polishing up their bravado and making better games. Don’t be lead by your disappointment of the first game: Watch Dogs 2 breaks with the Ubisoft tropes and is better in every aspect and you need to play it. Here is why:
1. The Game is Woke AF
The first Watch Dogs (amongst other flaws) didn’t exactly excel in diversity and inclusion. Angry white men arguing with each other and being motivated by guilt and hero complex. It tried to tap in the modern fears of privacy invasion and modern technology, but succeeded only partially. Its biggest weakness was the lack of touch with everyday people. Modern society was the backdrop but the main characters were decidedly not part of it.
This is where the sequel takes leaps in progression. It does an excellent job in creating a diverse cast of people from different backgrounds, genders and orientations and doesn’t shy away from social commentary. As a testimony to its San Francisco setting, the game prominently displays a rainbow flag only mere minutes into its prologue and often inserts little nods and references to progressive culture. Also minor roles like security guards, quest givers and pedestrians are consciously diverse and utilising Watch Dog’s trademark hacking techniques you often get little insights in NPC’s life, allowing very matter-of-factly instances of things like marriage equality, feminism and gender diversity. Sometimes seriously, sometimes tongue in the cheek. There’s a fedora in one of the many clothing shops called “Nice Hat, Guy.”
The game contains a ton of references to real life companies, brands and famous people. Including a not-so-subtle dig at Martin Shkreli. The point is that they don’t flat out parodize them, but make them part of the in-game universe and confront us nicely with the good and bad sides of these contemporary phenomenons. More on that in point 7 of this list.
2. People Actually Talk Like People
Characters in videogames often don’t talk about anything but things related to the goal of your current mission. This is a phenomenon also widely present in cinema and television: writers are shy to make their characters talk about mundane stuff or let them engage too much in everyday chitchat or casual banter. Watch Dogs is not pushing boundaries here, but it makes a fair attempt. Characters joke, chuckle, argue and interrupt each other occasionally. They cheer each other up, disagree or talk about their feelings without it always being fully relevant to the plot. It makes them extremely sympathetic and relatable and the cast of Watch Dogs 2 is definitely one of my favourites of all time. Probably because they come off as genuine friends
3. You Can Drive This Car
4. Marcus Knows How To Dress
Let’s be honest, videogame characters are not known for their spiffy wardrobe. Most of the time they wear uniforms, practical outfits or (based on their game’s setting) non-contemporary clothing. The few games that do give you modern day garb often concentrate on either comedy value or bad-assery. Not for Marcus Holloway, though. Wether you please your inner hipster with corduroy caps and flannel shirts or go full urban with oversized pants and baseball caps, Marcus looks good. All his clothing items seem designed to really look genuinely eye pleasing
5. Use of Gadgets Comes Naturally
Games don’t always know how to decently implement a gadget. It either steers into gimmicky territory, where you end up using the same trick over and over again. Either because it’s unrealistically effective and simply works all the time, or because the game strongarms you into using it every time by making the environment and the enemies such a set piece that there’s no way you are not going to use it.
Watch Dogs 2 hands you two lovely companions: an RC Jumper, a little radio controlled vehicle that can squeeze into air vents and hop onto barriers. It has a tiny robot arm too, that can stick USB cables into servers, and it just looks extremely cute. Your other friend is a quadcopter drone that can hover over areas to scout out enemy locations before you blindly jump in. The clever thing about these two is, you don’t have to use them at any point and you can use them in different ways. They do what they’d do in real life: they make stuff easier for you, but you can utilise them the way you want. You don’t come to a set point where you go: oh yeah, this is where I use the drone. How and when and to what degree you use your radio controlled tools is up to you, the game let’s you figure that out and apply just as you prefer. That way, using them never feels like a chore but a genuine helpful tool.
6. It Takes Place in the Bay Area
How often do we see games set in Marin City, Oakland, San Francisco and Silicon Valley? If you think about it, the Bay Area is the best possible for a choice for a game like Watch Dogs. It’s the nerve center of both new technology, progressive culture and a perfect setting for the brighter, more optimistic tone of the game compared to the dreary and sombre tale of Aiden Pearce in the Windy City. With a new generation of consoles, we can allow ourselves more detailed environments and with that a more accurate rendition of real-life places. Watch Dogs 2 let’s explore the busy streets of San Francisco, stare in awe at a sunset over the Golden Gate bridge, visit the sealions at Pier 39 or the high-tech campus of Nudle (in-game version of Google). Listen to the seagulls as you stroll over the beach in Oakland or explore the ruins of Alcatraz. All of that is ten times more rewarding because the game awards your exploration with side missions and collectables, instead of putting those on the map straight away. I will be honest, after playing Watch Dogs, I’d really like to visit San Francisco, and there are so many pretty places in the world. Let games like these be a way of discovering them.
7. It’s Actually Better than GTA V
Okay, that’s a bold statement. But hear me out, please. It’s not better than Grand Theft Auto V in every aspect: Rockstar still has a better grip on animation, fluency of the controls and overall level of polish. But whereas Rockstar starts to sputter in terms of satire, cultural relevance and originality, Watch Dogs surpasses them left and right. After reaching peak with Vice City and San Andreas, the famous car theft series started to lose focus in terms of their pop culture mockery. Witty satire started to turn into one-dimensional bashing and as their last two games were set in modern times, the nostalgia of the 80s and 90s made way for overly cynical complaining about things like social media, reality TV and selfies. Rockstar became that pessimistic Generation X guy who is now mad at his parents for leaving him disillusioned and pissed at his kids for actually trying to make things work.
Watch Dogs 2 embraces that new, young optimism and loves social media, vlogs and vaping. It criticises it heavily too and shows its characters to pull open the stinking wounds of capitalist society, but it does so with a refreshing consciousness. Whereas the radio in GTA is satirical from A to Z to confront us with their anger, the deejays and commercial ads in Watch Dogs instead try to mimic reality and let us draw our own conclusions. The obvious mock-up brands like !nvite (Facebook) Nudle and SF Driver (Uber) and New Dawn (Scientology) are not intended just to make fun of their real-life counterparts, but to create a rich world that feels genuinely like ours and in which you can genuinely form an opinion about things, just like in ours.
8. Hacking Makes (a bit) More Sense
Let’s get real, you were never really hacking in the original Watch Dogs. You were utilising an existing hack. Aiden Pearce carried a phone with a back-door to CtOS and even a high-end application to control it. The little hacking that happened was magically executed by scanning any device, which would even work through a security camera. The only thing that vaguely resembled hacking was the mini-game that let you control data flow by turning pipelines. In the sequel there was made a significant effort to add a teeny tiny bit more realism. Marcus now actually has to physically insert a device into a server or open up his laptop to access a data signal, instead of simply pressing a button on his phone. This allows the game to dive a little deeper into the world of server farms and wifi signals and adds a bit of solid background to the whole thing.
9. It’s Not Too Cool for Self-Mockery
Ubisoft is not exactly the most popular game developer in the world. Surrounded by controversies, unfinished games, RDM, downgrading, inconsistent communication and beefs with gaming websites, they had their fair share of negative feedback. But Ubi are showing a willingness to better themselves. Assassin’s Creed ceased their annual release schedule, Far Cry tried to move away from cultural appropriation and Watch Dogs 2, as described, made serious progression in the inclusion of minority groups and breaking with the paved road of unlocking towers and working yourself down a list of mission templates. On top of that the French-Canadian developer is not shy of owning up to their shit. The announcement of last year’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate came with a profound apology of previous mistakes and a promise to do better, and actually delivered on it too. And now Watch Dogs 2 even included a very meta-mission involving Marcus hacking his way into the in-game version of Ubisoft’s office in San Francisco and stealing an unreleased trailer. In an obvious wink at their brawl with Kotaku for releasing pre-alpha material of Assassin’s Creed, the developer didn’t spare itself and was cool enough to poke a bit of fun at their inability to prevent leaks.
10. You Can Finish the Game Without Killing Anyone
Rumour has it that the developers originally wanted to cut out combat from the game completely. This idea was axed in fear of losing interest from mainstream gamers and so Marcus, despite being a good natured and mild mannered young man with no criminal intent whatsoever, is still happy to gun down hundreds of security guards, gang members or innocent bystanders with repercussions or effects on his mental well being or course of the story. However, you still do have the option to finish the game all peaceful like, the pacifist way, if you want. By using stealth and diversion and perhaps the occasional tranquilizer gun, it is entirely possible to not kill a single person in Watch Dogs 2. It makes the game significantly more difficult though, and apart from a more coherent narrative and a clear conscience there is no reward for it.
Bonus: You can pet dogs!
Take a dive into Watch Dogs 2. Enjoy the quirky weirdos that are the main cast, hack your way through the bay area and giggle at all the witty and genuinely funny nods to contemporary culture (At one point I hacked into a pedestrian’s phone conversation and heard her discuss the ending of season 1 of Fargo). Is it perfect? Not yet. I wish I could be a nicer person. That I could phone an ambulance if I accidentally drive over a pedestrian. That I could transfer money into the bank accounts of poor people, instead of only robbing the rich. That the random encounters with Uber passengers or people in bars can end up in small social missions where you can hang out, have dinner or do stuff together and have a conversation about your favourite movies.
But Watch Dogs 2 is so much better than the first game, it eclipses it entirely. It’s so much better than that game, so much better than many other games.