By Jarrod Jones. This is LOAD FILE, where I’m this close from hackin’ the crap out of you. This week, Jarrod reviews ‘WATCH_DOGS 2’, developed by Ubisoft Montreal for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows.

Image: Ubisoft

Image: Ubisoft

If Watch Dogs 2 serves a single purpose at all, it’s to ensure that Ubisoft can continue to openly claim Watch Dogs as a viable franchise without hearing a chorus of snickers and chortles coming from the more unforgiving corners of the gaming community. (*cough*) It succeeds in this endeavor beautifully.

As a matter of fact, Watch Dogs 2 goes so far out of its way to address the many criticisms that blighted its predecessor that this entry almost feels like an open apology from Ubisoft for making us stare into the dead, humorless eyes of Aiden Pearce for the entire length of Watch Dogs. The uninspired, eternal gun metal gray of Watch Dogs has been substituted with a low-fi zine and hot pink pop confection, swapping out a dubiously rendered Chicago with a more faithfully realized (and visually engaging) San Francisco.

Even the game’s lead protagonist, Marcus Holloway, is a good-natured, genuinely optimistic fellow. There’s none of that “dark night of the soul” crap found in the first entry either, though that’s almost to a fault — when a minor character inevitably got their ass killed in this game, Marcus and his plucky crew of digital pirates took five to pour one out for their fallen comrade, only to then get right back to business as if nothing ever happened (or, before that particular subplot began to harsh the game’s buzz). It’s almost as though the game didn’t want any of that lurid vengeance narrative from the first game creeping into the sequel. And, maybe, that’s for the best.

Because Watch Dogs 2 is a helluva good time. It has its flaws, and we’ll touch on those shortly, but for the most part, Ubisoft has given us the second most genuinely immersive sandbox game of 2016. That’s not for nothing.

Image: Ubisoft Montreal

Image: Ubisoft Montreal

DODGE THIS

Considering the subject matter of this series, the West Coast location of Watch Dogs 2 would seem obvious. Now that WD1 has already established mega-corporation Blume as an omnipresent tech entity that has every major city hardwired onto its own privatized ctOS, it’s only fair that we take the war to Blume’s Silicon Valley base of operations. Why? Because Blume is, not surprisingly, up to some incredibly shady shit.

That’s where we find Marcus Holloway, an ambitious hacker who has become erroneously profiled by Blume’s ctOS as a criminal, which spurs the kid to go on a quest to clear his name. Not just because that’s some overtly racist bullshit that needs to be nipped in the bud pronto, but because Marcus’ infiltration of Blume’s servers will win him a place at the table with the San Francisco branch of DedSec.

Through a fairly hasty tutorial level, Marcus clears his name and teams with DeadSec, a team of tech marauders that vaguely resembles the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar from The Matrix, only far more street and thus far less sad. All quasi-hipness and refreshing diversity aside, your fellow hacker pals acknowledge that connection to the 1999 film, along with the 1995 film Hackers, along with so many other pop culture references that it borders on the absurd (including a fascinating exchange about Dark Horse Comics and DC’s whack-a-doodle crossover event, Superman and Batman Vs. Aliens and Predator). This goes a long way to win your heart.

With names like Sitara, Horatio, Josh, and Wrench (my personal favorite), DedSec arrives to the game equipped with enough personality that you can easily appreciate them as actual characters. And it’s important that they do, because with all the shit that’s about to rain down on them (courtesy of the world’s most incredibly obnoxious villain), it’s important that we, the players, become invested with their plight. Also, because not a one of them comes with a stirring enough backstory, or in Marcus’ case, any backstory at all. (Seriously. Who is that guy.)

As far as social commentary goes, Watch Dogs 2 goes deeper than its predecessor but it lacks the haughty sneer you’d find in Grand Theft Auto. Which is important, in large part because it can address race in a far more thoughtful (and hopeful) manner that way — a sequence that takes place in the Google doppelganger, Nudle, touches on the black experience in Silicon Valley, with all the subtextual racism and emotional oppression that goes with it. If you wanna get cynical with Watch Dogs 2, its largely consequence-free environment offers the perfect sandbox in which your more baser (and less altruistic) instincts may play. Which may be the game’s largest problem.

Image: Ubisoft Montreal

Image: Ubisoft Montreal

YOU NEED TO CHECK YOUR (2nd AMENDMENT) PRIVILEGE, BRAH

The dissonance between the game’s core values and the game’s core gameplay come at odds almost immediately. While it does take a moment for you to get your bearings in this world, once you’ve accrued enough online followers to DedSec’s cause (a currency that allows the game’s main story to progress), you’re given access to use a 3-D printer to customize your gear. And while the game encourages you to use non-lethal weapons (your equipment spans from a Stun Gun to a stealth-friendly RC Jumper and Drone), there’s no incentive to not print out a dank-ass grenade launcher or assault weapon.

I found this to be particularly skeezy; dispatching entire floors of militarized security with murder weapons seemed wrong in a game that praises peaceful protestation. That made me work harder at mastering the stealth mechanics of the game, which meant that only my stun gun, RC Jumper, and Drone — three items that come to you almost instantly — ever came into use.

You have the option further down the road to hack into Blume’s servers to frame a security guard or a pain-in-the-ass gang member for a crime they didn’t commit, which then promptly causes the SFPD to descend on your board to remove your target from it, but that seemed hypocritical, considering Marcus is only standing at our beck and call because he was wrongly profiled by Blume’s technology. The game never makes a point to justify these mechanics, and while they do come in handy when you’re overwhelmed by guards (who are only too willing to call in swarms of backup), they stand in direct opposition of enjoying the game on a consistent thematic level.

There’s a pretty simple upgrade tier system: Vehicle Hacking, Remote Ctrl (hardware hacking), Marksmanship (for combat expertise), BOTNETS (for hacking capacity), Tinkering (for gadget mastery), City Disruption (just like it sounds), and Social Enginerring (to manipulate stranger’s data) all become available to upgrade once you accumulate enough Research points. Scouring the seemingly limited map for Research points is made that much easier with fast travel jumps littered all across the map.

As for the hacking mechanics, we’re given a litany of piping puzzles to crack (a la BioShock), and depending on your game’s difficulty, these puzzles will either be a frequent annoyance or a consistent challenge. Some come equipped with timers that pop on at a moment of high stress, but there comes a great sense of satisfaction in knocking out these puzzles before time ran out. You’re also allowed access to cameras (at one point you have access to an array of freakin’ satellites) so that you can better chart your course of action. (You have Hacking Vision, kinda like the Arkham series’ Detective vision, but the less you use it, the more challenging the game will be.)

The combat is a screwy, messy thing, so it’s always better to go stealth. It’s important to mention that the cover controls are also very prickly — let’s say you need to make a snap decision. If you’re still in cover? The game makes you stay put until you press the proper button. And sometimes you’ll try to move from your position to another cover nearby, and all of a sudden you’ll snap upright, and the game’s NPCs will always — always — spot you. Best bet? Use the cameras to remotely knock out your guards, and then waltz your way towards hacker legend.

Image: Ubisoft Montreal

Image: Ubisoft Montreal

DO WHAT YOU WILL

Watch Dogs 2 offers us something Watch Dogs never could — a sense of fun, a sense of variety, and ultimately, a sense of purpose. While I often found myself questioning some of the game’s play choices, and more often, cursing the game’s maddeningly inconsistent controls, I never grew tired of playing it. What’s more, I grew to really love some of the members of DedSec.

If there must be a Watch Dogs 3 — and after flying through the game’s story mode, there simply must — I would find it a great relief to see Marcus Holloway, Sitara, and especially Wrench once more, if only so that we could finally learn a few things about these kids. Who they are, and how they came to be. The game’s tagline was “Hack Everything.” Well. I wanna hack into what makes these characters really tick.

Developed by Ubisoft Montreal.

Published by Ubisoft.

Directed by Jonathan Morin, Patrick Plourde, and Danny Bélanger.

Produced by Dominic Guay.

Written by Lucien Soulban.

Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows.

7 out of 10

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