While driving to one of the many missions scattered throughout Watch Dogs 2’s San Francisco Bay Area setting, young hacker Marcus Holloway kills time by asking one of his cohorts an important question: Who would win in a fight, Alien or Predator? Such banter at first seems superficial, unrelated to the game’s core conflict between DedSec hacktivists and the corrupt surveillance state ushered in by Blume Corporation’s ctOS (Central Operating System). But this conversation speaks to the game’s heart, simultaneously establishing the nerd bona fides of the writers and serving as a relevant metaphor. Whereas the solitary creature from Ridley Scott’s Alien might be easily dispatched by the technologically superior Predator, those from James Cameron’s Aliens would triumph by fighting in packs.
The sincere belief in such pack mentality is just one reason why Watch Dogs 2 is such an improvement over its predecessor. Watch Dogs’s Aiden Pearce wore a shapeless trench coat that summed up his bland middle-of-the-road “grey hat” hacking, but Marcus’s crew is a stylish rogue’s gallery, from the techno-punk aesthetic found on Wrench’s mask (all spikes and LED emojis) to the graffiti-chic style worn by Sitara Dhawan. The dour Pearce was looking for vengeance, but Marcus stands for society, rightly fearing that an unchecked ctOS would cause many of his other Oakland natives to fall prey to the same faulty predictive algorithm that led to his original false arrest. The misfits at DedSec aren’t just taking down evil corporations, they’re trying to be stylish enough to get “followers” who will unwittingly power a bot network.
Sometimes this swagger makes Watch Dogs 2 a bit too goofy (think Hackers). Marcus’s melee takedown involves a yo-yo trick shot that can instantly disable even the most heavily armored of foes, and some of the early missions are toothless satires that create analogues for real-world monsters like Martin Shkreli or Scientology without saying much about them. More importantly, while the game has a clear sense of purpose in dispatching online trolls and predatory companies that use technology to bully innocents, that edge is lost whenever Marcus comes into conflict with local gangs. The Tezcas are never depicted as anything more than brutal, drug-dealing thugs, and such reductive stereotypes are a slap in the face to the rest of the game’s powerful social commentary—such as the way that Marcus, who’s black, is treated when he visits the almost entirely white, Google-like Nudle campus.
The further Watch Dogs 2 gets away from the gangbanging Grand Theft Auto mold, the better it plays and the more true to Marcus’s personality it seems. Thankfully, a guns-free approach is highly viable, thanks to the inclusion of two robotic drones: an RC car that can distract or interact with physical objects and a quadcopter that serves either as a flyable camera or a means for disseminating explosive devices. Players can even hack their targets so as to make the police and local gangs turn on them, allowing Marcus to get everyone to look the other way as he goes about his business.
Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t feature a morality system, which means that players can freely assassinate their foes, and it even unwisely features an in-game 3D printer from which players can purchase extra-deadly weapons slathered in radical decals. Thankfully, the cleverly designed missions provide players with more appealing alternatives: After all, it’s far more poetically satisfying to lure “Pablo the Skinner” into his dogfighting kennels and to then hack open one or two of the cages than it is to simply gun him down.
The game not only represents a massive upgrade over its predecessor, but over similar open-world titles. Outside of a few optional motocross and sailboat races or requests to tag hard-to-reach billboards, every side mission works to expand the narrative. Players don’t just taxi faceless customers around to pick up some extra cash; the DriverSF app pinpoints intriguing characters, like a webcasting thrill-seeker. Likewise, instead of merely checking in at local landmarks, like Haight Street’s Famous Fishnet Legs or the zigzagging Lombard Street, players are asked to take in-game selfies with ScoutX, making the whole thing a lot more personable and immersive.
Whereas Watch Dogs was filled with trivial games that played with augmented reality, Watch Dogs 2 goes out of its way to keep players fixated on what’s actually in front of them. Even the game’s hacking puzzles are now overlaid across the environment, requiring not only that players be capable of rerouting electricity through a series of directional nodes, but that they find a way to trace such wiring through, say, the scaffolding of a bridge or along the giant banks of a server farm. As one of the major missions puts it, Watch Dogs 2 genuinely, ambitiously wants players to “Hack teh World.”