For a game about technology run amok, 'Watch Dogs 2' has plenty of joy, soul, and heart
2016 was the year dystopian fiction just couldn't keep pace with reality. British sci-fi satire Black Mirror once terrified audiences with disturbing pieces about the Prime Minister fucking a pig and a tasteless and juvenile meme being elected president. This year, both episodes went from parody to prophecy. Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail flat-out admitted his noir hacker hit "isn't as dark as this reality we're currently in." "Twist endings are terrible," he wrote, after Trump's election. In 2016, the "what if" of dystopia isn't half as horrifying as what is. Enter: Ubisoft's Watch Dogs 2. In a departure from the last game, Watch Dogs 2 doesn't dwell on the horrors of technology at all, instead putting hope at the center of its message about society and reinventing both the franchise and the hacker genre itself.
Watch Dogs 2 stars Marcus Holloway, a 24-year-old black man and brilliant hacker well aware of how disruptive and even dangerous blackness can seem to some in the tech sphere. Hell, the real-life unveiling of Marcus as the protagonist started a racist firestorm on some gaming forums. Marcus leads DedSec, a team of hackers pulling stunts to gain followers and combine their pooled tech into a massive botnet capable of taking down the surveillance dragnet enclosing Oakland and San Francisco. The missions are mostly grabbed from IRL headlines, everything from the Ashley Madison hack to swatting during Twitch streams to Scientology getting skewered. (Had it been released a few weeks earlier, the game could've coincided with the real life attack that disrupted sites all over the country – another dystopian "what is" scenario.)
Given how uneasily some gamers accept black heroes, it'd almost be easy for Ubisoft to have Marcus quoting civil rights leaders or making impassioned speeches about racism or oppression to make a point. But, when you're black and in the public eye, there's no need to be political. All you have to do is show up. So instead of resting on the "importance" or "controversy" of the image of a black hacker, Watch Dogs 2 smartly chose to just let Marcus be himself. He's outgoing, excitable, prefers Lando to Han Solo (the correct choice), frequently drops into otaku chatter, and, in a rarity for black franchise leads, actually has a sense of humor. He adopts the alias "Will Smith" for a mission and, in a character-defining moment, shouts "I'm black and I'm proud!" when a Smartcar's face recognition can't identify him because his skin is so dark.
I couldn't help comparing him to Elliott from Mr. Robot or Aiden Pearce, the protagonist of the original game. Elliott is the hero (and villain) of Mr. Robot, but his attempts at hacking the world to save it are all framed by his catastrophically bleak worldview, with his fractured psyche making up the core of the story. The show began with his mission to help people, but as Elliott's mental state deteriorated, the narrative became increasingly hopeless and serpentine, still unable to uncoil itself two seasons later. Similarly, Pearce was on a mission in Chicago in the first Watch Dogs, but he had a "404" personality, and without even a glimpse at his inner life, the game failed to energize its messages about technology or society and totally flubbed its gang violence subplot.
Marcus, meanwhile is an adorable, fully fleshed out hero and his bright wit makes him a standout. Ubisoft answered the question "Why is he black?" by highlighting the joy brimming at the center of the character during his fight. He's not somberly trying to dismantle the technocracy like Aiden or Elliott. He feels the weight of pervasive surveillance and invasive technology every day, but he's resourceful, resilient, and carries on his mission of conquering oppression without being broken down or nihilistic. I can think of no better illustration of the black experience.
He's clearly a revolutionary leader, but the game smartly leaves that unspoken instead of earnestly addressed. When I played him, at least, Marcus was more Martin than Malcolm. Combat can go a lot of different ways, but I would always distract guards with spammed phone calls then use a melee takedown rather than killing them. Or, better yet, sneak past them altogether. The stealth sequences lack the stakes or suspense of say, a Metal Gear game, but they force you to be resourceful and, crucially, they're quicker than a shootout. In most heist scenarios, shooting guards outright triggers wave after wave of reinforcements, a pointless march of NPCs dying endlessly until you can move to the next room. I still remember one heist – escaping from Alcatraz – as almost as pitiful as the famously bad shootouts in Uncharted 3.
But the main thing you do in Watch Dogs 2 is hack the shit out of stuff. The hacking sequences, oddly enough, owe a lot to the Arkham series from Rocksteady. Monochrome static blankets the screen as you peer through walls, hack into cameras to access passwords, disable security systems, and spam a mark's notifications on their phone to distract them. It's very similar to Detective Mode, where Batman would finds clues, unveil hidden entrances, isolate targets and attack them in the dark. Cribbing from the Arkham games, Watch Dogs 2 would have you believe it's an at least competent third-person shooter/brawler. It isn't. Aiming is scattered and unreliable. And because the screen is filled with hacking prompts, it's easy to press the wrong button in a fight, causing Marcus to suddenly stare at his phone when he should melee someone or turn off a streetlight when he should be running for cover. Nonviolence made the most sense from a story perspective, but it's almost always the least frustrating choice.
Hacking and combat make up core elements, but I struggle to call them the heart or soul of the game. I'd put it this way: Marcus is the heart and the soul is the setting. Oakland and San Francisco are enormous, gorgeously rendered sandboxes full of all different types of people. I had as much fun inhabiting this world as a pedestrian as I do wreaking havoc as a hacker demigod. I used my drone to take sweeping shots of Japantown and the Bay Area. Then, I started the ride-hailing mini-game where I picked up passengers and took them all over the city.
It's in exploring the city during side missions that the game's second set of politics emerges: groundbreaking diversity and vibrancy. At any time, I can fast travel to the Castro for drinks in a Pride t-shirt. During one ride-hailing mission, I picked up an expectant father rushing to meet his husband and their surrogate when she goes into labor. In another side quest, I went to the black neighborhood of Prescott, tracking rival hackers trying to price people out of their homes by hacking into their meter readers and tripling energy bills. One of Marcus' closest allies is a politician and transwoman. When rival hackers leak footage of her gender reassignment surgeries, she boldly declares, "I got nothing to hide." Watch Dogs 2 understands perfectly how political life is for some people simply because they exist. Instead of using them to espouse any values, it just lets people live.
Rather than trying to create a dystopian nightmare world, Ubisoft uses familiar headlines to punctuate the story and raise the stakes. But in the end, the world of Watch Dogs 2 isn't nightmarish at all. Rather than trying to present players with a twisted or overly satirized reflection of our world, Watch Dogs 2 shows us a world that is wild, bright, unpredictable, delighted with itself, and most importantly, alive.