Thursday, January 26, 2017

Watch_Dogs 2 review

    Watch_Dogs was a game I really enjoyed but felt had a lot of flaws. I found Aiden Pearce aggressively unlikable and while I believe that was deliberate (see my "The Subversiveness of Aiden Pearce" essay), I believe that didn't contribute to a great gaming experience. I also felt the game suffered for its unwillingness to go full cyberpunk. It felt let down by its attempts to tie itself to the present day and I would have enjoyed a much more overt near-future experience. Despite this, I was still interested in the sequel. I wanted more Aiden Pearce and was looking forward to more hacking of the Blume Corporation.

    I was disappointed in the first case because we switch protagonists from Aiden to newcomer Marcus Holloway. Marcus is an aspiring member to San Fransisco's Anonymous/LulzSec stand-in, DedSec. DedSec was nothing more than a set of minor antagonists in the original Watch_Dogs so it was interesting to see them upgraded to protagonists.

It's a beautiful game, I'll give it that.
    After being initiated into the organization, Marcus drunkenly suggests the group attack the sinister Blume Corporation. Blume is gathering large amounts of data on the public as well as profiling "at risk" people like Marcus (because he's poor, Black, a hacker, and a gun owner). Inspired by his idea, the group proceeds to start performing "pranks" and cyber attacks against San Fransisco's most repulsive white collar criminals in order to get followers who will lend their computer power to help them take down Blume.

    This rather convoluted plot is part of the game's problem as there's not really a clear sense of what DeadSec is attempting to accomplish. Blume Corporation is stealing large amounts of the public's data and profiling people but that's a relatively minor offense compared to the first game's human traffickers. The game also takes you against stand-ins for the Hell's Angels, Zeta Cartel, Church of Scientology, and San Fransisco Tongs but none of them are the main villains. The central villain, Dusan Nemec, just wants to make a large amount of money through white collar crime so I can't bring myself to hate him when our heroes are engaged in hacking as well as robbery.

The likable cast is easily the best part of the game.
    Indeed, the game's dissonance in how it can be played versus the story is arguably worse than Nico Bellic's can be if you choose to play in a typical Grand Theft Auto fashion. Despite being angry about being racially profiled and hunted by the police for crimes Marcus didn't commit, it's possible to 3d Print an assault rifle then murder your across San Fransisco with no penalties. This wouldn't be noticeable if not for the fact Aiden Pearce, a much more vicious character, got penalties for killing cops as well as innocents.

    The game is also fully optimized for co-op and multiplayer. While you can turn it off, the fact is the game is often full of challenges which require other gamers to play. For those of us who aren't fond of multiplayer, these events distract from the main game even as they do provide experience points for upgrades as well as other tangible benefits to the single player campaign. They're fairly decent adventure hooks like allowing you to hack other players, assault bases, and other fun but nothing to write home about either.

There's a greater emphasis on stealth versus gunplay.
    Despite this, there's some elements to write home about. The cast is likable and entertaining with lots of references to geek pop culture as well as genuine camaraderie among the protagonist's gang. Marcus is a fun everyman, Sitara is a pretty but not overly sexualized mastermind, Wrench is pure fun, and Josh is a neuroatypical rationalist. The game is never more entertaining when the characters are just playing off one another and they might have benefited by having you able to play all of the characters rather than just Marcus.

    San Fransisco is lovingly rendered with lots of the city's signature landmarks visible throughout. It's colorful, suffering gentrification, and full of interesting NPCs doing oddball things if you watch them. There's also the addition of the fact you can pet dogs scattered throughout the city. Sadly, there's also dogs as enemies and I hated hurting them unlike their punchable masters. The fact the game allows you to complete it without killing anyone also is a bonus, even if I generally prefer creating a body count in four figures. You also get a remote controlled drone and toy car which add to the diversity of the game play even if it makes me feel like Marcus is less mature than he should be for his quixotic quest.

I think I dated Sitara in college.
    Really, I think the game's biggest flaw is it never quite embraces the sense of wackiness inherent to the story. The San Fransisco branch of DeadSec is just shy of being as entertaining as the cast of Saints Row. However, the only plot which is anywhere near as crazy as they have the potential of being is when they steal a stand-in for Knight Rider's KITT before running it in an obstacle course to Judas Priest's "Turbo Lover." If the game had been either darker or completely goofy, I would have liked it a lot more.

    I will say Watch_Dogs 2 embodies what I call "contemporary cyberpunk" which was created by Hackers in 1995 and has since gone on to inspire shows like Person of Interest and Mr. Robot. The premise for contemporary cyberpunk is it's all about the misuse of technology, corporatism, hackers, and crime like in your typical cyberpunk story but it's set in the present day. Technology has caught up with the science fiction of yesterday and created a world where you can be a hacktivist rebel sticking it to the man. The enemies in the game are barely disguised versions of Scientology, Google, Trump (who is a minor villain), the Russian mob, the NSA, and Facebook. No one really stands out enough to be the main villain but the social relevance, while a bit too dated in its time frame, still works out for those who like that sort of thing.
This is the villain. Seriously.

    One thing I will give the game credit for is that it embraces the attitude of sticking it to the Man through technology even as the Man is sticking it to the public the same way. The villains all hide behind layers of bureaucracy and the system in order to profit from the misery of those least able to defend themselves. The protagonists may be too sanctimonious about their criminal activities to be truly punk but the fact the game gleefully shows them striking out warmed my cynical Generation X heart.

    The characters make the game entertaining but like Mafia III, there's nothing which stands out either and it swiftly falls into a rut of SWATing (sending the police to arrest guards) every level. Like Mafia III, it also has quite a few bugs which crashed my game or caused the graphics to fail. These bugs are to be expected from an Ubisoft game but, combined with the long loading times, swiftly dropped my enjoyment factor.

Curse you and your adorableness!
    I recommend people who purchase this game to definitely pick up the Gold Edition because it adds about four hours more content and some of the best adventures in the series with additional ties to the original Watch_Dogs. While I tend to prefer my cyberpunk a good deal darker and this group is a little too loopy (even with a surprise tragedy mid-way through the game), I think it provides an excellent storytelling experience throughout. There's not really a plot, per se, but just a lot of individual vignettes. That's not a bad thing but I hope the next game gives us a stronger central villain than the man-bun wearing Silicon Valley executive which barely makes an impression in this game.

    Watch_Dogs 2 is an okay game. I actually prefer the original, overall, because it was dark and moody present-day cyberpunk. Here, it feels like the game is far light-hearted to get into without a plot you can sink your teeth into. The game's villains are just too squeaky clean and the protagonists the same way. If they'd been a bit more low life to go with their high tech, I would have enjoyed this game a lot more. Say what you will about Aiden Pearce but at least you believed he was  a guy capable of killing someone.


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