Watch Dogs 2 has a lot to live up to.
It’s not that the original game, released in 2014, was universally beloved (although Metacritic scores into the high 70s prove it wasn’t exactly hated either) but rather that it made a lot of tantalising promises that still capture players’ attentions. The first Watch Dogs tempted us in with offers of a vast and open map of Chicago to explore, freedom to pursue objectives how you like, and a new approach to stealth-based gameplay afforded by its focus on hacking and smart cities, and it said it would wrap it all up in a visually stunning package.
In reality, the 2014 game locked you into certain narrative decisions – notably, the first time you take control of protagonist Aiden Pearce, you’re forced to shoot a NPC in the head. Hacking challenges felt more like a modern twist on Assassin’s Creedenvironmental puzzles, and the games visuals were, at launch, notably lower quality than earlier trailers had depicted.
Which brings us back to Watch Dogs 2. Fast forward a couple of years from the enjoyable but flawed first instalment, and after several hours playing the upcoming sequel, it looks as though it could finally live up to the potential promised by the series. It could also prove to be one of Ubisoft’s most politically astute games ever.
First off, Pearce – a generic middle-aged, grizzled white male protagonist – is gone. In his place, players will control Marcus Holloway, a young black hacker drawn into an underground hacktivist movement after being profiled and framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
The opening missions see you breaking into a server farm to wipe your records from the ctOS system – an updated smart city operating system, evolved from the one that caused so much trouble in Chicago. This also serves as something of a tutorial, highlighting Marcus’ skills and the mechanical improvements in the game, before drawing him into the Dedsec collective, a group of grey hats aiming to take down the discriminatory computer system that controls the new setting of San Francisco.
The point of missions is to gain followers, one of Watch Dogs 2’ssavviest observations on modern digital culture. The attention economy is everything, and while Dedsec isn’t trying to take down ctOS just for the lulz, it needs people to support its cause. Outrageous stunts, such as taking over ad displays for counter-culture propaganda, help that, and successful missions are rewarded with new followers.
In the game’s lore, the more followers you have means more people signing up for an app that distributes server load, but in player terms that means more level-up points to spend on new skills for Marcus. As you progress, you’ll be able to hack the city’s streets as you race around, detonating sewers or changing traffic lights on the fly.
And what a city – Ubisoft’s recreation of San Francisco is masterful. The City – as locals call it – is beautifully recreated, from the poverty of its downtown areas to the wealth of Silicon Valley and the beauty of its northern-most forests. You’re also far more free to explore your surroundings, with the whole map available almost instantly, and fast travel features allowing you the option of quickly moving along story paths without padding play time out by driving back and forth over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Where it stands to make the most impact though is its modernity. Watch Dogs 2 is unapologetic in exploring the reality of race relations in America today – and by extention, most of the Western world. It’s not just exploring racism but institutional racism, the nature of profiling and the damage that causes to real people’s lives.
At the same time, it explores the new reality we’re entering in terms of digital privacy – or lack thereof – and how large-scale networks and big data rule all our lives, irrespective of race. If the message bears out over its full duration, Watch Dogs 2 won’t just be an improvement on its predecessor and an impressive open world game – it’ll be an important one, too.