This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Watch_Dogs 2.
Ubisoft, serious question, are there any actual human beings making your decisions anymore? Your credit sequences are longer than an episode of Inspector Morse so I know human beings are involved somewhere, in the same way that that cloud of smoke coming out of the concentration camp chimney probably 'involved' human beings at one point, but the moves Ubisoft've been making lately are consistent with an entity that has needed to have the concept of human emotion patiently explained to it. First people complained about Assassin's Creed: Unity not having enough women so that got fed into the calculating machine and out popped Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, with optional female protagonist and remarkably gender-diverse Clockwork Orange rape gangs. And now, after everyone pointed out that the story of WATCH_DOGS 1 was a depressing self-pitying gritfest starring the world's least interesting vigilante tramp, the calculating machine has promptly taken the obvious step in the exact opposite direction with WATCH_DOGS 2 and made it about colourful wisecracking millenials who if left to their own devices would probably devolve until their spoken language consisted entirely of sarcastic memes and snorting noises.
Our protagonist is Marcus Holloway, gifted young hacker who was wrongly sentenced to community service and decided that the most balanced, level-headed response would be to start gunning down police officers. To this end he joins an underground hacktivist group consisting of two spectacular super-spergs, a fairly indistinct black dude to whom I immediately pointed and yelled "That motherfucker's gonna die first", and a girl with a middlingly brown skin tone, corn rows on one side of her head and a white girl hairdo on the other, who I can only assume was an attempt to fill the entire diversity quota with a single character.
All these youngsters talk the way a roomful of thirtysomething writers assume kids talk like these days, but despite being the kind of achingly trendy that starts ageing poorly the second after the producer envisions it during a turkish bath gob job, the story of WATCH_DOGS 2 is remarkably reminiscent of Hackers, the 1995 movie starring a young Angelina Jolie. With some differences. Marcus doesn't get off with the hot girl hacker at the end, because that would require either character having a granule of passion and genuine human warmth. Also, the tagline of Hackers was "Their only crime is curiosity". Which would require a bit of modification to apply to WATCH_DOGS 2. Perhaps: "Their only crime is curiosity, trespassing, criminal vandalism, assault, bank fraud, grand theft auto and one or two good old-fashioned first degree murders."
And that's where the tone problems come in, because the streetwise treehouse club are already difficult to like when they're sitting in their mum's basement quoting goofy memes at each other, and then they leave the house and commit vigilante murders. It makes them come across like reckless idiots with no grasp of the consequences of their actions. If the game was a more overt spoof like your Saint's Row or your Sunset Overdrive it might work, but the overall tone is a hair too straight-faced. Probably because the points being made about data security, technological integration and corporate control of the populace are actually very relevant to our present lives, magic wand phones notwithstanding, in which case, you know how you explore these themes? By making the hero a NORMAL FUCKING DUDE, not a grim gravel-voiced avenger and certainly not a neon pink rollerblading Scooby Gang who all deserve to have their mouths filled in with expanding foam sealant.
Admittedly while the game does its best to tempt you with a selection of colourful firearms with cute names that are sure to give your victims a chuckle as they struggle to breathe through the blood bubbling up from the ruin that was once their jaw, you CAN stick to stun guns and wholesome non-lethal traffic pile-ups, but there's still an air of hypocrisy. "Hey, let's hack into my niece's stream and humiliate her live to show her how bad it would be if some nasty person hacked into her stream and humiliated her live," goes the premise of one side mission. It'd've been nice if the plot had had a self-reflective arc, and so long as I'm fantasising, it would also have been nice if there had been a plot at all.
I'm going into spoiler town now 'cos I need to illustrate my point and because I hate you and I'm an antisocial massacre in waiting. Remember that bloke I immediately realised would die first? My obvious correctness need go unstated. But are they killed by the main villains to up the stakes, or to make the heroes start taking things seriously? Are they bollocks. They're killed by a hitherto unmentioned street gang and avenged five minutes later in a manner reminiscent of the nerd frat house in the college sex comedy avenging themselves upon the jocks with a strategically placed pig in a cheerleader outfit.
On reflection MOST of the missions involve targeting or being targeted by a hitherto unmentioned organisation and hacking their headquarters until you can find and publish AllTheShadyStuffWe'veDone.txt. The only connecting element is the main villain who materialises every now and again to go "Hello everyone, don't forget I'm the mastermind behind all these seemingly and functionally unrelated events," until in the final mission you take him down in a way that I feel like we could have done at any time. So the story aspect's a complete wash, frankly, although not without some highlights.
There's one bit where our heroes target a movie studio for misrepresenting hackers in the media, and that made me laugh so hard that my lungs inverted and flopped out of my mouth like a pair of greasy oven mitts. It's a shame, because the gameplay's actually a lot more fun than it was last time. The remote control car and drone are good additions to the preparatory, distant approach to problems, although it's a bit weird how guards smash your toys to bits at first sight and start patrolling for intruders without even considering the possibility that it might be Bring Your Incredibly Spoiled Children To Work Day.
But sitting safely outside in the grass gaily downloading data while the security guards roam about angrily barking like their owner pretended to throw a ball is quite satisfying and is after all what hacking should be about, not brightly coloured assault rifles or beaning people with a tennis ball on the end of a string that we nicked from a dog toy shop. Sadly Ubisoft are all aboard the "Do it YOUR way" bullshit van and don't want to dictate how to play the game like they're some kind of, I dunno, game designers, so every mission is set up to allow pretty much any approach including crawling through on your belly using only your cheek muscles, and consequently tends to be a tad too easy. Even when you get spotted and have to go in guns blazing, the stungun is an instant take down with infinite ammo, and guards forget that you're there if you stand behind a middling-width lamp post for ten seconds.
So I can't recommend it if you want a challenge, nor if you want a good story, so what's left? Well, as I say there's some catharsis to be had from the core gameplay, especially if you have frustrations you want to take out on the bay area. Or rather a miniature effigy of the bay area with about 0.0001% of the traffic.
- Talentless hack: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Couldn't help noticing that Berkeley was conspicuous in its absence from the Bay Area in this game but no worries it's not like there's anything important there
- Only the fucking University of California