I’ve just hit the end credits of Watch Dogs 2. As a highly anticipated sequel to a game I absolutely loved, as I sat back and watched the names scroll by, they were tinged ever so slightly by a sense of disappointment.
The game is great. The new characters are wonderful and the dialogue is great, and the freedom of choice in how you approach missions is miles above the endless CCTV voyeurism of the first game. The online component works much better and the extra toys you have are really nice. In almost every way, Watch Dogs 2 is a better game than its predecessor.
So why was I disappointed? I’d just played a fantastic video game and was looking forward to retrying missions in new and exciting ways. And then it hit me: the open San Francisco was total pants and missed the point of the game itself.
For those who don’t know, the Watch Dogs series revolves around an operating system called ctOS. The software automates cities: optimises traffic, controls public transport, helps monitor crime, and most important keeps tabs on all the citizens. Both games place ctOS as both an antagonist and as your primary weapon, as the system can be hacked and manipulated to cause utter havoc. Cars can be remote-controlled, CCTV can be accessed, even peoples’ phones are fair game.
The whole shebang is a big discussion on whether the hyper connected world we’re rapidly moving into is worth the perceived necessary liberties it takes with our privacy. Is having all of this convenience worth it when the very same system is profiling, surveying and manipulating the public in unseen ways?
Watch Dogs 2 broaches these discussions well in a lot of ways. It manages to bring light to recent controversies such as scientology, Martin Shkreli’s price-hiking of important medication, child pornography rings and even voter manipulation via social media. These are all things we’ve been concerned about in the real world, and Watch Dogs 2 takes a good hard look at how the technologies behind each of them are impacting us.
One trick it utterly misses, though, are the obvious comparisons between ctOS and social media such as Facebook. The first game did a very good job at drawing attention to the ways ctOS is considered a useful, convenient bit of software that it’s worth giving your privacy up for, much like how people are happy to give companies like Facebook and Apple their private information for the sake of convenience.
The way Watch Dogs 1 did this is by making the city (in this case Chicago, not San Francisco) almost more of a character than lead Aiden Pearce (which isn’t particularly difficult, to be fair). Strolling through the streets, there were more ways to interact with the city in ways that weren’t directly related to the mission at hand. ctOS may profile a criminal before they commit the crime, prompting you to find clever ways of putting a stop to them. These small encounters will play out whether you intervene or not, giving the city a much more ‘present’ feeling than the walking hacking energy packs the citizens of San Francisco often seem to be.
Chicago could also be directly screwed with in much bigger ways than anything found in the second game. Trains circle the city, and, assuming they’re in the same location as you at the same time, are can serve as either a fast travel system or a handy getaway in a pinch. These big, metal behemoths can be brought to a halt at the tap of a phone screen, and it’s freaking cool to watch.
Alternatively, you can leave the train alone and it will carry on its way without you. Much like those small crime encounters, the city will just keep ticking on without your interference if you let it. Compare this to Watch Dogs 2, where nothing particularly worthwhile happens without your direct involvement. Sometimes there might be a gang shootout, sure, but they’re often triggered by your actions in one way or another, so they don’t feel as impressive.
The other big mechanic that springs to mind is the blackout system. In both games, the electricity grid can be interrupted, dipping areas into total darkness to let you do a runner. The difference between the two games, though, is the scale. Over the 20 or so hours I’ve played Watch Dogs 2, the only time I’ve had a single blackout was in a single building, and it was because I destroyed a generator. In Watch Dogs 1, I’d tamper with ctOS itself and plunge entire streets and districts into darkness.
There’s a pattern emerging here. Everything Watch Dogs 1 did to its city was as a direct result of ctOS and the ways it tried to be helpful for those it was monitoring, whereas Watch Dogs 2 is just stuff happening because reasons. ctOS controls the transport, it controls the electricity grid, it profiles and predicts crimes, and your interference with the system in the first game has consequences and constantly brings to the front the balance between privacy and connectivity. Watch Dogs 2 tried to recreate the emergent behaviour of the first game, but did it in a way that divorced it entirely from the central themes of ctOS: gangs and generators, not the overarching, evil software at the heart of the story.
By doing this, ctOS in the second game loses a lot of the more interesting questions it poses. It becomes a basic tool: a fun little thing that’s only there to let you hack some stuff, and those hacks usually result in knocking out or killing an enemy. There’s none of the discussion of trading privacy for convenience and reliability that was there in the first game, because that’s been pushed out by Ubisoft trying to talk about the eleven thousand different bad tech-related things that have happened during the game’s development.
Watch Dogs 2 is a great game, but it really missed a beat with its open world. Chicago was a living, breathing city infested with an oppressive piece of software. Watch Dogs 2’s San Francisco, while colourful and fun and high-energy, fails to raise the discussions it tries to because of its inability, ironically, to embrace ctOS as the awesome narrative tool it is.