The Library: Watch_Dogs 2 and the Challenge of Surpassing Your Predecessor

The Library is going to be a new column focused on the video game side of things. As I'm a terribly slow player and even games bought at launch often take me months to complete, more often than not these articles won't be straight-up reviews but some thoughts on and around the games I've finished.   As I just finished Watch_Dogs 2 two weeks ago at a local gaming lock-in, I thought this title was the most apt for the first choice.  Enjoy!

My not-so-guilty confession of this generation comes with how much I enjoyed the original Watch_Dogs (Hackin' Hobo Edition).  To be clear, Aiden Pearce was an unrepentant asshole and I empathized with him about as much one would a bar of soap, but eventually Watch_Dogs: TrenchHats became much less about the story Ubisoft wanted to tell and more about the gameplay.  I'd cut it on after a long day at school along with my own music (because the in-game radio was garbage, the game's major unforgivable sin) and just veg out, driving around the streets of Chicago.  I spent something like a month riding around on Watch_Dogs' motorbikes while listening to J. Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive and one day I realized the game had just clicked without my even noticing; I was starting to recognize various sights and feel like they were familiar--like old haunts after all the time I'd visited them before.  It didn't feel like a boring town--it felt like my town, and I enjoyed seeing what kind of trouble I could get up to.

So despite the game's multitude of flaws: garbage driving, shockingly low levels of customization, crap story and a simultaneously sociopathic yet somehow milquetoast main character, I found myself eagerly anticipating the game's sequel.  I was even disappointed when it missed 2015's E3; I just knew if they could marry the first game's mostly perfect gameplay with a more interesting cast, a better story and bang out a few kinks, I'd have a classic.  When Watch_Dogs 2 finally made its appearance at 2016's E3, it instantly became the title I was more excited for in what had become for me a mostly slow year for gaming.  The colorful, satirical world felt perfect for Watch_Dogs' ridiculous way of handling hacking: if DedSec wasn't realistic, it could at least make things fun.  So I waited out the next five months and excitedly picked it Watch_Dogs 2 up on the first day.

....And here's where my second (not so) guilty confession comes in: much as I hate to admit it, the first Watch_Dogs is unfortunately the superior "game".  It's a shame too, as Watch_Dogs 2 is made in direct response to Watch_Dogs: Iconic Hats.  The original title was dark and dreary, following hacker Aiden Pearce on a quest for revenge after his niece is murdered as payback for a hacking theft job going bad.  The game and its supporting cast members are humourless, and excessively serious at nearly all times.   Aside from that, it's got awful driving and a shocking lack of clothing customization for an open-world game--Aiden has a single trenchcoat that can be palette swapped in his various hide-outs across the city--probably the most idiotic move ever for a guy who spends over half the game on the run from the cops.

On the flipside, Watch_Dogs 2 follows Marcus, a genuis hacker who was flagged by ctOS 2.0 (an operating system helping to turn San Francisco into a smart city) for a crime he didn't commit.  Frustrated by his unfair treatment by the system he joins DedSec, a group of idealistic kids who want to bring down Blume Corporation--the creators of ctOS--for abusing the private data of citizens of the beautiful (and colorful!) city of San Francisco.  The characters are dealing with serious stuff, but they crack geeky pop-culture jokes, watch bad movies together and steal trailers from video game companies to post online.  And any clothing customization problems have vanished--there are multiple shops here, each offering a myriad of clothing items to offer endless customization of the main character.

On every level that involves the actual world and characters, Watch_Dogs 2 excels, trouncing its predecessor handily.  But when it comes to the gameplay this title is lacking, with the vast options the previous game had in terms of combat encounters being pared down significantly.  Before the game released, people complained about how WD2's fun group of Scooby Doo hackers simply didn't feel like the type to get their hands dirty like Aiden Pearce (despite the group possessing a 3D printer that can create wonderfully creative, cartoonish versions of real-life weapons), but its a moot point.  It's nearly impossible to solve most things through violent means in the first place.

Guns feel less accurate on your end while the AI now has excellent aim, reinforcements are called by more people than ever and instantly once you're spotted, and cancelling them is much more work than in WD1.   It's as if the game wants to force you to be less violent and avoid using guns.  This would be pretty clever, and certainly fit as far as easing the ludonarrative dissonance people complain about, except the AI seems more violent than the last game, with security guards gunning you down on movie sets just for being spotted in private areas.

Of course, the game offers new tricks such as calling the police or ordering gang hits; which becomes hilarious when done in tandem, as massive gang wars can erupt with the cops caught in the middle.  But it raises a very important question: did the developers make guns less useful so the players would use them less because that fits the characters?  If so, why would anyone think that ordering "hits" was somehow better?

Get ready to do this a lot.

Still, there's another set of toys available if you want to go completely "ghost"--an RC jumper and helicopter drone.  But these new toys come with their own set of problems.  To create some artificial difficulty the drone can't pick anything up, which is just silly.   This means you're constantly using the drone for recon while sending in the far more easily spotted (and vulnerable) jumper to grab stuff.  And since actually fighting is a bust because you'll get killed pretty quick, you spend more time flying/driving the drones than actually playing as Marcus.  Even the silly collectathons often place things super high up, or inside grates, or in hostile locations.

This would be great in the new game.
Speaking of collectathons, Ubisoft went out of their way before this game released to explain how this game didn't have much of that initially...but we end up with a map littered with icons all the same.  But at least with Watch_Dogs 1: Broke-ass Batman, you got a helpful screen indicating how far you were and how much you'd done.  Here, there's no such help--you've no idea of knowing how much of the game you've got, or how many side missions you've left unfinished.  Which is kind of concerning for those of us that enjoy completing as much of the game as possible, as side missions are almost entirely found by wandering the massive streets of San Francisco.  I'm just baffled as to Ubisoft's thought pattern here.  If you weren't going to truly get rid of the collect-a-thon element, why on Earth would they deprive the player of valuable information on completion rates???

It just feels like Watch_Dogs 2 is caught between what the first game was and what Ubisoft wants it to be going forward.  There's greater integration between the smaller side-quests and the world/characters, but all too often it still breaks down to "go here, hack thing, end mission".  I would have killed for more missions where my DedSec buddies tagged along with me, or more characters that make appearances for more than a single mission.  There's a part early on where you deal with a rival hacker group that leads to you capturing a new hackerspace.   That could've been an entire string of missions, but instead it's over almost as soon as it starts.

Additionally, the game could stand to ramp up its RPG mechanics a bit more.  Early on the game introduces the idea of different "kinds" of hackers--ghosts, tricksters, and [].  This was begging for the opportunity to be expanded on--different skill trees that gave different abilities and ultimately resulted in completely different playstyles.  It could have even led to different members of DedSec offering more connected side missions based on which tree you chose, ones they actually worked with you on instead of just talking over the phone.  That WOULD have been cool, but I guess flying drones everywhere is fine too...

If there's one thing the game turned up on outside of world/story/characters, it's the hacking mini-game.  Gone are the simplistic, minute-long games of the original.  WD2 has turned hacking into a much more complex affair, often placing the puzzles on whole buildings or even bridges, adding a 3D element to things that makes it much more enjoyable.  It's the one time I didn't mind flying the drone and the one improvement from last game I hope sticks around for the future.

Watch_Dogs 2 succeeds on many levels--despite initial misgivings from fans about this game's colorful, more wacky nature, Marcus and the rest of DedSec are a lovable cast of goofballs I wouldn't mind seeing make a re-appearance in subsequent installments.  And San Francisco is a gorgeous, vibrant city that more than makes up for the drabness of WD1's Chicago.  But as an actual game, it manages to be just as flawed as the original, only in new ways.   Missions still don't have the proper thought put into them to make them feel like a complete gameplay loop, and they actually stripped out a ton of really cool "virtual" mini-games in favor of generic tasks like being a temporary Uber drivier for cash.   It's the kind of thing where they went far, but not quite far enough to really create something great. Hopefully the third installment will figure out how to marry the tone of this game--which can go from irreverent and satirical to boasting insightfully relevant (if semi-basic) commentary on the state of technology in society--with the gameplay of the first, for the classic I know this franchise is capable of giving us.


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