I’m not sure I have anything new to say about WATCH_DOGS 2. The critical consensus I’ve stumbled across on YouTube (as exemplified by Noah Caldwell-Gervais) basically reflects my opinion. WATCH_DOGS 2 has a very similar mechanical basis as the original, but ditches the drab interpretation of Chicago for a vibrant and colorful Bay Area. The melee attack goes from a tacticool extendable billy club to a combat yo-yo, which is generally emblematic of the protagonist’s shift in tone from broody and grimdark to fun and lighthearted, and while I wouldn’t have minded broody and grimdark if it had been done well, Aiden Pearce was bland and uninteresting where Marcus Halloway is chill and fun to watch.

The original game shouted “digital surveillance!” and then ran away, while the sequel portrays digital surveillance as a Bad Thing with the main plot revolving around opposing it. The original game portrayed ctOS as basically omniscient and perfectly accurate, with its crime predictions never turning out wrong (admittedly, this was mainly for gameplay reasons), while the sequel’s very first mission involves the black protagonist Marcus Halloway hacking into ctOS 2.0 and discovering that he’s been flagged as a criminal erroneously, with later side missions that draw attention to how these algorithms target black people in particular.

The reputation system has been completely excised, which on the one hand does mean there’s no consequence for killing pedestrians, but on the other hand it’s probably better to just quietly ignore the vehicular homicide rather than give a specific and shockingly high number of vehicular homicides you can get away with before anyone notices or cares. They even dropped the vestigial “liberate the districts” mechanic from the original by removing ctOS towers completely, and while my complaints about side missions being annoying to find remain, at least they no longer stamp my map with districts centered around towers that don’t really do anything.

WATCH_DOGS 2 does have a few mechanical steps backward from its predecessor. Well, really only one that I can think of: The way you can only unlock certain high-tier upgrades by finding “key data” in various places around the map, except you don’t know where exactly. So in order to buy the upgrade that lets you crash communications nearby to stop baddies from calling for reinforcements, you have to wander around a specific neighborhood of the map (at least they tell you what neighborhood) until you stumble into a key data badge, then solve whatever jumping puzzle is between you and the collectible. Ordinarily, a collectible side quest like that is one that I would quickly realize I don’t much like and decide not to worry about, but all the best abilities in the game are locked behind it. Often I’ll just look up on the internet how to find and solve the puzzle, because dammit I just want my reduced scope sway on sniper rifles or whatever.

And while the new tone is very well executed in cut scenes and certainly an improvement over the original’s, it’s a terrible mismatch with the gameplay. There’s a mission early on where a Blume (the corporation behind ctOS) executive brags about how DedSec (who have been promoted from kinda shady mostly-allies in the first game to unambiguous hacker superhero protagonists in the second) has played right into his hands, scaring all the other tech companies into adopting ctOS 2.0 for protection despite all the cyberterrorism Aiden and his rival hacker Damien got up to in Chicago, 1.0’s flagship city. The executive does this in person, right in front of Marcus Halloway. The result is that Marcus punches him in the mouth, but is forced to run away as the police are rapidly closing in. Then gameplay!Marcus takes over and kills the SWAT team to a man. You can play WATCH_DOGS 2 as a sneaky hacker spy, using little drones and camera-hacking and good old-fashioned cover stealth to accomplish your objectives (the game’s upgrades even push you towards one of three different playstyles, “ghost,” “trickster,” and “aggressor,” although I’m not sure what “trickster” is supposed to be), but one of my favorite things about this series is how much better cover shooting feels in an open world where the arenas aren’t telegraphed, so that, uh, is not how I play, despite the fact that the game’s plot kind of assumes that Marcus is almost totally non-violent until at least the second half of the game (“aggressor” upgrades aren’t even deeper in the upgrade tree compared to others, and even if they were, acquiring and shooting an assault rifle requires no upgrades at all).

But regardless of some minor flaws, WATCH_DOGS 2 is a much better game than the original. It has something to say about hacktivism and surveillance, and while it’s not exactly setting the world ablaze with its bold speaking of truth to power, having a clear theme carried by a likeable protagonist solves the first game’s biggest flaws, while retaining the cyberpunk-is-now hacker open world gameplay that got me interested in the series in the first place. I’ve heard WATCH_DOGS Legion is bad, so I’m going to call the series here, but unlike Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry (though in fairness, I’m not done with the Far Cry backlog yet), I could see myself playing a future WATCH_DOGS game not to find closure on the things I wanted but could not have from the era of my life when I didn’t have enough money to buy gaming PCs or consoles, but because a game like WATCH_DOGS 2 is actually fun to play.

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