With no Assassin’s Creed game releasing in late 2016 Ubisoft’s lone flagship title was the sequel to Watchdogs, aptly named Watchdogs 2. The release of the first Watchdogs was marred by controversy surrounding the graphics and simple hacking abilities. Personally, I really liked the first Watchdogs enjoying the taunt and contained revenge action thriller that the game ended up being but I understand the complaints. I saw Watchdogs 1 in the same light as the first Assassin’s Creed: a cool story and world with interesting mechanics that can be improved upon quite heavily with a sequel. That happened with Assassin’s Creed with Assassin’s Creed 2 being one of my favourite games but for me it didn’t work out like that for the Watchdogs sequel.
After completing the game, and getting the platinum trophy, I couldn’t tell you about specific missions or even how many missions there were in the game; not because the narrative effortlessly flowed throughout the game, one mission into the next, but quite the opposite in fact. Each mission was exactly the same and I have difficulty remembering what happened where against who. Dedsec finds a corrupt company with a faceless generic CEO who are screwing over their customers, Marcus travels to a couple of their company buildings, sneaks around, downloads some incriminating data and then Dedsec broadcasts it for the world to see, damning the company while simultaneously gaining precious followers for Dedsec. Rinse and repeat several times. The end. Roll credits.
In comparison, the first Watchdogs had a clear five act structure with various mission types. Sometimes you had to be stealthy, sometimes you had to ‘go loud’, sometimes you had to rescue someone or break up a human-smuggling ring or blackmail someone into helping you defeat a criminal operation. Sometimes you had to escape a stadium under police lockdown or find a way out of prison or use a vehicle to take down a bad guy. Vehicle combat and police chases were almost completely absent from missions in Watchdogs 2 despite the fact you now had the new ability to shoot out of a car window and I don’t know why.
Watchdogs had a narrative with memorable villains including Damien Brenks, Aiden Pierce’s ex-partner who is out for revenge, ‘Lucky Quinn’ an old Irish gangster who controls the city’s primary criminal organisation, the former soldier Iraq who aims to usurp Quinn, the crooked Mayor Rushmore and Charlotte Gardener who is always trying to secure Blume’s best interests. I didn’t use Google to remind myself of any of that information, it’s all from memory and I remembered it because they were all actual characters with personal motives and desires. They are weaved into the entire narrative and have character pay-offs whereas Watchdogs 2’s bad guys are instantly forgettable. A group of crooked CEOs and CCOs who we barely see and whose character models are used several times throughout the game. Even the main villain – whose name I can’t remember – is so incredibly bland and unthreatening his main defining feature is a horrendous man-bun.
It’s not just the bad guys who are insipid either with the main cast of allies ranging from featureless to almost being caricatures. Once we understand Marcus’ past there is not much left to explore with his character, Sitara and Horatio and just there (until one of them isn’t) and Wrench is ridiculous and annoying. Josh as a character is a major missed opportunity for a decent autistic character in a video game. It starts off well with a collectable audio file from Horatio which mentions Josh’s autism early on and it states how it is a very positive thing for the group in terms of hacking ability but also his humour. I took this as saying that Josh is a funny person like a lot of people on the spectrum but as I got further in the game and saw more of Josh it became clear that Josh was the butt of many jokes rather than the crux of them and the portrayal in general being stereotypical and cringe-inducing. People on the spectrum are just as varied and different as those not on it and it was disappointing to see Josh become an amalgamation of stereotypes and misunderstood quirks. Aiden from the first game was bland but at least he had an arc which left him in a different place at the end of the game.
The reason for the lack of engaging narrative and characters is quite clear; Ubisoft’s primary focus was on the gameplay and for the most part it’s fun. Driving around the well-designed version of the Bay Area is fun and smashing people in the face with the yo-yo type weapon Marcus uses is shallowly enjoyable. However, once all the useful skills have been unlocked and the RC and Quadcopter are available it all becomes a bit of a slog. The repetitive missions can be tackled in different ways with the ability to kill everyone, kill nobody and remain unseen or a jolly mix of the two and while the quests are identical I thought the changes in approach would keep me interested but it didn’t. I always used the Quadcopter to scout the area, open some doors and vents, send in the RC to download the files and escape unseen. This was too easy not to do and I often found myself then, after essentially completing the mission and being asked to leave, going into the compound and killing everyone just to have something to do. The missions were too easy and I had to limit my use of the overpowered gadgets just to introduce a bit of variety because the way I wanted to play was just too dull. Ubisoft is including this type of mission design in all its major franchises and is why my interest in the now regurgitated Assassin’s Creed series is waning.
Whether Wrench is talking about Dolphin’s blowholes or the game is making fun at Scientologists Watchdogs 2 is painfully unfunny. It’s clear Ubisoft are stealing from the best such as Grand Theft Auto’s sense of satire and while GTA may be sitting upon the high perch while making fun of modern culture it works in that joyfully exuberant franchise. Watchdogs 2 however is like a younger brother overhearing his older brother tell a dirty joke and then telling his friends the joke because it makes him feel big and clever despite the fact he doesn’t actually get it himself. The satire on Silicon Valley culture falls flat and is nowhere close to the biting stuff we find in GTA which works because it can also make fun of itself and the gaming industry in general.
In my reasoning, there are two types of ‘reference jokes’ in entertainment: Big Bang Theory style and Silicon Valley style. In the – and I say this in the widest possible context – comedy series The Big Bang Theory, a reference to another media property is somehow the joke itself an example being Sheldon has a dream and siting on the couch is a Gorn from Star Trek, that’s the whole joke and whoever likes that show laughs. The much superior HBO comedy show Silicon Valley will use a reference such as a mention of the rubbish ending of Mass Effect 3 and then tie it into the plot or use it to relate to a character repeatedly in a way that is actually funny. Sadly Watchdogs 2 goes the Big Bang Theory route with simple references to properties such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine being the entire joke and in my eyes, that is pretty unforgivable.
There is some fun to be had in Watchdogs 2 with most of it coming from the open world and multiplayer modes but overall it makes the franchise seem tired even though it’s only the second entry. Did you prefer Watchdogs 2 to the first game and think I’m an idiot? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about gaming on Twitter @kylebrrtt.