Three of us on staff have been playing Watch Dogs 2. Two of us have finished it. We figured it was a good time to chat about the good and bad of the game. There was a lot to consider! Bonus: We may accidentally wandered into a discussion about why one of us is very, very hard to please.
Stephen Totilo: Gita and Kirk, I have finished Watch Dogs 2's story. I have cleared its main missions and its named side missions. I have collected many of its collectibles and tried out many outfits for Marcus Holloway while not finding any that seemed to suit him perfectly. I had a good time, but not a great time. I'm still not sure why. You've both played, right? How far have you gotten and do you also have mixed feelings about this game?
Gita Jackson: I'm still fairly early on in the story, because I realised all I really wanted to do was hang out in this virtual San Francisco and pet dogs.
But I have done a lot of messing around and buying new clothes — it is actually the very first game like this where I understand what it is like to just enjoy the giant toy box you have been given, maybe moreso than the story that you have been presented.
Kirk Hamilton: I finished the story and a lot of the sidequests for my review, though I've been replaying on PC. I've had fun approaching it the way you're talking about, Gita, though sometimes I've found the game's systems aren't quite sturdy enough to support the kind of experimenting I'd like to do. Like, it's basically designed to make it fun to do the things it tells you to do, but you can't go too far outside of that?
Stephen: It certainly let me experiment! And by experiment I mean: using the very powerful make-everyone's-phones-freak-out-at-once special move and then just running through a room full of enemies to the exit.
Watch Dogs 2 strikes me as a game caught between what it can be in terms of a game about hacking the technology of a city and what Video Game Law demands it must be in terms of it having to have rooms full of bad guys, all of whom are eligible to take a bullet if need be.
I mostly just wanted to hack stuff and make all the electronics around me do my bidding.
Gita: I agree with Stephen here. There were moments where I felt like the game let me genuinely feel and _be_ clever with how I played around with hacking. But I also felt like the game had this other, second part of it that I tried hard not to engage with but was still there, looming. Namely the gunplay, which felt tacked on and out of character.
Everything I don't like about this game revolves around the parts where you have to shoot people. I kind of dread seeing Marcus with a gun in his hands? Even watching other people's videos I feel like, "oh god, no, he would never do that!"
Stephen: True, but the game does let you skip the shooting. You don't have to do it. The designers give you lots of ways to finish levels without shooting anyone, even if they do persist in, as I was saying, filling their levels with enemy grunts. Kirk knows that, to a fault, I immerse myself in a game's sidequests and often can't enjoy a game if it doesn't have great side stuff. I'm sure someone can write a psychological profile of me based on that, but as I search for the root of my mixed feelings about the game, I wonder if it's not the shooting that let me down.
Kirk: Regarding the guns, I kinda see it a couple of ways.
The glass half-full ways is, this game demonstrates that it could've given us no guns and still been a really fun, interesting game. I remember, Stephen, when you wrote about that first E3 demo of the first Watch Dogs. For a couple magical minutes there we all thought, man, does this game not have any guns? The second game has pretty clearly demonstrated (in my opinion) that a AAA, open-world game like this doesn't "need" guns to be interesting, which is nice.
The glass half empty version is, ugh, it really is jarring to see Marcus pull out a gun and shoot people. That level of violence is just so discordant with who we know Marcus is and what he's all about. It's also oddly distressing to imagine his happy-go-lucky buddies signing off on him heading out to murder security contractors and civilians.
I generally see the glass half full version, especially since I went so out of my way to play non-lethally. But I do see the guns as representing an opportunity cost — if they hadn't given us a bunch of options for killing people, maybe we could've gotten more interesting options for hacking and otherwise manipulating the environment.
Stephen: I wonder if it's the side stuff that bugged me, if it's the sense I get that in trying to keep the gameplay of WD2 more thematically and mechanically coherent, they restricted the range of fun or interesting things you could do. In the previous game, we were able to have our protagonist put on AR goggles and shoot "virtual" aliens in the sky. We were able to climb buildings in a giant spider tank or go on a sort of drug trip and bounce from one giant flower to another.
In this game, we're not doing drug trip flower-bouncing sidequests. We're hacking ATMs and deciding whether to credit or debit the people who stop by the ATM while we hack. We're climbing to rooftops to spray-paint buildings. We're finding and hacking data nodes in poor areas of Oakland that are being used to jack up people's bills so that they can priced out of gentrifying areas. The wrapper of Watch Dogs 2 is much goofier than WD1, but the gameplay is actually much more serious and, because of that, feels more limited to me.
I think that might be what bugged me, even as I appreciated how much the game's designers and writers tried to use all the side stuff to talk about real world issues and ground things in realistic interactions.
Above: A trippy flower mission from the first game.
Kirk: It IS funny that the "wacky" stuff from the first Watch Dogs didn't turn up in the obviously wackier sequel, where it would have fit better.
Stephen: Kirk, are you avoiding taking a stance on whether this game should have had trippy drug missions in which you bounce off giant flowers?
Kirk: My memory of those giant flower side-missions is that they were not actually very fun. I would definitely be in favour of adding trippy side missions, as long as they're actually fun. The robot invasion one was fun, if I recall correctly...
Gita: I feel like the game would suffer from wackiness overload if there were trippy flower bounces in this one. I definitely got over the hump of just, the entire aesthetic of DedSec and how they talk, and Wrench's emoji face mask, but it took some time. Somehow that kitsch is easier for me to take in a more grounded San Francisco.
I also had problems with WD1's Chicago, just in general, so this might just be a me problem.
Awkward aside from Stephen added while editing this transcript
In late 2014 with Kirk's help, I wrote an article headlined "Our Watch Dogs 2 Wishlist." In it, I said of the sidequests:
Better sidequests. We don't need a chess minigame in Watch Dogs. Hell, even though it was fun, we also don't need a spider tank minigame. We need good sidequests that actually make sense in the context of the game. So: Hacking, infiltration, data-mining, that sort of thing. Make them fun, make them worth doing on their own, and make them feel coherent with the rest of the game.
The designers of the game pretty much did every single thing Kirk and I asked for. And yet here I am now missing the out-of-place wacky missions from WD1. How do I reconcile this? Kirk was right in this exchange. The flower missions weren't very fun in WD1. And the side missions in this game are admirably more contextually logical. They're less surprising and less distinct in terms of gameplay. What we do in the side missions of Watch Dogs 2 is what we do in the main missions. Perhaps that's the issue, perhaps not. Anyway, credit to Ubisoft for coming through on everything we asked for! Now back to the chat.
Kirk: It helped that they managed to actually develop the characters over the course of the game. Like, if I see them as relatable people I can get around a lot of DedSec's dumber stuff. For example, I thought the mission where Wrench gets kidnapped was handled really well.
Stephen: Yeah, and there's some... goofiness wouldn't be the right word... but there's some really creative stuff in the main missions. Spoilers for Gita, but by the end of the game you've hacked robots and satellites and found your way into Chinese freighters and Saudi server farms. That's cool. But I was shocked that there isn't even a goofy mini-gaming baked into one of the arcade cabinets in DedSec's HQ. Very weird.
Anyway, we all agree, though, that the main character and main supporting cast is a step up, yeah?
Kirk: Oh, absolutely.
Gita: I love them deeply. With my whole heart.
Kirk: I really, really like Marcus. One of my favourite game characters of the year, even.
Stephen: I was expecting to hate Wrench. How did the game end with me not hating him?
Gita: I really, really hated him in all the preview stuff. That emoji mask! But as soon as I saw how much Marcus loved him, I just melted.
Stephen: Just goes to show how you can't judge a hacker by his emoji mask.
Kirk: Yeah, I really do think the way they handled "why does Wrench wear a mask" was close to perfect. It was subtle, and left a lot of stuff unsaid. We all knew the deal.
Stephen: Kirk, you liked Marcus? I guess I appreciated him, but as with many open-world game protagonists, he seemed designed to be just bland enough to be part of any main mission or randomly played side mission and therefore took on more of the role of distanced observer than real character.
Kirk: There's a specific warmth to the way Ruffin Prentiss played him that I just really liked. He's such a good leader, and I generally love characters who enthusiastically support the people around them. It's no one specific thing with Marcus, just something that accumulated for me over time. A joke here, a playful aside there. Even his mo-cap and body language.
Stephen: I can see that.
Gita: He immediately reminded me of my older brother as a teenager. And a little bit of my dad. For me, a lot of that was in the mo-cap. I absolutely love the animations of Marcus trying on clothes (can you tell where I've spent a lot of time in this game?). There were moments of course when I wanted him to stand still and _let me see the goddamn clothes_ but sometimes when you get him in a really good outfit you feel like this character is really thinking, "look how fresh I am."
It's his confidence that really beams through, for me. Bad stuff happens to Marcus — of course it does, that's how stories work — but Marcus isn't a character defined by his trauma in the way that Aiden Pierce was.
Stephen: I found myself flummoxed, Gita, by all of Marcus' wardrobe options. As you noted, Ubisoft designed some really stylish clothes for him. But the options messed with my sense of how I should dress him. I usually dress my game characters sensibly. I just can't deal with them looking like goofballs when they show up in cutscenes with some custom clown outfit. So, not surprisingly, I play it straight. Most of Marcus' clothes are pretty realistic and things you might see a non-ridiculous person wear. And yet... I'm not sure if Marcus the hacker who sometimes shoots guns and definitely climbs a lot was more of a suit guy, a hipster skinny pants guy, a futuristic parkour outfit wearing guy or what.
Kirk: I had that issue more on my first time through, and I think I mostly just left him in his one starter DedSec outfit. On my second time I've just tried to dress him as stylishly as possible, and it's been really fun.
Chance The Rapper, from an H&M interview Gita: I tried to put him in outfits that Chance the Rapper would wear. They seem like similar dudes!
Stephen: "As stylishly as possible" = you've got him in Aiden Pearce's coat, right, Kirk?
Kirk: I dunno if I'm ready to be that iconic. That is so iconic.
Gita: All the licensed music was great but it needed some Chano.
Stephen: I mostly listened to the rap station. What else was good?
Kirk: Yeah, I was pretty into the music. Much better than WD1 on that count. In particular I liked that they started with some Tower of Power, the original Oakland band.
Gita: The rap station was par excellance. The punk station left some things to be desired, imo. The minute I heard Tate Kobang's "Bank Rolls (remix)" I freaked out a little. Almost crashed my car trying to make sure I got out the fake-Shazam app to grab it.
Kirk: I don't really know from EDM and other electronic music, but I liked DedSec Radio a lot, too. Loved when they played Eric B. & Rakim over Marcus's headphones during a mission — I had deja vu, since I think Ubisoft demoed that mission at E3? Good shit regardless.
Gita: I feel like this game feels way more cohesive than WD1, but that does mean that we miss out on the more experimental side stuff that Stephen liked. But it is really cool to see a game where everything is catered to what the character would like, and not for a hypothetical player. The clothes are what Marcus would like, the music is what Marcus is into. He feels like a real guy because of that. It's a very curated game.
Kirk: That's an interesting way to put it. I see what you're saying.
Stephen: Yeah, I like that to. That's smart and reminds me of how, say, I really liked how L.A. Noire had an unreliable protagonist who wound up doing what he wanted to do, not what you wanted him to do.
But let me switch gears on you, though, because we've gotten this far and we've yet to rave about the drone and the buggy. Probably because I started this chat off so grumpily, trying to figure out what kept me from loving the game.
I did love the drone and buggy. The gameplay ability to use them to surveil any challenge you were about to tackle felt very modern. Most of the game's challenges either involve stealth or platforming. I'd considered the benefit of having a drone that you can toss out to use to scan a level you want to sneak through. We've seen that in games before, though not done as well as in this one. I don't think I've ever seen the ability to use a drone to scout out a platforming level, though. It's my favourite thing about the game, which I consider to be hinting at a whole new twist on 3D platformers. Basically, the idea of a tactical platformer where you can look ahead and half of the game is figuring out what the route will be before you embark on it. I loved that.
Gita: I am a pretty skittish player in all video games, and the drone and buggy put me at ease so much. I'm also just (sorry, y'all) kind of bad at video games and an anxious person, but being granted the ability to just fuck around inside of a mission space with the only real threat being to a re-printable plastic toy calmed me so much.
Kirk: I loved the drones, too. I talked about this some in my review, but to me it almost felt like an evolution of GTA V's two- or three-character missions. Ubisoft's more strategic Tom Clancy games have had drones and buggies for a while now, but the concept really lends itself to an open-ended, open-world game like this one.
As a side note, I was at the mall yesterday and had not realised what an "in" present quad-rotor drones are this year. Every toy store had like, 10 different models out on display!
Gita: Huh, my mum's been wondering what to get me. Could I bring it to the office, Stephen?
Stephen: Only if you have it precede you as you move from cover point to cover point to get to your desk, Gita.
Not mentioned in our chat, but one of the cooler things in the game: the ability to have other players suddenly show up in your game while they're in the middle of being chased by the cops. In this shot, I've grabbed a cop car of my own and am about to take them down -Stephen OK. Lightning round. Thumbs up or down on Driver SF?
Kirk: Thumbs... up, I guess. I don't love the driving in the game, but I DO love open-world Taxi missions. I appreciated that the ones I did all had little mini-narratives, too.
Gita: thumbs down
Stephen: What about the selfie Foursquare one? Up or down?
Kirk: I liked it, though I could see people thinking it's tedious. I mostly dig it because I lived in SF for so long and enjoy seeking out all the little things they recreated.
Gita: Ehhhhhh I'll give it a thumbs up because I just liked taking selfies so much in the game.
Stephen: And sailboat races? How much did you guys love doing sailboat races?
Gita: fart noise dot mp3
Kirk: Haha. I haven't done them yet! I should, if only to see how much pirate sailing Ubi managed to get into this game.
Stephen: Oh I wish it was like that. It's not.
Kirk: No sea shanties?
Stephen: Nope. But, hey, the more we talk about this game, the more I realise how many parts of it I liked. So maybe as my mind settles on this one I'll find myself reflecting on it more positively.
This chat did make me think of at least one thing I'd failed to appreciate while playing the game but now recognise as a fun feature: you can buy a souvenir shirt from every major area of the game you go to (Nudle (Google) HQ, Alcatraz, etc). That was clever! I'd love to see other games steal that. In some future Mario game, Mario could be wearing an "I just visited the ice world" shirt or something. Well, maybe not that, but it's one of the many good ideas in this game. So... I guess I like it after all! Kirk and Gita, thank you for helping me understand my feelings.
Kirk: I'm always down to help you sort through your feelings on sidequests, Stephen.
Chance The Rapper as he appeared in GQ