The first Watch Dogs in 2014 was a sort of heralding of a new Assassin’s Creed for Ubisoft. It was the start of a new action-adventure IP set in an open world, sure, and that in and of itself was a kind of mile marker for the company; that’s the genre they live in now. The following year in 2008 was Prince of Persia, and since then, there’s been modern Far Cry games, The Crew, the upcoming Ghost Recon Wildlands, and so on.
More notably is the fact that Watch Dogs suffered the same problems as the first Assassin’s Creed in that it was tone-deaf and struggled with basic design incentives. It took an interesting concept (an extrapolation of the ever-growing interconnected world we live in) and tried to turn it into a game. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t, though largely it ended up being a decent game.
It was, however, pervasively dour, bordering on perfunctory. There were no interesting characters, the story was milquetoast, and it had precisely zero personality. Even on a bright and sunny day, the game felt more overcast than it looked, and it looked like a bad day in Seattle, like, all the fucking time. That, perhaps, is the general view of what Chicago is being in the cloudy, windy north, but it was indicative of the greater effect of the game as a whole, which is to say bland.
Enter Watch Dogs 2, which just game out to tepid fanfare and grand marketing expense in the middle of a sequel–packed holiday season. I’m only several hours in and the story + general shenanigans runtime is something closer to 22 to 24 hours, so a review is forthcoming but not yet. Even in this comparatively short time with it, two things are already apparent. First, this is a good-ass game. Second, it is overflowing with personality.
Granted, it’s all rather on-the-nose, but it does something not many other games manage to do, and that is it commits to an aesthetic whole-hog. And it’s a strangely optimistic one, contrasting sharping with the almost oppressive slant the first game takes with people, the world, and technology. You can see it even literally out in the city, sun shining, beats blasting, and colors, uh, coloring.
Set in a moderately fictionalized San Francisco in a pseudo-near future, it has bits and pieces of the city that are very real but also very much incomplete, like the new transit hubs in downtown and the projected height of an impending skyscraper. So far from being completed but representative of the future as they stand full and tall along the skyline. They and other structures are almost physical—err, digital—manifestations of an idyllic and optimistic perspective that the game takes as a whole.
The game even has a willingness to, I dunno, play. Its fake Lyft counterpart is called Driver San Francisco, a play on the unexpectedly decent 2011 Ubisoft title Driver: San Francisco. There’s a mission to hack Ubisoft itself (yes, their offices are actually in the game) to leak a “new”/seriously new video game trailer in advance, which feels more nodding along than shaking their heads at the absurdity of attributing those actions to news outlets than lone gunmen. Seeing the name of the clothing line Never Frisco was a legitimately laugh-out-loud moment.
Some of it is unfortunate, distinctly and depressingly so. One character wears a shirt with just a rage face on it, for christ’s sake. Your hacker group’s hideout has posters that are just printed out memes, none of which are particularly dank. (There’s actually a very real and sad moment in seeing that the spectator video dump from a VR headset still suffers from side-by-side portrait views in this idealized future.) And certainly, some jokes wholly and completely miss the mark.
But in its defense, the game is unwavering in its desire to make these decisions. It never feels like it hedges its bets on any one particular thing like the fake apps on your phone or the weird insistence that hacker groups have brand managers. And that’s for the better, really. Unlike its franchise counterpart, Watch Dogs finally has a personality, a tone and a tune. And you know what? It’s actually a good one.