Spoiler Warning: Some minor plot details are mentioned for Watch Dogs 2.
With a more jubilant protagonist, Watch Dogs 2 leaves behind the somber tone of the last game for a more vibrant and lighthearted experience. The 20-something hacker Marcus, who has a fondness for action films, video games, and crude humor, is a friendly jokester who spends much of his time making pop-culture references. While harmless outside of being able to create digital havoc, Watch Dogs 2 wants us to believe that he can also be a ruthless killer – and it just doesn’t fit.
Although the narrative introduces fascinating themes about technology, it’s negated by the existence of guns, creating a narrative dissonance that’s impossible to ignore. Marcus, who was unjustly profiled as a criminal by the mass-surveillance system, ctOS, wants to expose corporations and governments that abuse their power through technology. Gun-toting is inconsistent with his lighthearted and activist personality, making it difficult to get behind his cause when he’s printing guns out of a 3D printer and using hacks for his own personal gain.
This disconnect between story and gameplay is not a rare sight in video games. For example, it’s hard to believe that the friendly Nathan Drake, known for his dry humor, would mow down his villains without a second thought, or that Far Cry 3’s Jason Brody can go from skydiving with friends to initiating killing sprees. In Watch Dogs 2, narrative dissonance becomes all that more distracting, as it attempts to make a statement that is overshadowed by contradictory themes. You feel like a modern Robin Hood – a man of the people – when exposing shady corporations. The impact of these actions is less substantial when you can gun down those that stand in your way, which seems like too extreme an action for a goofy millennial savvy with computers.
In each mission, you have the choice to either play non-lethally or go in guns blazing. While you can approach missions non-lethally, it’s a much more challenging approach. Marcus’ stun gun has a slow firing rate, and along with a purchasable stun launcher, those are his only weapons that don’t kill. A more varied repertoire of nonlethal options would have been a valuable addition. The use of firearms is an easier option, but it doesn’t make much narrative sense, and these conflicting themes are seen elsewhere in the gameplay too.
Marcus’ distrust towards CEOs of secretive large companies is founded, but almost hypocritical as he abuses the same powers they do. From one mission to the next, you steal personal data and infiltrate private properties, which is at odds with Marcus’ values. You can stroll down the street and steal from an innocent pedestrian’s bank account with the press of a button, and in the next moment you’re righting the wrongs of a social-media giant that rigged an election. I found it difficult to empathize with Marcus, or even get behind his goal, when these blatant inconsistencies were occurring so often.
These conflicting tones are further complicated by the existence of guns, and Marcus is surprisingly skilled with them. What’s more surprising, is that Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t need guns to be a good game. This sequel improves over its predecessor by putting hacking at the forefront of gameplay, and gunplay is the least innovative quality. Gunfights are not nearly as inventive as the hacking mechanics, which allow you to buzz an enemy’s phone to distract them, or place electrical hacking traps to knock foes out.
I much preferred hacking my way through one area to the next. Progressing through an area solely with hacking tools can make each location feel like a giant, compelling puzzle – a confounding but fun head-scratcher as you distract and manipulate your foes. The ability to blast your way through an area with bullets seems like a cheap shortcut, and a bland one at that. While there isn’t anything wrong with the gunplay, it offers little novelty as you defeat several enemies, while hacking requires more strategy.
It would be refreshing to see more games have a better relationship between gameplay and narrative that makes sense for the world it presents. For example, Ubisoft’s decision to ditch gunplay in Far Cry Primal made narrative sense since the setting takes place in the stone age, and it was a bold move for a series that previously centered around guns almost entirely.
Watch Dogs 2’s hacking gameplay is strong and provides enough variety that it could easily exist on its own, without gunplay. After completing Watch Dogs 2’s story, it became clear to me: Marcus is not a killer. Instead, he’s a glorified prankster, a social-media enthusiast, and a guy who spends more money on hipster clothes than he’d like to admit. He’s skilled with his powerful smartphone in hand, but he’s not the type to pull a trigger. So why give him a gun?