The most surprising game of 2016 is “Watch Dogs 2.”
It was the sixth game or gaming-related event I reviewed in November, and I expected it to shred the last bit of sanity I’ve clung to in this foul year of our Lord, 2016. I still don’t really consider playing a game to be work, but it comes closest during the holiday crunch when I’m spending an extra 10 hours per week with eyes glued to a flickering screen. Plus, I hated the first “Watch Dogs,” so the second one was going to suck, right?
“Watch Dogs 2” is exceptional. It shocked me in ways I didn’t think possible for a franchise that debuted in 2014 with the stiff, buggy, tragically overhyped “Watch Dogs.” This canine takes a funnier, younger approach to the premise of citizens fighting back against their corporate overlords. These hipster hacktivists aren’t afraid to have fun while taking a gigabyte out of Big Brother, and that translates to more motherboard merriment for the player.
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OK, I am really sorry. I promise there won’t be any more technology puns. But my point is that sandbox games – those in which players are plopped into an open world with lots of things to do and the freedom to do any of them – are best when humor plays a major role. That’s why the “Grand Theft Auto” and “Saints Row” franchises work so well, and now we can add a third franchise to the party.
For example, one early mission asks players to essentially steal KITT from “Knight Rider,” rewire it, then lead police high-speed chase through a wonderfully re-created San Francisco while “Turbo Lover” by Judas Priest blares through the speakers. If you don’t think that’s totally kick-ass, I want to know what planet you are from.
Another early mission shows off a snarky social commentary totally lacking in the first installment. Protagonist Marcus Holloway must prove himself by hacking a snot-nosed pharmaceutical executive who recently drew nationwide ire for hiking the price of a leukemia medicine. He’s paid an exorbitant sum for a rare hip-hop recording that he plans to horde like the troll he is, but Marcus’ new hacktivist buddies at DedSec can’t have that, now can they? That sounds an awful lot like Martin Shkreli, but any resemblance to actual people is purely, ahem, coincidental. It says so in the title screen disclaimer. Weird.
It would be easy to simply indulge in the base pleasure of “Watch Dogs 2” and focus my review on that. There’s plenty. It has a ton of things to do. My next mission is definitely to see if I can find the “Full House” house inside the game’s re-creation of San Francisco.
But that would do “Watch Dogs 2” a disservice, because while I love the mindless fun, there’s actually one pretty deep subject Ubisoft Montreal dug into – perhaps unintentionally – quite well. It might portray a realistic community of friends better than any other game I have seen.
Marcus is black. The hackers of DedSec are men and women of relatively diverse ethnicities. One of Marcus’ allies is a transgender city councilwoman. Marcus appears to have known her before her transition and move into politics, but he doesn’t fumble over pronouns or make a crack about her dress. He just talks to her like a person, they help each other and then life goes on.
The storyline begins with Marcus being accepted into DedSec, an offshoot of the group who fought against corporate data mining in Chicago during the first game. That’s about as vanilla as it gets for a video game plot, but “Watch Dogs 2” sidesteps the clichés by not forcing Marcus to jump through a million hoops before being welcomed into the group. Games always force the protagonist to collect this, run that errand, do this guy’s laundry before they are welcomed into a group that every person who has played a video game in the last decade knows they will eventually save and/or lead. Even when most accept you, one gruff rival will continue to challenge you for another three hours.
In “Watch Dogs 2,” Marcus does one trial mission. The team realizes he is talented and like-minded, and he’s part of the group. And that group grows and develops as the plot furthers. Marcus and Wrench find out they love the same crappy action movies, and they finish each other’s corny quotes. I’ve had that happen a dozen times with new friends in my life, and I saw those interactions in a game. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite rare. Relationships are sometimes glossed over in big-budget games in favor of the overall storyline or big-time action missions. “Watch Dogs 2” manages to have all three.
I had a few gripes – mainly the fact that Marcus is somehow a trained FBI agent, able to incapacitate or outgun police officers or gang bosses. No one at DedSec seems to mind that its golden boy just killed 14 men just to hack some emails, which breaks from the whole digital Robin Hood thing the hackers are going for. But overall, “Watch Dogs 2” delivers on a massive level. The franchise has found its footing.
Watch Dogs 2
Video Game Review
▪ Rated mature for blood, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs
▪ Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
▪ Publisher: Ubisoft
▪ Out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC