In one of the grislier Grand Theft Auto V missions, you infiltrate LifeInvader, a “clever” clone of Facebook where employees air-guitar near their cubicles and admonish folks who can’t sit in beanbag chairs for not fitting the company vision. After tampering with a prototype phone and driving home, you’re treated to fake Mark Zuckerberg blowing his head off with the prototype, broadcast over a national news network. This was a civilian, a person with no sinister intentions beyond building an intrusive social network, but to your handler and the game itself, that was enough warrant a public execution. Beyond the initial shock, they pause for an unheard laugh track before finding another bit of culture to attack.
Compare that with Watch_Dogs 2’s fake Martin Shkreli, the pharmaceutical baron who infamously spiked the price of a life-saving drug. You are made aware of his obsession with a certain rapper, and how he plans to buy the rights to his newest album so he can keep it for himself. With the help of your hacker friends, you create a rudimentary soundboard, break into the pharma-bro’s security system, and livestream him unknowingly sending $20 million to an offshore account before catching on. Once the prank is complete, his funds are transferred to a leukemia foundation, indirectly fighting the same disease this unscrupulous figure made profitable.
Both missions take place early into their respective games’ campaigns, highlighting different approaches to tackling the Silicon Valley elite. While Rockstar stays in its comfort zone, presenting a cutout Zuckerberg who parrots his character flaws before his head explodes, Ubisoft’s fake Shkreli feels like your average jerk, only subjected to a silly prank call that ends with an unintentional donation. Granted, Watch_Dogs 2 doesn’t stop you from causing chaos with rifles or a well-placed mine, but by presenting both friends and foes as fleshed-out humans, it subtly dissuades the random acts of violence that GTA once pioneered. In their place, you’ll find an adventure that is more interested in companionship than the forces that hold it back.
Marcus might be looking to wipe his misleading online profile clean in the opening, but his data center infiltration doubles as an act of initiation. He’s more than a little obsessed with DedSec, a bay area hacker group that closely resembles Anonymous, and fits right in with their ragtag members as they work to expose corruption and empower citizens. This premise could have gone wrong in a million different ways (and has, if you have even a passing familiarity with 90s hacker movies), but Ubisoft nimbly sidesteps most of the genre’s pitfalls with one vital distinction: rather than writing larger-than-life archetypes who are all trying to outwit one another, they’ve written characters that sound like actual, god damned humans.
Horatio, one of four black employees in a Google-esque company (“We have our own mailing list”), instantly lights up whenever Marcus comes around. Sitara is all about the DedSec cause and immediately strikes you as one of the hardest workers around, though she’s still eager to party when the opportunity arises. Then there’s Josh, an autistic coder who slowly learns how to come out of his shell through the love and support of his friends, who hits especially close to home for me.
I love hanging out with every key member of DedSec, but out of the bunch, the one that truly caught me by surprise was Wrench. It’s all too easy to expect the worst from someone with an anarchist neck tattoo, studded leather hoodie and emoticon hockey mask (yes, really), though that instantly fades away as soon as he first meets Marcus at the group’s nighttime beach party. Wrench and Marcus have the kind of bond where they must see a movie trailer in the same room together, never missing a moment to quip back and forth or get into hypothetical “who would win?” arguments. When the pair aren’t totally synchronized, Wrench’s madcap antics are more focused on amusing his team over the player, which handily avoids the plague of randomness that bogs down most characters of his kind. His enthusiasm is infectious, even if you don’t share his unsettling obsession with toasters.
This unbridled affection snakes its way through most of San Francisco, resulting in what might be the liveliest open world. Every time I picked up a client with a fake Uber app, I was struck by how even the most innocuous of conversations sounded true to life (I can guarantee “Did you even watch the video?” has come up at least once during a birth). Pedestrians also knew how to space out their oddest behavior and catch me off guard, whether they were photobombing my selfies or posing as mannequins in a window display. I was surrounded by the same polygonal models that I spooked and terrorized countless other times, but I felt compelled to let them pass without any trouble. How could I justify my mischief when they were innocent, loving folks as unique as the Golden Gate Bridge?
There are times when Watch_Dogs 2 veers into darker territory without sinking its flow, but a set of missions deep into the game makes an unfortunate lapse in judgment. A named character is abruptly murdered for an unsatisfying reason, and suddenly it feels like you’re back under Aiden Pearce’s Iconic Cap™, laying waste to a barely-introduced gang just to satisfy Marcus’s uncharacteristic thirst for revenge. These missions abandon everything that makes the game special in the first place, shooting for a cheap emotional pull, then add insult to injury by never mentioning this character again. For all of Ubisoft’s commendable attempts to sidestep the cynicism that came to define the first Watch_Dogs, this relapse is totally unexpected and unwelcome.
Even though it temporarily succumbs to its predecessor’s darkness, Watch_Dogs 2’s sunny disposition helps it rise above the glut of open-world games released over the past few years. Instead of pouring their time and energy into weak satire or a self-serious quest for revenge, Ubisoft took the high road, presenting a city and cast that exemplify the best bits of humanity. After the darkness that pervaded these last few months, I can’t think of a better way to end 2016 than a glimpse at what we can accomplish with empathy.
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