Awash in a world of leftist, anti-capitalist paranoia, Marcus Hollaway knows everything. All kids think they do, minus the life experience. Forming an Anonymous-esque hacker group DedSec, Hollaway finds himself stretching between one real world satire to the next, none of them particularly rich in composition. With Watch Dogs 2’s fragmentation (hopping from selfish pharmaceutical CEOs to gross social media privacy invasions) UbiSoft’s lighter sequel veers benign, a rather placid piece of millenial-centered revenge porn surrounded by vomited meme art.
Absorbed in a generation who communicates via thumb swipe, Watch Dogs 2 is childish. Immaturity on the part of the characters feeds into the laughable – but at times strangely earnest – concept. It’s as if the geeky plan to take down “the system” were drawn up in a high school lunch room. The kids throw themselves into super hero-dom with the invisible skill of electronic Jedi, casting their invasive lines of code from a secret lair underneath a role playing store. Their weapons come by way of an implausible 3D printer adorned with a unicorn farting rainbows. In another corner sits a mountain of televisions, pulling feeds from rivals or the “ignorant media.”
Watch Dogs 2’s pokes rather than explores though. Missions swirl around stock market crashes, social media manipulation, and greed, but never lock into the full breadth of the potential satire. Jumping between missions leaves each staggered and weightless, forgotten blips of contemporary commentary, washed cleanly away for the sake of in-game progression. Characters come in, drop out, and then leave their without resolution. What matters is the growing attach rate of social media followers, the only affirmation of their work.
Poking into the parody search engine Nudle, Hollaway stares down Silicon Valley’s diversity epidemic. This feeds into a the story of a transgender electorate, and even into DedSec itself, diversified and keenly aware of it. Conversations skew toward race, and Hollaway’s handling of the issue feels authentically smart without forcing things. When settled instead of rambling, Watch Dogs 2 finds its voice.
And then it blows up. Watch Dogs 2’s low-grade racial nuance erupts in a baffling, frustrating, and inconsolable mission with senseless murder, bringing about a gang war. Stereotyped Mexican gang members uncomfortably bring dog fighting into the story, leaving the cheesy absurdity of open world games for something eerily real. Pages of criticism are needed to properly denounce the inclusion.
Note Hollaway is violent. He carries a gun and can kill. Even if it’s not bullets, the unorthodox melee choice, a neon-colored bola, does significant damage, more than the cartoon Z’s floating over victims indicate. It’s dumb, but so is Watch Dogs 2, and not in the gratingly dark, foggy, or depressing form of the first game. Watch Dogs 2 sprouts lambent color, eccentric fashion, and nonsense in droves, stronger cultural satire than the swing-and-a-miss of Grand Theft Auto V, even if the games skew similar. Distressing how the game leaves such placid comfort, and without greater circumstance. Hollaway takes his revenge against the inner city gang, and is then consoled by an aging hippie wearing a poop emoji hat.
Watch Dogs 2 won’t last. Caught up in the sedate, rapidly draining open world genre, few will look back at UbiSoft’s work as any sort of cultural snapshot. After all, Watch Dogs 2 isn’t out for change; the parody material skews too superficial to be of richer consequence. Instead, its villain, the track suit-wearing, yoga addicted Dusan Nemec, is just someone to revile. He’s a fictional figment of media figures – Wall Street moguls, big pharma, politicians – the rich, powerful capitalist defined by greed. He took the jobs, caused student loans, and left the only solace, the internet. Now he’s taking that too. So these kids, apparently privileged if their access to piles of gadgets is any indication, will make their mark. The system failed them. It’s their time to make a new system in their own form.