Watch Dogs 2

It’s always a bit striking how these Ubisoft games seem to spend more than enough money but feel shallow and fail to really execute on their ideas. There’s some good stuff here: the cheery young black Oakland hacker protagonist is way different from the usual design-by-committee junk they took a whipping for with Watch Dogs 1, and while I roll my eyes at their execution on a lot of the “hacker culture” stuff, I have to admit it’s at least not a totally overused aesthetic.

The weirdest thing about the game has to be the killing. You aren’t a gangster, an undercover cop, or a space marine or anything–I can’t see any reason to think that Marcus here is supposed to be someone who has ever held a gun in his life at all. And your typical objective isn’t “get payback on the cartels”–though they certainly shoehorned that kind of standard fare in there in places–but “sneak into the Google offices and put a virus on their computers”. And, yeah, like, I get it–murdering everybody who works at Google with a grenade launcher doesn’t technically mean you can no longer plug in the USB stick. But what the hell’s the point anymore? How doesn’t that immediately become the way bigger story than the evil data you liberated or whatever? Nobody mentions your body count at all and it’s way more fucked and narratively unsettling than some silly moment in GTA4 where they suddenly pretend life is sacred and that you didn’t mow down 10 people on the sidewalk minutes before the cutscene started.

A part of me wonders if there had been a point in development where guns weren’t planned at all, until some focus group said they wanted to shoot people, but either way it’s weird. WD2’s combat is unfulfilling and frustrating. When you melee a guard in a room while others are around, you can get locked into a hour-long takedown animation where you’re still hitting the guy like six more times after the other guards have seen you and started shooting you. You also die after about two seconds’ exposure to bullet fire, which would support the whole “stealth is the intended way to go” theory, except that the stealth is no better.

Putting aside that a “clean hands” run is more or less taken off the table by the decision to have your stealth takedowns count as kills, it gets in the way of even violent stealth. You can’t move bodies around or hide by any means other than velcroing to cover opposite the guards. You can’t shut off alarms and they go off constantly on their own as objectives during the story missions. These are the sorts of things we wouldn’t accept in a proper, dedicated stealth game. And I think proper stealth really would’ve made the game something else. Make the takedowns non-lethal. Tell me when I’ve killed. Don’t alert the whole building when I stungun somebody head-on: just because the guard got to look me in the eyes before he went down doesn’t mean he radioed in, unless he’s wearing some kind of special Silicon Valley camera contact lens I wasn’t told about. And though the occasional quirk in detection logic may be inevitable, communicate to me what the consequences of these quirks are: tell me conclusively when the rest of the building has started freaking out. That’d be a good start.

So: shooting and stealth both are poor, but it’s the combination of both, combined with ample hacking, that can actually make these infiltrations enjoyable. Usually this means whipping out the remote control hopper and whizzing past guards while they’re staring intently at goatse or whatever the heck it is you send to them when you hack their phones. Carpet-bombing groups of enemies from the quadrotor drone also works pretty well. Even so, the balance between infiltration strategies is nonexistent: you can sprint right past a guard in the middle of the most secure server room on the planet if he’s just been texted a jpg. In the final mission I would die if I poked my head out for more than a second, but a bit of feedback blasted into everyone’s headsets and I sprinted right past several dozen heavily armored dudes with assault rifles.

The remote control toys are generally executed better than most of the other stuff, and aren’t seen as often in other games. You could make a whole game out of puzzles where you have to position yourself and other objects in order to get your hopper to unlock a door for you, and if they had, it would’ve been a better game than WD2. In practice, it feels a little contrived sometimes how you can never borrow a helicopter or pick up tiny objects with the quadrotor, because most of the time the challenge is just about scouting out the circuitous route up to a rooftop where a collectible is. And trying to find a way up onto something only to discover that you were supposed to use a scissor lift or a crane always sucks. But they could’ve done tons by setting up puzzles where, say, Marcus has to be actively standing on some kind of pressure plate to keep a grate held open for the hopper. And they could’ve made the hopper smaller, so there might be passages it could move through but the drone couldn’t. Maybe the quadrotor could even be made to pick up the hopper. Probably the coolest one actually implemented was when I remote-hacked a scissor-lift on the second floor of a parking garage from the hopper cam, and drove the lift off a ledge so I could use it to raise Marcus up from the ground floor. But it’s clear they could’ve gone much further.

They might have done more with those puzzles where you rotate nodes to bridge a connection, too: the best ones already in the game have you think outside of the digital space by making you do something physical, like moving a car out of the way. But they might’ve had these connections go longer, but be less tangled and mazelike, and require you to physically interact with different types of nodes in the way, tying whole buildings together. You might interact with these nodes through an app on Marcus’ phone instead of craning your neck around and overlaying them on physical space: once you bridged a connection to the elevator icon in the phone app, you’d be able to use that elevator in physical space (and gain access to a new set of nodes on the new floor that became available). And things should definitely, definitely be left unlocked for good if you already poked around a building long before doing a story mission there while hunting for collectibles.

The tasks where you hack into a camera feed and switch between other cameras you have line-of-sight on are boring. There was one on a cargo ship where you could hack into some guy’s bodycam from a stationary camera he would walk by, and you had to follow him until he moved to an otherwise-inaccessible part of the room where you could hack another guy’s keycard, and I thought, hey, maybe there’s something here. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough to get interesting, and these segments are much too partitioned from the rest of your activities. If you could remote-hack a bodycam and then close doors in peoples’ faces and otherwise distract them, in order to get two patrolling guards to fall fully out of sync from each other–so you could knock them out while they were isolated from one another–that would be really cool.

There’s also a short series of missions where you use camera data to find out exactly where a bunch of people routinely park their cars and stand guard, so you can show up early and drive forklifts full of explosives right where everyone’s going to stand, and then find some nearby cover to wait in until the appointed time. I thought that was a really fun twist, and it just goes to show how many clever ideas really were used in the game, but only ever shallowly.

The Dark Souls-esque always-active multiplayer was good. The hack invasions were tense and unique, and the co-op wasn’t half-bad either: it doesn’t beat being able to do a full playthrough with a co-op partner, but I had some memorable encounters. I dance-emoted while ghost-riding the whip, took some selfies with the randos whose games I joined, and even had some cool gameplay moments, like one where my partner distracted a guard by hacking their phone while I climbed a ladder up to said guard and silently knocked them out. When that happened, I did a cheer emote across the building to where my partner was crouched, and ended up drawing the attention of another guard… beautiful.

There’s a lot of little, annoying things in the game. The gamepad controls suck and I died several times because I hit the wrong direction on the D-pad and got shot to death while my character was locked in the animation of pulling out his laptop to control the quadrotor. My thumb got sore pushing down the left stick to sprint all the time, and god knows why they couldn’t just put that on the A button. Putting the cars I summoned 300 meters away sure as hell didn’t help either. The radio controls have you hold the select button, but this is also what you do to skip a transmission of story dialogue, and also what you use to warp to a multiplayer activity–god knows that backfired a few times. I also died or got hit by a car or something with bad timing at least once and ended up having the game skip a story-mission phone call altogether. This felt especially sloppy.

You gather botnet resources to recharge your hacking meter by focusing on somebody for a hack with LB and pressing A, but it only provides resources for some people, whereas for others, it steals a few pitiful dollars from their bank accounts, or starts spying on their phone call or text message. Botnet recovery absolutely needed its own fixed place on the command wheel, because whenever I ran low on hack power during a police chase or whatever, all I could do was drive by while rapidly tapping A at every pedestrian until I found some, and this would mean constantly putting text messages I didn’t want to see overtop my UI, and listening to the first second of countless phone calls before interrupting each one with another press or driving out of range. It was a terrible way of handling it.

Menus take too long to open, and loops of loads and warps get pretty annoying, which makes me wonder if Ubisoft even learns anything over the decades about game design: I remember getting annoyed by the way restarting a mission in some early Assassin’s Creed game would jerk me out and back in with two separate load screens. Imagine the scene in WD2: I’d be working as the equivalent of an Uber driver, I’d ding up my car, restart to get a better driver rating, and it would load to the “pick up your client” stage of the mission, but drop me where I already was, meaning, nowhere near the starting point of the drive. So I’d go to quicktravel to the start of the drive, but it would tell me quick travel was disabled during a mission. So I’d go back into the main menu, cancel the mission, wait out another load, and then quicktravel and load that before finding a new nearby and viable car and getting the rest of the way back to the start of the mission. I was playing on an SSD and all, but Christ–Ubi needs to have a long conversation with the CD Projeckt RED guys.

Finally, there’s another subject I wanted to talk about: WD2 has eye-tracking functionality. As it so happens, I have a Tobii EyeX. And there’s some interesting stuff going on there. The EyeX doesn’t support head-tracking like the newer 4C, and it doesn’t have nearly what you’d call pixel-perfect accuracy, especially toward the edges of the screen. It’s early-adopter hardware, and can be awkward, but if an application uses it intelligently, it’s an amazing input device that requires no effort on the part of the user to accommodate it–unlike, say, learning how to hold or waggle a Wii remote. You already use your eyes–it’s just a matter of having hardware that doesn’t waste that valuable data. So I’m a huge fan of the idea.

The WD2 eye-tracking is pretty neat, and pretty close to the ideal when it comes to tech at this stage. I think the rule to follow here is: when you can’t do what I want you to do, don’t be worse than nothing at all.

A good example is Aim At Gaze: your gun’s aim doesn’t actually follow your gaze as you hold and adjust it, but only determines the initial place you’re aiming at when you first press LT and the gun is raised. Because the resolution isn’t pixel-perfect, this can’t reliably snap your aim right to the enemy’s face unless it cheats and picks a head for you, but it points you much closer to the headshot than you otherwise would be if you had no secondary input and your crosshair started off dead-ahead. It’s up to you to fine-tune the shot, but this is much less of a maneuver than panning across the whole screen with the control stick would be. Even if you’ve leaned too far forward in the heat of the moment and your eye tracker has lost your gaze–which happens just a little too often with my generation of eye-trackers, admittedly–it’s no real setback, because if it doesn’t find you and you bring up your gun without the eye-tracker taking you close to where you want to be, it doesn’t take even a second to realize that you have to aim fully by the old-fashioned method.

Hack At Gaze was similar. It worked well, but I found that it typically prioritize focus on other cars instead of pedestrians while driving, so I’d have to manually center the screen on someone to hack their phones during the aforementioned efforts to use the botnets to recharge my hack power. I was really reluctant to believe that this would have been my only way to aim a hack at all if I didn’t have the eye-tracker but used a gamepad anyway, which means that, A, the eye-tracker must be working its magic if I couldn’t imagine playing without it, and B, the gamepad controls really are crap.

The eye-tracker’s “extended view” option for the game is a bit more annoying, because your camera will pan down as you look to the UI at the bottom of the screen, read subtitles, or whatever. If it were a little smarter it’d disable itself during those safehouse conversations where you can’t move around, at the very least. Luckily, you can turn each setting off individually, and adjust sensitivity, so I ended up leaving this one on, but limiting the sensitivity and reducing the maximum angle that the eye-tracker was allowed to pan by.

All in all? Loads of promise in this series, but I don’t see Ubi fulfilling that promise. It would basically take another stealth-hacking IP stealing its ideas, or the license switching hands in the manner of Fallout: New Vegas. There’s a good thought for a laugh and little more, but I’m far more hopeful that eye-tracking will really take off, because it’s dope as hell even if it’s not totally there yet.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

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