Hey! Remember Hackers? That 1995 movie with a notable acting cast (Angelina Jolie, Johnny Lee Miller, Matthew Lillard) with notable hacker names like “Crash Override”, “Acid Burn”, “Phantom Phreak”? Remember how cool it was that they took elements from cyberpunk culture and made it tres chic? Remember how edgy rollerblading was in that movie? Remember how they made typing so sexy, finger-punching into a keyboard like it’s a matter of life-or-death.
Sitting comfortably in the genre of camp, Hackers undermines what actual hacking actually is, which is mostly just typing long strings of code (while using your mouse; ever notice that no one ever uses a mouse in a hacker movie) at hours at a time into a computer. Typing quickly does not make for a good movie. A hacker movie will use one or more of the following: garish interface with green text on a black screen; multiple windows with indecipherable text with maybe an ASCII skull in the corner to denote how “alternative” you are; memes, hohoho, sooo many memes, mayhaps a .gif of Pepe the Frog flipping you off.
I’m bringing this up because while my suspension of disbelief can only go so far when it comes to hacking in pop culture (“oh great, another overweight, unwashed, bearded recluse who is a master hacker”) but it is the sort of thing needed in a video game like Watch Dogs 2.
The previous instalment was this Chinatown-esque world where your grey hat hacker protagonist kills with impunity. In Watch Dogs 2, there’s a tonal shift from Mr Robot to well, Hackers.
You play as Marcus, who is initiated into the San Francisco chapter of DedSec, a hacking collective. Different from their Chicago counterparts, the SF DedSec engages in tagging, gaining followers, growing their downloads for their app; this group refuses to remain working in the dark. Framed for something he didn't do, Marcus has to clear his name as well as trying to take down Big Brother; while that will keep you busy, there's also the issue of Marcus as a black man in the tech world. There's no homily about race relations but there's the wink of social commentary about an AI unable to photo Marcus because he's too black or mentioning his reservations about being a minority in a tech company.
Initially, there was frustration when I started the game (getting used to the UI, eye-rolling at hacker tropes) but slowly the game grows on you. My God does this game slowly win you over. The characters that inhabit the world of Watch Dogs 2 will stick with you; and may I remark how inclusive this game is—a transgender city councillor? A non-binary black hat? A hacker with Asperger's?—you'll interact with these folks without making their identity as a punchline.
Another improvement was the world you play in; your sandbox is the Bay Area. Usually, other the environs of open-world games through gameplay start to feel same-y. Buildings become indistinguishable from one another, the NPCs start to look like clones. It’s easy to gloss over the surroundings when you’re criss-crossing a district, trying to outrun the popo but the areas have their own personalities thanks to its inhabitants.
CNET compared the real-life San Francisco to the in-game version and that’s why the game’s ScoutX side mission is a terrific idea as it rewards your player for taking selfies at landmarks sprinkled all over San Francisco. It incentivises you to explore places like the Painted Ladies or the Golden Gate Bridge.
Adding to the game is an improved AI, engaging in-game banter and missions that do not feel repetitive, Watch Dogs 2 is well-worth your time. It’s whimsical enough to get you through it but it’ll also cause you to consider the ramifications on how your data is used in the World Wide Web.
Watch Dog 2 retails at SGD77 upwards and is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.