Watch Dogs 2
Developed by: Ubisoft Montreal
Published by: Ubisoft
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

The Watch Dogs series is plugged into our anxieties about life in the age of surveillance. Capitalizing on the myth of a hacker who is able to leverage information systems that know more about us than we do about them the games allow players to experience the rush of running roughshod over all manner of individuals, groups, and municipal entities with just a few taps on a smartphone. But whereas the first “Watch Dogs” was shackled to an emotionally-stunted protagonist whose personality made everything drabber around him, the new game feels like a hacker fantasy infused with the ensemble dynamics of a feel-good teen movie.

Marcus Holloway, the young African American hero of “Watch Dogs 2,” is a charismatic, soft-spoken young man who appears designed from the ground up to remove from your mind any memory of Aiden Pierce, the crotchety loner at the center of the first game. We first encounter Marcus as he is breaking into a data center that houses northern California’s ctOS, Centralized Operating System, which controls everything from traffic lights to the area’s ubiquitous security cameras. The system also houses a vast amount of personal data culled from the inhabitants of the state. Having been falsely accused of a crime, Marcus hacks his way into the servers to erase his personal data and prove himself to Dedsec, a hacker group providing him with logistical support.

After completing his task, Marcus is invited to join the scrappy collective set on dealing a crushing blow to Blume, the company responsible for the implementation of the ctOS network. Dedsec’s long-term strategy is to build a bot army that draws on the power of a vast array of internet-connected devices to overwhelm Blume’s infrastructure. To realize its goal, the group creates an app that allows users to knowingly contribute the processing power of their networked devices to the cause. To entice people to download it, Dedsec embarks on a hacktivist version of a p.r. campaign to up its profile.

“Watch Dogs 2” is beholden to a ripped-from-the-headlines approach that panders to its audience’s pop cultural knowledge. There are missions that spoof the Church of Scientology’s lucrative relationship with Tom Cruise, the North Korean hack of Sony Pictures, pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli’s acquisition of the only physical copy a Wu-Tang Clan album, and Facebook’s manipulation of its news feed. As amusing as it is to see how the writers reworked these stories to fit into the game, they are unlikely to inspire any insights into the real-world culture that gave birth to them. The one cutting moment that held some excitement for me occurs when one of Marcus’ colleagues laments the decline of her brand, i.e. Dedsec. Thus, the game reminds us of our hopeless corruptibility.

As someone who played through the first “Watch Dogs” and was howlingly disappointed in it, I was gladdened by how much I liked the sequel. In large measure, it’s because the hacking mechanics are so robust. Whereas firefights were for me a dull, intrinsic part of the first game, in “Watch Dogs 2” I used a firearm less than a handful of times. The range of hacking skills available makes the use of firearms by Marcus rather déclassé. Framing enemies for arrest or gang retaliation is a pleasure that shouldn’t be missed.

It’s possible to keep Marcus safely tucked behind the glow of his laptop for much of the game. A personal drone can wander through most hostile areas serving as Marcus’s eyes and ears. Such hacking mechanics do a clever job of mimicking the passivity of the player who is, likewise, removed from danger.

“Watch Dogs 2’s” multiplayer options allow for one player to invade another’s world and try to steal their data, the resource one uses to level up . I didn’t find this quite as trying as in the first game because during the few times intruders messed with me, I’d toss up a flying drone and quickly find them. I guess I can’t say enough good things about those drones.

“Watch Dogs 2”is an anti-corporate, corporate product filled with characters who utter hand-me-down social insights. But it’s also a game stuffed with hackable locations that are fun to exploit.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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