Watch Dogs 2 (or WATCH_DOGS 2, as it’s stylized) is coming out on November 15, so if you’re among those preparing for the launch with its selfie reveal app, you might be wondering if it’s necessary to play the first game to get the full experience. My answer to that? No, not really. I’d even personally recommend against it, because there are lots of problems with the original both in terms of story and gameplay, but especially in story.
Spoilers ahead (some major).
The main carryover from the first game is DedSec, a group of rebel hackers who really love their skull motifs. While DedSec is the main focus of the sequel — and also more keen on branding than ever — they barely factor into the original game at all. They’re out there, they’re watching, and they’re even nominally represented by one of your hacker accomplices, but they’re ultimately inconsequential.
Despite what its title implies (y’know, who watches the watch dogs … particularly in the fully networked surveillance state that is the game’s backdrop), Watch Dogs is mostly about one man’s quest for revenge. That man is Aiden Pearce — perhaps one of the most unlikable video game protagonists ever written. Everything about his demeanor suggests Ubisoft was aiming for the cool lone wolf type, but overshot and depicted the other type of lone wolf: the type neighbors inevitably describe as a “nice, quiet man” before adding they never dreamed him capable of such terrible things.
But the terrible things in Watch Dogs don’t begin and end with Aiden. One of the game’s most prominent gameplay elements — apart from hacking almost everything in the world — is the ability to scan any person in sight. By hacking into Chicago’s Central Operating System (CTOS), Aiden’s phone can bring up anyone’s age, occupation, income, and a random fact about them. The tidbits vary wildly and can reference everything from nationality to sexual peccadilloes. They can also out an NPC as HIV positive, asexual, or trans — all traits that frequently lead to real-world harassment.
The potential for players to target and kill an NPC based on a trait they deem undesirable was not only foreseen by the devs, it was outright encouraged upon release.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Though it’s barely touched upon in the main story, CTOS includes a predictive behavioral algorithm called Bellwether. This allows it to use all those citizen profiles to — among other things only detailed in audio logs — predict crimes before they happen. In terms of gameplay, a waypoint appears on your map whenever a crime is brewing nearby, leading you right to the potential victim and perpetrator so you can intervene. Assaults are the most common crime you’ll find, usually involving jilted lovers or money owed.
Then there’s the waypoint that leads you to a man whose profile reads “Suffers from Schizotypal Personality Disorder.” Just for the record, no one “suffers” from any mental illness — and besides that, it’s very rare that they’re a danger to others — but that kind of outdated and insensitive phrasing ought to tell you where this is going. As he approaches a woman too busy texting to notice him, the percentage on the Crime Probability indicator slowly climbs. Suddenly, he exclaims she’s a monster, and the probability spikes as he attacks.
The thing is, it only counts as preventing a crime when the indicator on the perpetrator turns red (the color of all enemy NPCs) and says “Intervene.” Any sooner and it’s considered an unwarranted assault. So by lying in wait and knocking out a mentally ill man in the grips of a painfully stereotypical, as-seen-on-TV psychotic episode, the day is saved and a harmful stereotype is reinforced. As if painting the mentally ill as dangerous criminals ready to blow wasn’t bad enough, the game’s got physical disabilities covered as well.
This brings me to Damien Brenks, the game’s primary antagonist. He was perhaps meant to be a foil to Aiden, but that doesn’t really work when neither character has any redeeming qualities. The game opens with Aiden and Damien as partners-in-crime, but a botched heist (perpetrated by hacking, naturally) leads to mob retaliation that takes something away from both men. Aiden loses his six-year-old niece in a car wreck, and Damien loses the full use of one leg in a savage beating. As Damien puts it when you meet him a year and eight missions later, he had “everything” taken from him.
This is a bit of a record scratch statement to anyone who’s dealt with a physical disability in real life, like me, but maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe Damien’s only joy in life — aside from cybercrime — was competing in triathlons. Or maybe he’s just poorly written. In any case, becoming disabled to any degree isn’t the end of the world, but it’s an all too common trope in media for characters to either give up or go off the deep end when faced with the prospect of living out their rest of their lives differently than before.
Rather than cope with having one leg in a brace, Damien goes full villain. He’s not wrong when he says Aiden is just like him, as Aiden never got over the death of his niece, either. Aiden’s reaction to that loss is to distance himself from his remaining family members in order to seek justice and become not just a vigilante, but the vigilante. He repeatedly claims it’s for their protection, but Damien easily kidnaps his sister Nicki. He uses her as a proverbial carrot on a stick to keep the plot moving for roughly 30 missions, which I suppose is still slightly better than dying at the beginning to kick things off.
Yet even while spending most of the game held captive in a warehouse, Nicki gets off easy. Clara Lille, the above-mentioned DedSec connection (who’s working independent of the org, and even steals from them for Aiden) doesn’t fare quite so well. Nicki, at least, survives her prolonged captivity. She walks out of Aiden’s life immediately after, taking his nephew with her, but she lives.
Clara is with you from the start of the game, but early on you only know her by the hacker alias BadBoy17. It’s not surprising her chosen persona is male, digitally altered voice and all, given how many women choose to conceal their gender to avoid harassment online. But when she has information that necessitates meeting face to face, Aiden reacts very poorly to the revelation that BadBoy isn’t a boy at all. While ranting about safety and trust, he shoves Clara, and then grabs her by the throat while she’s backed in a corner.
Shortly after the cutscene, the two have a phone exchange that’s a blatant attempt to make Aiden look like less of an asshole. He apologizes for being rough, and Clara says she understands he was trying to intimidate her, his actions all textbook moves to test for cracks in her composure … as opposed to a man barely containing his anger at being deceived over an acquaintance’s gender. Sure, whatever.
In spite of all that (or because of it, given how dysfunctional some romances can be), it’s easy to peg Clara as the game’s inevitable love interest for Aiden. The good news is that it doesn’t happen. The bad news is that Watch Dogs’ main story has one tone, and that tone is bleak.
Late in the game, a rival hacker exposes Clara as the one hired to track Aiden and Damien down in the first place. Turns out she’s been helping you the whole time out of guilt for her unwitting part in Lena’s death. Aiden, predictably, does not handle the revelation well. Clara runs off, later contacting you (as in at the very end of the game) to say she’s going to make things right. Somehow, that translates to telling Damien about her role in everything. Damien, being the reasonable sort, hires seemingly every goddamn fixer in Chicago to converge on her while she pays her respects at Lena’s grave. That’s where this screenshot floating around comes into some context:
There’s a reason why you can vault your niece’s grave, you see. When you arrive to the “save Clara” mission waypoint just in time to see her riddled with bullets, you have to use the headstone for cover. Clara bleeds out on Lena’s grave in classic fashion, leaving Aiden to fight his way out. Clara’s death spurs Aiden into the penultimate confrontation with Damien, just like Lena’s death spurred him into becoming a vigilante. With Damien dead, Aiden has nothing left to hold him back from becoming Chicago’s lone brooding protector. Maybe he’ll be too busy to make an appearance in San Francisco for the sequel because of it. One can hope.
The issues with the original Watch Dogs go beyond even what I’ve detailed here — like a series of missions where Aiden infiltrates a human trafficking ring to find topless women paraded around like cattle for auction, or mission objectives encouraging him to outright kill gang members (guess what race — just guess) in his search for stolen data, but I really don’t want to make this a multi-part thing.
Despite all the faults of the first game, Watch Dogs as a series could still turn itself around, and things are already looking up a little. The cast for Watch Dogs 2 is more diverse, for starters, and I’d be lying if I said the E3 revelation that you could pet dogs didn’t endear me to it just a smidge. So if nothing else, it’s clear the sequel has more of a sense of humor than its relentlessly grim predecessor. We’ll see just how much better (or not) it can get soon enough.