Friday, 24 June 2016

Watch Dogs 2: Renegade Master

Watch Dogs 2

Ubisoft Montreal calls on the power of the crowd as Watch Dogs 2 heads out west to San Francisco

Ubisoft is rarely topical. This is a company that prefers to safeguard its future by borrowing from the past, be it the historical tourism of an Assassin’s Creed or the prehistoric stylings of Far Cry Primal. Where it does dip a toe in more modern waters, it either does so by escaping the trappings of 21st-century civilisation, as in Far Cry 3 and 4, or by simply destroying it, as in The Division. Yet in 2014’s Watch Dogs the company was almost achingly current, its tale of surveillance paranoia launching mere months after Edward Snowden had laid bare the shocking extent to which modern governments spy on their citizens. The intervening two years have  yielded the Panama Papers, the mass sharing of celebrity photos that were meant to remain private, and the rebirth of the Snooper’s Charter. Drone warfare is ever more prevalent, while the rise of the Internet Of Things means that everything from smartcars to children’s toys are susceptible to attack. As our relationship with technology becomes ever closer and more complex, so too grows the likelihood of it being exploited. The more connected we are, the more vulnerable.

That’s terrible news, perhaps, for the luddite wondering how his new microwave has just given away his credit card details. But for the developer of a game about a white-hat hacker using their skills to defame the establishment and return power to the people, it’s a dream come true. Watch Dogs 2 is, as you’d expect, bigger and prettier, and boasts a suite of new features and improvements. But more importantly, it reflects the connected world’s relentless, exponential expansion. Simply put, Watch Dogs 2’s hacking is, like its subject matter, broader, deeper, and more persistent.

“In Watch Dogs, many of the hacking actions were quite binary,” returning creative director Jonathan Morin admits. “My favourite was hacking cameras; it was something I was talking about a lot towards the end of development. You were controlling something from a distance; it was more analogue. Now we have a lot more of those analogue inputs, so hacking becomes, really, a form of expression – a way to solve problems in a more creative way.”

Surveillance cameras stood apart in Watch Dogs’ hackable Chicago, able to be panned, zoomed and jumped between as you sought out threats, which could in turn be hacked so long as they were in the camera’s field of view. By contrast, Chicago’s other technological vulnerabilities were essentially lightswitches: the steam pipe that blew up, the traffic signal that turned from red to green, the bollard, bridge or platform that was raised or lowered. Those days are gone, consigned to history like a phone without a web browser.

Now, when you aim at a hackable object and tap a shoulder button, you perform a quick, default hack, to ensure the pacy dynamism of the first game’s hacking system is preserved. But hold the button down, and more options can be selected with the face buttons. Vehicles, for instance, will turn sharply to the right when quick-hacked, but a long press yields the option to have it turn left, speed up, or slow down. A quick hack of a pedestrian will, as in the first game, yield the contents of the target’s bank account or valuable intel. But now you can distract someone – anyone – by messing with their phone, a game-wide expansion of a feature that, in the first game, could only be performed on certain targets. You can call the police on them, or alert an enemy faction to their presence. The aim, Morin says, is not just for more flexibility, but less predictable results, too.

“We wanted to tap a bit into social engineering, where you hack into information that systems gather on people,” he says. “You can change what they are to the system, then call the police. The cops will show up and depending on who that person is, they might flee, fight back, or just get arrested. If the cops arrive and there’s an opposing faction, or other criminals around, it might go in a different direction. It might start a battle and even more police show up. It’s pretty clear, when you press a button, what it does – ‘I’m going to call the cops on this guy to create a diversion’ – but you should be surprised by the outcome, forcing you to adjust and think about the possibilities. Everything we do is focused on that kind of control: either you control something completely from a distance or, when you start something, a chain of events might emerge from the systems.”

Furthermore, now your hacking toolset will improve. Hacks are performed by consuming Botnet, a sort of mana bar that, at the beginning, will only let you hack two or three things at a time. As you progress, the bar expands, and hacks themselves will grow stronger – the cops showing up with a greater show of force, for instance. “I think that’s an interesting improvement from the first game, where as soon as you gained a new tool, its power was pretty much what you were going to get until the end of the game,” Morin says. “In Watch Dogs 2, that’s not the case – you’ll start seeing opportunities for how you can use them, and combine them with each other, too.”

Watch Dogs 2

Your hacking toolset’s growth over the course of the game is all thanks to Dedsec, the white-hat group – we’re desperately trying to avoid the term ‘hacktivist’ – featured in the first game that supported protagonist Aiden Pearce in his bid to free Chicago from the grip of the ctOS surveillance system. Here Dedsec is the focus of the game, with you as its leader. New protagonist Marcus Holloway is a young, brilliant, African- American hacker whose grudge against ctOS leads him to join Dedsec, where his charm and wit see him quickly rise up the ranks to become the group’s leader. He sets about expanding its membership, amassing new techniques from recruits while conducting operations to expose Blume, the shadowy corporation behind ctOS, as the true public enemy.

Hang on. Charisma and wit? No one who played the first Watch Dogs would associate either of those personality traits with the gruff, grizzled and thoroughly unsympathetic Pearce. Holloway alone would suggest quite the shift in tone, but Morin says the greater factor in Watch Dogs 2’s shift in atmosphere comes from its 2,000-mile, westward jump from the first game’s setting of Chicago. Set in and around San Francisco – not just the city centre but Marin County, Oakland and, naturally, Silicon Valley – the area, Morin believes, naturally invites a lighter tone than that of its often dour predecessor.

“Watch Dogs was in Chicago and was about surveillance, which matters a lot there,” he tells us, a reference to the fact that the Windy City has more surveillance cameras than any other conurbation in the US. “It’s a more oppressive place, with lots of dark, narrow alleys. The tone of the first game was not only because of Aiden Pearce, but also the area. For Watch Dogs 2, we decided to jump into the Bay Area, and it was quite obvious that the state of mind in this open-minded place, with all  the creativity that’s happening there, required a shift in tone. It’s slightly lighter, and more focused on the attitude you would expect from hacker culture: it’s about people who see beyond pre-conceived rules, who think outside the box to solve problems. What’s happening in San Francisco in terms of economy, in terms of development of technology, is pushed forward by this kind of attitude.”

If Chicago was an appropriate setting for a game about a society in the grip of surveillance, San Francisco promises to be a wonderful home for a sequel about a group of countercultural, anti-establishment hackers. Where better to be technologically disruptive than in the most technologically disruptive city in the western world? But Dedsec is not just the narrative set dressing, there to tie together setting and story. In pushing the group to the fore, the development team has completely redesigned Watch Dogs’ structure, in order to move away from the classic shape of an open-world game, which Morin rather bluntly admits typically amounts to “just having a story and then some stuff on the side. We wanted to make sure the world would be more convincing – that the world is made up of, and shaped from, lots of different stories.”

It means that every kind of mission and activity feeds into your overall progression. Holloway’s aim is to grow Dedsec’s numbers and so expand its influence, and once certain population milestones are reached, the story progresses. In keeping with the desire to give the player more control over how they interact with technology to solve problems, you’ll have a far greater level of freedom in how you progress through the game. And, as a result, Ubisoft Montreal will have a far greater level of freedom in the stories it can tell.

“Each operation represents a different aspect of our relationship with technology,” Morin says. “It gives us the opportunity to talk about the Internet Of Things on one operation, advancements in AI on another, social media, data gathering, behavioural analysis… It gives a lot more perspective on the problems that exist in technology today.”

Not everything will be so serious, of course. San Francisco is vibrant in more than just colour palette, after all, and no game set in a city containing, for instance, Haight-Ashbury’s crinkled Deadheads and the Valley’s techbro startups could keep a straight face all the time. “Just wandering around in San Francisco you can find colourful people,” Morin says, “and if you dig into that you might find several different operations you can go into. Some are more important than others in terms of the impact their themes have on society, but it creates an interesting pool of operations and experiences that, I think, completes the world a lot better than just having you follow the main arc of the narrative.”

Flexibility is key, then, in individual missions, the shape of the game they comprise and, thanks to the expanded toolset, the way you play, too. Morin says that players will be able to play through the game non-lethally if they choose, whether by stealth, disabling enemies with Holloway’s Taser, or by having police and criminal factions do the dirty work. “Well,” he admits with a chuckle, “it might be difficult to avoid hitting anyone with a car.” Regardless, the original game’s divisively weighty vehicle handling has been overhauled and is now a good deal more responsive. Those intent on keeping blood off their hands, and front bumpers, will at least only have themselves to blame this time if they understeer into a bus stop.

Watch Dogs 2

Assuming they’re behind the wheel, that is. Building on the first game’s seamless, ambient multiplayer – one of few parts of Watch Dogs that didn’t divide popular opinion – is co-op. Pitch up at a mission and you might encounter another player at the same point in the game, and then be able to either work together or head off your separate ways. Friends can be invited to co-op sessions through Holloway’s smartphone, but you’ll be able to play through a substantial chunk of Watch Dogs 2 with company without needing to actively seek it out. Some missions are designed for lone wolves, but the less gregarious can play through all the dedicated co-op missions in singleplayer, while side operations can be played either solo or with company. And because of the new progression system, all of it has a bearing on your journey to the end of the game.

Since Watch Dogs 2’s protagonist is part of a collective, co-op makes narrative sense. So too do PVP invasions, where aggressors are presented as being part of an opposing faction (though in your opponent’s game, roles are reversed – you’re framed as the bad guy). As one of Watch Dogs’ more successful components, PVP hasn’t been changed too much, though Morin and team have streamlined things behind the scenes. “In Watch Dogs, you were proposed a multiplayer activity and, if you accepted it, it loaded in. Now, if we’re proposing you something it’s because the player is already here. No loading, no teleporting, nothing. Just go do it.”

Yet while the focus on Dedsec solves a few potentially awkward ludonarrative conundrums, plenty more remain. Chief among them is the notion of a white-hat hacking group causing pileups at intersections so they can escape the gang battle they just kicked off down the street. And this lot are the good guys? Watch Dogs 2 is a game about wresting control of technology back from the establishment, yes, but is all that power really better off in the hands of hackers?

“It’s a contradiction that I like a lot,” Morin says. “What’s important is that the game will never judge how you play: you’ll never feel like you’ve done something that the world says is wrong. It’s the opposite. We want Dedsec to grow in power, and it’s up to the player to decide what’s meaningfully justifiable. We want to make sure you have the tools available to you, always, to do as you see fit. Sometimes emergence might change outcomes, but that’s kind of the point: messing around with these things is dangerous.”

Indeed it is, but that hasn’t stopped Ubisoft Montreal throwing in everything from drones to RC cars, EMP blasts and 3D-printed grenade launchers. Giving the player such destructive freedom is hardly new in open-world games, but absolving them of the consequences is rather more rare – and increasingly important in an era where open worlds just keep getting bigger, more complex and more destructive. As technology improves, developers, just like the rest of us, must think carefully about how it should be used. Morin believes that the narrative must give the player the same level of freedom as the discrete systems the story is meant to tie together.

“It’s a growing challenge,” he admits. “I feel like Watch Dogs 2 does a good job of trying to contain it and make it logical, but at the same time I think open worlds are all about giving players the right sets of simulations so they can make their own fun. As we try to tackle these things narratively, we can’t slow down this ability to [let players] mess around with simulation more. Too many games right now are doing open worlds, but not giving players little toys that they can play around with in new ways.

“It’s especially important for us, because that’s how I see a hacker. A hacker sees something not for what it is, but what it might be, because he understands how it works. I would love for people to play Watch Dogs 2 in the same way: not seeing what’s been preconceived, but switching things around, turning things upside down, then wanting to share the results with the world to show how smart they were. Maybe the entire plan fucked up and they had to improvise and had a lot of fun doing that, too. It has to be surprising, has to offer some new kinds of inputs in the world. Otherwise, why bother? Why bother making open-world games where everybody is busting their ass at doing the same mechanics?”

It is easy – and, honestly, tempting – to be sceptical of all this. After all, Watch Dogs was an early pioneer of Ubisoft’s recent history of over-promising and under-delivering. After stealing the show at E3 2013, it suffered a six-month delay, and in its final form didn’t exactly match up to the remarkable ambition on show at its unveiling. Ubisoft is a little more cautious these days, and so Watch Dogs 2 has emerged, all but fully formed, just months ahead of its planned November release. This time it will make it, and just as well. This is supposed to be a commentary on the problems modern technology poses to the world at large, not just to Ubisoft.

Morin doesn’t believe that the air of relative secrecy that has surrounded Watch Dogs 2’s development has made the process any easier this time. Experience has done that. Watch Dogs was a new IP that sought to do new things with its genre, running on new console hardware. Its development team faced a lot of problems, and not all of them were solved.

“During the making of Watch Dogs, we progressively understood, better and better, what our fantasy was for it,” he says. “We had that understanding at the beginning of development on Watch Dogs 2. Now we can really focus on the fantasy of being a hacker.” It’s hard not to think of the jump from Assassin’s Creed to ACII, when a flawed set of ideas blossomed into something that finally made good on all that promise. No doubt it was kicked around a branding meeting and dismissed as too trite, but on this evidence the sequel has earned the title Watch Dogs 2.0. Bugs have been squished, kinks ironed out, and new features woven in; there’s a backdoor vulnerability or two, sure, but that’s all part of the fun. This time, thankfully, everything seems to be working as intended.

Watch Dogs 2


New protagonist Marcus Holloway is moved to join up with Dedsec after he’s wrongly racially profiled and accused of a crime he didn’t commit. It’s quite the departure from Aiden Pearce’s fight to avenge the death of his niece and subsequent kidnapping of his sister. The idea, senior writer Lucien Soulban tells us, is to put players in control of a protagonist whose problems are believable, and that could happen to anyone. “We wanted sunny and vibrant as far as his personality was concerned, and we went for a hero who was fighting for the same things we hear and read about in our daily lives. And we made him charming, so he could convince others to join him.”

He’s different to Pearce on a physical level too. Younger and fitter, he has a greater emphasis on parkour skills than his forebear, whose mobility was always stymied by that bulky, ‘iconic’ raincoat. Ubisoft Montreal researched homemade weapons when deciding how Holloway should fight, eventually settling on a billiard ball attached to a parachute cord. Hard hitting and lightning fast, it’s a compelling alternative to a non-lethal playthrough. All in, it’s quite the change, but the greater battle will be tonal, something that’s made clear by a character intro video showing our hero parkour-flipping over cascades of Windows 95 dialogue boxes. Naturally.


Ubisoft’s preference for the historical is well documented, and not without merit. There’s an inherent peril in setting a game in the present day, as senior writer Lucien Soulban explains. “You understand the culture and the environment; you understand the language and the stakes,” he tells us. “There’s no disconnect or disbelief – but that’s a trap, right? People are so familiar with the setting that you have to be careful about [re-]telling them their own experiences. They have an opinion on what’s right and wrong, yet they need to understand and agree with the stakes as you’ve presented them.”

There are legal concerns, too. Short of a defamation suit from a distant descendent of Rodrigo Borgia, this is not something most Ubisoft studios have to worry about. It’s certainly never concerned Soulban, whose previous work includes the thematically bonkers Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. “We need to fictionalise companies and brands, because how we use them in the game is rarely a true indication of their actual nature,” Soulban continues. “The idea of corporate intrigue and espionage is hugely attractive, but the reality is rarely as engaging.” That’s not to say you can’t hint at it, of course – one of the game’s Valley companies has a bright, multicoloured logo, and is called Nudle.