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Watch Dogs 2 and the problem of marketing versus reality

When Ubisoft revealed Watch Dogs 2 at E3 2016 I was not impressed. The first game was bogged down with controversy surrounding its graphical downgrade compared to the promotional materials. It took itself seriously in a way which seemed at odds with its own mechanics, positioning itself as a William Gibson-esque gritty cyberpunk thriller but was a fairly standard third-person open world shooter with a few extra UI overlays and some nifty environmental interaction; not to mention its fundamentally unlikable protagonist. The reveal trailer for Watch Dogs 2 showed a fundamentally different but, to me, an equally off-putting premise. It looked like an example of corporate executives and marketing gurus trying to be “down with the kids”:


Fortunately for me (and less fortunately for the first-week sales figures which were down 300,000 from the first game) I was wrong. Beneath the memes and millennial-baiting buzzwords is a game with some real moments of emotion and camaraderie as you work with the crew of DedSec, find out more about them through inter-character dialogue and the documents you find/hack during missions. Watch Dogs 2 discusses the murky legality of mass surveillance, criminal profiling, election fraud and corporate collusion by those who do not necessarily have our best interests at heart, all filtered through a neon analogue to real hacker groups. These issues are more immediately relatable to the everyday life of the game’s target audience than Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s pro-war space jingoism disguised as deep commentary moral browbeating or Battlefield 1’s inconsistent and one-sided narrative on the horrors of the First World War as a framing for what appears to be more of the same old Battlefield experience but with biplanes.

However Watch Dogs 2 does more than that, but in a way that may be too subtle for its bombastic purple and green neon visage. During conversations between the members of DedSec the point that what they’re doing – hacking corporations and government departments all over the San Francisco Bay area – is only reinforcing the position of the tech and big data giants who they are targeting; showing that such security and control is necessary to counter these dangerous hacker groups. This tautological loop is similar to the problems faced by real groups like ‘Anonymous’ who Ubisoft have candidly explained were the inspiration behind DedSec in the first place in a now unfortunately deleted interview. This inspiration is clear throughout Watch Dogs 2, whether it be arranging attacks on the game’s Scientology analogue or the textual/visual language of DedSec’s public releases.

Science fiction presents an opportunity to extrapolate real-world issues to their extreme; certain episodes of the original series of Star Trek are blatant Vietnam allegories and Paul Verhoven’s 1999 adaptation of Starship Troopers is a scathing critique of US foreign policy. Watch Dogs 2 achieves similar ends through taking current real-world issues, which is no mean feat considering how long games take to make, and expanding them for the player to unpick in a detached and experimental environment. Unfortunately in this case Ubisoft have hidden this so successfully its flashy exterior that the marketing is potentially sabotaging the game’s appeal to certain audience demographics, who may only discover its appeal when its price drops or when an inevitable “Complete Edition” or “Game of the Year” bundle comes out next year.

“Walking Simulators” like Dear Esther and Gone Home are often criticised for not having enough game behind their exposition, something that Watch Dogs 2 successfully deals with. Even if you don’t care about the direction of its political and technological commentary there is still a large and robust open world action/stealth game to enjoy underneath that deserves to succeed, almost in spite of itself and the intentions of its publisher.

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