Watch Dogs 2 is an antidote to the grimness of GTA

I’ve been playing Watch Dogs 2 [official site] for most of a day and a night, and I haven’t killed anyone yet. The game’s recreation of San Francisco and outlaw protagonist make Grand Theft Auto the obvious point of comparison, and while it’s certainly possible to take the ultraviolence and careless crime route in your travels around the city, stealth infiltration and surveillance are much more suited to the game’s toolset and mood.

Whatever else it might be, and I’ll cover as much as I can below, Watch Dogs 2 is a more thoughtful, brighter alternative to Rockstar’s take on the open world urban action adventure.

It doesn’t start well. Before you can drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and dig into the sights and sounds of Oakland and San Francisco, you’ll need to play through an opening mission that introduces new protagonist Marcus Holloway. He’s taking part in a trial to join the underground hacking group DedSec, but the objective they’ve set him has personal meaning as well.

Watch Dogs’ world has a little of Minority Report baked into its hack-happy counter-corporate tale. As well as denying credit card, mortgage and health insurance approval based on data checks and future projections of wealth and social mobility, governments and corporations predict criminality by analysing behaviour and identity. Marcus, a black man in his mid-twenties, has an unearned criminal record and DedSec’s test will see him breaking into a server farm to eliminate all traces of that record.

It’s a pre-credits tutorial-type mission that teaches you the basics of hacking in-world objects and using stealth to infiltrate secure locations. Given how little time it takes – half an hour TOPS – it’s not worth dwelling on, but I feel it’s important to point out that server farms are among the most boring locations in the world. Essentially an office building full of cubes, it’s the equivalent of an FPS game using its sewer or warehouse level right at the start, a handshake with a joy(less) buzzer.

As soon as you get out into the wider world, with a first mission objective to buy some trousers after a drunken hook-up that leaves you in pink shorts decorated with poo emojis and unicorns, the corridors and gray blocks are quickly forgotten. San Francisco and the surrounding Bay area on show are spectacular. I’m running the game on a GTX 980 and can’t take advantage of all of the fancy bells and whistles that the PC version comes packed with (including ultra-fancy textures and a gorgeous dynamic fog effect), but on Medium settings the city is still a thing of beauty, even if buildings look a little too blocky and rough.

Judging by reports from other people playing, my machine seems to be punching a little bit below its weight when it comes to Watch Dogs 2, which is only fair considering it inexplicably dodged every problem Dishonored 2 threw at it, and ran that game perfectly. My performance summary goes like this: Watch Dogs 2 runs well but it’s the first game in a good while that has me looking to upgrade because I really want to see it at its best.

Let’s go back to those poo emoji boxer shorts for a second though. They’re the tip of a rather zany iceberg, and the crew of DedSec are at the centre of that iceberg. Don’t panic if you’re allergic to emojis though. Not yet.

The little gang of hackers you join have their HQ underneath a boardgame store. There are only four of them, before Marcus joins, and, to paraphrase one of their audio recordings, they fill the spectrum from introverted nerd to extrovert anarchist. They’re ridiculous and goofy rather than edgy – as silly as they can be, the writing always seems to be aware that they’re right on the brink of being hipsters and poseurs, provocateurs rather than activist warriors. But, so far, they are idealistic and with enough Robin Hood leanings to be a force for good, taking down the likes of a blatant Martin Shkreli analogue not by publicly humiliating him but by fooling him into donating millions to leukemia research.

There’s an odd mix of earnest drawn-from-the-headlines social awareness and geeky pop culture references, and a sprinkling of satire on top of the whole thing. It’s working for me at the moment. I like these doofuses, especially Marcus, and I’m kind of glad the early stages of the plot aren’t particularly high-stakes, despite the over-arching objective being a take-down of the game’s very own Evil Corp. To begin with, you’re essentially pulling off high profile pranks to get new followers for your app. You’re running a social media account, basically, and 3d printing drones so you can use them to hack into servers and steal money to buy some hipster clothes.

It all sounds more than a little bit unbearable written down like that but some decent voice acting and a generally upbeat mood makes it all a fairly pleasant antidote to the grim and the gritty that too often takes up my time in these kind of games. You’ll either buy into it or you won’t – for me, it was a very conscious decision to either run with it or kick against it. I ran with it and haven’t tripped over anything yet. GTA, a series I still enjoy, increasingly reminds me of those teenagers at the Smashing Pumpkins gig in The Simpsons; in comparison, Watch Dogs 2 is like an excitable puppy. It might do a wee up the wall from time to time and make evil smells, but it’s adorable enough to get away with it.

That positive attitude and sense of playfulness only goes so far though. So far, where Watch Dogs 2 has fallen a little short is in addressing my main issue with this kind of open city game: the missions feel a little too repetitive. Getting to places and doing the silly things in between is a lot more fun than actually dealing with my objectives when I arrive. Heck, there’s an Uber-like app you can download to do some Crazy Taxi style sidejobs, and I currently prefer that to following the main missions.

It’s not that they’re badly designed in particular, it’s more that they become repetitive. Hacking is at the heart of them and I’ve managed to complete a few without actually putting Marcus in the line of fire at all. Using a remote control ground vehicle and drone (the ubiquity of drones will date so much media from the last couple of years), you can use your remote hacking skillz to ‘teleport’ through buildings, slipping from camera to camera, and unlocking doors and servers as you go. You’re not actually teleporting, of course, just sending your hack from one hotspot to the next and creating chaos or clean routes as you go.

And that’s enjoyable! It really is. But unlike the best infiltration games, Watch Dogs 2 fails to create tension. That’s partly because every mission I’ve played so far manages to feel like an interlude rather than a serious undertaking. I’ve never been in deep enough to care if I get caught or even killed. Just as there’s a lack of long-term consequences for your actions in the city, failure on a mission is more likely to be a frustration than a meaningful loss.

For all that it has pleasing differences to GTA, Watch Dogs 2 has a great deal in common with the series, and one of the most notable elements they share is the lack of impact all of your actions make. I might not be killing anyone in my current playthrough, but if I were to plough through Union Square in a bus and crush the crowds, I could shake off the police that responded and return later the same day to find the mess cleaned up, and everything forgotten and/or forgiven. For all its beauty and the thousands of little details that bring it to life, the city is made of set dressing and extras.

But I’m having more fun causing chaos with all of my little hacking skills than I ever do with the automatic weapons of similar games. Rewiring traffic lights to create a chain reaction of minor collisions, or causing distractions and forced misdirection is great fun. Because it happens instantly and tends to cause accidents, I think of the hacking as a superpower; it’s essentially Scarlet Witch’s hex ability and it’s a splendid way to mess with NPCs. It can actually be useful though, and is particularly helpful when you decide to engage with the multiplayer aspects of the game.

That’s when the big action sequences tend to happen – car chases and shoot-outs and police car pile-ups – and the integration into the singleplayer game is fantastic. Some multiplayer segments are randomised cooperative missions, but occasionally when someone is causing too much trouble in their version of San Francisco, your sessions will fold together so that you can choose to help out the cops and hunt them down as a bounty. And this can happen the other way around as well – other players effectively invading your game to take you out when you’re causing too much trouble.

The earlier console launch saw this seamless multiplayer stuff running into all kinds of problems but I’ve seen none so far on PC. It works perfectly and makes the singleplayer city feel so much more alive that I can’t imagine doing without it, though you can switch it off if you’d rather be left alone.

I’m going to finish all of the main missions and spend some more time exploring the city and its other attractions before writing a full review, but for now I’m having a good time with Watch Dogs 2. Its hacking powers, mood and potential for non-lethal play make it a fine alternative to the likes of Saints Row and GTA, but even though I love the city and its surroundings, I’m not convinced that the appeal of sneaking, driving, pestering NPCs and shopping for clothes will stay fresh for another ten or twenty hours.

You can pet dogs in the parks though.

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57 Comments

  1. quietone says:

    Does the PC version have the awful savepoint system the consoles have? Or was it improved?

    • geldonyetich says:

      After the shoddy portjob Watchdogs 1 was, any and all consolitus is the elephant in the room.

    • Zach Fett says:

      What do you mean? It saves after you do basically anything, but you can manually save by sleeping on the couch in the “hackerspace” too.

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        phuzz says:

        I read a couple of reviews saying that the checkpoints in missions were few and far between, so you could easily lose twenty minutes of a mission because you died on the way out.

    • CartonofMilk says:

      oh god…you just really dashed my hopes with this comment. i heard nothing about WD 2 autosave but it was very shitty in the first one. If its somehow worse…. i don’t know that i can handle it.

      Though the award for worst autosave system is still held by Dying Light. I’m SO SO SO SO SO SO sick of console ports for this because nobody cares to change their saving system for the PC.

      Its disappointing though because Far cry 4 is also made by ubisoft montreal and it’s the best autosave i’ve seen in a long while so i don’t know why they couldn’t have copied it.

    • Nick says:

      save states are for pussies, bring back level codes tbh.

    • Henke says:

      Savepoints are the same as in pretty much every GTA-alike. Mostly just at the start of missions, but bigger missions usually have a few mid-mission savepoints as well.

      • quietone says:

        Yeah I can confirm there are mid-level checkpoints. Console reviews said that you could lose half an hour of gameplay due to the lousy checkpoint system. That hasn’t happened to me so far on PC.

  2. Stone_Crow says:

    It’s weird what you can suspend your disbelief for. I’m fine with a character that can fly or shoot fire from their eyes or swan dive into a hay cart from 200 feet without turning into a Jackson Pollock, but my brain draws the line at the idea Anonymous all hang out in a cool den with sexy girls in cutoffs.

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      Ericusson says:

      Made by dummies for dummies should be the under title of its story indeed.
      But that has kinda been the trademark of Modern Ubisoft for a while now.

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        Ericusson says:

        Told with a bit too much enthusiasm.
        I just don’t consider Ubisoft makes games but the same icon chasing game over and over ad nauseam.

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          basilisk says:

          There are surprisingly few icons on the W_D2 map. It’s actually quite sparse; nowhere near the insanity that was the infamous AC Unity map clutter. (And there are no towers, either.)

          It’s quite clear Ubisoft did a fair bit of soul-searching for this one.

    • Nick says:

      From what I can gather of previews and whatnot, they seem to be going for more of a Hackers / Sneakers 90’s vibe rather than modern anonymous et al, so it makes a lot more sense in that context at least, thematically.

      Hack the planet and such.

    • SaunteringLion says:

      Anonymous (or DedSec) all hang out WITH sexy girls? Sexy girls can’t be part of the club?

  3. crazyd says:

    GTA is so damn far away from “grim”. It’s silly cartoon violence in an over the top world. Maybe GTAIV had a slight touch of grimness to it, but pretty much every other game in the series is just a few steps away from “wacky”.

    • flashlight_eyes says:

      I agree that GTA 5 is at times quite wacky, but it also has plenty of scenes that are insanely grim (trevors opening scene). Its this inconsistent tone that ends up making the wacky scenes seem all the more disturbing as the game often places a lot of weight on moral descisions and human life at times, and others delves into killing spree mayhem.
      I think gta 4 got the closest to skirting this problem as it was pretty consistently grim which I actually enjoyed. Killing people felt….bad, and the game frequently beat that over your head. I think this can also be rightly criticized as rockstar having its cake and eating it too, but at least it didnt pull my emotions in contradictory ways like gta 5 did. The inconsistency in gta 5 was one of the nails in the coffin that left me not caring about any of the characters (except trevor) and eventually abandoning the whole story.

      • Laurentius says:

        Well, I’m confused really, GTA4 was grim like 10% of the time? And I don’t even mean stuff like Brucie etc., consitently 90% game is presented in very saracstic and auto-saracstic way by Niko, it’s not grim.

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        Ericusson says:

        Is there even a story in GTA 5 ?
        Do a heist.

        That is pretty much it. The rest is fluff soap opera between 3 characters with some under developed prop extras to keep it together.
        I couldn’t be bother to finish but had no doubt whatsoever about how this would end. Sleeping dogs may have been largely inspired by HK cop movies but the game actually had a story.

        With GTA 4 and 5, Rockstar are just using their commmercial and marketing capital to support mediocre writing, Fancy graphics and nobody dares calling them for it.

        There is not story in GTA V besides the desperate pursuit of Rockstars to do a movie. The studio director probably was mocked by Hollywood bigheads at a party and that is what wh got for it.

        • Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

          I also like to judge the quality of stories without experiencing them in entirety.

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            Ericusson says:

            Bla bla.
            I went through 85% of the game but could not be bothered to do the last mission.
            That better for you behind your little screen ? Did it change your life to try a personal attack just for the kick of it ?

      • Nick says:

        GTA IV was shit 100% of the time.

        GTA V had some fairly grim bits, most notably the forced torture section.

        San Andreas had some rather unfunny murder sections too, burying a dude alive in a toilet for looking at your sister the wrong way and drowning a rapper and his girlfriend because some talentless no mark wanted to steal his record deal… I’m all for comedic violence but those two weren’t really played much for laughs and didn’t even give you a halfway plausible reason for your character to do them. Like at least Tommy murdered witnesses for something.

        Eh. Context.

      • Poor People says:

        You’re missing the point of these characters. They’re supposed to be satirical portrayals and character studies of GTA protagonists as a whole if they are planted into a fairly realistic setting (by GTA standards).

        Micheal represents a main character who has won, making it far enough in his criminal career to retire, but finds himself empty, directionless and repressed, yearning to relive the past highs and glory of climbing to the top.

        Trevor is representative of GTA play styles with a preponderance for violence, chaos and on the fly decision making, but when manifested as a character is incredibly unstable, deranged, and incredibly destructive. The dissonance of this character is supposed to hammer in the point of how dangerous and uncomfortable this archetype, especially when you’re on his bad side.

        Franklin, of course, is in a state that most GTA main characters start out with: As blank slates at the bottom the ladder, the exact opposite of a Micheal-like character. However, he often finds himself caught up in inescapable and risky situations like the way GTA’s missions may railroad a main character’s progression in the storyline.

    • Atlas says:

      I think by grim Adam means overbearingly cynical. GTA’s style of humor and satire boils down to “x sucks, everyone who likes x sucks, and I’m cool for being above it.” Even though it can be goofy at times, characters in GTA just seem miserable. Especially compared to other modern day open world games like Watch Dogs 2 or Saints Row 3/4 where the character are actually having fun.

      • Stevostin says:

        Yup, that’s probably what he meant. Or in simpler way, you compare it to Saint Rows or apparently this iteration of Watchdogs and GTA is a the grimmy guy because no matter how you put it, it does have drama, heavy drama, more than a buddy movie with the silly bits would typically allow. Also, you can’t play one day and a half without killing someone (although they did tone down on the killing in GTA V). And have character acknowledge they’re just psychopathic murderers, the whole lot of them, without any discussion.

        All things that I actually like in GTAs. They sure are less pretentious and ultimately smarter than, say, Far Cry 3 meta writing.

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        Yeah Saint’s Row 3/4 seems like a dumb gang game at first but it’s really touching at times with a “friendship is magic” -approach while GTA is the cynical emo who thinks he’s above it.

        • Stevostin says:

          That would be a fair point if GTA’s writing was not self concious, but it very much is and the game never looses an opportunity to laugh at itself. If you use the strong emo word for games that are actually pretty far from it, how will you call games that indeed are ridiculously serious in their grimness when they happen?

    • milligna says:

      I really didn’t understand that either. GTA has been cartoonish, over the top satire and pop surrealism! Grim?

  4. Retrofrank says:

    Embracing the satire and playing a full blown psycho feels a
    bit more honest to me, than playing someone who acts like a wacky social prankster but with no problem to mow down a complete lab full of guards, with a machine gun.Of course it´s optional, but lot of the things DEADSEC do would qualify them a terrorist group in the eyes of many people.
    It´s a good game but it´s careless hipster-protagonists feel a lot more unsympathetic to me, than Michael or Trevor.

    • Hanban says:

      “It´s a good game but it´s careless hipster-protagonists feel a lot more unsympathetic to me, than Michael or Trevor.”

      Trevor? Are you sure you don’t mean Franklin?

      • Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

        Thevor is more sympathetic than Franklin. There, I said it.

        • Hanban says:

          How do you come to that conclusion? I am genuinely interested, since Trevor is consistently portrayed as being a homocidal maniac.

          • lordcooper says:

            He’s quite severely mentally ill and likely had an awful upbringing. Check out this post-game mission.

        • noodlecake says:

          I didn’t find that at all. Trevor is horrible. Funny at times, but having to be Trevor when the game makes you play through that awful torture scene. Man. I nearly stopped playing at that point.

          Also lots of other stuff. He has the odd moment where he makes you care slightly, but for the most part he’s a despicable monster.

          I found Franklin pretty bland though too. I guess he’s meant to be the “everyman” character that you relate to the most, like Tim from The Office (the proper one, not the american spin off), although Tim is funnier than Franklin.

    • SaunteringLion says:

      “Of course it´s optional, but lot of the things DEADSEC do would qualify them a terrorist group in the eyes of many people.
      It´s a good game but it´s careless hipster-protagonists feel a lot more unsympathetic to me, than Michael or Trevor.”

      The kids exposing corporations and government agencies invading privacy and manipulating data to control markets and gouge people out of insurance, corrupt cops, and corrupt politicians are less sympathetic than two guys who explicitly, in game, assault, destroy, harass, murder and explode for profit?

      Is it because DedSec has too many patches on their clothes?

  5. Laurentius says:

    How’s driving? The first game was so bad, car handling was one of the worst I’ve seen.

    • UncleLou says:

      I’ve made a complete U-turn (ha!) regarding the car handling when I played W_D. At first I thought it was awful, then it clicked and I became so confident at driving that it allowed me tricks and maneuvers I never could pull off in any other open world game.

      It’s my favourite handling model along with GTA IV (yes, IV, not V).

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      Harlander says:

      I haven’t played W_D2 yet, but the driving in it was done by the Driver: San Francisco guys, which bodes well for a good vroom-vroom experience.

  6. haldolium says:

    I actually think violating that absurd, near embarrassingly shallow “geek-culture” (I’d name it differently) theme of WD2 with going full rampage psychopathic gives the game the only fun and meaning. Making it a parody of itself.

    I havent played all day, but so far I’ve been only killing people and robbing them, causing (very temporary) mayhem and chaos with less consequence as in any GTA or Saints Row.

    I also drove my bike right into the bookstore (or boardgame store or whatever) injuring 3, killing 2 more only to find the place neatly tidied up when I came back from the cellar. They got really good cleaning there.

  7. urughak says:

    I haven’t been following the development of this game, not really my thing, but am struck by the your description. Just going by the commercials around me (Philly area) I pretty much wrote it off as a thug-life game with hacking. The gansta bullshit was screaming from my TV every time it came on. Weird.

    nerdy, wanna-be poseur hipsters?

    Guess Ubi felt they had to make it look gritty and thuggish for the demographics of the Philly area?

    • Kruton says:

      I’m curious what, besides the presence of a black protagonist, made you think WD2 is “thuggish” and “gangsta”. It’s deliberately going for a fun, prankster teens feel, especially compared to the gritty, serious tone of WD1.

      • Phasma Felis says:

        He literally just said it was because the ads misrepresented it.

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          duns4t says:

          I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the ads in reference (in Chicago) and there’s nothing thuggish about what is shown. There’s just a hip hop song as the soundtrack…

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          jythanatos says:

          There are no “Philly” ads for the game. There are the same trailers and spots that you can view on the internet. They are not going to release an “exclusive” ad for a particular area. I’ve seen all of the trailers and spots for the game and, in my opinion, not a single one played the game off as thuggish. But, I have been wrong in the past. Rarely.

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    caff says:

    I’m hearing positive things about the PC version performance, so given Adam’s brief thoughts and the fact I loved the multiplayer of the first game, I’m going to give this a go.

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      AutonomyLost says:

      It does run quite well, although their “full SLI support at launch” is fucking awful; it runs better, and crashes less often, with a single card running it. It does have an SLI profile, but the performance is atrocious. In fact, I took NVIDIA’S advice and enabled the temporal filter for a huge performance gain on a single GTX 1080, as the option is unavailable while running SLI. Something like a 20+ frames-per-second gain, consistently. Looks great still, and can only really be noticed in stationary scenes while specifically looking for the temporal upscale effect, to my eyes.. I suggest you give it a try if you buy the game.

      Also, it’s fun so far but it has crashed on me multiple times, including twice while running only the single card. It’s not the card or driver either, it would seem; I hope they bust out a quick patch or two in the next week to address this. Have fun if you pick it up!

  9. IEatCereal says:

    Tbh given the fact that for the last 2-3 months I’ve only really been playing rpgs and stealth games (and mmo’s when my boyfriend forces me to T_T), I detested the opening bits of watch dogs 2 so much I refunded it. I’ll probably get it on sale since objectively the game is by no means awful, but as someone who loves stealth, playing through that awful mockery of stealth after playing games that actually use stealth properly was anoying. I’d honestly have liked it more if you could only use guns even though I agree that Marcus and Dedsec don’t strike me as mass murderers. Seriously Ubi games in the 1990’s allowed me to carry bodies. And whats with this super aggressive ai that is willing to throw grenades on top of their unconscious allies? Or the beautiful guard/guard dog esp ai where if one sees you for 1 second everyone knows you’re there, but they get confused when I taze a group of them one by one. Or the fact that on top of the no body carrying thing guards wake up, which means that knocking out someone is pointless unless you never need to go back to that point. Or the scripted reinforcements that then proceed to wake up everyone you took out.

    I’m sure others don’t mind this but I at least hoped that Ubi would make a non lethal stealth run viable instead of frustrating when coupled with a checkpoint only system. You could complete all objectives stealthily and non lethally. You will however develop grey hairs doing so.

    • Sian says:

      If you don’t mind me asking: What were those stealth games you played? I like the genre, and if I don’t have them yet I’m always open for suggestions.

      • IEatCereal says:

        Nothing special honestly. I was basically just catching up on Dishonored 2,Hitman and Mankind Divided challenges. So for instance since I completed Mankind Divided months ago nonlethally, I was doing a foxiest of the hounds replay.

        • Sian says:

          Ah, Dishonored 2 and Mankind Divided are on my list already and Hitman never really appealed to me for some reason. Well, thanks for answering anyway! :)

  10. Deano2099 says:

    To be fair to the opening section, you can play it before having downloaded the entire game, which is neat. But also presumably why it doesn’t put you in the open world. But it was nice to start playing while the game finished downloading in the background.

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      This seems to be more and more common these days. Titanfall 2 let you run the training course until it finished downloading. You would even get your download progress displayed over your trainer’s head.

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      basilisk says:

      That’s not a first for Ubisoft. I know AC Unity and Syndicate both do this, and so does The Crew. There may be more.

  11. noodlecake says:

    Hmmm. GTA is fun and silly, and generally hits the mark. Aren’t these Watchdog games really guilty of having no personality and just feeling a bit flat? That’s the general feeling I’ve gotten reading reviews for them, much like most other GTA-clones.

    • lglethal says:

      “these Watch_Dog games”? This is only the second one! So you have this review, where Adam seems to be having a good time and enjoying the personality and feeling of it, and Watch_Dogs 1 which whilst having a relatively boring main character, was a ton of fun and had a great feeling city… So no, I think you’ve picked up the wrong general feeling reading the reviews for “all of these Watch_Dogs” games…

  12. Grimlius says:

    I searched for the phrase “Crazy Taxi”

    The search returned “Crazy Taxi style sidejobs”

    Bought, don’t need to read the rest of the review :-)

  13. Kelvin says:

    So this Marcus has an unearned criminal record put on him by a computer system that predicts that he will become a criminal? And in order to remove this record he becomes: a cybercriminal.

    I think the computer’s working just fine. XD

  14. freeze says:

    Added to my wishlist. I enjoyed 1 and probably played about 100 hours of that. MP hacking/hide n seek was fun. I can’t wait to play all these games on my monitor and gfx card that doesn’t yet exist.

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