While Adam is busy hacking the planet for his final review, I’ve dropped into the multiplayer of Watch Dogs 2 [official site] to harass some of the world’s script kiddies. This is built into the singleplayer world “seamlessly”, you just select an option on your super-phone and a foe will become known to you a few hundred metres away (sometimes you’ll be warped closer to them). Now you’ve invaded their world, Dark Souls style, and have to hack them without being caught. It’s the same great game of hide and seek from the first Watch Dogs and I'm enjoying it a lot. But there’s also problems. Most significantly, why does this mode need guns?
I’ll explain a bit more first. When you first enter another player’s realm, they have no idea you're there. As far as they're concerned, the game is going on as normal. You can follow them, sneak around corners, tail them, hop in a bus and drive nonchalantly right past them, as straight and steady as possible, as if you were an NPC. It’s tense and hilarious. When you have them in your sights, you can initiate the download.
At this point, they become alert, they know you are there, somewhere within a big purple circle on the map. You can also watch your victim from the city's CCTV cameras or with your own drones, using either option to initiate the hack, meaning you don't even need to have a direct line of sight. As the hacker, if you leave your purple circle, the game will countdown and you’ll soon lose. The defender has to run around like a panicked cockerel looking into car windows and climbing roofs, launching his flying drone and scanning all the civilians in an attempt to locate you. If he does find you before the download completes, you need to get out. Escape before your target catches up to you.
This whole setup is wonderful. It takes an age-old children’s game, and mixes in a little of the NPC mimicking of Spy Party and Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer. I’ve had heart-stopping moments when my target was mere metres from me as I hid behind an extravagant sports car, watching him run past multiple times without spotting me. During another invasion, I parked my car in a restricted area and pressed 'C' to slink down and hide inside, only to be approached by a security guard who told me I couldn't be there.
I had to get out of the car and choke him just so he wouldn't give me away.
On the other side of things, I’ve suffered hacks where the intruder panics as I approach, giving away their position when otherwise I would have glazed right over them like a mindtricked Stormtrooper. In that case, the hacker got into a car and accidentally crashed into a cargo container. I took great pleasure in jogging up to the wreck and knocking him out cold.
But I have also had other less-fun experiences as a hacker. I was once spotted on an open pier. I turned and ran, ready to relish the chase. Come on, then, I thought. Let’s go for a run.
Then I was shot in the back of the head.
The decision to include shotguns, rifles, uzis and all the rest of the bullet-spraying species in this game (not just the multiplayer) is a baffling miscalculation. Their presence does not fit the tone of frivolity and childishness in the slightest, nor does it bring anything to the multiplayer. In fact, it has a negative effect.
In terms of videogame features, the guns bring nothing to this game that the much-more inventive hacking abilities do not instantly supplant. When you can have so much fun changing traffic lights and causing cars to spin off the road, a submachine gun feels as redundant as yer da. In terms of storytelling, none of the game’s characters feel at all the type to whip out an AK-47 and start hosing down people on the street, or policemen or security guards or random folks they simply disagree with on a political and economic level. Our Hackers spend most of the game chasing Twitter followers, for heaven’s sake.
An early aside mentions that Marcus, aka Retr0, is a registered gun owner, a line that is clearly thrown in as quasi-characterisation – a lame, half-hearted excuse from stretched storytellers attempting to explain away a huge inconsistency. If you observe the character at all, gun-toting doesn’t really mesh with the rest of his behaviour. The man walks through San Francisco in his underwear. He gets blackout drunk and spends most of his money on fashion. If the “real” Marcus saw a Desert Eagle lying on the ground, the first thing he would probably do is point his phone at it, look confused, and ask why it isn’t bluetooth-enabled.
All this is putting aside the impact that arms have on the multiplayer hacking invasion. It ought to work perfectly. To get caught in the act of snooping is a disappointment, but now you get to enjoy a cops and robbers style pursuit. It’s compensation fun, like the scramble back to the dropship following a loss in Titanfall 2. You haven’t won the objective, sorry, but here’s a tiny adventure to have. In an invasion, there’s a similar feeling when you’re spotted. The jig’s up but now it’s time to have some fun. You stand up, ready to leg it to the nearest vehicle. Then you get riddled with bullets.
It’s an anti-climactic cop out, stifling what should be a solid chase sequence. I have pledged not to use the guns on my hackers, for the same reason – it ruins any sense of pursuit and relegates your creative hacking powers to a secondary thought. When a gun will take down your foe in a second or two, why use your car hacking skill to prevent him from reaching that truck? Just shoot. The presence of guns runs so brazenly against the game’s nature, I don’t understand Ubisoft’s thinking at all. When I was young enough to play hide and seek (last Friday), I don’t remember anyone inventing a rule that said: “If you’re shot by a fingergun, you’re out.” Because that would have clearly ruined everything. Even to children, the game’s best design is obvious.
Whoever lobbied to have firearms included in the design of this game, and the multiplayer in particular, needs to be loaded into a cannon and shot over the nearest land border. It's a confounding decision. Their presence feels like an anachronism, a hangover from an industry that indulges too much in the sales figures of GTA. Just because you want to make an open world San Francisco does not mean you have to ape the open world of Los Santos. Especially in a game about rebellious try-hard youngsters who like to make terrible jokes and do most of their japes presumably while very high or drunk.
When all goes well, however, and the hide and seek game works without anyone resorting to their 9mms, it’s jolly, trollish fun. Or, if you’re on the side of a victim, a panicked search for an unseen trickster, someone who might be constantly making cars move around in a bid to distract you from his real position (hint: he is hiding in the parked car that hasn’t once moved). It’s especially frantic when the game tells you’ve been invaded “by a friend”. What scumbag is having a pop at my data? Agghhhh, why can’t I find them? Oh, it’s Phill, he was on the roof of that apartment block the whole time. The jerk.
But when the guns come out – and they often do – it’s spoiled. There are other issues. A functional match-up was only happening for me in about 1 in 3 or 4 attempts. Many invasions are cut short by players leaving, some of them simply logging off when your purple hacking bar is in the final stages. On a few occasions I sat in my hiding spot, urging the download to go faster. 87%… 90%… 92%… Only to see that teeth-grinding message: “Hacking invasion event cancelled… player left session.” These resignations are even more infuriating when you consider there’s a participation reward even if you lose. Just for taking part, the game gives you a small pocket full of XP. Leaving in the middle of an offensive hack is therefore doubly obnoxious.
Yet that is less a problem with the game and more a problem with the players. The age-old practice of combat logging will never be truly destroyed. Meanwhile, the worst that can be said of being on the victim side of invasions is that it is an interruptive design. It appears to prefer running invasions at moments when you are surrounded by baddies, having entered a restricted area. This might just be an odds thing - as a free-roaming player, you’re more likely to be in this situation than not. But it still means that a hacker can come and frustrate your well-made plans. For players who enjoy the stealthy route, this can be understandably irritating. There were often times when, playing as an invader, the defender simply ignored that I was leeching his data, because he was busy skulking around in a heavily-guarded technology building, or trying to find a research point (these help you buy skills) hidden in the docks with his little RC robot. They just didn’t care enough to come out and play.
In short, the main problem with the PvP element (apart from the firearms) is one of participation. There is an option to turn the whole thing off, but many players either don’t seem to notice this, or would simply rather pick and choose the invasions that they entertain. Which isn’t an ideal scenario for matchmaking. As for the guns, I don’t understand their presence at all, in multiplayer or otherwise. This is a game about meme-fuelled nerds with too much money and free time, only one of whom is in any way sympathetic (it’s Josh) but all of whom are likeable simply for being modern interpretations of Crash Override, Acid Burn, et al. Why would any of the Deadsec crew use an assault rifle to make a point that they could make with a few lines of code. It's baffling.
All that being said, when it works it works very well. As a hacker, you can be sneaky, manipulative and nervous as you watch your quarry check behind every corner but yours. As the hacked, you can be minding your own business one minute and running through the streets chasing cars like a crazed dog the next. I wish more multiplayer modes took inspiration from Ubisoft’s insistence on mimicry and trickery. I just wish they themselves had the courage to dismiss the influence of other games. Hackers don’t use uzis.