“And yes, you can do parkour in Crocs.”

That’s the one line that has continued to stick in my head from an E3 show floor demonstration of
Watch Dogs 2. But a number of other moments stood out to me during the demo as well, such as a political scandal involving digital corruption and the pursuit of online followers being used as a game mechanic. The Watch Dogs franchise is upping its focus on tech culture with its sequel, but they’ve also replaced the previous game’s straight-faced self-importance with goofy self-awareness. Ubisoft’s deliberate tonal shift of the Watch Dogs franchise marks a clear break from the publisher’s homogeneously serious demeanor, and that’s a change worth getting excited for.

From
Assassin’s Creed to Tom Clancy, the Ubisoft wheelhouse has produced an overabundance of brooding men with hoods and guns living in very brown worlds. That isn’t to say that these games would be better off with a different sensibility. However, the company’s lack of tonal variety has begun to cannibalize itself, with most of its properties lacking distinctive identities. Though some of them can be extremely entertaining, very few are singular. The first Watch Dogs suffered from falling under that same grim Ubisoft umbrella.

Considering the Snowden leaks in the year prior to
Watch Dogs‘ release, the game had the zeitgeist on its side. But Watch Dogs had all the thematic depth of a sixteen year-old learning how to use Java who just watched V for Vendetta for the first time. Aiden Pearce, the game’s gloomy protagonist, was the wet blanket on the game’s open world freedom, serving as a seemingly endless fountain of dull melodrama. Despite great sales numbers, the game quickly fell out of the public eye. In a market of gloomy metropolitan crime stories, Watch Dogs ended up blending in with the pack in the long run.

When
Watch Dogs‘ inevitable sequel was announced, my gut reaction was to turn my nose up and sneer. I could gladly go the rest of my life without being sold another boring Aiden Pearce redemption narrative. But my time with Watch Dogs 2 at E3 was a wake-up call to the potential of this franchise. Though I remain skeptical of the game, it’s worth getting excited for the franchise’s willingness to change and the potential for Ubisoft to (gasp!) have some fun.

“And yes, you can do parkour in Crocs.”

The tonal difference between
Watch Dogs 2 and its predecessor is most evident in its change of setting. Chicago has an unfortunate reputation for crime, and the first Watch Dogs aimed to imbue that societal climate in both its narrative and world. However, the setting ended up being a means to an end, selected in the interest of a blandly realized metropolitan environment and an uninteresting crime story. What’s more, the swift oscillations between open world civilian murder and attempts at pathos provided the game with an ugly, at times insulting, tonal inconsistency.

But while Chicago is known for high crime rates, San Francisco is known for high rental rates. Gentrification has plagued the city as the economic foothold of tech companies have increased exponentially over the years, dramatically dividing the local population between lower income natives and well-off tech workers. It is a serious issue, though it doesn’t have the gravitas of murders in Chicago.

But with morbidity off the shelf,
Watch Dogs 2 makes room for levity. In the first Watch Dogs, hacking was used in gameplay as a way to interact with the environment and in the story for its real-world associations with corruption and anarchy. But the sequel is taking the stereotypes associated with hacking and blowing them up to eleven, projecting a satirical exaggeration of Silicon Valley tech culture onto the game’s environment and characters. Just look at this guy.



How could that possibly be taken seriously? I mean, how can he even see through those glasses when his eyes are hashtags? Compare Aiden Pearce’s muddy bandana and trench coat to this… Vape Nation Hot Topic anarchist. Pearce is a bulky white guy that looks like he got dressed in the dark. Meanwhile, the character design of Wrench—yes, that’s his name—is an amalgamation of the tackiest of tech culture, akin to a river of bad memes filtered through the wardrobe of an edgy teenager. That sudden satirical bite is deliberate in its silliness, and it marks one of the broadest and quickest aesthetic shifts ever seen in a video game franchise.

It’s impressive how quickly
Watch Dogs 2 has established a personality of its own. Considering the bad taste that the first Watch Dogs left in many consumers’ mouths, the hype that the sequel has generated is a telling sign of the market’s desire for new perspectives and ideas. Like Battlefield 1, it’s practically a soft reboot of the franchise, and, for Ubisoft, that’s an unprecedented move.

During the show floor demo, the developers approached a dog in-game and made a point that they wanted to make sure
“you could watch dogs in
Watch Dogs.” Whether or not that humor works is subjective, but its sheer existence is kind of exciting. The stale Ubisoft formula may just become a little fresher with Watch Dogs 2. All it needs is a bit of character.

“And yes, you can do parkour in Crocs.”

It’s a start, Ubisoft.


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Jackson Murphy
Jackson Murphy is eighteen years old. He is a dumb college student that you would probably hate.

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