Watch Dogs 2 is an open world game about hacktivists taking on the smart city of San Francisco. Its anti-hero is Marcus Holloway, a hacker who is wrongly accused of a crime as a result of manipulation of data from San Francisco’s smart operating system, ctOS 2.0.
Holloway joins the hacktivist group DedSec, which is modeled after real-world hackers, and his goal is to bring down the smart city and its maker, the Blume corporation. Ubisoft’s Danny Bélanger, director of the game, told me in an interview that you have to walk the line between stealthy hacking and brute-force action if you want to complete the missions and unravel the mystery of the story.
In an interview with GamesBeat, Bélanger said that you’ll find out pretty quickly that Holloway can’t just muscle or shoot his way into closed computer facilities. You have to enlist Holloway’s friends in DedSec and make use of tools such as drones and car hacks to get past guards and escape the cops. As you do so, you’ll stumble upon new challenges, obstacles, and alternative ways to get your mission done.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. Watch Dogs 2 debuts on the PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 on November 15. For our earlier interview with Belanger, check out this link.
GamesBeat: Marcus’ weapon ball, what is it? Is that real?
Danny Belanger: It’s the Thunderball. Yeah, it’s real. You build it with paracord. It’s cool, because for the character, we wanted something non-lethal, but still efficient. It’s a little crafty. You can find the instructions to build one online. It’s not specifically San Francisco, but it’s real.
GamesBeat: How much do you envision people stopping and looking at their phone, figuring out things to do, versus just going in hot and improvising? What style of play is more likely, in your experience?
Belanger: It’s hard to generalize. What we see in playtests, some people just go. They’re somewhere in the city or out in the forest and you think, “What’s going on? What are they trying to do?” Some people will play eight hours without doing a mission. They’ll just go in the city and have fun with the civilians, test out the systems, call the cops. Some people will gun it and just advance the story.
The seamless events allow us to propose new options for players, depending on what they do. Even if they’re just exploring the city, new kinds of gameplay can happen. If they’re doing missions, a guy will show up and they can play co-op. We try to offer variety, but [we do] not force you into it. We see all types of behaviors. It depends on what you feel like doing.
GamesBeat: It feels like the hard part of the gameplay is being clever, thinking of something that might be unexpected, instead of just using brute force.
Belanger: It’s actually pretty hard to brute-force things. Our approach for that — we unlock things progressively. You can absorb how they work and get familiar with them and get better. Hacking is an important tool. You can go camera to camera, but once you get the quad, you have the full 360 view. You can tag all the enemies. You really prepare what you want to do, set traps in advance. We wanted to have something to help the player become a better hacker.
In the end, we hear a lot that hacking is easier, though. Once players have all the tools, it’s easier than kicking the front door in. Our character isn’t a space marine. He’s a bit fragile. If you get close to enemies, his life expectancy is quite short.
GamesBeat: That certainly sounds intentional.
Belanger: We want the player to play it like an action game if they want, but not be careless. If you play smartly, use cover — like I say, just kicking the door in will be extremely difficult. But if you use hacking to scout an attack, you know where you can get away with brute force. Your chances of success are much higher. Hacking is an integral part of an aggressive strategy. You can protect your back and your flank.
We didn’t want people to go completely brute force and just walk in the front door and shoot everyone. That shouldn’t be an easy success. If it is, you’re not thinking any differently. You’re not considering, hey, there’s a vent here, another route there. We want you to consider your options before you go in.
GamesBeat: With a lot of the missions, is there a particular solution for each one that works well, that lets you complete it silently?
Belanger: Our goal is to give you full freedom. Most layouts are very 360. You can arrive the way you want. You can solve the problem the way you want. Some will favor a given play style. If you see a lot of heavily armed guards, maybe you want to think about hacking. Sometimes there are fewer, weaker guards, and so an action player can try that route. But they can always call reinforcements.
In order to offer as much variety as we could, we tried to make sure all the setups feel different. Sometimes they have alarms. Sometimes they have dogs that can sniff you out while you stealth. All these elements make you think differently. You might see something and realize you can approach it in a different way. But we never force it. There are no “stealth only” missions. The systems will react to your actions and your choice of tools. That freedom is super important.
GamesBeat: The DedSec crew here seems like a different twist. It’s not just somebody back at headquarters, a voice that talks to you. You have some real characters.
Belanger: Our goal was to try to represent the hacker culture. Hackers build up communities and operations. They have shared goals. We wanted to capture that spirit and get them as involved as possible in the narrative. Obviously they each have their own strengths and their own ways, but they have a common goal that brings them together.
Wrench is more direct, the blow-stuff-up guy. Sitara is a bit like Marcus. She’s an idealist as well, but very artistic in her approach. Marcus is maybe the glue of the gang, making sure that everything works.
GamesBeat: Do you ever get to the idea that they could have a lot of helpers online, a sort of crowdsourced community? DedSec seems like such a small group here, but when Anonymous was in the news, they made it seem like they were this large, amorphous organization.
Belanger: Their goal in the game is to have processing power. With followers comes processing power and that gives them the ability to find more secrets, to dig deeper and uncover things. For us that’s a way to make sure there are key moments you hit in the narrative. When you have enough followers, you find certain information. For narrative continuity — we have a pretty open structure, but if you don’t play certain things, you’ll miss some things. So we made sure that at key moments, things re-open. Behind that is the development of processing power, hacking power.
GamesBeat: What are some of your favorite moments? Hacking helicopters, things like that?
Belanger: For me the most fun is when something happens and I didn’t expect it. When I see people playing and think, “Oh, wow!” I was watching someone the other day as they entered a guarded area. They’d attracted a civilian who walked into that area, and they went in to try to get the civilian out. The civilian happens to be a gun owner, so she starts shooting back and chaos breaks loose. When I see something I didn’t think would happen, that’s the most fun.
The simulation interacts in ways that we don’t want you to be able to predict. We want the player to know that doing certain things will lead to other things. If I arrest this guy, he’ll be out of the picture. But you can’t be sure of the ripple effect. You don’t know if his friend will start shooting at you. For me, that’s the fun part.
After that, it’s hacking, hacking cars and things like that, playing with the systems. You’re in control of the world, in a way. It’s very empowering.
GamesBeat: Can you upgrade your phone over time, the things you can do with your phone? I suppose you’re always getting new apps.
Belanger: The challenge increases, so it’s important that you keep up. You don’t need to have all the hacks to complete the game, but it’s definitely a big help as far as solving your problems and being a more capable hacker. It can be an extra challenge to do it without that help.
GamesBeat: How often can you expect things to happen that interrupt your mission, things you’re not expecting? Like rival gangs passing by in the street and the other city events.
Belanger: In the open world it’s mainly online events. When you’re free-roaming you’ll, get proposals and you can seamlessly join. Maybe there’s a bounty and you can join the hunt for that. Tuning that is something we control, actually. We’ll see how many players take advantage of that and maybe modify the values as we become aware of what people like. Obviously, at least in between missions, if you’re out in the world for half an hour or so, something interesting should happen. But I don’t recall the exact mathematics right now.
GamesBeat: Are there parts of San Francisco that you included that are more educational? Things that you can find that have to do with history and the city in general?
Belanger: Yes, that was important for us. The talkers have different purposes, and some of them will talk about the city. They’ll talk about the history of something like Coit Tower, for example. Someone near there will explain where the landmark comes from. Some of them will talk about the game, about the factors, but there are others who are meant to talk about the world and the city. It’s all rooted in the real history of the city today.
GamesBeat: When you’re in a combat situation, is the AI functioning on its own, or does it have some assists when it comes to finding the hacker?
Belanger: It functions by itself, but there is communication between them. Once you disappear, they’ll all start to search. They have objectives or goals. “We’ve lost him. Let’s look over here and find him.” They’ll react to the situation. That allows us to make sure players who enjoy stealth can get back into it if they’re caught. You can go and hide and they’ll lose you. Maybe they’ll be a bit nervous afterward, in a slightly different state. We’re trying to do as much as we can to support the player’s decisions in the end.
GamesBeat: What would you say best conveys the size of the city, how big this whole thing is? It’s still not a one-for-one replication, but….
Belanger: It’s roughly twice the size of Watch Dogs. The view points, the feeling when you change location, the modeling kits — the city feels different. The culture, what people talk about in the streets, that’s different. For us, that was our goal — not just to make something bigger, but represent something different. I don’t know if you had time to explore and visit Oakland or Silicon Valley, but those areas are very different. Even the Marina is different from the rest of the city.
If you’re up on a peak somewhere with a good view of the city, or if you use the drone—for me, the vistas are incredible. When we went on scouting trips, that was a lot of fun. I think we captured the essence of it without re-creating the exact reality.
GamesBeat: Were there any particular places or landmarks that you wanted to be more exact? Coit Tower is very real.
Belanger: There are lots of legal issues that intrude. Some buildings are owned and branded, so we can’t put in exact versions. We try to make things as close as we can without using real likenesses. And then we had to make a lot of decisions about what to keep and not to keep. We wanted to get those 200 landmarks in, places that are very important, but there are still some that we just can’t do. We tried to get in as much as we can.