Let’s talk for a minute about guilty pleasures. I have firm ideas of what I do and do not consider a “guilty pleasure.” I like the movie Speed Racer, but don’t consider it a guilty pleasure, because to my sensibilities, it’s a good movie. I understand that this isn’t a popular conception, but who cares – I have a high opinion of the film, I can articulate it when called upon, I am not ashamed of having seen it several times and owning it on Blu-Ray.
Now Hollow Man is a guilty pleasure. I’ve seen Hollow Man four times and will see it again, and of this I am ashamed, because I know it’s a garbage movie. It’s a movie with clunky plotting, incoherent characterisations, every cliché in the book and terrible performances from good actors. But it also has the most clever, convincing and good-looking "invisible man" special effects ever committed to film, and as such I can’t help coming back to this movie and enjoying it. I like it, but am guilty about it, because I think it’s terrible. That’s what a guilty pleasure is to me.
Watch_Dogs 2 is a guilty pleasure.
I can’t get enough of this embarrassingly awful game. Just like I couldn’t stop playing its predecessor. I can see that they suck, I really can! The way they present hacker culture is painfully trendy and stunningly ignorant. It’s not like I’m steeped in real hacker culture, but you don’t have to know anything about actual hackers to catch the stink of inauthenticity in Watch_Dogs games. The technology presented in these games is ludicrous fantasy nonsense as well, and their inability to make satirical points about the digital age with even a sliver of sophistication is pathetic.
It’s not just the depiction of hacker culture, of course. The storyline is a bunch of samey padding, the characters are one-dimensional cartoons (in Watch_Dogs 2, that is; in the first game they were zero-dimensional pieces of cardboard), and you have to play hardcore pacifist if you want to avoid a serious problem with uneven tone and unlikable protagonists. The problems with these games are huge. They are core problems. They are everywhere you look.
However, I’m a sucker for an immersive game world. Forgetting the ridiculous hacker aesthetic, the San Francisco of Watch_Dogs 2 is vibrant, detailed and living. It’s a place like San Andreas or New Austin, a place where I can be happy to just wander around for an hour or so, taking in the sights and sounds, just finding what I might find. Look, a couple of dogs playing. Oh hey, a street artist is chatting with a curious pedestrian about her work. This seafood restaurant has a chalkboard menu out front! Can I get close and read it? I can!
I like the gameplay too. The hacking mechanic, simplistic as it is, isn’t quite like anything else I’ve encountered in a game. Sure it’s just a different kind of "use" button, but it’s a "use" button that you use in a way unlike any other "use" button from any other game. It allows for unique and engaging puzzles, which is possibly my favourite thing to find in a game.
And of all the games which claim to let you choose your own playstyle, Watch_Dogs is one of the few that completely follows through on that promise. For almost any given mission you can either go in guns blazing, use the environment to attack your opponents, with cars lurching out at them, gas pipes exploding, or most enjoyable of all, forklifts coming alive and chasing them like they’re something out of Stephen King’s Christine, do the bulk of the job remotely by hacking cameras and other parts of the environment, send in your drones to take care of business, or simply sneak past everything in pure stealth mode. Sometimes this ends up with missions that are too easy and can be beaten simply by sprinting up to the objective and hitting one button, but for the most part it’s a very well-balanced challenge.
Does all this cancel out the problems with the setting and characters and story? Absolutely not. If you want to play through the missions, you get assaulted at every turn with the game’s obnoxiousness and self-satisfaction and general awfulness. And multiplayer is garbage too. I maintain that overall, Watch_Dogs 2 is a badly-written, badly-conceived, bad, bad game.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to play it for another four hours.