(Warning: Minor spoilers below.)
The bad guy in "Watch Dogs 2" is named Dusan — pronounced "Douche-awn." But that's not even the least subtle thing about him.
That would be Dusan's resemblance to Aiden Pearce, the good guy in the first "Watch Dogs." The homogeneity of white male video game heroes notwithstanding, Dusan looks just like Aiden, minus maybe 10 years, and with a Bay Area man bun in the place of the hacker's nondescript black hat.
The resemblance probably isn't a coincidence. That's because, as much as possible, the terrific "Watch Dogs 2" inverts the dreary tropes of its 2014 predecessor. Though it maintains the open-world structure and hacking play systems that made "Watch Dogs" the toast of E3 2012, the sequel turns the personality slider up to 100. It has characters you want to spend time with, a world you want to spend time in. In doing this, however, "Watch Dogs 2" creates for itself a dissonance between its story and its play — a dissonance that it can't quite hack its way through.
In "Watch Dogs 2" you play as Marcus, a young black protagonist in a medium still starved of them. Younger and vastly more likable than Aiden, Marcus is recruited by hacker collective DedSec to help it bring down Dusan's employer, Blume, the tech company responsible for the CTOS that made Chicago in "Watch Dogs" and San Francisco in its sequel "smart cities." Through CTOS, Marcus can remotely open doors, steer cars and — in a timely spin on the Samsung Galaxy S7 — make people's smartphones explode in their pockets.
Developer Ubisoft takes inspiration from some colorful sources in the sequel. In DedSec, one spies the eclectic but endearing crews of later "Saints Row" games. It consists principally of Sitara, a headstrong but free-spirited young woman who, thankfully, doesn't get fridged; Josh, whose autism is depicted in a surprisingly warm, delicate and non-defining manner; and Wrench, a poseurish punk who spits every bad edgelord joke imaginable through the modulator of an LED mask he wears nonstop.
Even if you've never met a hacker in your life, DedSec doesn't sound authentic. The way they talk about planting viruses and bringing down the Silicon Valley plutocracy sounds as Hollywoodized as the movie "Hackers," and without the excuse of aging 20 years. But Sitara, Josh and, yes, even Wrench nonetheless grow on you as Marcus and this motley crew go to cyberwar, having each other's backs and cracking each other up all the way.
You can also hack robots to literally hump people to death, and if that doesn't scream "Saints Row," I don't know what does. Meanwhile, "Watch Dogs 2's" UI, framed through Marcus' smartphone, takes on the manic pixel neon of Suda51's "No More Heroes" games. And its San Francisco can't help feeling like the Los Angeles simulacrum Los Santos from "Grand Theft Auto V." With an unmistakable degree of mimicry it mixes skyscrapers, watercraft, freeways and outlying hilltops in similarly stunning measure.
But the more striking resemblance lies in "Watch Dogs 2's" corporate landscape. I said in my review of the first "Watch Dogs" that without the brands and other real-world riffs of "GTA," it lacked resonance. Indeed, the sequel finds some by heeding this easy lesson.
Let's play word association.
Ubisoft structures DedSec's mission to take down Blume around Silicon Valley's heavyweights: You can map waypoints with Nudle (Google), take selfies at landmarks with Scout (Instagram) and hack a rocket at the Galilei Corporation (SpaceX). An early side mission even gives you the chance to vicariously laugh at a thinly veiled Martin Shkreli character by voice-jacking the rapper he idolizes and bilking him for an exclusive album sale.
From a mechanical standpoint, playing "Watch Dogs 2" is much less of a departure from playing the first. Somehow its shooting and its driving traded places: The former now suffers from camera and control tics, while the latter's have been smoothed out. But aside from the addition of an RC car and drone that expand the puzzle game possibilities of Marcus' infiltrations — and a 3-D printer being the source of his guns — the sequel throws him into the same outnumbered situations on foot and on wheels.
The numbers are the only similarity, though — because facing warehouses full of security guards and spillways full of gangs as Marcus is far different from facing them as stone cold Aiden. Yeah, Marcus can 3-D-print a Bullet Hell Shotgun and blow holes through everyone, too. But that felt so out-of-step with his and DedSec's exuberance that I played "Watch Dogs 2" as peacefully as I could.
To be sure, it works well as a stealth game. With security cameras as your eyes, you can lure enemies out of your way by blowing up junction boxes or their smartphones. Then, if they spot you, you can pop them with a stun gun balanced by its low range, slow reload and inefficacy against armor. Combined with the car and drone, and the enemies' solid AI, "Watch Dogs 2" delivers more than enough lasting stealth thrills that it could have dropped lethal weaponry altogether.
And yet it didn't. Worse, Ubisoft doesn't even distinguish between stealth and slaughter. The studio did remove the more overtly violent side mission categories of the first game, such as gang hideouts and criminal convoys, in favor of organically structured quests. And its seamless multiplayer, finally fully online about 10 days after launch, simplifies hacking other players, collecting bounties by stopping them and teaming with them on missions — though finding sessions can take more time than these one-note diversions are worth.
Nonetheless, in "Watch Dogs 2" there are no divergent XP rewards to distinguish sparing people from killing them, no mission debriefings to confront you with that balance sheet. This refusal to reckon the sunny "Watch Dogs 2's" dark side extends to DedSec itself, too. Twice, in my play-through, Marcus and his fellow hackers had conversations about their attitude toward violence — the violence their disruptive activities all but force on San Francisco. Neither time did they commit to much of a stance, either.
A late-game mission tries to crowbar some seriousness into "Watch Dogs 2," touching on not only the deadly stakes of the hackers' work but the vulnerability of young black men like Marcus, too. Abrupt as it is, it's affecting. But within minutes DedSec is back to wisecracking, back to hacking without concern for the human cost.
It's as much a marker of "Watch Dogs 2's" success as any that you'll chuckle right along with them. Ubisoft's sequel is so charming and plainly fun where its predecessor wasn't that you'll even smile when, in one side mission, you catch sight of a certain Aiden Pearce. But in "Watch Dogs 2," he's still a hero — so, yes, the game really has some things to straighten out.
If you play
GAME: "Watch Dogs 2"
TL;DR: Leaping ahead of "Watch Dogs" the way "Assassin's Creed 2" did its predecessor, Ubisoft's "Watch Dogs 2" is rich in personality and stealth thrills — but its pivot toward a sunnier tone remains at odds with the first game's darker, more violent vestiges.
GENRE: Open-world action-adventure
CONTENT RATING: Mature for blood, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language and use of drugs
DEVELOPER: Ubisoft Montreal
PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (also available on Windows [Nov. 29] and Xbox One)
PLAY: Single player, online multiplayer
DISCLOSURE: I received a download code for this game from Ubisoft and completed all main missions, some side missions and some multiplayer in about 40 hours.