THE last person you want on your bad side is a hacker. Just ask Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Or any celebrity who’s had nude photos stolen. Or anyone who’s had a credit card number swiped.
Now, imagine if hackers were using their skills for good instead of evil. That’s the idea behind “Watch Dogs 2” (Ubisoft, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, $59.99), which almost makes cybercrime cuddly.
The protagonist is Marcus Holloway, an Oakland youngster who’s bent on taking down the state-run surveillance system that’s branded him a criminal. He joins forces with DedSec, a team of endearing San Francisco weirdos who relish playing cyber-pranks on Big Data, Big Pharma, Big Banking and whatever other Big forces are trying to control our lives.
The simplest tasks involve simply tapping into someone’s home computer, finding something embarrassing and releasing it to the public. More complicated scenarios require Marcus to physically infiltrate heavily guarded facilities so he can bleed their databanks dry. Some require outright theft (like stealing a high-tech car from a movie studio) and then running like heck.
Marcus’ most valuable tool is “Nethack,” which turns most of the world gray while highlighting the devices he’ll need to conquer each mission. He can connect to cameras inside each building, which lets him scope out the movements of any guards. And he can deploy radio-controlled droids to grab data or unlock doors.
You can choose to just ignore all the tech and instead wreak havoc with guns and bombs. But that’s far less rewarding; part of what makes “Watch Dogs 2” so refreshing is that you can complete every mission without shooting anyone.
Marcus himself is a far worthier hero than Aiden, the whiny lead of 2014’s “Watch Dogs.” For starters, Marcus is black, and Ubisoft doesn’t shy away from the ironies of having a black programming genius messing around with the overwhelmingly white tech business. One sequence in particular, in which he infiltrates the Google-like Nudle, draws some especially uncomfortable laughs.
As with Ubisoft’s other open-world epics, like “Assassin’s Creed” and “Far Cry,” there’s plenty of additional stuff to do when you aren’t trying to bring down The Man. You can race drones, go-karts, motorcycles and muscle cars. You can earn cash working for an Uber-like car service. You can scale the tallest buildings in San Francisco and plant graffiti on them. You even get rewarded for taking tourist photos or finding new tunes to play on your cellphone.
If you’re worried about the risks of living in an always-connected world — well, “Watch Dogs 2” won’t ease your fears. After all, if a bunch of punks can access anyone’s ATM account, who’s going to protect you? But it does deliver the thrill of exploring a world most of us don’t know, and you don’t need a degree from MIT. Three stars out of four.