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Five Ways ‘Watch Dogs 2’ Gets it Right

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Because list features are apparently easy….

I remember when Watch Dogs 2 was announced; I distinctly remember rolling my eyes at the hipster culture it seemed desperate to represent. Absolute rubbish I thought, a desperate clawing for relevancy after the abysmal original, which was the definition of disappointing. Soon enough the game came about, quietly, as if Ubisoft was poised not to make the same marketing hype the first game stumbled on. Imagine my surprise when I started it up and found myself still playing it obsessively several hours later; was my drink spiked, was I delusional, had Ubisoft sent a bag of money in the mail? No, no those are rhetorical questions, please don’t answer them, definitely, don’t check under my pillow. What follows is a list of things that Watch Dogs 2 gets right that the first game did not, because everyone loves short and simple (don’t scroll down) list features, especially the ones that feel like they’ve been written by a super advanced AI with all the emotion of a dead frog (with the exception of our site’s brilliantly written list articles of course). List feature exe startup:

1: Likeable Characters

Can you remember the protagonist of the first game? It’s perfectly understandable if you can’t. After all, Aiden Pearce had all the personality of a baked potato. A truly detestable character whose motives were as trite as getting revenge, who spoke to other characters like they were dirt, and whose charm was nonexistent. What a complete turnaround the sequel has made, with a richly diverse cast of endearing characters. Ok fine, they might not be for everyone. In fact, I’m sure lots of people (especially of a certain age) will be determined to hate them before even playing the game. As original as the ‘how do you do fellow kids’ meme is when every person on the internet is tweeting it, feeling like they’re the cleverest person alive; the characters are actually all well written this time. Yes, they’re young and they act like it, but it’s fresh to see a game tackling characters in their early 20’s without just being stereotypes and managing to give depth to their personalities.

The main protagonist is Marcus; yes, he’s a person of colour in the lead role, and no, let’s not get into an SJW discussion. I bring this up because the game acknowledges some current issues that still centre on race with his character. Marcus is immediately more likable than Aiden; he’s funny, charismatic, and just has oodles of energy about him. The game surrounds him with a supporting cast that plays off him with great humour and witty back and forth banter. Overall there’s a great sense of camaraderie, there are scenes where they fanboy over movie trailers and argue about Alien vs Predator. One of the group is on the spectrum, and although I’m not an expert on Aspies, the representation is respectful, and there’s even a transgender character.

A member of the hacker group (Deadsec) named Wrench is perhaps the standout. You’ll recognise him by the punk, spike-covered jacket and the mask that displays emoticons. He’s also the character that people eyed with suspicion during the game’s marketing (myself included, while I secretly liked his design) and looked like the most cringe-worthy conception in the gaming universe. Can’t looks be deceiving, eh? Turns out he’s actually a really interesting and relatable character for people who have social anxiety of some kind, plus he’s just really entertaining, and cool and cute and, and…..disclosure time! So I might have had a minor, huge infatuation with his character (don’t judge me), to the point where I took my mysterious new-found wealth and bought one of those figures/statues/dolls I tease other people for buying – you know, those cheap pieces of tat that fill your closets and make you look at yourself in the mirror and wonder ‘who have I become’.

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Be still my beating heart.

A mention has to go towards the fantastic animations for Marcus in the way he moves and fights; the parkour just makes you feel giddy inside. They help inform and add more personality to these people. This has been a long point, however, I feel like this is the biggest improvement the sequel has made. Finally, Ubisoft have created ‘iconic’ characters.

2: A new tongue-in-cheek tone

Following on from the upbeat and energetic writing is the big shift in tone from the original. Watch Dogs is silly; you can hack cars to swerve off road, you can snoop at people’s phones to see they have a foot fetish, you can knock people out with what looks like a dog toy, and best of all you can set the police on random pedestrians. The problem was the first game hid away from the ridiculousness of the game’s premise like it was ashamed of the fact it was a video game, because it actually was a video game. The plot and tone had this big po-faced veneer to it, in the same way, David Cage pretended that the internet coming to life was an intelligent piece of social commentary while two characters had a Matrix-style fight in the background. Watch Dogs 2 turns this on its head completely, now offering a huge sunny disposition surrounding everything in the game. The villains are these completely outlandish yet entertaining entities that fully embrace how ludicrous the whole plot is.

The game pokes fun at itself and isn’t ashamed to have fun at the expense of believability. In reality, the characters are all absolutely vile in regards to their actions, but it doesn’t matter because the game doesn’t paint itself seriously, unlike the original. At the same time, it makes sure to ground its rules, and does at several points in the plot present some serious situations and emotive turns. This way you still care about what happens. The best comparison is Saints Row 2 – before that series took the dive into the incomprehensible bilge it became later on (sorry). In fact, you can draw quite a few comparisons to Saints Row 2 in regard to the characters, jokes, and tone. It’s not a bad thing to be associated with. In addition – again like Saints Row – the clothing and customisation options in Watch Dogs 2 add a huge amount of personality to the world, and I found myself constantly changing my outfit.

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I swear this article isn’t just an excuse to gush about Wrench.

3: A vibrant and colourful setting

San Francisco is a nice place to be. Well, I’m sure that’s probably not true in real life, but as a game setting, it’s a perfect choice. Following on from the shift in tone (sounds as if I planned all these points to segue into each other, but I didn’t), the setting is so much brighter, vibrant, diverse and interesting than the dull and grey city of Chicago from the last game. It’s so satisfying to see more and more games taking up a colourful art design, right down to the LBGTQ flags that adorn several streets and roads in one affable section of the city. The lighting engine is the real star, offering breathtaking sights and life-like looking sunsets.

4. Satirical commentary

In the year of 2016, satire is hard to come by. We all currently seem to be living in a satirical version of the real world already (that’s excluding the brutal satire I’ve directed towards list features). In gaming, though, satire is a risky proposition; can you rely on your audience to ‘get it’? It’s not merely underestimating your audience when you see people missing the point of obvious jokes everyday. Watch Dogs 2 tries to negate that by placing its satire directly on the nose (somehow people will still miss the point). It’s a mixed bag in several instances; some commentary it delivers in a humorous and relevant way, such as the pretentiousness of Google, and elsewhere it feels like a time capsule that dates the game squarely in this year. In fact, several ‘gags’ were outdated before release, such as digs at a Trump-like election candidate and a reference to Obama.

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I really do swear it’s not.

The satire is in no way timeless, but yet you can’t help smiling and nodding along to many of the game’s jabs at pop culture and the current social and economic climate. It also risks ‘upsetting’ certain groups of political beliefs, and I’m sure others will gracefully point out the irony of how these people often complain about others being offended. ‘Keep politics out of video games’ translated to ‘keep politics that I don’t agree with out of my precious games’. That political rant out of the way, though it’s not the games strongest creative decision, it does make for some entertaining levels while you sneak around a humorous take on Google headquarters (called Nudle in game).

5. Varied mission design

Ubisoft has a problem, one that’s been true of most of its recent open world games, and it’s a big one: all the missions are repetitive and dull. It’s been true of the last two Assassins Creed games and even Far Cry. In both you rarely found yourself doing anything unique or bespoke during the mission design. The game will ask you to travel to some random space on the map, kill/chase/collect something and then travel back, all the while throwing the thinnest of narrative context for doing it. While Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t completely get it perfect, it does always provide character motives for tasks, and manages to create bespoke interiors with proper level design to stealth through. More surprising was how side missions have been tackled. They aren’t just mind numbing repeats of the same activity disguised as different content. Each side mission has story content, and simply hearing more dialogue and jokes from the gang is incentive enough to play through them.

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Fine, it is!

6. Uh…

Oh wait, we’ve come to the end, I’m sure you’re as relieved as I am. Let’s not break the rules of the sacred list feature scripture; 6 items in a list is just crazy talk. Watch Dogs 2 is good and let’s be happy that Ubisoft took this second chance to listen to feedback and make a much more interesting and entertaining experience, and extra thanks to the inclusion of a certain character. Or maybe that’s just me?

One day it struck Oliver what his true calling in life was; to become a millionaire celebrity while doing nothing. Unfortunately YouTube has enough of those, so until then Oliver will have to deal with writing about games. He has experience writing for several games sites, talking nonsense and working on a novel when sanity can gain traction. Currently dancing through life until the impending death of the sun consumes us all. Likes sandwiches.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Mike Worby

    November 25, 2016 at 10:22 pm

    Honestly I haven’t played either of these games, and this is still a great article. Well done Oliver!

    • Oliver Rebbeck

      November 26, 2016 at 7:50 am

      Thanks Mike, I did worry I was being too causal and lighthearted at points but it’s the writing style I do best.

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This Heart’s on Fire: ‘Death Stranding’ and Heartman

‘Death Stranding’ has no shortage of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is the eccentric Heartman.

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Death Stranding Heartman

*This article contains spoilers up to and including Chapter 8 of Death Stranding*

Over the course of Hideo Kojima’s wildly ambitious Death Stranding there are a whole cavalcade of intriguing and intoxicating characters for players to meet and acquaint themselves with. From the guy with the weird goalie mask to the lady with the magical umbrella, there is no shortage here of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is Heartman.

Portrayed by writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for Drive, Heartman brings the game to a dead halt when you finally meet him face to face in chapter 8 but the reprieve comes as a welcome comfort to the player. Having just crossed a treacherous mountain range and survived a second trip to Clifford Unger’s war-torn beach, most players will welcome a little down time, and Heartman is there to provide it.

Death Stranding
It’s immediately clear that Heartman’s home is something special from the moment Sam walks through the door. Lit with a ring of holographic fire, the foyer of the mansion is immediately welcoming in the hostile environment of the snowy mountains. However, it also has a sort of clinical detachment to it. This is by design, as reality for Heartman is merely a distraction — downtime to be filled.

Yes, Heartman comes with the tragic backstory players will no doubt be expecting but, like most of them in Death Stranding, his is a real treat. Delivered partly through voiceover and partly through flashback, Heartman reveals how he lost his family to a terrorist attack while in the hospital for a heart operation. When he flatlined during the operation, though, he was able to find them on the beach before being whisked away back to reality.

Obsessed with finding them again and joining them, Heartman now spends his life in 24 minute intervals: 21 minutes of life, 3 minutes of death. Every 21 minutes Heartman journeys to the beach by flatlining himself with a personal AED, only to be resurrected 3 minutes later. During those 3 minutes though, where time is altered by the elastic effect of the Death Stranding, he seeks out his family and makes observations on how the beaches and the after life work.

Death Stranding
Bizarre as all of this is, it makes Heartman a truly fascinating character. Since his life is mainly confined to 21 minutes at a time, he has collected hundreds of books, movies, and albums which can be experienced during that tiny window of time. His study is brimming with them, stacked on the ceiling high bookshelves that surround his work area. Also in the study are eerie recreations of frozen corpses, old family photos, and a host of other curiosities, each of which will earn the player likes from Heartman for noticing them.

Of course, this is the most interesting part of the meeting. As Heartman continues to explain his theories, a counter occasionally appears in the bottom corner of the screen, showing how long Heartman has before he will flatline again. When the moment of truth finally comes, he lays himself down on a chaise lounge, turns over a golden hourglass and dies before your eyes. As the Funeral March begins playing from an old record player, Sam must keep himself busy for 3 minutes while he waits for Heartman to return to the land of the living. It’s a truly brilliant moment, as a counter appears in the bottom corner again, and the player must simply take in Heartman’s eccentric home from a first person perspective for 3 minutes uninterrupted.

What would be boring as sin under the wrong direction becomes a welcome moment for the player to just sit and absorb this strange, yet comforting, place. Then, after three minutes have elapsed, Heartman reawakens and picks up from where he left off as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. He even breaks the 4th wall as he continues to talk, swatting away the timer when it appears on screen again and adding likes to your counter in real time.


There’s really nothing like the meeting with Heartman in all of Death Stranding — but then, there’s nothing like Death Stranding really in the realm of gaming either. With its long periods of walking between haunted destinations and its deliberately cryptic mythology, the game is like a series of tone poems and intellectual treatises mashed together into a post-apocalyptic courier sim.

Heartman then, with his heart-shaped lake and pink-lit study, is just one more piece of Kojima’s mad puzzle here but what a piece he is. Who would have thought the most normal looking member of Death Stranding‘s bewildering cast would end up also being one of its most interesting? Certainly not this writer. Still, Heartman and his eerie, purgatorial existence make for one of the nicest surprises in the game.

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Five Best New Pokémon Designs from ‘Pokémon Sword and Shield’

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Much like Pokémon Sun and Moon before, Pokémon Sword and Shield is an adventure full of fascinating surprises. Some of those many surprises across the Galar region are the new pokémon you will come up against. While many of the designs in the eighth generation were a sorry sight to behold, here are five that should stand the test of time as welcome additions to the ever-growing franchise.

Flapple

When I first encountered an Applin, there was a stark realization across my mind that Pokémon had ran out of ideas. Here I was, with my then Sobble, about to fight an apple with eyes. It was about as baffling as the ice cream cone back in Black and White, which looked as if it was designed by a child. But for not the first time, I was wrong, and instead of becoming three apples or a pear, Applin actually has a fantastic evolutionary journey.

Throw a sweet apple at Applin, and it’ll evolve into a Appletun, which is an interesting evolution in its own right. But when you throw a tart apple in its direction, it evolves into something so much better, with the result becoming the Flapple we see above. A tiny dragon using the broken apple it burst out of to flap around in the air is a creative concept to say the least, and certainly helped to change my early judgement on the apple core pokémon.

Sirfetch’d

Farfetch’d has been an unfortunate pokémon ever since its illustrious debut on Pokémon Red and Blue. A weak pokémon that was rare by virtue of being delicious, Farfetch’d has been a pokédex filler ever since. Luckily, in the Galar region, the Farfetch’d are a little more feisty, with a new typing to match.

With a little patience and a shovel of goof fortune, you can evolve your Galarian form Farfetch’d into Sirfetch’d if you manage to deal three critical hits in one battle. The odds are increased if you catch a Farfetch’d holding a leek, and then further increased at level 55 when your Farfetch’d learns leaf blade. For what it’s worth, the hard work does pay off. Sirfetch’d is a fantastic design and suits the theme of Pokémon Sword and Shield honorably. The evolution that Farfetch’d always needed has been worth the two decade wait.

Galarian Corsola

For all the demonic ghost pokédex entries and back stories, the Galarian form Corsola hits most close to home. While the change is largely a new colour and a sad face, the reasoning can be a little more tragic.

There are no secrets about the destruction of the coral reefs across the world due to climate change. It only takes a change of a degree in temperature for the coral to expel the algae that gives them their unique colouring and become the bleached white. While the coral isn’t dead immediately, if left in that state, it does eventually starve to death. Hence Galarian form Corsola represents more than the sum of its parts, and its a clever message Game Freak has left in Pokémon Sword and Shield about the destruction of our ocean ecosystems.

Grapploct

Ever since Hawlucha, I have a bias towards Mexican wrestling pokémon. They’re fantastic. Clobbopus and Grapploct are no exception, and the only reason I’ve chosen Grapploct over Clobbopus is because of way Grapploct swam like a hungry Olympic swimmer to announce my destruction.

While its base stats are actually average, the confidence it showed to pursue me on my journey across the sea certainly left a stain. The design of Grapploct itself is so consistent with fighting type pokémon that it’s one of the least lazy designs in Pokémon Sword and Shield, and for all the prayers to Arceus, there are some hopelessly lazy designs in this generation.

Corviknight

This is going to be huge statement that might rile up a number of pokémon fans, but for me, Corviknight is the best designed bird pokémon. The whole concept fits the brief, from the armour on its head, to its seamless fit into the inspiration behind the region.

It’s no secret that the Galar region was inspired by England, from the train system to the architecture, there are pieces of Ol’ Blighty everywhere in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Some of those influences are seen in the pokémon themselves, and none express that more than Corviknight. The raven has a lot of folklore behind it, particularly its presence in the Tower of London. It is said that if the ravens were to leave the tower, then the destruction of England is imminent. As such, not only does Corviknight look like a formidable bird pokémon, it actually has a clever reason behind its design.

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‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still as Difficult, Demanding and Amazing to This Day

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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