"Can you jam with the console cowboys in cyberspace?" That line, uttered by a young Julia Stiles in an episode of the classic kid's show Ghostwriter, encapsulates everything that's so wrong - yet so right - about the portrayal of hackers in mainstream media. Movies and TV have a habit of equating computer expertise with straight-up wizardry, giving hackers the power to bend the world to their will with a few frenzied taps of a keyboard. Their dialogue is riddled with technobabble, their outlook is steeped in defiant 'tude, and their feats are often technically impossible. These imaginary hackers are ludicrous in almost every way, but they're so absurd as to be endearing; even if you're laughing at them, you're still kinda loving them. Such is my reaction to Wrench, the most unbelievable member of the new DedSec crew in Watch Dogs 2. At first, I mocked him; now, I think he embodies the playful spirit that should make Watch Dogs 2 far more memorable than its predecessor.
Just look at Wrench up there, clad in his spiked half-mask and studded jacket. The punk rock attire is just fine, even if it seems incongruous with an expert-level hacker - but what self-respecting anarchist would choose to express himself with emoticons like '^_~' and 'X_X' displayed on his homebrew LCD ski goggles? I know Wrench is an anarchist because of the circle-A tattooed at the base of his neck; other choice bits of ink proudly displayed on his body include lines of binary code and a WiFi symbol. This ridiculous ensemble is all tied together with an honest-to-God barbed-wire bracelet and a amateurish doodle of a black-hat hacker adorning his left hand.
From what we've seen of Watch Dogs 2's gameplay, Wrench's personality matches his edgy appearance. Before a mission to take down corrupt politician Mark Thruss, Wrench tells our protagonist Marcus that he's "scouting Congressman Dipshit's apartment from the roof next door. Awwww, we fucked up his fundraiser!" For edginess emphasis, he later calls this same minor antagonist "Captain Dipshit" (showing a decided lack of creativity). Also, Wrench absolutely adores giving the middle finger at every opportunity. At this point, Ubisoft, I'm assuming you want me to ridicule how unbelievable a character Wrench is.
But then, despite the first game trying its level best to maintain a serious tone, believability was never Watch Dogs' strong suit. In this open-world, simply flicking your cellphone in the direction of even the most tangentially technological object instantly gives you control over it. And despite a canonical explanation for how the entire city of Chicago and everyone in it could be linked and monitored via the 'CTOS' network, the events of the first Watch Dogs always feel like a far cry from reality. The only time the game allows itself to have fun and play with the absurdity of this hacker's-delight dystopia is in the Digital Trip side missions, where a phone app can induce such hallucinogenic antics as cavorting around the city in a gigantic Spider Tank. That depiction of preposterous brain-hacking is rivaled only by Johnny Mnemonic.
The biggest offender of tonal mismatch in the original game is the antihero protagonist Aiden Pearce. He's got all the personality of 'grimacing white dude in trenchcoat', speaks as though he's constantly trying to perfect his Batman impression, and takes a positively humorless approach to everything he does; I can't recall him ever cracking a smile bigger than a half-smirk. Then again, he's motivated by a need to avenge the murder of his 6-year-old niece; nothing funny about that. Aiden's demeanor saps any sense of adventure or excitement from the power to reconfigure Chicago to your liking, and his penchant for gravelly brooding doesn't exactly fuel the player's propensity to do something fun with these godlike hacking abilities. Aiden is also unbelievable, but in the wrong way - a bland, grimdark caricature who literally goes by the nickname Vigilante.
Compared to Aiden's gloominess, Marcus Holloway and his misfit DedSec posse - including Wrench - are a breath of fresh air. Marcus' hacking prowess is no less implausible than Aiden's, he's somehow able to perform agile parkour while lugging around a surveillance drone and an RC car, and he wields a weapon dubbed the Thunderball, a billiard ball attached to a bungee cord. Even with all the attention Ubisoft's giving to recreating the atmosphere and architecture of the San Francisco Bay Area, it's still got a farfetched hacktivist as the lead. The key difference in Watch Dogs 2 is that these hackers look like they're actually having a good time, opting to suspend cop cars on cranes and project ASCII skull imagery everywhere, rather than Aiden's MO of moping around and spying on his own family members.
For as silly as I find the crew of Watch Dogs 2, and for all the chuckles I've had at Wrench's expense, I greatly prefer this gang of rebellious youth to the dreariness of Aiden and co. The reality of a hacker's life typically doesn't make for great entertainment (Mr. Robot notwithstanding), so why not embrace the fantasy of hip, fashionable pranksters seen in films like Hackers? Whether or not Ubisoft is intentionally opting for a lighter tone this time around, that willingness to let loose and come up with outlandish characters like Wrench should do wonders for this sequel, and help give it a distinct personality where the original game had none. And when you boil it all down, it's personality that makes an open-world adventure like Watch Dogs 2 worth playing.