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Watch Dogs 2: How real are the hacks in Ubisoft's techno-thriller?

Here's how the upcoming sequel is turning our technological fears into compelling gaming.

Now playing: Watch this: Hacking cars and the surveillance state in Watch Dogs...

Four years ago, you might have laughed at the plot of Watch Dogs: a video game set in a present-day Chicago where the authorities eavesdrop on citizens to prevent crimes before they happen.

Three years ago, you weren't laughing. That's when whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed just how close we've come to creating a surveillance state in reality.

Will life imitate art a second time? At the 2016 E3 show, we took a look at Watch Dogs 2, now set in a photo-realistic San Francisco Bay Area, to see how many liberties the game has taken with today's technology.

Note, November 14: This piece was originally published June 22, 2016. Since the game's out tomorrow, November 15, we thought you might like to read it. Also, check out how close Watch Dogs 2 looks to the real-life SF Bay Area with our comparison photos.

Your car

In the original Watch Dogs, you could unlock and start any car with the press of a button, then escape pursuits by hacking traffic signals and raising bollards (huge vertical steel posts that emerge from the ground) mid-getaway. Sure, it was a bit far-fetched to imagine that protagonist Aiden Pierce "had an app for that," but the hacks were actually grounded in reality -- such as these wireless traffic signals that got hacked in Michigan.

Now that's a big radio-controlled car.

GIF by Sean Hollister/CNET

But in Watch Dogs 2, the traffic signals almost feel irrelevant, because you can literally steer other cars out of your way. New hero Marcus Holloway can hack the steering, throttle and braking systems of the vehicles around him to use them like huge remote-control cars.

Believe it or not, hackers have proven that sort of hack could work, too. Last year, security researchers demonstrated a variety of ways to remotely activate a car's braking and steering over the internet. As a result, Fiat Chrysler wound up recalling 1.4 million vehicles.

Not every car, of course, should be vulnerable to such a hack. In my brief Watch Dogs 2 demo, I was able to control a '70s VW bus that way: a vehicle that didn't always have electronic fuel injection, much less electric steering and throttle systems.

Just don't expect to find fully self-driving cars. There's one that looks an awful lot like Google's self-driving car on the campus of a company called "Nudle" (get it?), but it drives like any other.

Your vote

One of the first Watch Dogs 2 missions shown at this year's E3 seems eerily relevant today: you're attempting to prove that a huge social network is attempting to unfairly influence an election.

While the actual mission is more about infiltrating the social media mogul's swanky penthouse suite and downloading evidence with the press of a button, the possibility of under-the-radar social media manipulation is something the real world's been wondering about. That's after Facebook was accused of suppressing conservative news stories, and after the hit Netflix show House of Cards explored the idea of using a search engine to spy on users' queries in order to win a political campaign.

(Update, November 14: Heck, Facebook may have influenced the campaign by *not* trying to influence it.)

Director Danny Belanger tells us that "big data" is a big theme of the game. While the first game was more about the power to directly spy on people through their phones and webcams (yes, webcam spying is a real thing too), Watch Dogs 2 will explore the more subconscious ways that big companies, with their mountains of seemingly benign data, can find links in that data and manipulate them to target and influence you.

Your tools

In Watch Dogs 2, you can still pick up a normal gun and shoot people -- but it's optional. That's because Holloway isn't just a hacker, he's also a maker who uses a 3D printer to build his own weapons and tools. When I tried the demo last week, I used a 3D-printed taser to stun foes. (Ubisoft's trailers show homemade traps and melee weapons as well.) How realistic is it to 3D-print weaponry? Just ask the real-life engineering student who printed a working revolver.

The Jumper drone -- much like Parrot's Jumping Sumo.

GIF by Sean Hollister/CNET

Holloway also has access to extremely sophisticated spy tools that can sneak into a target location all by themselves: drones. He's got a quadcopter that can mark foes from the sky, and a two-wheeled rolling rover that can leap over obstacles and hack into systems with its little robot arms. Once again, they're based in reality -- the hopping, rolling robot resembles Parrot's Jumping Sumo, and you can watch my recent aerial escapade with a DJI Phantom 3 drone.

Want something a little farther-fetched? In Watch Dogs 2, you can wirelessly suck the power right out of a pedestrian's smartphone to recharge your own gadgets. Sure, there are companies that can transmit power across several feet of open space, and -- separately -- phones with the new USB-C charging port can sometimes charge one another.

Still, it's a bit of a stretch to think that you could suck any meaningful amount of electricity out of a tiny smartphone battery from across the street.


3D-printed weaponry is a key facet of Watch Dogs 2.

Ubisoft/Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

The reality

Even if some of its ideas are grounded in reality, you shouldn't go looking to Watch Dogs 2 for realism. The entire series is prefaced on the idea that everything and absolutely everyone in the world is connected to the internet at all times, something we've struggled to do in the real world.

Even though security researchers have proven that real traffic signals and webcams and cars can sometimes be vulnerable, the vulnerabilities are never so widespread that you could expect to hack into anything you see in front of you.

Google, meet Nudle.

Ubisoft/Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

Watch Dogs 2 is still very much a video game, with its protagonist pulling his weapons and devices out of thin air. It's set in a compressed, fictional representation of the San Francisco Bay Area that basically only consists of San Francisco, Oakland and various tech company headquarters in Redwood City, Palo Alto and Mountain View. It's one where most buildings don't have interiors and San Francisco's iconic trolley is the only form of public transportation, with no BART or Caltrain to be found.

And, yes, it's one where you can remote-control any car on the road.

There's nothing wrong with Watch Dogs 2 just being a game. Sometimes, it's our entertainment that can make us really think.

Watch Dogs 2 is out on November 15 for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and November 29 on PC.

How close does Watch Dogs 2 look to the real-life San Francisco Bay Area? Check out these comparison photos.