A screenshot from Watch_Dogs, with the protagonist hacking a control panel to electrocute an enemy. Image: Ubisoft
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Hack-’em-up Watch_Dogs isn’t as clever as it thinks it is

Ubisoft's much-hyped Watch_Dogs isn't about shooting people - instead, it's all about hacking the world around you to control the city and trip up enemies. Yet this ambitous premise falls flat.

Watch_Dogs isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, which is a description that could perhaps sum up Ubisoft’s output in many ways. This is a developer that has their formulae, whether it be Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Splinter Cell or Anno, and they make that game time after time. In the case of Watch_Dogs that formula is Assassin’s Creed plus Splinter Cell, and the result is a resounding meh.

­­­The positive elements of Watch_Dogs are on display very early into the game. The world you inhabit, a scaled-down Chicago, is very well made and has a sense of verisimilitude that most games never get close to. The pavements are teeming with people going about their daily business and the range of things they do is such that the game is the first of its type to actually lend itself to people watching. The core mechanic of the game - the ability to hack into computers - plays into this, as everybody you see will yield some information to your phone for you to read on the screen as they pass by. These secrets, coupled with their job and their income, gives the ordinary characters populating the world a little bit of personality, and even if they are just the product of some random generation going on behind the scenes this is more than games usually provide.

Of course, these civilians aren’t perfect. Sometimes you’ll find them doing odd things, where their AI has gone awry, and this can happen a lot in the middle of action scenes. It can look silly and it can momentarily break the illusion the game is trying to weave, but for all the hiccups you have to respect the ambition. Adequately covering the entire range of things that a player might do with a range of convincing reactions from the passers-by is something no game has managed.

The ability to hack into computers in this world is what supposedly makes Watch_Dogs different from the likes of the GTA or Saints Row series, but this is not a convincing mechanic. Essentially what you have is the ability to cause things to happen remotely with your phone. This could have been great had it been done with the same sense of reality that binds the rest of the game world together, but it isn’t. The game doesn’t feel particularly realistic when you hack a traffic light and all the cars immediately accelerate into the intersection. Nor does it feel realistic when you hack somebody’s hand grenade and cause it to explode, because grenades don’t have WiFi connectivity linked to their detonators, they have pins, because nobody outside of the Ubisoft offices would ever think a WiFi hand grenade to be a good idea. What would it even be WiFi for? Does it have Flappy Bird installed on it? An MP3 player built in? Can it check the weather?

Hacking can be a genuinely scary thing when you think about it within a more realistic framework. It is possible to hack car controls for example, or some medical implants - but a grenade? A Saints Row game could get away with that sort of silliness, but Watch_Dogs is a serious game, with a serious leading man, a serious theme (about the nature of surveillance) and a serious story about dead women. Such flaws in the tone stand out like a clown nose on a funeral director.

The day to day mechanics of the game are reasonable. The driving is very forgiving, more in keeping with Saints Row than GTA 4, and cars follow the traditional mechanic of being shot or rammed a certain number of times before exploding. In truth this part of the game feels like it should have borrowed more from GTA 4, whose harder-to-control cars and more realistic damage modelling would have suited the world of Watch_Dogs very nicely - but, as driving mechanics go, they're about good enough. Combat isn’t great, being heavily-based on a sticky cover system that can be hard to control and unforgiving. Stealth too feels like it isn’t quite right, as guards will patrol in fairly intelligent ways when you upset them, but they have a lemming-like habit of funnelling into ambushes in an orderly manner regardless of the pile of bodies in front of them.

The game on a mechanical level relies on too many elements that are just about serviceable, and this is a shame. The world is well crafted enough that it is one that could be great fun to explore and mess about in, but the sheer averageness of the playing experience undermines that. What is the point of an open world game, teeming with activities in an interesting setting, when so much of that enjoyment is tied to lacklustre mechanics? You can pass the time in Watch_Dogs easily enough and it won’t be unpleasant, but many games have done better.

What the game does do well is multiplayer, where it borrows heavily from Dark Souls in that players can pop into your game unannounced and mess with you, and you can return the favour against them. There are different game modes that require you to stalk and alternately hide from other players, rather than just killing them, and that’s genuinely creative and making good use of the tone and style of the game. As limited and generic as the game is in so many areas the multiplayer is something that it does well.

The last thing to mention with regards to Watch_Dogs is its greatest failings: the story and the characters. By the usual run of things in an open world I can forgive a godawful story and horrible characters because usually I can ignore them. I played and enjoyed many hours of Far Cry 3 without bothering to touch the main story, and the same went for Assassin’s Creed 4. Both these games created a world I was happy to pootle around in with an attitude of live and let live towards the main antagonists and their third-rate shenanigans. Watch_Dogs though isn’t like that, the plot and the characters are more pervasive, and they are awful.

The hero of the story, Aiden Pearce, is a prick. In the prelude to the story he carries out a robbery, but in doing so he invokes the wrath of forces unknown. Those forces retaliate by attempting to kill Aiden in a car crash while he is driving his niece to a place called Pawnee. Obviously the niece dies and not Aiden, who sets off on a quest to take down whoever called in the hit. A smart man would accept that it was his own fault for not going to ground after the robbery went sideways in the first place. Not Aiden, because he’s a prick.

The crash in itself is the worst kind of blunt force emotional manipulation. Here is a cute little kid, she’s your niece, oh look, now she’s dead, bet that makes you angry and motivated to get on the case doesn’t it? Well, no. Given that this is a game where I caused about fifty spectacular road traffic accidents just trying to get the hang of the driving and traffic light mechanics, any number of which might have cost the lives of cute little kids, and the game is okay with that, all the game has done is shown that the main character has no respect for lives that aren’t related to him.Even if you play him as carefully as you can, Aiden is still a man who will kill, torture and destroy to avenge a tragedy of his own making.

The use of a dead girl to provoke the revenge quest is an old trope called the woman in the refrigerator and it’s as hackneyed as it gets. The way that Aiden repeatedly ignores his sister’s requests not to get involved also speaks to the disdain the game has for women. Sure, Aiden is directly responsible for the death of her daughter, but that doesn’t mean he should honour her wishes to stop putting the remains of the family in danger, right? Course not. The game portrays women as objects to further the plot, and the plot is largely focused on killing men.

The story and the actions of the main character are utterly at odds with the world that the game creates. Walking through the streets the game creates a sense of life - people have names, they have jobs, they have passions, quirks, secrets. And here’s Aiden, a man utterly devoid of humour or empathy, plodding around, stealing money from them, spying on their phone calls and backing his car over them (yeah, um, that last one could be my fault). It was hard to shake the feeling that the best way to win at this game was to stop playing.

Watch_Dogs achieves one thing, perhaps, and that is that it raises the bar for what a game can be while still not actually being particularly good. This is easily the best game I have ever played that wasn’t good. Very few games contain as many things to do over such a wide area as Watch_Dogs, very few can match its production values, very few can boast as many original game mechanics or new ideas. But it just doesn’t work. With Ubisoft being Ubisoft though I’m sure they’ll try again.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.