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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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