A screenshot from Watch_Dogs, with the protagonist hacking a control panel to electrocute an enemy. Image: Ubisoft
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism