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

MONTY FRESCO/DAILY MAIL/REX
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A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain