When I’m not slinging words around like an irritable speak-and-spell, I’ve also been known to work in IT. Information technology is an interesting field in which to work, to be fair – the landscape is always changing and opportunities to get involved in emerging technology are plentiful and exciting – but it also has the tendency to make me something of a bore.
In an industry that is at its core based on pure mathematics there’s little room for creative license, so if a movie, or a TV show, or even a videogame gets something wrong – usually for the sake of convenience in moving the story forward, rather than any malicious intent towards my kin and I – I’ll be the guy pointing it out. Loudly. Vociferously. With an angry-looking vein throbbing in my forehead.
That bit in Skyfall, where Javier Bardem has Daniel Craig tied to a chair in his server room, most people are paying attention to the overt homoerotic exchange and the fact Bond isn’t at all phased by it. Me, on the other hand? I’m shouting at the screen that there’s no way they’d be able to have a conversation at a normal volume! There’s got to be a hundred server racks in that room, with no visible air conditioning or protection from the dust and detritus of the abandoned Pacific island colony, so the cooling fans in those things would be screaming. It would be like trying to have their little frisson ten feet from a jet engine.
The bit in Iron Man 3, where Tony Stark is doing… a thing – I forget what – and he says that he needs more IP addresses to make… the thing that he’s doing faster? Most people are taking it as read that he’s a tech genius and knows what he’s doing. What am I doing at this point? Jumping up and down, not just at the fact that apparently more IP address equals more speed (presumably Stark is just talking in some form of shorthand, and he really means he’s adding more capacity rather than just more network addresses) but at the IP addresses that are actually popping up on the screen. They’re not real. They’re not, in fact, even possible!
IP addresses – in the IPv4 convention that Iron Man is ‘following’ – are split into four octets, with 255 possible number combinations in each octet, beginning from zero; this means that a single octet of an IP address can’t go above 254, yet on the screen we see numbers as high as 610. What sort of fools do they take us for? So yes, it’s been established that I’m probably not the best person to watch movies or TV with any technological wizardry or electromagical McGuffins, so you really don’t want to be around when I’m playing Watch_Dogs 2.
The original Watch_Dogs, from Ubisoft, is an interesting thing. Essentially Assassin’s Creed with smartphones, what was originally pitched as a ‘hack anything’ experience usually turned into a ‘hack a few things, then get all murdery’ one pretty rapidly. Most people took issue with the fact that Aiden Pearce simply had to wave his cell phone at a device – be it a traffic light, a police system, or anything else that served his purpose – and he could bend it to his every whim. They saw it as a lazy, uninvolved way of hacking, but I’ve got news for you: hacking is, for the most part, incredibly dull. It’s not like in the movies, where an erstwhile youth spends thirty seconds mashing their palm against a keyboard, and then they’ve got all the access to all the things. It’s a tedious process of trial and error that might take days or weeks to pay off, if it ever does.
What Ubisoft did with the original Watch_Dogs was find a pseudo-realistic way to circumnavigate this, so that their ostensibly action-focused game didn’t become an exercise in boredom. They had to introduce some conceits that allowed the game to progress apace, and central to that was to have Aiden install a trojan into the city’s mainframe systems, early on in the game. If you take it as read that, in a world run by corrupt governments (why else would you become a hacker, if not to throw off the yolk of an oppressive regime?) with interconnecting systems monitoring and controlling every aspect of our lives, then a well-placed piece of malware could allow you access into all of that.
As the angry IT voice, I’m actually fine with that, believe it or not. It’s a shortcut, admittedly, but the idea that a hacker managed to get a single piece of malware inside a control system – just look at nuclear power plant-targeting worm Stuxnet – is far more likely than they were able to hack any and every conceivable piece of technology on the fly, in seconds, regardless of what it might be.
That’s not to say Watch_Dogs was a great game, however. Just because its implementation of hacking wasn’t entirely as stupid as everyone believed doesn’t mean that the game itself was much cop, but at least it hadn’t gone entirely overboard on the hacking elements.
Enter Watch_Dogs 2.
Watch_Dogs 2, I have to say, looks like utter bollocks. While I do have to commend Ubisoft for their visually stunning representation of San Francisco – a far better place to set a tech-focused game than Chicago – and their sheer creativity in some of the elements of the game we’ve seen, I know playing it is going to drive me up the wall.
For starters, there are some of the technical elements that have been revealed in the early trailers and clips of the game. Their use of consumer technology, frankensteined for a dastardly purpose, is actually very realistic: there’s one section from a gameplay trailer where the player is flying a drone over someone’s property and is essentially intercepting their wireless network and scraping all the data being passed through it. That’s the real deal. That’s an actual thing that can – and does – happen. They’re also making use of drones for their intended purpose, acting as a remote pair of eyes where someone couldn’t physically access. Essentially, a spy in the sky.
Bravo, Watch_Dogs 2. You actually got something right, but they’re not finished with drones there. Heaven forbid they stop at what might be realistic or feasible.
There’s one scene where we see what appears to be a somewhat large, but relatively standard consumer-grade octocopter nicking off with an entire server cabinet. This is actually a very clever tactic: for all the time hackers spend trying to gain access to systems remotely, actually just making off with the thing is a far more reliable and time-effective way of getting your hands on data, if you can physically manage it. Unfortunately, that looks like a full height server cabinet – around 48U, or 48 rack units; essentially 2.3m high – that’s fully laden with equipment (why else would you steal it, if there wasn’t stuff in it worth stealing?) which in reality would probably weigh at least half a tonne. If the rack is populated with any particularly dense or high-end equipment like a storage array – i.e. the stuff that’s really worth nicking, for the data held on it – it could actually be closer to a tonne.
Now, take your little quadcopter from Toys R Us outside, attach it to your waist with a piece of string, and see if it can lift you up. I’d be surprised if it could even nudge you off-balance. And what do you weigh, no more than 100kg probably? Even with specialist equipment, and the conceit that our protagonist is a ‘tech genius’ and will have somehow hacked/upgraded the drone to deliver more power, an octocopter of that size simply isn’t big enough to provide enough lift to pilfer a server cabinet of that size. Hell, it may struggle to lift a single server. This British
inventor barmpot needed 54 drones to lift him, and the drone ‘swarm’ only manages 10 minutes of flight because it’s such hard work.
In another attempt to capture of-the-moment topics related to the perverse use of technology, like drone dangers, you can 3D print your own weapons in Watch_Dogs 2.
You’ll also have the option 3D printing your own stun-gun though, and Ubisoft have confirmed that there are non-lethal options in Watch_Dogs 2. This is great news as pacifist play-throughs are certainly becoming scarce, particularly when both Fallout 4 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution – two elder statesmen franchises in which smart pacifism used to be a core option – struggled to offer non-lethal alternatives; but on the back of what we’ve seen of Watch_Dogs 2 so far, the non-lethal options don’t exactly seem to be front-and-centre in the experience. It’s far more likely to be the Metal Gear Solid approach, where you first attempt to do something the stealthy (in this case, hacker) way, and if the excrement does hit the fan before you’re done, then you go weapons free and shoot your way out.
So we’ve got unrealistic use of technology and unnecessary and uncharacteristic violence; what else have Ubisoft got in store for us in Watch_Dogs 2? Irony. Huge amounts of it, both intentional and otherwise.
Let’s look at the intentional stuff first.
For some reason, when the original Watch_Dogs was released, it – rather inexplicably, it must be said – found itself associated with the doge meme. Other than the fact it has the word ‘dogs’ in the title there’s really not all that much to connect the game with the meme. Doge however is particularly virulent, with its tendrils reaching as far as its own BitCoin-esque crypto currency (the DogeCoin) so very few things are safe from it’s evil memetic clutches. (Wow. Such reach. Very influence. Etc.)
This then led to Watch_Dogs protagonist, Aiden thingy, having his head replaced with that of a smiling Shiba Inu at every turn, and Ubisoft understandably weren’t best pleased by this development. They’d put a lot of time and effort into their gritty hacker thriller, and weren’t too happy that the internet was making fun of them. Unfortunately when you throw a tantrum and tell the internet to stop making fun of you, the internet – like all good bullies – simply laughs in your face and doubles down: just look at the Beyonce/She-Hulk fiasco from a few of years ago.
Then somewhere in the intervening period between Watch_Doge – sorry, Watch_Dogs – and Watch_Dogs 2, a very clever person at Ubisoft realised that the best way to stop the internet from stealing their lunch money and pantsing them in the schoolyard was to embrace their flaws, and commit wholeheartedly to the bit. The very next time the internet asked “Why are you hitting yourself?” Ubisoft decided, metaphorically speaking, that the best course of action was to voluntarily beat itself bloody, smile menacingly, and then go on with its day.
And that, kids, is how Watch_Dogs 2 went full meme, and my god is it looking terrible for it.
It’s got internet culture oozing from every pore, with the Anonymous-esque DeadSec – replete with hoodies and skull masks, lest they infringe on Anon’s trademark V For Vendetta masks – complete with graffiti, selfie sticks, Google cardboard VR headsets, parkour (why must games always have parkour?) and partying with those ridiclous horse-head masks. Even their website is painfully hacker-themed; it’s like Nathan Barley all over again, the rise of the fucking idiots. I’m all for embracing your flaws and taking them back from your abusers, Ubisoft, but this is just plain sad. It’s like when big Hollywood studio took a crack at youth or gamer (or even hacker) culture in the late eighties/early nineties, and we ended up with abhorrent messes like The Wizard or Hackers.
Watch_Dogs 2 is an absurd hacker caricature, a juvenile power fantasy that has been dreamt up by a marketing team who’ve watched every episode of Mr Robot and read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and as a result of this extensive research believe that they’re fully equipped to speak to – and more importantly, for – the youth. Because, Ubisoft seems to maintain, wouldn’t we all love to be hackers, if we only had the motivation?
And on that note let’s get onto the accidental irony, Watch_Dogs 2‘s protagonist’s raison d’être, the very motivation for his becoming a hacktivist: <insert generic story about abuses of state actors, crimes he didn’t commit, and hitting back at the man>. I’m sure it’s a passable story once you get past all that awful meme culture, but I did catch one important bit of information about our hero, specifically that he found the authorities had been planting fake information about him to suit their own nefarious deeds. Seems like as good a reason as any to want to disappear, go off the grid, and live in a Faraday cage with a cat like Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State.
Then a little later in a gameplay video, we saw our be-hooded youth – remember, this is absolutely not Assassin’s Creed with smartphones – planting a fake criminal record on an unsuspecting member of the public. This caused them to be arrested for crimes they most certainly didn’t commit, because the little shit who, not moments earlier was complaining of an alarmingly similar miscarriage of justice, decided it would suit his ends (wasn’t he doing this for justice, or something?) to do the exact same thing to someone else.
What’s to say it was the evil government who planted fake information in his records at all? It was more likely that baseball cap-wearing twat from Watch_Dogs, who needed to cause a distraction of his own and didn’t care who he hurt in the process.
Fast forward a couple of years to Watch_Dogs 3, and our new protagonist – complete with Kayne West sunglasses, a big-face-animal-print t-shirt, a hover-board, and absolutely no sense of irony – is seeking to undo the injustice that was cruelly served upon him by the horse mask-wearing twat from Watch_Dogs 2.
The Watch_Dogs antiheroes are like a modern day Robin Hood; you know, if Robin Hood spent his time murdering everyone, screwing over the innocent to suit his own needs, and generally being a massive dick in the pursuit of looking cool.
It’s a real shame, to be honest. Watch_Dogs 2 looks beautifully cinematic and its representation of San Francisco genuinely seems like a living, breathing approximation of a real city, while their creative use of technology could make for a really exciting and innovative experience, if only they stopped chasing the interminable zeitgeist.
Dank memes though, Ubisoft.
Ubisoft aren’t alone: hacking in games is often terrible. We know. We did the research.