It’s with a feeling of circularity that Watch Dogs: Legion comes around at this time. The original game straddled a generation, turning out to be too ambitious for the PS3 and Xbox 360 hardware, mired in controversy over downgraded graphics on PS4 and Xbox One, and a bit of a let down in the form of the everyman hero Aiden Pearce who had no conscience when it came to gunning down everyone he met. Ubisoft addressed a lot of the complaints in Watch Dogs 2 and produced a bright and colourful romp with a likeable lead in Marcus Holloway, improved the hacking mechanics, yet still managed to miss the mark with any kind of sympathy for the supporting DedSec cast… they were just too hipster for their own good. With the third instalment launching across current and next generations there’s a danger that people may think history is repeating itself from the first game, and that they’ll be stuck with stereotyped millennials again. However, it’s in a new location, with new threats and an entire city’s population as the new cast. That’s compelling enough for a look, right?
There’s no need to have played the last two games to understand the story in Watch Dogs: Legion, it wraps itself up in a neat little data package ready for parsing. You’re part of a depleted DedSec after an attack on London by the mysterious Zero Day group. They lulled you into disarming a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament to distract from planting bombs at several other high profile sites, and your collective has been framed for the atrocity. Now that you’re all persona non grata in the UK’s capital and the leadership is scared of another attack, a PMC called Albion has swooped in and assumed control of the city, pretty much removing the police and government. It’s an oppressive regime with resentment rife amongst the boroughs and each just needing a spark to light the fire of rebellion. This is where DedSec see their opportunity – sow the seeds of discontent in the roots of the population, and leverage that to track down Zero Day and remove the stranglehold of Albion. It’ll take a lot of support to bring the revolution on and fortunately there are plenty that will join the cause, and you get to control them all.
Watch Dogs: Legion lives up to its name when it comes to the player character. There’s not just one that’s had the story built around them, there’s… well… a legion to choose from. Nearly all of the NPCs wandering the streets of the city can join DedSec as long as there’s room for them and a recruitment mission is completed. Every single one is unique from their looks to their skills and equipment, and they even have backstories generated for them. It’s quite a feat of simulation before the way they interact with the world is layered on top. As they run their digital days their lives are impacted by your actions as DedSec, and that can change their opinion of the group. Do something that benefits them like help one of their family, and they can become easier to recruit. Harm them through careless driving or wild gunfire and their feelings towards the collective will drop. Playing the game affects them to lesser and greater extents, and consequently their behaviour can help or hinder progress. They can run to your aid in a fight or chase you from the street depending on your playstyle, but the best thing is being able to bring them into the cause.
It’s truly impressive how integrated the use of any character is and it changes the way you think about playing missions. The diverse options have the same core abilities for hacking, shooting and fighting, it’s only their proficiency that changes based on whatever “life” experience they have. With no levelling up or spending skill points on character development, success in a mission hinges on having the right person taking part. If the current one isn’t working out, call in another from the pool back at HQ. If none of them have the right attributes, head out into the city and find someone that does, it won’t take long. Profiling every person on the street flags up their job, what they’re currently doing, their 3 key skills, and whatever equipment they bring with them. For example, builders can access restricted construction sites, hijack heavy duty drones and typically carry a nailgun, plus a couple of other individual boosts. There are so many variables to describe a character that there must be millions of combinations, meaning a fresh batch to choose from constantly. Not that they need to be swapped out. If there’s a particular favourite all rounder then go for broke with them, just be careful not to get them killed – permadeath is an option and they can be lost forever.
Even though there’s no specific character levelling, there is an element of upgrading available and typically this is centred around improving the tech that the team has, so it applies to everyone. Hacking is still the core gameplay mechanic and jacking cameras and machines is second nature after the first hour or so of playing, though some machines are off limits until the tech can do it. Anything operated by Albion is a no-no for a while, though that doesn’t limit the options too much. Drones are ubiquitous across the skies and a couple of quick taps can take them over and put them to use for scouting or even riding. Likewise, there’s a chance there’s always a deployable spiderbot in your pocket (and if there isn’t, there should be!), making some hard to reach areas easier and helping solve puzzles. On the one hand the game leads you to value the “human” players, but the mechanical shouldn’t be ignored as they’re arguably more versatile, and some are a lot more deadly. Not that every mission needs showers of bullets to be a success, this is a title about infiltration after all. No, being stealthy is probably 90% of the gameplay and well worth getting to grips with.
Disguises, remote viewing and stealing data from a distance are the bread and butter of DedSec operatives, and this means getting in and out of numerous places without being seen. Some missions are even possible to complete without setting foot on the target premises. One recruitment mission I had to do involved stealing an ambulance full of experimental drugs from a warehouse, a task I was able to completely do through hacking, including driving the vehicle out. It’s satisfying when that detail starts to click because you can see the way different paths have been laid out for different styles. Full on assaults are possible, as are total stealth missions, and the only thing that really drives the decision is how quickly you want to get it done. Some of the main story forces a particular path for set pieces, but on the whole it’s pretty much left up to you. Lethal and non-lethal are options, though you’re trying to clear the collective’s name so leaving trail of dead bodies isn’t the best idea. Puzzle elements are decent enough too, largely based around the manipulation of data flow. Nicely, these are set up across floors, ceiling and walls, with the more elaborate needing you to get creative with drones and cameras.
However, the biggest thing to get to grips with in Watch Dogs: Legion is the city of London itself. My word is it amazing. It doesn’t look that big from the map, and it’s akin to the same boroughs covered in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (possibly the game’s designer Wesley Pincombe’s influence who worked across both), but it’s dense and packed with detail. There’s a sense of being there when you’re walking the streets or driving around. The way the roads are lined, the architectural styles, the blend of cultures, it feels like London. Bimbling around I’ve found myself stopping in locations because I’ve stumbled across somewhere I’ve been in real life, and I’m not just talking the tourist attractions, it’s the side streets and business areas. A bit of poking around and soon enough you realise it’s a drastically shrunk down version, cleverly done to make it feel like the full place. It couldn’t be used instead of Google Maps, yet it’s familiar enough to get the job done. The near-future setting is overlaid brilliantly too with the world being enhanced rather than replaced, and much of the changes being part of the AI assistant integration of Bagley who’s like a much more useful Siri that employs AR a lot.
Most of the noticeable future tech is in the autonomous electric cars that are busy navigating the capital. Arguably the least believable part of the re-creation because the roads are never that quiet… they do make finding a ride easy. As long as there’s no one inside you’re able to grab one without consequence and head off at leisure. Saying that, with the inclusion of the Tube stations it’s actually easier to fast travel to another point than it is to drive, something worth remembering when you’re jumping from one side of the map to the other. The other reason for travelling that way is avoiding the slight ropey driving. The series isn’t known for its vehicle handling models and Watch Dogs: Legion is no different. Everything oversteers like crazy and some of the smaller, nippier ones have tendency to powerslide under braking. It’s not good for DedSec’s cause to liberate areas of the city one minute, and then accidentally mow down a group of civilians the next because of a slight right turn. It’s a good job that the cars can take some punishment then, and in fairness you’d miss out on the top notch soundtrack if you never drove anywhere. Maybe it’s designed so that you’ll hop in, stick it on autodrive and listen to the curated hits until you’ve reached your destination.
One of the things that lends London its weight is not just the fact it’s well populated, it’s also the lighting, the weather and the day/night cycle. Watch Dogs: Legion is definitely one of the prettier open world games I’ve seen, and the engine brings the details to life. There’s some pop in for lighting and textures when moving at speed, and reflections in puddles can be a bit odd, but largely it’s great. The thing I can’t help wondering though it what it will look like on next gen because the ambition here seems to have butted up against a technical limit. Loading features quite a bit when transitioning to interiors, and is sometimes quite lengthy given the size of the rooms being called up. It’s the same with swapping characters. I really wanted to get into using the differing skill sets to experience as many of the styles as I could, but the loading time interrupts the flow and I’d find myself sticking with the current one. Having a team with various skills just feels like it’s begging for the SSD instant loading that’s coming soon. It’s a shame too because I can’t begin to imagine the amount of work that’s gone into recording the dialogue for every interaction, cutscene and anecdotal comments to cover however many voices are possible with your recruiting options. There’s no feel of copy and paste here, even if the script only calls for three stereotypes: yoof, toff and Eastenders regular.
I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface of Watch Dogs: Legion with this review, there’s so much more it offers up to do, though that is mostly the standard open world filler, so I’ll leave those discoveries to you. What it does very well is build a compelling world, deliver an interesting story with multiple factions, and have a true everyman hero in being able to play as every woman and every man roaming in the game. All these bits should add up to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but there’s a niggle at its core. The gameplay loop is very repetitive, and even with the location and mission setup variety it’s pretty much “go here”, “hack that”, “download this”, “walk away” for each. By no means is that a major negative, and it forces you to investigate the activities and side quests to break up any monotony setting in, but it’s something that will stand out fairly quickly. It’s fun though, and even the warning about the world of data regulation and manipulation we currently live in feels light-hearted because of the humour the characters impart. That could just be me though, a Northerner having a laugh at the Southerner’s expense, and maybe that’s part of the draw. Yet it doesn’t feel that’s totally the case when it’s possible to take daft selfies with corpses in an illegal organ harvesting clinic Ya get me fam?
A PS4 review copy of Watch Dogs: Legion was provided by Ubisoft’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £45 depending on platform. A next gen upgrade will be coming for the new consoles when they release in November 2020. The multiplayer component is under wraps at the moment, but goes live on the 3rd December.