Watch Dogs Legion is a refreshing twist on Ubisoft's open-world formula, and a bizarre new direction for the franchise which draws from the best parts of London's culture to make it feel remarkably alive. It remains to be seen how extensive its "play as anyone" mechanic will be in practice, but it has the potential to add a neverending sense of variety to proceedings. This could be one of the blockbusters to watch in the months to come.
- Review Price: £49.99
- Developer: Ubisoft
- Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
- Release Date: October 29, 2020
Watch Dogs Legion presents the exciting possibility of playing as absolutely anyone. Every citizen you encounter in its stunning recreation of England’s capital can be recruited to the resistance, fighting for a righteous cause with their own unique skills and abilities. It’s a compelling premise, so much so that it failed to really shine the last time I sat down with Ubisoft’s hacking adventure.
But after an extensive delay, extra development time has allowed Ubisoft to make Watch Dogs Legion shine, ensuring all its core elements combine to make a genuinely satisfying whole. After spending three hours with the cockney caper, I’m fairly smitten with it, even if I’m rather cautious about some of the sociopolitical themes it seems to tackle, delving into the subjects of police brutality and racial conflicts with a fairly tone deaf perspective.
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Legion opens with you stepping into the shoes of Dalton Wolfe, an MI5 agent turned rebellious member of DedSec. A mysterious organisation has planted a bomb in the heart of parliament, threatening to hurl London into disarray with a single act. Your job is to disarm it and save the city, working your way into the building from underground. It should be a simple mission, but darker forces are at work you’ll soon come to discover.
This introductory section is also a perfect way for Ubisoft to introduce how each character has differing attributes determined by their occupation. As an agent, our current hero is equipped with a silenced pistol and a few other tools which prioritise a stealthy approach. He’s a force to be reckoned with, and one I was sad to lose as this mission came to a close.
Upon discovering the bomb, you scramble to disarm it with the help of Bagley, a sentient AI program with an attitude. He’s oftentimes hilarious, and honestly a highlight of the game’s writing thus far. After a tense firefight in the Commons Chamber it becomes clear that bombs have been planted across London, and stopping them is virtually impossible. You rush to the roof, taking out enemies on your way in a desperate attempt to escape.
But it’s too late. You’re held at gunpoint after reaching the roof, an ethereal adversary revealing himself as explosions rock the capital city. He has plans for London, ones that can only be spun into motion by enslaving its populace under the pretense of protection, when his organisation is the very cabal responsible for such misery. Once all hope is lost, your light is snuffed out by a quick bullet to the head. With that, Watch Dogs Legion truly begins.
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It’s a striking introduction, possessing a tone reminiscent of the greatest modern spy thrillers, but this atmosphere sadly isn’t maintained as I take my first true steps in the city of London. Watch Dogs Legion is extraordinarily campy, revelling in British stereotypes such as pubs, bobbies and black taxi cabs. This doesn’t sit well at all alongside police brutality and racial disputes which have very distinct real-world parallels, which Ubisoft is more than happy to lean into with its wider thematic storytelling.
London has been transformed into a futuristic authoritarian state, with its populace being forced into compliance by a paramilitary force known as Albion who patrol the streets with ruthless aggression. It isn’t uncommon to see citizens being held at gunpoint on the street, on their knees begging for mercy as these objects of law are given unlimited power to reign, regardless of potential casualties. It’s uncomfortable in the wake of real-world political movements, even if it’s likely little more than an unhappy coincidence.
I spent three hours in Watch Dogs Legion with relative freedom, balancing a handful of story missions with dynamic exploration across the city of London. It’s a beautiful recreation as I immediately drove around trying to spot familiar landmarks and places I had a personal connection to. It was weirdly satisfying to pull up to The Shard, which has been rebranded as the ominous Nexus Tower. Similar iconic locations such as Big Ben and Nelson’s Column are recreated with the utmost accuracy, and they’re honestly a sight to behold.
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Despite my misgivings with Legion’s political clumsiness, the act of existing in its world is beautifully immersive. Your basic hacking repertoire from previous games remains largely untouched. With a touch of a button it’s possible to scan any individual in the world, pulling up a database containing their name, skills and interests if you choose to recruit them to DedSec. Now each NPC has an established routine, concrete windows of time they’ll dedicate to specific locations and activities.
You’ll find football hooligans swinging by the pub in the early evening, or construction workers commuting to the site as the sun rises. Some missions will require you to recruit a certain profession to your ranks to take advantage of their skills, so knowing where exactly such people can be found is essential. If you don’t fancy diving into such granular details, roaming the world for a few minutes with a bit of common sense normally gets the job done. I will admit that having to have my wits about me instead of blindly chasing an icon is a nice change of pace for Ubisoft’s open worlds.
In the previous demo I played, class archetypes felt ill-defined, an issue which has been remedied by giving each character a small but definitive set of skills and abilities. A hacker will normally be outfitted with a remote drone and a spider bot for infiltrating outposts and bypassing foes without being detected. Rebellious graffiti artists are somewhat less subtle, capable of blinding enemies with spray paint and a devastating melee attack before pulling out a long-range stun gun.
I haven’t played nearly enough of Watch Dogs Legion to determine when and if the act of recruiting random characters will grow repetitive, or if I’ll find a small selection of resistance members who fit my playstyle and never touch the mechanic again. It stands a chance of falling into such a trap, since players aren’t likely to gravitate towards weapons and gadgets they don’t enjoy using, regardless of how cool or quirky the fellow you’ve found happens to be.
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Outside of the main missions I played, which involved sneaking into a stronghold disguised as a member of Albion (spoilers; you end up getting caught), I explored the surrounding area taking on activities until I was free to liberate the borough of Southwark. Just like in reality, London is split in several distinct boroughs, all of which can be liberated from the tyrannical grip of Albion.
You’ll eventually be tasked with an ultimatum which often involves an epic showdown in a named location. This demo had me sneaking into The Shard undetected to disable the servers on its highest floors. It’s a fun escapade, starting with me sneaking through the lower sections of the building before ascending to an autonomous server room. From here, I hacked my way in, which involved manually controlling a drone through all manner of ducts and offices before finally arriving at my destination.
There, I drop a deadly package into the central mainframe and bring Albion’s control over this region to an end. A cutscene shows the population cheering with triumph, defeating their overseers and firmly planting their feet in the resistance. I imagine you’ll systematically bring Albion to its knees throughout the campaign, and this will hopefully reflect in the atmosphere aross the open-world, which without any interference is fairly dystopian and miserable.
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Watch Dogs Legion is a refreshing twist on Ubisoft’s open-world formula, and a bizarre new direction for the franchise which draws from the best parts of London’s culture to make it feel remarkably alive. It remains to be seen how extensive its “play as anyone” mechanic will be in practice, but it has the potential to add a neverending sense of variety to proceedings. This could be one of the blockbusters to watch in the months to come.
Sadly, its haphazard handling of sensitive themes such as racial division and police brutality feel far too ingrained in its setting to be properly revised, especially in the wake of a society that will scrutinise such things more than ever. Ubisoft has a habit of claiming its games are apolitical, whereas Watch Dogs Legion is taking the very real division caused by Brexit and twisting it into a dystopian future which at times feels far too real.
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