Some old Tory once said that when a man is tired of London, “he is tired of life”. But I’ve finished every mission in Watch Dogs: Legion, and I’m sorry Samuel Johnson, but I’m bored of this place.
Ubisoft’s latest open world game takes players to the capital of the United Kingdom, in order to liberate it from the thrall of an authoritarian regime. It’s set in an alternate universe where the crypto-fascists have already got what they wanted – a great premise if you’re not actually British, at which point it becomes a bit close to the bone.
I may be disillusioned in the postgame, but I did enjoy my time playing through the game’s roughly 15-hour campaign. It follows a group of white hat hackers called DedSec, who are forced to create an enclave of resistance fighters out of London’s civilians to topple the oppressors dominating the capital.
And what a beautiful capital it is! Ubisoft has crafted a wonderful simulacrum of London, one that studies and reflects the city’s fine architecture, as well as its endless stream of coffee-coddling yuppies, who yap in the street about bottomless brunch and business deals.
I’m from the North of England but I’ve visited London more than enough to get a read on it. It’s always a suffocating salvo of stimuli regardless of how many times I make the trip. The perpetually busy capital is lonely by default despite all the noise, something Legion manages to curate by making its citizens feel like androids on a schedule.
The amount of detail is staggering, and the “play as anyone” system is a really clever way of depicting London’s beautifully multicultural demographic. But making London look pretty and busy is all well and good as long as the game has something to say – and that’s where the trouble arrives.
The game does everything it can to shock you – it takes you on a tour through a bloodstained processing centre for refugees, has you deal with a human trafficking gang, and really drives home the fact that you’re playing within a militarised police state via Albion, an anti-immigrant militia that has replaced the Metropolitan Police. It’s fronted by a man called Nigel “I wonder who that could be a reference to” Cass. Despite all the effort and the promise of the setting, the story is unremarkable.
Through it all, Watch Dogs: Legion sticks its tongue very firmly in its cheek, which is its greatest downfall. It makes a farce of these real issues and treats them with all the tact of a stoner at a party prophesying the end of the world. Its ideals are on the right side of history, sure, but it feels like a shallow playground of inevitable despair rather than a genuine commentary.
You’ll infiltrate and unravel the leaders of the opposition, only to have a boss fight where they… hop in a robot and dish out some half-baked speech about how DedSec are really the bad guys. The worst part is that when you’ve wrapped it all up, Albion’s presence is still felt in the capital. I’ve beaten the game, but it certainly doesn’t feel like I’ve “liberated London” – everything is just as shit as it was when I arrived.
I suppose that may be Legion’s lone riposte regarding the cultural conscience of the UK. Our stiff upper lip blitz spirit is well-mobilised by populists and opportunists to make large swathes of the population look past injustice and resist change. Here they call it “keep calm and resist”, as if the first part is an option. The people soldier on even though they’re clearly getting shafted.
You may liberate Westminster, but none of the people seem bothered about it – the streets are still swarming with drones and armed guards. In the end, how can you depict meaningful liberation when your main incentive for regional change was unlocking a special operative so you can cosplay as James Bond? The game feels more concerned with helping you collect characters with quirky skills than showing you how you can make a difference in a dystopian future.
The fruits of DedSec’s labour are ultimately invisible in the postgame, and it nurtures this nauseating loneliness, as if all your efforts were for nought. We’ve exposed injustice en masse, cut through fake news and saved the capital, yet the people of Legion’s divided London still seem wholly disinterested in their own liberation. The British people know that the system is rotten, and yet they still look the other way. If only the game let me truly shake the walking dead out of their stupor, there might be some room for meaningful catharsis…