First Look: ‘Watch Dogs: Legion’ is an amazing idea trapped in a familiar framework

Ubisoft’s take on post-brexit London is inspired but unwieldy

In late September, I spent six hours playing Watch Dogs: Legion, the third entry in the Ubisoft hacking franchise. Legion is set in London, where grey hat hacker group DedSec have been framed for a string of terrorist attacks. With DedSec outlawed, authoritarian figureheads have started sweeping into the UK capital to enact a sinister surveillance state and hunt the remaining enclave.

You are the resistance! Or, I suppose, everyone is. The catch with Watch Dogs: Legion is that instead of saddening bore Aiden Pearce from the original Watch Dogs or Oakland hero Marcus Holloway of Watch Dogs 2, you can recruit and play as any London resident. It’s an extremely ambitious premise, and functionally, it works really well, with some caveats. But was it worth the effort? Well…

Watchdogs: Legion
Watch Dogs: Legion. Credit: Ubisoft

Before I’m afforded control of the game, I’m told to sit through a video presentation from Legion’s creative director Clint Hocking, who previously worked on the mechanically influential and ahead of its time Far Cry 2. At E3 2019, I was excited to learn that he was in charge of this project because it would have been very easy for a series like Watch Dogs to slip into a creatively indifferent sequel trap. With Legion, Ubisoft is trying something unique that feels like a natural development for the franchise – scanning random people to learn and chuckle about their private lives has always been the most interesting mechanic in Watch Dogs. Now you can take it a step further and control them, experiencing their quirks.

The system feels amazing in practice, but as I found out over the six hours I played, I don’t believe the gameplay is varied enough to support how experimental this idea is. I started out by playing as a drone expert, who has a skillset that lets me call in a cargo ship to float around London on. This was fun to play with at first, but it soon made a lot of the game’s missions quite trivial. Because you don’t really free-run as you would in other Ubisoft games, being able to access all areas is a massive boon. In one of my first missions, I was tasked with rescuing a getaway driver with a thick Dublin accent. He was on top of a building in Camden (no idea why) but the ground floor was teeming with enemies. Taking the initiative, I realised I could just float into the cutscene marker and finish the mission. Bob’s your uncle!

I was prompted to swap to the new operative, who has a few different abilities under his belt, like being able to summon a speedy car. He could also use his phone to part traffic, which can be handy in a bind, but the objectives were usually so far away and the map was so big that I ended up using the tube to get around.You don’t really get into any dangerous chases in Watch Dogs: Legion unless you’re really looking for a GTA-style scrap with the police, which isn’t that rewarding in the grand scheme of things unless you like the thrill of inevitable doom. So I went back to my cargo drone companion and stuck with her for quite some time.

I spent ages walking through the streets scanning people, trying to find someone with better skills but, sadly, I never really found my soulmate. However, I did endeavour to flesh out my ranks with new blood. If you do find a citizen of note, you can use something called the deep profiler to see an NPC’s schedule throughout the day, and then pin their location down so you can perform tasks to bring them into your ranks, like rescuing their sister or killing someone who is hunting them.

This is another smart idea. The mini-missions were surprisingly dynamic and fun – but after a few recruitment endeavours, I didn’t feel like I was being rewarded for recruiting more people, so I stuck with the handful of operatives I liked. It feels like the game is missing an all-encompassing progression bar for even the most menial of tasks, to give players a sense of development across their entire grassroots organisation.

Watchdogs: Legion
Watch Dogs: Legion. Credit: Ubisoft

Each London district can be liberated in order to unlock special recruits, like spies and hitmen. The district I liberated gave me a fun special mission where I had to climb up the innards of Big Ben as a spider bot. Once I’d beaten it, the game gave me access to a special spy character, who had a silenced pistol and a cloaking car with missiles. It was fun to drive around and cause mayhem for a moment, but it didn’t feel very connected to the cause. I discovered the limitations of the game’s stealth mechanics shortly after, too. Let’s start with the basics: you can pick from just four gadgets across all of your characters – a spider bot, a cloaking suit, electric brass knuckles and a shock trap.

But Watch Dogs: Legion also gives you regular access to said drones and spider bots. They appear within many of the locations you’re told to infiltrate, and as such, it didn’t make sense for me to equip the ones I could find naturally in the world. So I always stuck with the cloaking device. I even managed to find stations which summoned cargo drones, rendering the key power of my favourite character somewhat obsolete. You can of course upgrade and develop your abilities and gadgets to increase their effectivity across all characters, but there weren’t many exciting upgrades on show that offered any new gameplay. Most of them just made effects last longer or improved combat abilities, making them deal more damage.

Once you try and approach a building in a stealthy fashion, you’ll realise that a lot of the game’s mechanics feel quite dated. You’ve got your takedowns and your distraction hacks but a surprisingly limited range of weapons at your disposal, so it almost always unravels into a firefight. This means that recruiting people based on their uniforms and ability to enter fortified locations is a bit of a gamble, depending on how much you want to engage with the combat.

You can get certain suppressed weapons, grenade launchers and shotguns by recruiting specific people, and certainly, you could specialise a combat, stealth and hacking character to swap between if needs must, but at the end of the day, you’re probably going to start blasting. Melee combat feels like a last resort, which is a shame as I always thought that was the most fun part of Watch Dogs 2, especially the Thunder Ball.

Watchdogs: Legion
Watch Dogs: Legion. Credit: Ubisoft

In most of the game’s non-scripted open world events, it’s often quicker to just head inside, alert everybody and shoot to kill to get to the computer you need to hold Y to interact with. Like previous entries, most of the gameplay is spent huddling around a computer to download a file or uploading a hack to a network to crumble it. The main missions had some varied takes on this, like manoeuvring a sluggish broken spider bot through some vents or solving a network puzzle where you rotate wires to unlock electric pathways. The former isn’t very exciting and the latter gets old quickly, but you better get used to it, as it crops up a hell of a lot.

A lot of the marketing up to this point has touted the fact that the game has permadeath mechanics baked in, so you can lose recruits very easily if they get battered in combat to create watercooler moments. This wasn’t my experience as much as I wanted it to be. Most of the time if you fail a mission or run out of health, you’ll be arrested or critically injured. Then you can recruit barristers or paramedics to speed up the time it takes to retrieve your favourite recruits. No one died across my entire preview, and to say I was quite reckless with my characters would be an understatement. At one point I purposefully leapt off of Buckingham Palace to my definite doom, and just had to wait 20 minutes until I could get my recruit back. It felt like the stabilisers were on, and I wasn’t sure if it was just the build or the actual game.

On a couple of occasions, I also managed to run into characters with similar features in the same outfit as my own, which created an uncanny Matrix moment. This tracks for accents too – at one point it felt like I was talking to myself when I spoke to a quest giver within an immigration camp. Bear in mind that this is a work in progress build, and such an ambitious system will no doubt have its caveats and glitches.

To break away from the path, I decided to forget the questline and engage with the open world. I got really drunk, played kicky-ups and broke into Buckingham Palace, which was a good bit of fun. There were a total of three or four guards in Her Majesty’s backyard, and I managed to get away unscathed with some careful timing of the cloaking device. I did get a cool new crown mask, but I was hoping for something more, perhaps some secret puzzles to find or extra bits of content to reward exploration.

Watchdogs: Legion
Watch Dogs: Legion. Credit: Ubisoft

A lot of the narrative centres around the abhorrence of the surveillance state, with immigration camps and organ harvesting making an appearance. My favourite branch was a set of missions following a narcissistic tech mogul who is trying to cheat death with AI – the more scripted scenarios brought an unexpected horror spin to the game.

The environments and characters have been realised well, and it all feels part of a cohesive aesthetic, but ultimately, Legion’s commitment to its quirky “Landan Taan” humour doesn’t play nice with the serious themes it is touching on. It fails to deal any of its serious plot points with any genuine tact, lampooning them with the ease that comes with the assumption that this depressing dystopian theme park is so far away.

I liked a few of the non-procedural characters, but as a northerner myself, my least favourite character was ‘Nowt’, whose entire personality appears to be based on spitting out token catchphrases rather than having any genuine substance. Yes, we get it, she’s a northerner. She doesn’t need to reply to every prompt with “dead good” or “mint” even when the conversation does actually warrant it.

Watch Dogs: Legion’s ambitious “play as anyone” system is surprisingly functional and a clever step forward for the series, but even with the promise of infinite variety, the game’s weathered open-world framework doesn’t compel me to commit my time to it. The moment-to-moment combat and puzzling are just too familiar for my taste, and the narrative looks like it could be quite clumsy with its themes. You certainly can play as a rampaging grannie with a shotgun, but I’m still left wondering if there’s anything substantial beyond the fleeting silliness of that statement.

‘Watch Dogs: Legion’ launches October 29 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Google Stadia and PC.

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