DYSTOPIAN Britain is one of those “can’t go wrong” settings which has all the elements of a good story in it – obvious bad guys, oppression, freedom fighters, stuff blowing up.
Watch Dogs: Legion, developed and published by Ubisoft on PC, PlayStation and Xbox, is no exception; I’ve been looking forward to finally playing the full game for a while now.
The game is set in a near-future London where a mysterious terrorist organisation known as Zero Day has planted bombs all over the city with the intent to frame hacktivist organisation DedSec (as seen in the previous two Watch Dogs games) for the outrage.
DedSec manage to stop one of the bombs (at Parliament House), but the others go off, DedSec are framed even better than the portraits in the National Gallery, declared a terrorist organisation, and a private army by the name of Albion descends on London to rapidly turn the city into a 1984/V For Vendetta collaboration theme park.
The sole surviving member of the main DedSec London cell, Sabine, contacts a sympathiser and tasks them with getting DedSec running again, and taking down Albion, the Clan Kelley gang, clearing the organisation’s name, and freeing London from the most dreadful oppression it is labouring under.
Rather than playing as a single character, however, in this game you have a large team at your disposal (the “legion” referred to in the title), recruiting and swapping between characters (more on this a bit later).
There are some fantastic ideas in the game which mostly work, but also require an element of metaphorically ignoring the stagehands and the suspension of disbelief may simply be too much for many players.
For a start, Watch Dogs: Legion’s London is full of firearms. Real-life England has famously strict gun laws and while it’s absolutely possible for the average person to own hunting shotguns and rifles there, it is extremely not possible for them to own assault rifles, light machine guns or grenade launchers – yet these abound in civilian hands in the game.
The game handwaves some of this away by saying the major criminal gang in the game (Clan Kelley) are importing weapons, but even so, that doesn’t explain how office managers have access to an FN Minimi Light Machine Gun or where an unemployed transient got a grenade launcher from.
Given the game is just releasing, I’ll avoid spoilers for now so you can enjoy the story the way the designers intended, but I will say the plot is inconsistent too – there are some truly fantastic moments and reveals, and there’s also a lot of stuff that was anticlimactic or just made me say “Come on, really?”; and another pretty big lapse in the conclusion of one of the “villains of London” story arcs.
This is a shame, because Watch Dogs: Legion actually has quite a bit to say, on topics ranging from the dangers of giving up liberty to get safety and ending up with neither, to the ethics of AI, the banality of evil, the nebulous line between illegal immigrant and refugee, the importance of teamwork, how everyone can make a difference, and more.
The game actively encourages you to use non-lethal methods, including using Taser-like weapons which render enemies unconscious rather than dead. I really liked this approach and wish more games included it.
One of the major features of the game is that you can play as almost literally anyone in the game world, thanks to an under-the-bonnet system known as Census.
Census is essentially a complex RNG system, taking data based on a huge range of factors including location, age, gender, job, hobbies, and other factors to create the people in the game world – all of whom can be recruited (some requiring more effort than others), allowing you to essentially play as anyone in the city.
The “Play as anyone” mechanic works surprisingly well and lets you assemble a diverse and talented team; mine included construction workers, spies, security guards, police officers, soldiers, authors, beekeepers, and graffiti artists, among many others. While people have different bonuses and skills, there are broad classes at play – hackers are better with drones and hacking, police officers and Albion personnel are better at combat, assassins are better at dynamic gunfighting, medics get your team out of the hospital faster, etc.
Part of the problem is that no-one ever says “No” to joining DedSec. People don’t say “I have no useful skills, I can’t help you” or “I don’t want any part of this” or “But I feel safer with all these Albion people around so no thanks” or “Actually, I think you’re a terrorist organisation so not only do I not want to join, I’m going to report this to the authorities” – everyone is just waiting for a chance to take up their HackerPhone and digitally stick it to The Person.
This manifests in completely ludicrous situations like people who should despise DedSec (say, Albion Captains or criminal gang enforcers) being pretty easy to turn and recruit with a couple of minor favours, senior citizens instantly becoming elite hackers, and doctors being more than willing to shoot people in the face with a Taser to make it a bit easier to get to a computer terminal.
It also means you can end up with some amazing and useful people in your team, though – and I spent many hours just exploring virtual London looking for likely lads and ladettes to recruit, and it was very rewarding to see my motley crew come together.
You can customise the outfits and masks your operatives wear, too – there’s quite a range to unlock or buy with easy to acquire in-game currency (my favourite was the WWII RAF Fighter Pilot helmet and goggles, incidentally).
What’s interesting is seeing how characters in the game world are connected – for example, in one case I stepped in to rescue a woman getting beaten up by Albion officers. It turned out that woman was the mother of a character I was trying to recruit, and the fact DedSec had rescued their mum boosted their opinion so much they called up to join.
At the other end of the spectrum, in one mission I found out the bad guys were up to something truly horrific and took my operative on a comprehensive scorched earth exercise on their way out of the mission area, machine-gunning everyone affiliated with the faction in the building and detonating some explosives for good measure.
I walked away (without looking at the explosions of course, because I’m cool) congratulating myself on a job well done – until a bit later, my operative got kidnapped by a relative of one of the people I’d machine-gunned, seeking revenge. This prompted a rescue mission where I despatched another operative to find my missing person, reinforcing the idea that there are consequences to your actions and lead farming is an occupation which shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.
On paper, the Census system sounds wonky, but in the context of the game it works, and once you accept that this is Alternative Universe London where firearms are readily available and everyone wants to be a hacktivist, there is a jolly good time to be with Watch Dogs: Legion.
The London in the game is absolutely breathtaking and incredibly detailed, too. Iconic landmarks are superbly recreated and if you know real-life London at all then you’ll be able to use that broad knowledge to navigate around the city, too.
Obviously not every road and lane etc is recreated, but the game absolutely feels like London in a way that’s hard to explain, but all comes together when you’re walking through the streets of Soho in the rain, looking for the place called Lee Ho Fook’s so you can get a big dish of beef chow mein. (As far as I could tell, neither a restaurant called Lee Ho Fook or beef chow mein were in the game, though).
Fast travel around the city is via the iconic Tube (Underground) system, but sadly you don’t get any Marvel’s Spider-Man -type scenes of your operative chilling on the Tube while zipping around the city.
The game’s world feels alive in a way I haven’t encountered in anything except maybe Red Dead Redemption II – people clearly have their own stuff going on and are living virtual lives, as opposed to just wandering around the immediate area lamenting their inability to pursue a more adventuresome lifestyle as a result of a tragic archery-related injury to their patella.
The London presented in the game is a superb and rich digital playground, full of nooks and crannies and secrets to discover. It has a distinct personality and it’s going to be very interesting to see how it works when the multiplayer mode launches in December.
It wouldn’t be a Watch Dogs game without hacking, and there’s plenty of it here – cameras, drones phones, laptops, computers; like the previous two games all there for you to use your magic hacking phone to break into, and works the same way as previously.
It also provides some great advantages in completing missions – I was able to hack into a security camera, acquire the digital key to a locked door, open said door, then activate an electrical fusebox trap which zapped a patrolling guard – allowing my operative to stroll in, collect the item they needed for the mission, and wander out again, all without firing a shot or setting off any alarms.
The star of the Watch Dogs: Legion show is your AI assistant Bagley, who has the most colourful and hilarious comments about what’s going on in the game and is so delightfully irreverent it made me laugh out loud numerous times while playing.
I felt the best way to come at the game is to think of it as a big-budget soft sci-fi movie where “hacking” or “computers” are the catch-all answer to plot questions instead of “a wizard did it”.
Taking this approach, gallivanting across London wreaking havoc on The Oppressors is wonderfully fun, and the world is full of things to do, chaos to cause, wrongs to be righted and people to be Tasered.
As a fan of the previous games in the series, I really enjoyed Watch Dogs: Legion. If the earlier games didn’t appeal to you, then I don’t think this one isn’t going to change your mind, especially given you don’t so much have to suspend your disbelief so much as actively levitate it to enjoy what the game has to offer.
Having said all that: If, like me, you enjoyed the previous games in the series – London is calling, and you should answer.