You might have taken one look at Watch Dogs Legion, and written it off as too bleak an experience to be playing in 2020. Police brutality, surveillance states, and the decline of democracy as we know it? I get enough of that in my morning headlines, thank you very much.
But though Ubisoft Toronto's vision of London may be dark, dystopian, and perpetually cloaked in raincloud, this third chapter to its open-world hacking saga is secretly just as happy and glorious as Watch Dogs 2's sun-soaked sojourn through San Francisco. You just have to look between the pavement cracks a little closer.
Watch our video review below:
Set in a post-Brexit (and presumably post-pandemic) future, Watch Dogs Legion's sci-fi tinged recreation of The Big Smoke is a playground I can't stop causing chaos in, and not just because of any native connections to the city itself. It's a place practically reverberating with life, both in the macro of every neon-lit monument towering across the urban skyline, and the micro of London's smog-ridden streets, where the personality of each of its distinct boroughs is on full display.
Pubs are teeming with smug young professionals, graffiti and targeted advertisements plaster the city's eclectic architecture, and a growing sense of civil unrest permeates almost every conversation you hear amongst pedestrians. Yes, the Dick Van Dyke meets Billy Butcher accents are ridiculously over the top at the best of times, and it's not even the prettiest open world in Ubisoft's track record, but for the most part, Watch Dogs Legion captures the soul and style of London better than any video game I've played.
Strength in numbers
Of course, a key part of Watch Dogs Legion's charm isn't just London itself, but the perspectives from which you get to explore it. In what is easily the game's biggest selling point, Ubisoft has ripped the N out of NPC to let players step into the shoes of any of the city's civilians you set your sights upon. By recruiting fellow Londonites into your ever-growing gang of DedSec resistance fighters, you can take on missions as all manner of characters, from 007 superspies to street magicians.
Every member comes with their own set of abilities, status effects, weapons, or vehicles, which can either help or hinder your efforts to liberate London from its postmodern oppression by various factions capitalising on the societal breakdown. Your newly enlisted mechanical beekeeper might be able to summon a robot hive on-demand, for example, but his tendency to get hiccups when nervous means you can say bub-bye to that stealth run. The number of variables at play in Ubisoft's populace-generating algorithm aren't quite endless, but they are impressively extensive, affecting everything from movement speed to lifespan.
As a result, your DedSec army will be comprised of an absurdly diverse bunch of freedom fighters from all walks of life, and though the limits of the system can be seen in the way certain perks (and voices) will repeat themselves over the game's 20-25 hour runtime, it's always fun to discover a completely new archetype, and experiment with their unique playstyles and quirks.
Release date: October 29, 2020
Platform: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
In typical Ubisoft fashion, you'll be able to tackle the majority of Legion's main story missions your own way, and the developer's trademark open-ended design is only enhanced further by the sheer variety of people you can choose to tackle them as.
In some cases, certain characters will be able to infiltrate areas by the nature of their working uniform, while others can melt through enemies like butter with a small arsenal of impressive firepower.
Future London also has more gadgets to play with than present-day San Francisco, such as the ability to straight-up fly on hackable drones that act like giant, self-driving taxis. You can say good riddance to endlessly driving those stacking cranes between buildings, in other words, and Watch Dogs Legion is all the better for it.
The missions themselves, aside from a handful of so-so minigames and environmental puzzles, are a lot of "infiltrate this" and "steal that", but that sense of repetition can be alleviated by the entertainment wrung from undertaking them as whoever you like.
Equally, while I was worried that the lack of a central, scripted protagonist might make it difficult to invest in Legion's cast of characters, the inverse is true. Getting to see my hand-picked recruits interact with events and each other in Legion's cleverly rendered in-game cutscenes gave me a reason to care for their involvement in DedSec's resistance efforts, especially considering Ubisoft's wise inclusion of an optional permadeath setting, which can rob you of your favourite characters for good.
In this way, Watch Dogs Legion takes a page out of X-COM's playbook, establishing meaningful connections to its world via the stories and personalities that players discover for themselves. Your playthrough of Legion is going to be markedly different from mine, then, but no less memorable as a result.
It's not perfect (recruiting certain characters can take far more time and effort than they're worth), but, on the whole, Legion's Play as Anyone mechanic is on par with Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system in terms of both its ambition and originality; it really is as nifty as it sounds.
London has fallen
Sadly, Legion's story isn't nearly as compelling as the playable roster driving it forward. As it did with Far Cry 5, Ubisoft casts its narrative net across a barrier reef's worth of real-world issues to inspire its depiction of London - from the migrant crisis to human trafficking - but paints that subject matter into its setting with fairly broad strokes.
The result is a story that, for all its talking points, feels strangely innocuous. It doesn't help that the dialogue is often laughably wooden, either, delivered with wild inconsistency depending on who you're playing as, though DedSec's dry-humoured AI companion Bagley does manage to squeeze a few decent jokes into the proceedings every now and again.
As for the gameplay itself, anyone who's played a previous Watch Dogs instalment will be familiar with Legion's open-world trifecta of driving, shooting, and stealth, all of which is of course augmented by its one-button hacking mechanic, which can now tap into more of the open world's central operating system than ever before. These different avenues of play represent something of a mixed bag, however, often feeling either too formless and floaty, or awkward and stilted.
There's a general lack of polish that pervades throughout Watch Dogs Legion as a whole, in fact, with my PS4 build of the game (which included the Day One patch) running into a number of texture pop-ins, clipping issues, framerate drops, and several hard crashes. Ubisoft has confirmed its already addressing some of these bugs for an incoming update, while Legion's frequent and lengthy loading screens will apparently be next to non-existent on PS5 and Xbox Series X, but these technical gripes are still worth bearing in mind before you jump in on launch day.
Problems aside, it's quite remarkable just how much of Legion is sharpened, shaken, and stirred by its central idea, and rightly so. In executing its lofty power fantasy, Ubisoft's Play as Anyone mechanic has elevated the rest of Legion's otherwise routine gameplay; without it, I'm not sure we'd have a particularly memorable video game on our hands.
Like that of Assassin's Creed's dual protagonists, I now can't imagine the Watch Dogs series without its Play as Anyone mechanic, which feels like a feature the franchise was always made for. Despite the deficiencies that underscore both its storytelling and gameplay, Legion thus represents an aspiring, albeit somewhat clumsy, step forward for the series at large. If a continued pivot towards dystopianism is what's needed to inspire Ubisoft to keep refining and honing its new APC formula for Watch Dogs' future, then I say bring on the end of the world as we know it.