I never thought Watch Dogs would be the series where I'd play as a parkouring grandma. But here I am, breaking into Great Scotland Yard as a woman called Chris, who's in her seventies, but still capable of (slowly) vaulting a barrier and landing, almost cat-like, on the street below. Granny's got the moves, folks. This is the main appeal of Watch Dogs Legion (opens in new tab). Yes, it's got the hacking focus that the series is famed for, but it's the idea that the entirety of London is ready and waiting to be recruited to join Dedsec that really caught my attention.
As you might imagine from all the news out there, old Blighty isn't doing so well right now with all the palava around Brexit, and if we're to believe Watch Dogs Legion's vision of the future, it's not going to get better anytime soon. This is a London ravaged by mass unemployment, an ineffective government, the rise of a private security force known as Albion, and at its core a massive social crisis is unfolding. This is the post-Brexit dystopia you've only even seen in your nightmares.
London in disarray
But Ubisoft Toronto's ability to bring that life in a way that still feels realistic and believable is utterly commendable. All the major landmarks are there, but with that sort of high-tech veneer that Watch Dogs has made its own. A neon-lit red London bus moves through the street autonomously; news drones parade headlines in the sky, while packing drones move like AI-propelled blimps from point A to point B; and your little spider robot scuttles across the tarmac outside. And elsewhere, there are signs of the resistance of this new world order. The rising dissent is all over the city, and it's up to you to find the ones willing to fight for change.
And I'll admit, reading the leaks that suggested the game would allow you to play as any NPC in the entire city made me skeptical. But in reality you're just a godlike recruiter, able to see the merit and backstory of every single citizen in Legion's London. You can see their daily habits, where they work, who their friends are and ultimately how potentially useful they could be for your Dedsec rebellion.
In reality, you're not playing as any NPC, but a carefully curated group of 20 active Dedsec agents, all of which you picked yourself, worked hard to recruit, and have levelled up their skills and abilities to become a major cog in your little rebellion machine. Imagine GTA 5 but with 20 characters instead of three. It's mind-blowing just how connected this world is that Ubisoft Toronto has created. Heck, even the goon you knocked out earlier could be a potential recruit later on, especially if you pay to expedite his medical bills, or get in with his family while he's lying in the hospital bed that you put him in. But there's a caveat though.
"We don't feature children in the game and that was a design decision. But everyone else you see in the game, any person you see on the street - from a guy in a sharp-dressed suit to a grimy street kid from East London or a grandma - you can play all of them, every single one," explains producer, Sean Crooks.
Risk and recruit
But you'll want to pick and choose, because you're going to feel extra connected to this motley crue as Watch Dogs Legion is upping the ante. Although the game includes more melee, more non-lethal weapons than ever before, and the idea that an enemy won't pull a gun on you unless you draw first, permadeath is now a constant threat. During my E3 demo, I worked hard to recruit a guy called Brian, a chap who works at a drone factory and had some useful connections. We then did a mission together where I had to take out some potential spies down at Camden Market, but after heading to Trafalgar Square to pick up some intel, it turns out we were being set up, and suddenly the police have descended upon us fully armed and ready to kill. Poor old Brian didn't stand a chance, and within seconds he's down. I'm given the option to surrender or get up and fight (/ flee). Surrendering would have put him in prison or in hospital – depending on how things went – but getting up for one last stand did really spell the end for Dedsec's newest recruit. RIP Brian, RIP.
It's not just the case that you've spent a lot of time recruiting these characters either. Each one will be nurtured and upgraded, with every recruit being filed into one of three classes, which defines their base play style. There's the run and gun Enforcer, the stealth focused Infiltrator, who's capable of hacking the new head-implant device that everybody is required to wear by law, that literally hijacks your optic nerve. Nice. And there's the Hacker, who's an expert in drones, particularly the spider bots, spider turrets and being able to take over Albion combat drones. Each of these classes has related perks to equip too, so you can further customise all your recruits to ensure that you've got the full spectrum of abilities on hand. There are also team traits, which are basically traits that some characters have that allow them to help you, while you're playing as another character. It encourages you to really build a team that works together.
"I think it's going to change very much how people play this game," adds Crooks. "It gives players more options and more agency than previous elements in the franchise."
Hack or be hacked
Of course, it wouldn't be Watch Dogs without some serious hacking, and it comes with that a plenty. Despite having 45 minutes with the game at E3 2019 (opens in new tab), I felt like I was only scratching the surface of the full range of options available in the game, including drone hacking, spider drones, and wanting to ride one of the huge delivery drones. But, in the grand scheme of everything that Watch Dogs Legion has to offer, the hacking mechanics the series is famed for feels like a small piece of the puzzle.
This is a game that's breaking the boundaries of playable characters, offering a politics-fuelled look at a potential, and epically bleak, future for London, and by doing so it's wading into a space that other Ubisoft games – I'm looking at you The Division 2 (opens in new tab) – has dared to tread of late. This could be a powerful narrative indeed, and Watch Dogs Legion is prepared to pair this story with a game that might just blow you away. It certainly has me.
Watch Dogs Legion is coming to PS4, Xbox One, PC and Google Stadia on March 6, 2020.