In Watch Dogs: Legion, London is as inviting as it is grim. Torn down in a post-Brexit dystopia, London has become an oppressed surveillance state. Civilians are now under the thumb of a militia takeover, and face threats from shrouded technology companies.
Yet, as I glanced at the neon-lit buildings or ventured the streets, I couldn’t help but want to stay and soak it all in.
The Watch Dogs franchise has often struggled in finding its voice. The first game in the series featured a darker, more serious narrative and leading character in Aiden Pearce. Watch Dogs 2, on the other hand, was bright and had a ton of levity thanks to Marcus Holloway.
Watch Dogs: Legion teeters between the two in an elegant fashion. It consistently flows between an episode of Black Mirror and a night at the local pub with your friends.
Arguably, the most interesting aspect Ubisoft Toronto put in place for the third entry in the series is the Play as Anyone system. Rather than telling the story through a singular character, players can recruit any NPC in the game’s world to join DedSec and play as them.
It was a difficult system to wrap my mind around at first. How can a story revolve around a random group of individuals, from construction workers to anarchists to journalists? Though, the answer is simple. Watch Dogs: Legion is not about a character. It’s about the DedSec resistance as a multitude, and it excels in running with this concept.
Watch Dogs: Legion takes place in a near-futuristic London. The effects of Brexit have already crept in. To make matters worse, an unknown threat known as Zero-Day has launched a terrorist attack, blowing up the Houses of Parliament. In the aftermath of the attack, the hacker group DedSec has been framed. This forces the remaining operatives to go underground.
Pulling itself up by its bootstraps, DedSec lead Sabine and witty AI companion Bagley start to organize a recruitment process to discover who Zero-Day is. As DedSec begins its investigation, it’s quickly revealed this attack was a part of a much larger conspiracy. Intertwined in this attack are the troubling plans set out by tech conglomerates who seek to use technological innovations in terrifying ways.
Watch Dogs: Legion touches on tropes commonly found in media centered on futuristic tech: data mining, AI-driven weaponized drones, and the terrifying notion of privacy being stripped away for corporate gain. These concepts are only the tip of the iceberg the civilians of London are dealing with in Watch Dogs: Legion. As you walk through the streets, you can feel the discontent boiling over.
There is friction in the air and you’ll commonly see protest rallies being held in various spots in the city. Graffiti shunning this new world order has been sprayed alongside back alleys and foreclosed buildings. In addition, armed soldiers now police neighborhoods and can be seen abusing their power.
This troubling look into an oppressed world quite often mirrors our own. Many themes in Watch Dogs: Legion are tied to our own reality.
Playing as anyone
DedSec needs operatives. So, the game offers a handful of potential candidates. I chose to start with a bowler hat-wearing gentlemen named Aru. There wasn’t anything spectacular about him. Though, that’s kind of the point. The Play as Anyone system means literally anyone can be recruited. Despite how useful you think they may appear to be, every NPC can hack, fight, and sneak through missions with varying success.
Throughout the game, you can recruit and play as all sorts of NPCs. You have your more traditional roles, like a construction worker, who’s uniform allows them to access restricted construction sites. There are also medical workers, whose perk enables operatives taken to the hospital to be released quicker.
Then you have the more quirky NPCs. A favorite of mine includes a busker who simply plays the banjo. There are also legendary recruits you can find in the world, such as the spy. This recruit has access to a Bond-inspired car, silenced pistol, and watch capable of disrupting enemy weapons.
To play as such unique characters is quite alluring from a gameplay perspective. Though, there are even more layers within the system to pull back. Each NPC has its own unique name and diverse personalities. Recruiting them usually requires you to complete a task. Some will not trust DedSec at all, and you’ll have to work extra hard to win them over.
Every NPC also has their own schedule and memory. Punch an NPC in the face and they’ll remember that. However, save them from arrest and their opinion on DedSec may sway in your favour.
Permadeath also plays a role when enabled. If a recruit dies, they are removed from the roster and gone for good. Otherwise, they will be timed out, and arrested or taken to the hospital.
As you’d come to expect, Watch Dogs: Legion has no shortage of cool tech to hack and manipulate, from core uses such as accessing surveillance cameras to scope an enemy compound, to hacking cars to distract and frustrate enemies.
Watch Dogs: Legion expands its hacking systems in creative ways. You can now take control of a cargo drone to ride it up to rooftops. You can use Tech Points to unlock gadgets letting you do thinks like cloak enemies who have been taken down. Tech Points can also be used to improve non-lethal weapons and hack advanced enemy drones.
One of the gadgets that will often come in handy is the new Spiderbot. You can take control of this little arachnid drone to crawl through ventilation shafts and remotely hack terminals. Additionally, you’ll platform across desks and strategically bypass roaming enemies. These little segments are always a ton of fun to play through.
Hacking is an integral part of the moment-to-moment gameplay loop in Watch Dogs: Legion. When completing a mission, you’re often free to complete it as you see fit. Whether you go in guns blazing or take a more stealthy and pragmatic approach. You can theoretically complete many missions simply by taking the time to manipulate the technology around you while creeping in the shadows, avoiding enemy suspicion.
The Big Smoke
The near futuristic London is rendered authentically. Iconic attractions like Big Ben and the London Eye Ferris wheel are depicted accurately. Living in the year where travel has been restricted, it’s refreshing to take a trip across the pond and walk through the various boroughs.
Watch Dogs: Legion isn’t just about hacking and taking down shadowy empires. There is the opportunity to take a trip to a pub for some drinks and a game of darts. I also found enjoyment in hitting up bare-knuckle boxing arenas for some underground Fight Club action.
London is a marvel to look at, especially during the night. Littered with holograms and neon lights, the scenery pops out of the screen and attracts you. The city is incredibly vivid and the contrast between older, notable architecture with new-age flash sets a really interesting scene.
London is just as fun to explore during the day. The streets are more populated, the sun beaming down amplifies the natural colours seen in the world.
The mission structure is created to force you to spend time navigating the city. Though, taking on any given mission, you’ll frustratingly have to travel to the opposite side of the map. So, I’d often steal a car, crank the music from a respectable selection of UK artists or jump on the London Underground for fast travel.
My time in London wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked, however. A number of bugs did affect my experience. Playing on Xbox One X, I experienced instances with screen tearing, dropped frame rates and crashes, especially during the first hour. Thankfully, many of the hitches I experienced can be ironed out with patches. With next-gen optimization on the horizon, I’m eager to see how the game is improved when playing on the new consoles.
The Play as Anyone system propels Watch Dogs: Legion forward. It strikes a balance between encouraging strategic thinking and inspiring cartoonish absurdity. No matter what end of the scale you land on, it all works impressively well and never breaks the immersion. It’s a deep system that I hope lives on in other properties in the future. I found no shortage of excitement experimenting with different operators from all walks of life. Games of this caliber try to use smoke and mirrors to create the illusion that you’re playing in a living world. Watch Dogs: Legion takes a small step forward and lays the groundwork in how open-world sandbox games can innovate.
Watch Dogs: Legion can be considered a relatively safe outing. Many of the core gameplay mechanics of the series have been adapted and improved. Though with the traditional checkbox gameplay loop, I wish the mission structure was a bit more creative. Above all else, it feels as though Watch Dogs is finally comfortable being a dark humor-filled espionage thrill ride.
Watch Dogs: Legion is available on Oct. 29 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Stadia. It will later be optimized for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S.
A code for Watch Dogs: Legion was provided for review purposes.