When I got 3 hours hands on with Watch Dogs Legion, this so-called “game of a thousand generated heroes” absolutely punked me. While searching for a new anarchist to recruit for a dangerous infiltration mission, of course my eye was going to be drawn to the deets of Jagath Dev, a spy who was just ambling along in a sea of worker drone nobodies.
Other than being wanted by the Nigerian government espionage, he seemed legit. How could I have known that 007 was actually his IQ?
He sure looked like the perfect ‘Tinder for Terrorists’ match going in. Dude was packing a spiderbot, a range of silenced weapons and the ability to summon a freakin’ cloaking spy car with missiles hidden behind the headlights.
Watch Dogs Legion
What wasn’t immediately apparent, however: he was also an absolute wiener.
A heavy skew away from James Bond toward Johnny English. Hell, I’d go so far as to call him Mr Bean in a tuxedo. Dev was, in short, a hilarious red herring that I gobbled up whole.
Mind you before I could tread on this landmine of an avatar, I needed to put considerable effort into a ‘recruitment’ mission first. He needed to be wooed. Inducted into DedSec, the London-based, hacktastic grassroots equivalent of the Avengers. Except no member has super powers and everybody drinks warm beer while saying “guv’na” and “innit” a lot. Presumably.
You know what? Let’s take a quick moment to get you up to speed on the incredibly dark (and increasingly topical) near-future, Big Brother dystopia of Watch Dogs Legion. And from the horse’s mouth no less…
“Watch Dogs Legion is a game about people willing to put aside their differences and come together to fight for a better future,” says Game Director Clint Hocking tells me. “It’s a fantasy that in many ways seems to speak to what’s happening in our world today.
“With our play-as-anyone innovation at the core of the game, you have the freedom to recruit literally anyone you see in the open world. It’s up to you to choose who will be the heroes of your game and the stars of your story.”
I have to admit, that’s a pretty cool concept. I also have to admit that I went in as my usual sceptical self. I try my very best to wrong-foot Ubisoft’s engine as much as possible – to select weird NPCs tucked away from main thoroughfares, to do arbitrary things with them in an attempt to see some strings. To Hocking and his team’s credit, if this is indeed a “be anybody” an illusion, it holds together remarkably well.
Set in London is a near-future affair that’s no doubt an extrapolation of the weird, “did that Hadron collider push us into an alternate reality” times we find ourselves living in. In this version of the UK’s most iconic city, the Poms have gone full Black Mirror. Technology is used to strip the populace of their freedoms, social inequality, organised crime and partisan politics are rife – basically, we’re one mass shipment of Guy Fawkes masks away from what I’d call a Level V event. Anarchy in the UK.
It’s your job to go underground with an existing network of Dedsec hacktivists in an effort to stick it to the authoritarians. In the earlier Watch Dogs titles, it was ctOS; this time you’re up against Albion, a shady PMC run by Nigel Cass. This bastard could charm the paint off walls, and he’s effectively been brought in to keep the peace after a (clearly false flag) bombing of the city. You’ll see his goons everywhere, too, sometimes giving the odd grandma NPC a good kick in. Possibly over a trumped up charge, while they’re screeching “stop resisting!”. You know. Arseholes.
Using the very Ubisoft “Borough Uprising System”, you’ll need to undertake unique missions to expose or tear down the visible symbols of Albion oppression. To make that extra difficult, Dedsec has been tied to the bombings via good ol’ fake news. You’re going to need to retake this place from the alleys upwards; win actual hearts and minds. This sure beats the hell out of the cringe-worthy “ git doze likes ‘n’ subscribes” popularity meta layered throughout Watch Dogs 2.
After a brief intromission that effectively slides me into the suit of an actually decent spy who fails to prevent the stage-setting bombing, I’m dropped into London, proper like. Interestingly, I’ve spoken to fellow critics and everybody in the same session got a four-person crew that’s made up of completely different NPCs. Personally, I hit the streets as Jeanette Brown, professional hitwoman with mad gun kata skills and a bad-arse Yardie accent. As far as randomisation goes, I feel like I’ve lucked out.
The HUD immediately chirps at me with a multitude of things to do. I can go stick it to Albion or the organised crime syndicate known as The Kellys via a plethora of side activities and structured story missions, or I can stress test Ubisoft’s engine.
I choose the latter.
First thing on my list is sampling the driving physics – something I’ve never liked in this franchise.
Honestly, the results feel more in line with GTA V (in my opinion the king to dethrone in this specific part of sandboxing). Neo-London has some ludicrously fast accelerating Tesla knock offs that are fun to escape the po-po in but don’t corner the best. That said, I get some nice, precision handbrakie cornering done in ye-olde gas guzzlers. Most of the motorbikes have iffy turning circles but feel quite a bit toeier than I remember. All in all, I’m quite pretty impressed.
When I get sick of illuminating the grey skies of London with the red and blue winks of Albion pursuit vans and the muzzle flashes from my guns, I move into more structured content. If you’ve never played a Watch Dogs game, it’s important to note that while the usual GTA-inspired gameplay is layered throughout, the functions that make this series unique reside on your left bumper and right bumper buttons. The former allows you to profile people in the world and buggerise around with a variety of gameplay objects highlighted around you in a sort of x-ray vision. The right bumper is used to deploy your gadget or other special ability, and we’ll get to these in a minute.
As I scarper about the streets, the usual Watch Dogs hacking shtick gets rolled out – hopping between CCTV cameras, following network cables to their source and sometimes doing a bit of a Pipedream puzzle to funnel bandwidth where it needs to go. You can also thwart pursuing vehicles with smart bollards and make a variety of electronics in the world go batshit crazy against any nearby enemy.
What I do like in this new sequel are the on-tap Smart Cars that are doing circuits of the city. They’re driver-less and nine times out of ten empty. Better yet, a decent percentage of them look like knock off super-cars, like Zhondas.
Aside from a few new app tricks to rely upon, combat feels more or less the same. Mind you, mileage varies greatly depending on what sort of avatar you’re using. Ms. Brown was a head-popping machine who, by default, was well stocked with boomsticks and could melee execute anybody in range.
I try the same gung ho antics with a construction worker and it definitely feels like the odds in a firefight are weighed much more heavily against me. But that tends to happen when you have to use a nail gun instead of the sort of assault rifle that’d give John Wick half a mongrel. The upside, Bob the Builder can use his hi-vis as camouflage to stroll through build sites or summon a cargo delivery drone to effectively ride it as his own personal Pegasus.
You best get used to the fact that not everybody in this world has a particular set of Liam Neesonesque skills, but they do have their uses. Once you’ve recruited someone to Dedsec, they get access to a non-lethal weapon, an idiot-proof hacker phone, a mask and a personal gadget. This effectively outfits every character with a decent baseline to do some stealth, gunplay and fisticuffs – plus they’ll have one or more background specific perks that make them unique to play as.
In his opening spiel, Hocking mentions that he and his team dramatically increased the amount of fun, memorable and surprising characters since I last got hands-on with Watch Dogs Legion at E3. I could believe it. I also had a blast punching my way around London as a football hooligan. I was also surprised by the effectiveness of a street artist who packed a custom paintball gun for blinding foes, a spray-can for takedowns and even pink paint grenades for giving tough law enforcement officials the right to remain fabulous.
I also spotted a dominatrix who could have put her range phallic shock batons to good use. I also wish I had more time to see how a random MMA champion would have put the long arm of the law in an arm-bar. One truly bizarre sighting came via a colleague of mine who found a Beekeeper with delusions of super-heroism. Apparently his m.o. was being able to fire drone bees from a gun of his own design. A sufficiently sized swarm could then be detonated. Unfortunately, he didn’t also have a summon-able Beemobile, nor did he speak like Adam West.
Clearly this is a Watch Dogs that’s not afraid to lean into the Saints Row realm of sandbox kookiness – to take the piss, as the locals might say. Which, of course, brings me back to Dev. His deal is that using him gives you incredible power – silenced gats, a gun jamming watch, cloaking, etc – but he’s downright annoying. For starters, he’s a loser with a huge gambling debt and his suave mystique gets shattered whenever he starts talking.
Sometimes about his fondness for cheese toasties. Other times when you trigger the dance emote and he grunts out “unce, unce” as he busts out some Elaine Benes level moves. Oh, and he loves dad joke one-liners.
Honestly, I was relieved when he took one too many bullets and got arrested. The HUD popped up telling me that I could recruit a lawyer to help bust him out and return him to the fold.
Yeah, nah. I’ll pass.
To tell you the truth, my eyes are still very much on Mavis. When Ubisoft’s addictive resistance fantasy finally releases, I am on board to purchase it and go, full pensioner. Watch Dogs Legion is shaping up to be about as slick as a Guy Ritchie flick, and I can’t wait to take on the fascists and crims as a little old geezer.
Over the course of double-digit hours, I expect to bond with my senior saviour of society. Actually, that could run into triple-digit — her walk speed will be horrendous. Alternatively and according to her “perk” information, she may just randomly drop dead from a coronary after one too many parkour moves. At which point you’ll hear my howl of grief from your house. Either or.
Whatever happens, the innovative approach that’s being taken with Watch Dogs Legion has got me pretty much hooked at this point. Launch day can’t come soon enough.
I’m deadset on DedSec.
Adam Mathew attended a hands-on event as a guest of Ubisoft.