Ever since I mistook 2014’s Watch Dogs as a sandbox title where you take on increasingly difficult pet walking missions – kinda like a canine-based Crazy Taxi – I’ve been fascinated by this franchise. In the fullness of time, I became a fan of the first two instalments of this hacking as a superpower fantasy. As of now-now, I’ve also spent 6 hours galloping around in Watch Dogs Legion.
And I’m talking completely unleashed, too. I wasn’t caged in the usual virtual kennel that is a tightly controlled, PR scripted demo. With no such choker chain, I was allowed to chase whatever passing car took my fancy.
To inappropriately hump or bite the leg of any NPC. Basically, I gave this a damn good sniff and now I’m ready to tell you if it’s up to snuff.
Watch Dogs Legion
Let’s a take a quick minute to get you up to speed on the basic plot of Watch Dogs Legion and the bold vision Ubisoft has for this third instalment. I’d describe Watch Dogs Legion as a game about ordinary heroes who put aside their differences in order to stick right up The Man. Obviously when Creative Director Clint Hawking and his team sat down a few years back to hash out their Down With Fascism tale, it probably read as semi-plausible fiction but today, weirdly, it’s looking downright prescient.
But you know what? I’m not here to chase my tail arguing politics and current affairs, what interests me is what could be one of Ubisoft’s most innovative games in ages. The core of Watch Dogs Legion revolves around the fact that you have the freedom to recruit literally any AI pedestrian you want as your next foot soldier. Also, and this is a personal preference, I just love the setting of this sandbox. Old Smokey. You know, fish, chips, cup o’ tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary fricken Poppins.
When it comes to getting your V for Vendetta on, you’d better hand out those proverbial Fawkes masks to the right citizens. Because while the Watch Dogs series has always been about trying to hold those in power accountable, the stakes are so much higher here and the good guys have never been more short-staffed. The hacker collective known has DedSec is close to extinction and has to evolve beyond being a bunch of meme-loving pranksters into a full-blown do-or-perma-die “viva la resistance.” The grey skies of London are gonna get proper illuminated as you and your band go into open warfare against the opportunists and authoritarians who have seized the home of the Big Ben by its yarbles. Being in DedSec used to be the safest job in the world. Now it’s turning into a bad day in Bosnia.
It’s also worth noting that while a ton of secondary characters in YOUR campaign story will obviously differ greatly from somebody else’s (due to what is essentially a system of procedurally generated peds) some major characters will be common across all playthroughs.
For example, you’re all going to see an opening with Dalton Wolf, a spy who moonlights as a DedSec operative. Through him, you’ll be present at an inciting catastrophic event that will introduce a mysterious somebody who, if I may use an unrelated DC universe reference, subscribes to Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows newsletter. The big bad thinks that London has reached a pinnacle of corruption and decadence – so they’re gonna hard reset everything in an event that becomes known as Zero Day.
A few months later, ol’ Blighty is on the verge of collapse and so a dodgy PMC known as Albion has swooped in. Worse, the local scumbags known as Clan Kelley have stepped up from petty crime, charming the paint off of walls and picking peanuts out of poo to outright terrorising the common citizen in the street. From here, gameplay begins proper as you and a few of the OG DedSeccers who managed to escape the Albion purge set about rebuilding things. Every borough is teeming with people who may need convincing (usually done in a randomly generated loyalty mission chain). But there are just as many folks out there who are itching to rise up and take their city back because they fail to see the correlation between getting organ harvested by crims, curb-stomped by cozzers and a good deal.
So while the default controls have been swapped around a bit, the gameplay on offer in Watch Dogs Legion is very much like what’s gone before in Watch Dogs 2. Every character in the world has access to a hack-tastic phone that is basically a superpower in a city as interconnected as this near-future version of London. For example, automated traffic systems can be bent to your will during a high pursuit getaway and, providing you have the patience for mini-puzzles and skulking about, a shrewd player can ‘Sam Fisher’ their way in and out of facility weaponise its defences against the security forces within and achieve their objective without firing a shot.
Every one of the recruitable NPCs out there will come with the super iPhone and a non-lethal firearm as standard, plus a randomised gadget (which I’ll detail in a minute). What makes Legion special is the archetypes out there for the recruits – their roles in society come with unique perks that will radically change the way you play, not to mention the odd downside that might cock a mission up for you if you ignore it as a liability.
Because never forget, the average git on the street, no matter how passionate they are for change, isn’t a dyed in the wool killer. The majority of your recruits will come standard with non-lethal gats and so far as I saw there was no option to scoop up something more lethal from your victims. Essentially, your Joe Schmoe is just gonna have to run a gauntlet of long, black machine guns that have war criminals attached to their triggers.
A few examples from my play session: I already had a Protest Leader, a Lighting Technician and a Counter-Terrorism Agent waiting in the wings. The first chap had a Megaphone to effectively put nearby NPCs into a violent frenzy, plus I could chuck Tear Gas around because I had a mask that protected me from it. The second lass was ex-crim with a penchant for breaking people’s faces, shockwave striking multiple fools and having expert counter-punching skills (side bonus: her pre-existing vendetta with the Kelley gang made her dish out bonus ass beatings against same said faction). Lastly, the CT dude had a unique hack that would either turn enemy drones into his lethal pets or make them ignore him completely.
Meanwhile, I had a few other potential recruit profiles saved as well. We’re talking a Construction Worker with unfettered building site access, a summonable cargo drone, a big F-off wrench for stoving in faces and the high-damage hijinks of a nail gun. Less amusing but still quite important was a Lawyer class and a Police Superintendent who could effectively serve as a get out of jail free (or faster) cards for any operatives of mine ho got nicked. Pick of the litter, however, was a Professional Hitman who came packing a Deagle and G36 assault rifle, not to mention some crowd-pleasing moves like Insta Gun Kata execution moves and a super handy evasive commando roll.
The only catch for the latter: he had an active dislike of DedSec, so the mission I had to do to acquire him was a small chain rather than a simple one-and-done, like the other folks. That said, being able to actually unload some bullets and spill some claret was totally worth it.
Speaking of juice that’s worth the squeeze, conquering a handful of borough specific missions will reward you with an incredibly useful Specialist from that part of town. I managed to get my hands on a Getaway driver who could summon a hotted hatchback that felt like it had somehow been crossbred with an F1 car. I also unlocked the Spy, a silenced pistol-packing James Bond type who could summon a rocket spewing, invisibility offering spy car. Getting to play as that absurdly OP class was the best Secret Service experience I’ve had since GoldenEye.
It’s also worth noting that while the playstyles and personalities of your recruited agents are rigid, you can still bend their modus operandi towards something you prefer. Unlock By finding or earning Tech points you can purchase whizbang gadgets like a commandeer-able Infiltrator Robot (which can be improved to have double jump and sprint capabilities, plus cloaking). If that doesn’t give you a tingling sensation in your arach-nads, try the Combat Spider-Bot that comes with an automated turret and extra armour.
The fun continues with an AR Cloak that’s effectively the world’s best Predator cosplay. Fans of Marvel villain The Shocker might gravitate to the Electro-Fist that can potentially be upgraded into a chain killing spewer of sparks. In the same vein is an Electro-Shock Trap which, once you slap it on a surface will proximity detonate and EMP disable drones and squishier personnel. You can, of course, mess with enemies yourself via hacks – the usual stuff like jamming their guns and making them have a seizure as you blast their earpieces with static.
When it comes to more traditional weaponry, you can get a Non-Lethal pistol which really requires consistent headshots from you (anything less and you’d do more damage if you fed it to the person). That’s pretty much the same deal with the non-lethal SMG, too, which kicks like a jackhammer and eats ammo like a fat kid will Skittles. Honestly, if you want to do some serious damage, best unlock the kamikaze Missile Drone (which can be upgraded into heat-seeking and cluster fire). And while they’re also non-lethal, you can’t go past the Shotgun and the vehicle one-shotting Grenade Launcher.
But we’re not done yet with the delicious fruits hanging from DedSec’s Q-Branch. You can earn Upgrades, like an AR shroud that lets you mask stiffs after a takedown. I’d heartily recommend Skin Mesh body armour, a Deep Profiler to allow the recruiting of DeadSec enemies, plus some self-explanatory hacks like Combat Drone and Turret Deactivation. If you’re not into turning things off, you can simply make Albion’s Drones, Turrets and Counter-Terrorist drones go hammer and tongs on each other, like it’s your own personal episode of Robot Wars. Lastly, you can ruin some poor bastard’s pizza order by hacking a delivery drone into what will essentially become your a ride-able cloud.
In the end, I walked away loving my time with Watch Dogs Legion. Despite the heavy themes, it doesn’t take itself particularly seriously – there’s some Saints Row style mayhem and a ton of potty-mouthed humour sprinkled in. Better yet, the gunplay feels polished, and the vehicles on the streets have character and are fun to get sideways in. Likewise, the hacking puzzles feel cleverly put together and offer rewarding alternatives to simply kicking a door in and going full Bullet Tooth Tony. London herself feels like a living, breathing entity that’s been beautifully crafted (if you could call a dystopian hell hole such a thing).
All that being said, while I’m a fan of the whole ‘heroes from a cast of thousands’ concept, I could see the strings of it every once in a while. After 6-hours of play, I started to feel a teensy bit of deja vu with the recruitable classes that were being dangled in front of me. Likewise, my ears were starting to pick up on the same – or incredibly similar– voice actors being shoehorned into NPC bodies that felt like unlikely pairings.
On the topic of disconnects, I feel there’s a danger in the system as it that it might cheapen the overarching storytelling. Procedurally generated heroes is an awesome idea on the action side of things, but engaging exposition will be hard to achieve. It can feel like your favourite operative isn’t so much a driving force in the narrative, rather a bit-part player who has been slotted in, last minute. The dialogue feels mostly well-written, but there can be the odd moment when it feels like your avatar is dropping a soundbite response to a secondary character who, weirdly, actually has far more permanence, background and importance than you the hero.
I’m also curious to see what the average Joe on the street thinks of these driving physics. The original Watch Dogs leaned more to simulation and the sequel dumbed it down towards arcade thrills. This is a polarising topic for fans of the series and I can tell you now that Watch Dogs Legion definitely follows the pedigree of Watch Dogs 2 more than the original. Personally, I lean more towards realism replicated but I’d also be lying if I said that I didn’t like throwing these electric-based hypercars around like they were running on rails. The fun-factor is there, but I can see a debate forming on the horizon in a forum somewhere.
I wouldn’t flag any of this stuff as a huge problem at this point in development – it’s all just something to keep an eye on, innit. Truth be told, I’m still well chuffed by the Watch Dogs Legion experience. I reckon it’s well worth a gander. Come launch day, you’d be a right tosspot to not give it a shot.
Adam Mathew attended a socially distanced hands-on event as a guest of Ubisoft.