I start my Watch Dogs Legion preview controlling a fledgling DedSec operative named Jeremiah, making my way to a hideout tucked away in the back arse of what appears to be an ordinary pub. People howl profanities at one another in cockney accents, while pissheads stumble in front of dartboards against the will of logic and a desire to keep their eyes screwed into their heads. This is not a caricature of London so much as it is a cleverly designed adaptation of it — there are C-words flying around like summer mozzies, and the metaphors being served as post-midnight insults are innovative, to say the least.
Although this hi-tech shithole hideout introduces you to Legion’s premise — that a hacktivist resistance force has been resurrected from the dead — I was more enraptured by a different pub, where I got to punch the head off of five different lads in an underground, bare-knuckle boxing tournament. After waltzing up all confident like to a door that looked like it reeked of urine, I jumped into a makeshift ring with opponents from all walks of life. One-two punch, and the announcer is immediately on my side. I might be misremembering, but I think he mentioned that one person lost so badly that they were inevitably going to end up tucking into a sad midnight kebab.
My last opponent was especially interesting, though, because it was actually two people. They were regenerating health by guzzling straight tequila mid-fight, which seemed almost as unfair as the fact it was two against one. Obviously I won anyway — these are DedSec approved fists, capable of boxing even the gnarliest underground fighters around as if they were sacks of flour. But it wasn’t very fair — to be honest, that seemed to be the mantra of Legion’s London in my demo. Shit isn’t fair, so you’ve got to be crafty.
Here’s a perfect example of something I did that reflects that: I saw a guy sweeping the Thames boardwalk and struck up a conversation with him. Turns out he almost got a couple of years in the slammer because his boss did him dirty, but he managed to leg it to safety just in time. Now he’s piss poor and wears a vendetta on his sleeve — alright, let’s get you set up with DedSec. “Not so fast,” he says. “My old boss, he made off with a supercar. I want you to nick it from him.”
So I rob some poor lad’s motorbike, bomb it over the bridge lightning quick, close in on the coordinates the guy gave me and think, “Holy shit, look at this absolute fortress.” I’m dealing with Clan Kelley, one of the finest proprietors of black market human organs in London.
I go in all stealthy and punch some security guy in his neck tattoo with an electromagnetic boxing glove. Once he’s snoring, I jump in the stolen supercar and storm out through the front gates — before I know it I’m in the clear, cruising toward Piccadilly Circus as if I’m a real somebody. “Nice work,” says Lawrence, the guy who got stung. “Now drive that thing into the fucking Thames.”
So I sank the car in its watery grave and swam to safety, happy about having given one of London’s hard-done-by citizens a reason to believe in something again. By doing so, I also managed to invoke one of Legion’s most central mechanics: that you can recruit and play as literally anyone in the game, having the constant ability to swap between DedSec operatives instantly and at will.
Honestly, I wasn’t sold on this at first. When I play games, I tend to grow attached to the character I’m playing as. So after digging into an operation where Clan Kelley were abducting young people and sending them to be chopped up in a derelict morgue in order to harvest their organs and sell them to the highest bidder on the black market as Jeremiah, I felt a bit of a connection with him. I didn’t really understand why I should change character at all — this is my guy!
Eventually, Jeremiah got arrested for being a total idiot, and all the pieces of the puzzle slotted tidily into place. Jeremiah was thrown in jail for ages because he got caught snooping around the private police’s air vents with a spider robot — fair enough. Here’s what happened, though: Legion suggested I recruit a lawyer to DedSec, which would supposedly net me a reduced sentence. This logic extends to every single aspect of the game: police officers who are dedicated to the cause can walk into stations in uniform without being suspected — had I recruited one earlier, Jeremiah never would have even had to take on such a risky job. Construction workers have the ability to skulk around dodgy sites like a ghillie in the mist just because they’ve got a hard hat on, hangar operatives can waltz into the airport flashing their ID to get past security, and so on.
This all ties into the general mission design, which was by far the most impressive part of the demo. Let me give you an example: after getting in touch with another rebel group, I was introduced to a woman named Nowt. Nowt videoed in and said she was after catching a pretty big fish, but wanted to know she could trust us first. While she was instructing us that performing a certain task for her would cement said trust, she was also kicking the crap out of a guy on the floor beside her. Multi-tasking, eh?
So we go on the mission and arrive at this fancy tech facility. I’m Jeremiah again now, equipped with my trusty spiderbot who can do whatever a spiderbot can, meaning that it’s small enough to squeeze through vents and get into high-security areas pretty much undetected.
Because of the context inherent to what you’re doing, the UI is not just informative in terms of “this is how you play the game” — it makes sense, both aesthetically and circumstantially. I used the spiderbot to crawl up through a vent, hack a drone, fly over loads of guards, and secretly manipulate a massive electrical grid in order to unlock a supposedly impenetrable firewall and nick sensitive data from a laptop. I did all of this remotely, crouching behind a plant in the lobby as conspicuously as a four-year-old playing hide-and-seek.
This, for me, was the most impressive aspect of the entire demo. The integration of UI and purpose in moment-to-moment mission play is worth knocking on about for ages — the only thing in recent memory that comes close to it was Death Stranding’s use of topography on the world map. Good UI can go a long way.
Despite this, I feel the general world traversal is a bit stale. It’s a lovely looking city, with colour and noise to burn. But it’s a bit aimless at the same time — when you’re not actively going somewhere for a mission, you can see that it’s a big, massive open world that’s somehow got so much in it and not a whole lot to do at the same time. If you don’t want to recruit a schoolteacher, or a binman, or a retired brain surgeon, then you’re just taking on assignments or driving around purposelessly — what I mean is, it feels weird to have a London this well-realized without having any incentive to properly explore it. The people themselves are the narrative, which is both a strength and a weakness of Legion, depending on how compelling you reckon James, 43, ex-fireman with a secret penchant for explosives is.
Watch Dogs Legion does a lot well, but it suffers slightly from the Ubisoft curse of having loads of gloss over something a bit hollower than meets the eye. The core mission design is intriguing, the setting is gorgeously hodgepodge, and the premise is fascinating. But whenever you’re not doing any of those things… well, you’re not really doing anything else, either. I’ll play Watch Dogs Legion at launch, and I’ll probably enjoy it for the most part — I don’t reckon it’s a world I’ll hang around for ages in, though. Once I take down the futuristic Tories, I’ll probably consider the day saved and be done with it.
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- Game Previews
- Watch Dogs
- Xbox One
- Watch Dogs Legion
Cian Maher is an Associate Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. His favourite game of all time is and always will be The Witcher 3, but he also loves The Last Guardian, NieR: Automata, Dishonored, and pretty much every Pokemon game ever released. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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