Watch Dogs Legion Review: Life hacked

Watch Dogs Legion

Watch Dogs Legion feels like the game the series has been striving to become since its inception. It’s a game with some of the biggest, boldest ideas to come out of Ubisoft in years. It is also a game that has clearly had to make some concessions in order to execute on these ideas.

Merry old London

In the wake of a coordinated and devastating terrorist attack, London is a changed city. These attacks shattered its steely resolve. The moment the hacktivist collective DedSec was implicated in the attacks, London turned against them. Already one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world, it has now completely given in to fascist rule. But not just any fascists, a special kind that only the latest of late-stage capitalism can produce — private military contractors called Albion Security. Brought in to work with the British government, MI5, and New Scotland Yard, Albion has become a law unto itself, sinking its tendrils into every part of the city. There are travel and gathering restrictions. Natural born citizens are beaten in the street. Illegal immigrants live in abject fear of discovery. Albion has covered the iconic London skyline in propaganda. The Terror Threat alert level never drops below a howling IMMINENT.

Torn asunder and driven even further underground than they were already, DedSec is a shadow of its former self. From a hideout in a disused part of the Tube, carefully hidden beneath a pub a short walk from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, DedSec begins to rebuild. Its focus has shifted from the anti-corporate hacktivism of Watch Dogs 2. Now it wages a digital guerilla war from the shadows. Cut off from the outside world and unable to bring in international hackers to help, DedSec must instead recruit from within London itself.

We are Legion

Watch Dogs Legion‘s most vaunted new mechanic is the ability to recruit quite literally any Londoner into DedSec. The game populates London with a large array of people from different backgrounds, aesthetic styles, and skills. Investigating individuals around you lets you identify those who might be useful to the organisation. Some are far more valuable than others. For instance, I was able to recruit someone high up in the police department. Among her three very useful skills was a high chance to release any arrested DedSec members from custody immediately. This made the smash-and-grab approach more appealing. If caught, my jailed recruit was back on the street in minutes.

Another person I came across had only one trait, Flatulence, which gave him a debuff on stealth because he would fart uncontrollably when stressed. I recruited him as well because you can’t let someone with that kind of talent get away.

Watch Dogs Legion appears to generate individuals by pulling from a pool of appearance and trait modifiers. The illusion of a living city full of different people is a great one at first, but by my sixteenth hour, I was seeing people who looked the same everywhere I went. I had two recruits in my roster with the same face, the same hair, the same mode of dress. Aside from skills, the only difference between them was that one was black and one was white. As the illusion cracks, you begin to understand how Legion‘s greatest trick is performed. Hinging the system on proc-gen people certainly isn’t a bad solution for what Ubisoft Quebec is trying to accomplish, but you do start following their sleight of hand quite quickly. That said, it’s still a very cool idea and when it works, it’s a little bit magic.

The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world

The benefit of the Legion system is that, if you can find the right person for a given mission, there’s every chance you can simply walk in, take what you need, and walk out again. As soon as this clicked for me, it became my sole objective to recruit a member of Albion. The problem with recruiting Albion staff is that, like many in London, they take a dim view of DedSec’s activities. Through a deep scan of their needs and wants, it’s possible to change their minds and create a recruitment opportunity.

What I didn’t forsee was how powerful an Albion recruit could be if collected early in the game. Once onboard, my new inside man became easily the most over-powered recruit in my roster. I now had access to most of the secure areas in the city by default. The vast majority of stealth missions became a matter of avoiding eye-contact, using my phone to create minor distractions, making a brisk beeline to my objective, and finding a quiet back door to slip out of. A great deal of the problem solving involved in completing each mission simply evaporated. But that’s my reward for doing the work to bring someone from Albion into the fold. I started leaving him at home, though. He just made it all too easy.

Not Me, Us

One of the unexpected consequences of a game without a clear lead character is that it’s hard to build a story. Rather than a longer main campaign about one character, Watch Dogs Legion instead runs a series of smaller, shorter, interlinked campaigns borne out of each London borough. As you destablise each borough and nudge its people into an uprising, it will unlock another campaign sequence for you to complete. Some of these missions are quite short, others will take an hour or two to knock over. Some, like the story about a wealthy tech magnate, her mother, and the afterlife, are quite memorable. Others, like the questline about Nigel Cass, the man who controls Albion, are more the standard action movie fare that Ubi tends to prefer.

The throughline of all these stories is a clear and present political message. The rise of fascism, the prevalence of police violence, and the ungoverned, hyper-capitalist desires of Silicon Valley are intertwined. The surveillance state hydra they create together must be fought, and that violent revolution may be necessary to defeat it. This stands in stark contrast to many of Ubisoft’s other games. Ubi has gained notoriety online for actively disavowing any political leanings depicted in its games. Far Cry 5 infamously had nothing to say about gun violence in the United States. Games in the Tom Clancy‘s line are comfortable with players becoming heavily militarised police forces themselves. They are steeped in conservative values, in line with the politics of the man on whose novels they are based.

But I don’t know how Ubisoft are going to handwave this one away. Watch Dogs Legion turns you into Antifa, and I honestly love that for us.

Scalable economy

Watch Dogs Legion is a much smaller game than most players might expect from one of Ubisoft’s open-world titles. The world map is compact, its 24-slot skill tree feels restrained against its contemporaries,  and the number of cars you can drive is quite limited. Even the install size, at 35GB on the Xbox One X, is positively tiny for a tentpole AAA release.

The following opinion may make me a bit of a contrarian, we’ll have to see when the reviews go live, but this is something I actually really like about the game. Legion knows what it’s doing. Adopting a smaller scale keeps sprawl to a minimum. It makes the battles of the everyday Londoners you recruit all feel a bit more personal. Legion knows its best idea is in Becoming Anyone and it focuses the entire production around that system. Thus, when other areas of the game feel like they’ve been pruned back, it all still feels justified within that scale.

Ubisoft’s London itself is something of a marvel. It gets away with being a smaller map overall by being incredibly dense. It’s full of twisting streets and laneways that add to your total travel time so that it feels much larger than it is. It’s the kind of city that makes me long for Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s vision of Paris — beautifully constructed, and realised with an artist’s flair for detail.

Final thoughts

Watch Dogs Legion is honestly the best the series has ever been. Rather than attempting to match its stablemates in terms of scale or scope, it opts for fully exploring a single truly great idea. For those expecting something bigger and brasher, it may not feel like enough. It takes confidence to make a game like this at the AAA level. It’s a risk, and one I’m glad Ubisoft was willing to take. It took Watch Dogs a while to figure itself out. The series has been forced to live or die on its willingness to experiment, and Legion is its zenith. Like any of the Londoners you can recruit off the street, Watch Dogs Legion has an identity of its own.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Great central conceit; London is beautiful; Fuck capitalism, go home
Lowlights: May feel too small or constrained for players used to sprawling open worlds
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

 

Review conducted on Xbox One X with a pre-release review code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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