Watch Dogs Legion hands-on preview – play everyone
Ubisoft’s third Watch Dogs game is set in a near future London and has an unexpected new gimmick: the ability to play as absolutely anyone.
It can’t be much fun demonstrating video games to people at events like E3. For three days you have to stand there, showing off the same half hour or so of content to everyone that comes along, including not just journos, but marketing people, retailers, and the odd member of the public. But the guy helping us through the Watch Dogs Legion demo seemed to enjoy it just as much as we did. Or at least that’s what he said, since it confirmed to him that the recreation of London was good enough to impress someone familiar with the real thing.
The thought of making a third Watch Dogs game might seem a little odd to some, given the first – despite a few good ideas – was widely dismissed as a dull and generic open world adventure and the second didn’t seem to be a major hit. But Watch Dogs 2 was a significantly better game and its lack of success was probably only due to lingering resentment over the first game.
The original Watch Dogs was set in Chicago and the second in San Francisco, but the London setting of Legion is a rare example of a major open world game being set in a city that’s not in America. That’s far from the only novelty though as the main innovation of the game is the fact that you can play it as any non-player character you meet. Literally anyone can potentially be recruited to your cause, which is a great idea that seems to work very well in practice
Before we got to play the demo we were given a brief overview of the story, which is set in a near future London that is subject to economic decline, a widening gap between rich and poor (in part because of AI taking people’s jobs), a clampdown on immigration, and an increase in Orwellian surveillance laws. The Union Flag has also mysteriously changed, in what was hinted to us to be a sign that Scotland has left the UK.
Brexit wasn’t mentioned by name during the briefing but when we approach the narrative director afterwards he admitted that Brexit is a major plot point that has already happened in the game’s story, he just didn’t want to imply that this was Brexit: The Video Game. Which is perfectly reasonable, and it is a relief to play a Ubisoft game that doesn’t completely shy away from the political implications of its story.
The main focus of the plot is on taking down an opportunistic corporation called Albion, which is taking advantage of the social unrest for its own ends. You play as a member of DeadSec, which has evolved from a Hacktivist group in America to an underground resistance. There is no main character, as far as we understand, and instead you start off with a small pool of operatives who you can switch to at any time.
You can have up to 20 people in your team, from all walks of life, and the chance to recruit new ones depending on whether or not they’re sympathetic to DeadSec – if they’re not then you can try and change their mind by completing a mission that convinces them you’re the good guy. The characters are randomly generated in terms of not just visuals but their natural attributes, which may be relatively minor, such as reducing the chance of being arrested, to major boosts to melee or hacking abilities. You’ve always had the ability to snoop on people via your smartphone in Watch Dogs but this time the details you uncover have real meaning.
Each character can be trained up into one of three class types – enforcer, infiltrator, and hacker – and while they don’t have a skill tree as such they can gain up to three different perks that range from learning a John Wick style gunkata fighting style to manipulating the AR implants everyone has to appear invisible.
For the purpose of our playthrough we choose to play as an old granny who’s also a talented hacker and owns a spider-shaped drone. She needs to erase some personal details at New Scotland Yard if she’s to recruit a new ally and so after taking a drive to the location (in a car that can be told to drive automatically to your waypoint) she walks into the station and causally throws the spider on the floor where you get to control it in an attempt to find the relevant server.
As in previous Watch Dogs games, you can hijack any nearby cameras and, when outside, the various drones that are always flying around. Dodging around the patrolling guards is enjoyably tense and once the spider begins the hack the granny has to get in close proximity to complete the job. Which lucky she can do from outside as the server is up against an external wall.
Once the new recruit is convinced to join they get to go on a story mission in Camden, to neutralise three gang members (which doesn’t necessarily mean killing them). Being familiar with the streets around Camden tube we were very impressed that the basic layout and style of buildings was pretty much spot on. There were some high-res flats where they shouldn’t be, and everything was very condensed compared to the real thing, but the overall effect was very convincing.
The mission was fun too, as we were presented with several options of how to get in to a gated park, ranging from all guns blazing to stealth and hijacking a drone and flying in. The only part of the game we weren’t entirely convinced by was the melee combat, which Ubisoft claims has been beefed up to reflect the fact that guns are rare in London. But it still felt a little shallow and ineffectual to us.
The game’s still a long way off yet though and yet in terms of visuals is already looking hugely impressive, with the area around Parliament also being highly convincing. But ignoring the fact that it’s set in London the most interesting thing about the sequel is that it has a genuinely new idea that really does change both the gameplay and the storytelling. The future portrayed in Watch Dogs Legion may be grim, but the future for the franchise itself is looking very bright.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Stadia
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Release Date: 6 March 2019
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