By Paul Davies
It takes a mischievous brain to get the best out of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs series, a quality that the publisher acknowledges in bold new ways for this long-awaited (once delayed) chapter.
Easily the most challenging idea proposed in Watch Dogs Legion is the lack of any lead hero in particular. Presented as a colossal, metropolitan-wide conundrum, the entire population of London (in the game) is available to recruit and directly control. It’s tempting to say there are limitless agents to hire, but we can comfortably surmise that there are lots and lots.
In terms of what’s going on in the plot, suffice to say that friendly neighbourhood hacker outfit DedSec has been framed with despicable terrorists acts. The true perpetrators have slunk back into the shadows, from where they manipulate the lives of everyday people.
It’s wonderfully in tune with conspiracy theory zeitgeist in the Trump era, only here applied to Brits who are (possibly) at the mercy of some secret cabal also but … this is only a game.
Our play-test included the slick set-piece prologue in which a James Bond-like agent named Dalton attempts a movie-style mission to disarm a bomb beneath the Houses of Parliament. It’s a taste of the visual standards that Ubisoft has set for Watch Dogs Legion, and a sample of the stealth-versus-slaying gameplay approach. Oh, and don’t forget the cheeky hacking!
After Dalton’s mission swiftly fails in face of the might of this mystery villainous adversary, berated atop the Houses of Commons in the darkness, the game’s true colours leap vividly into focus. Dalton is nowhere to be seen, we’re handed a lady construction worker to guide around the UK’s capital. She has a rivet gun, a wrench and some kind of huge flying drone.
Certainly this is bizarre, but we learn over DedSec comms that this apparently ill-equipped agent represents the smallest beginnings of a movement that will clear DedSec’s name and expose London’s true criminal underbelly in due course. There is a Main Mission objective to pursue, but in the meantime we have the pick of any passers-by to entice into the fold.
In both previous Watch Dogs instalments, the hacking of wearables and portable devices was a distraction on the side, nosing into other people’s business through tablets and mobiles. For Watch Dogs Legion, available info for targeted individuals is logged by the hour in such detail that it can be investigated. That knowledge is then used to lure them into DedSec.
Our first target was a city worker called Billy whose interests in helping the National Health Service were … unconventional. In exchange for our construction worker’s aid in hijacking an ambulance, ideally avoiding a firefight with the hoodlums currently in possession, Billy would lend his charm and good looks to DedSec. Billy was otherwise not best prepared to handle dangerous missions with his basic gun and a crash course in hacking and stealth.
Just as every vehicle can be commandeered, firearms and other tools can be picked off the ground so that every DedSec operative can enter a fair fight. Ubisoft claims that all missions offer a non-lethal solution too, which brings nuance to the already complex game design. Disguise, as another example of depth, now factors into chances of success, encouraging players to seek e.g. security guards for ease of access to off-limits corporate properties.
Even bar workers and pub clientele are ripe for picking, some of them especially handy in a fistfight. The general public also comes with unfortunate baggage, however, such as the danger of coughing or sneezing which would absolutely destroy any stealth operations.
For our demo, we were granted access to a handful of specialist DedSec operatives which included a Spy. This unassuming middle-aged lady kicked serious ass and carried a silenced MP9 pistol, wore a snazzy Spy Watch and could summon a Spy Car – complete with rocket-launcher headlamps – at any time. You would need to exercise considerable restraint not to go shooting up the backstreets of Southwark in this thing, attracting the attention of law enforcement along the Thames riverbank. This was something we really could not resist.
All DedSec agents can remotely activate certain vehicles, which include military Humvees, to create distractions, along with fatalities if you so wish. Drones that patrol the skies are used to provide visibility, solving location-based puzzles and accessing distant security cameras. The larger cargo drones can be used as mobile platforms to avoid clambering and stairwells. There’s a lot to be said for the enhanced parkour in Watch Dogs Legion, however. London is a terrific free-running playground and it looks like Ubisoft is including the major landmarks.
Regrettably, our hands-on time did not include any multiplayer component, although we did have a root around the personalisation options. We had our spy lady running around in a pig mask most of the time and spent a while purchasing metal-studded boots and band t-shirts.
So much about Watch Dogs Legion is about making this experience your own. It’s too early to say whether or not this emphasis on choice will feel like empowerment or lead to a lack of focus. We can certainly vouch for a sense of permanent engagement, in which smashing every button just to see what it does continues to be the main source of attraction here.
We’ll keep tracking this for you, under suspicion that there is so much more to come…