Has anyone told Ubisoft that there might actually be politics in one of their games? The E3 premiere of Watch Dogs Legion saw them showing off the sneaky hacking sequel that just happens to be all about a post-Brexit styled Britain where, to put it in their words the “Government’s f***** off.”
Set in London and full of Jason Statham-style cock-er-knee accents, it looks bloody marvellous, but if Ubisoft – famously, and ridiculously, politically inscrutable – wanted to steer clear of politics, they’ve perhaps dived right in at the wrong end of the pool.
Still, it’s a surprising rarity to see London given the limelight over cities like New York, Tokyo or San Francisco, so maybe we should just relish the chance to roam around its digital recreation? The lengthy gameplay demo and trailer showed us a few landmarks like Big Ben and Trafalgar Square, as well as recognisable portions of Camden, and I can’t wait to head out into it. Just like Zombi and Forza Horizon 4 before it, there’s something about playing a game that’s set in a location you know that draws you in far deeper than somewhere further afield.
Fortunately for us, Watch Dogs Legion is currently, and hopefully forever more, fiction, but it takes the Watch Dogs series in a new and starkly oppressive direction. Building on the stellar gameplay of Watch Dogs 2, Watch Dogs Legion is going to allow you to become anyone, recruiting as many characters as you can into the resistance movement as you face up to the authoritarian state and criminal empires that have come to consume the city. It’s a fascinating idea, and where scanning NPC’s in previous games largely just told you whether you wanted to mug them or not, here it’s a crucial part of deciding who you need to flesh out your team.
Every character has their own speciality, whether that’s hacking, stealth, combat, or something else. I love the idea that you can recruit an enforcer for a mission that’s likely to get violent, or spend a while searching for someone who’s good at subterfuge so that you can break into a building in secret, instead of just barrelling in through the front door. In terms of gameplay it actually makes far more sense than taking control of just one character who can miraculously do everything, and it should keep things interesting throughout the game’s runtime.
Brilliantly, that “play as anyone” hook includes being able to play as the older generation. Picking up the story with a retired assassin looks like it’ll be a bit slower as you shuffle along with a pronounced stoop, but it makes the world all the more believable. I did wonder whether there’s going to be any children in the game; chances are from what we’ve seen in the trailer it wouldn’t be remotely appropriate, but then it’s going to ask you to suspend some disbelief if this is a world with no younger people in it.
Given that the game still needs to tell a story through all of this, the wise-cracking AI Bagley makes a lot of sense, but how fluid his interactions will be as it flows around different characters that you recruit and player choice, remains to be seen. Will you always, for example, have to find and recruit a drone specialist for whatever mission Ian was trying to complete in the E3 gameplay demonstration? Or can you choose a different path forward on your own? Given the reputation that Lead Designer Clint Hocking has from Far Cry 2, it’s much more likely the latter, and this absolute freeform design sounds mind bogglingly cool.
No matter where you stood two years ago – assuming you’re amongst our UK readers, and you’re not our sole fan in Yemen – it’s clear that we are currently a country ruled by uncertainty. Given the interminable nature of Brexit in our country’s political discourse over the last few years, Ubisoft may be hitting a little too close to home for some parts of their regular British audience with this dystopian police state where drones rule the skies above London.
That said, despite their reticence to admit to any kind of social commentary behind their settings, Ubisoft haven’t shied away from hot topic settings in recent years. Far Cry 5 was set in midwestern America, replete with right wing propaganda spouting characters, The Division 2 is set in a Washington DC where the government is facing a hostile takeover, and so on. Other nations like the US, Russia, China and Korea have had to put up with similar skewering in both video games and the media at large, and it’s hardly much of a jump from where we are now to what’s being depicted in Legion.
Watch Dogs has always played on the notion that technology is creeping further and further into our lives, and in the five years since the first game was announced, that’s become ever more true. From mass internet traffic collection to porn filters and accounts of enforced participation in police facial recognition trials, the setting of Watch Dogs might be sensationalised, but it’s built around a kernel of truth that could ground the experience. Of course, Ubisoft had to make such a big leap in order to even half plausibly be able to crowbar in their third person shooting mechanics into the game, when the reality is that it’s knife crime that’s a much bigger problem in the capital at the moment.
Either way, I can’t see it hurting sales too much, especially when it might be amongst the last great open-world games of this generation. Oh, and they finally ditched the stupid underscore in the title. Thank goodness for that!
For more news from Ubisoft and all of the press conferences at E3 this year, make sure to keep tabs on our E3 hub.