While those of us in the UK still eagerly await to discover our fate in this whole Brexit thing, Ubisoft have spent the last few years gleefully imagining where our future might take us. Step a few decades away from now and, with Brexit now a generation behind the populace in Watch Dogs Legion’s depiction of London, a lot has changed.
Technology and surveillance in this version of London is more pervasive than ever before. Every person in this dystopian take on the UK’s future has a chip that’s visible on the right hand side of their face, tapping into the ocular nerve and connecting to their phone. This isn’t like almost everybody having a smartphone on them that could conceivable by tracked, this is the law of the land and a dramatic extension of the status quo of surveillance that Watch Dogs was originally inspired by.
So it’s no real surprise that people are a bit miffed at this, with an Occupy style encampment taking over the heart of Trafalgar Square and the rise of Dedsec as a popular movement instead of a bunch of hacker kids doing stuff for the righteous lulz.
In fact, as was revealed alongside the game’s announcement, you can recruit anyone to the cause. Naturally the corrupt state is cracking down on you, and through a mixture of propoganda, being part of the state workforce, or perhaps the collateral of Dedsec’s actions, NPCs that you meet can have a less than rosy view of you. You can still convince them to join, you just have to go through more steps and missions to recruit them.
For my hands on session, I started by playing as a kick-ass librarian turned hacker granny. Playing as a gran in Watch Dogs Legion is great. Sure, they might a bit slower than younger, more spritely characters, with a stereotypical hunched back and a tottering jog animation when you want to run, not to mention that the way they mantle railings and fences has more in common with Hot Fuzz-esque garden hopping than parkour.
But that doesn’t make them any less badass. All of the characters conform to three base classes – Hacker, Infiltrator and Enforcer – which you decide at the point of recruiting them, but you’d be wise to heed their specific character traits. For example, as I profiled the various characters in a classically styled pub, I saw a cameraman with a 45% damage reduction and 20% less health – not a good candidate – so if I were looking for an Enforcer, I’d eye up the characters with bonus shotgun damage, or just go for the guy with a 25% chance of immediately being released from prison when arrested. Also within the profile – alongside the buffs, little character tidbits about sexual fetishes and birth place – are the jobs they have, which now actually mean something, as well as the personal relations, which is part of how your actions can ripple through the world.
While Ubisoft might conceivably have the resources to hire thousands of voice actors to record voice lines for every possible character in the game, they’ve gone down a smarter route. There’s 12 different versions of the script that the game can fall back on, meaning that there’s still plenty of variation to be had if you recruit a wider clutch of characters, but a large part of the differentiation comes through voice modulation and character animation. You’ll likely only see a particular cutscene once, but in the moment to moment action and with the ability to recruit any of the thousands of NPCs in the game, this should give the required feel of the city being filled with thousands of unique characters.
Any of them can be taken on missions – of course, I stuck with the granny – and you can really tackle everything however you feel. This has been a key part of Watch Dogs since the beginning, that you could largely dictate how you want to play, whether that’s to sneak your way in, to hack your way through objectives or just go in guns blazing, but it feels thematically that bit more pronounced here as you can pick your character. One nice quality of life improvement is a pinger, which radiates out from you to highlight objects to interact with. You still need proximity and line of sight to hack NPCs, but this one change makes hopping between CCTV cameras so much simpler.
It also means that you can feel a bit more able to swap between playstyles – just hop to the map and pick a character in a particular spot on the map or pick them from the roster and have them spawn near to your current location. If you see a raid on a police station server, and you might want to send in a little spider-bot to do the hacking remotely, while needing to take out three SIFS goons might be quicker and easier just wading in with assault rifle and going ham with some proximity grenades. If your character survives long enough, they’ll level up, get more perks through a three level upgrade path, but there’s also permadeath to consider. Get downed and you can choose either to fight on, get a second wind and risk being killed for good if you’re downed a second time, or you can accept your fate and get arrested, potentially being broken out or released after a bit of time in the cooler.
But death isn’t the end for Dedsec’s movement. Even in a mission, the job’s a good ‘un if you manage to get to the climactic battle and fall heroically in battle. You just spawn in as another of your cohort, pick up the chit chat with your AI buddy and any named characters that you’ve been interacting with Bagley.
There’s just something to being able to do all of this in the heart of London, as someone that’s meandered my way out from Charing cross and into the biggest tourist traps of the capital. It’s an air of familiarity that will give Londoners in particular a spark of enjoyment from seeing somewhere that they know and can almost instinctively drive around. I say almost, because Ubisoft have taken liberties here and there to make the roads a little less obviously terrible for driving around. I mean, they’re still terrible, but now it’s because of the dystopian future vision of the city as opposed to being hemmed in by quite so many tiny one way streets and alleyways.
And on the whole, I came away from playing Watch Dogs Legion really quite impressed. The setting and tone just seems to fit the game that little bit better compared to the original’s dour protagonist and sequel’s attempt to capture a particular zeitgeist. Stepping into the future, giving you more freedom to pick and customise your own characters, and a mixture of new gameplay ideas with some refinements of old ones all adds up to a Watch Dogs that I really want to play a lot more of.