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One year ago, Watch Dogs Legion’s stun gun-wielding pensioner was the talk of Los Angeles.
In a game reveal dedicated to dialling up all the ten o’clock news’ worst real-life anxiety issues – Brexit, mass-surveillance and authoritarian governments– E3’s grey-haired assassin provided a welcome moment of light relief among the game’s backdrop of high-street riots and giant, graffitied swear words.
Switch to July 2020, and after a lengthy delay Watch Dogs Legion is now all about that killer granny (and Brexit still isn’t done).
Partly reacting to the E3 furore and more likely, trying to make its killer feature even more unique, Ubisoft Toronto has clearly spent its additional development time increasing the variety – and absurdity – of the Londoners you can recruit as part of Legion’s ambitious ‘Play as Anyone’ feature.
When we start our campaign, we’re literally sneaking through the Houses of Parliament as a James Bond-esque super spy, fully suited and with his own rocket car parked out front. Later, we get to take down guards with a nail gun-wielding cockney builder, clamber up the side of The Shard as an MMA bruiser and start a pub fight as a replica shirt-wearing football hooligan.
Legion hasn’t quite gone ‘full Saints Row’ – we’re yet to see any dubstep guns or dinosaur costumes – but it does a much better job of offering light relief amid its narrative of Brexit Armageddon. There’s even an ever-present, wise-cracking AI to help you in your mission to, ahem, “un-fuck London.”
The player character – literally whoever you want – is a member of the DedSec resistance movement. Whether banker or toilet attendant, you’re out to expose the shady dealings of the corrupt British state, which has gone full Orwell and contracted a private military firm called Albion to spy on its own citizens, police the streets with machine guns and generally oppress anyone who happens to wander too close.
As you’d expect from the world’s biggest producer of open-world games, the futuristic version of London is both beautiful and unsettlingly reminiscent of the real city. There aren’t many opportunities to play an action game set in your own back yard, but as Londoners we were often able to navigate by memory in Legion’s key landmark areas, which is a testament to the game’s commitment to blending authenticity with strong open-world design.
Gameplay again revolves around the Watch Dogs series’ trademark cell phone, which you’ll use to hack and manipulate the environment to your advantage. To sneak into an armed compound, you might cause an armed vehicle to reverse into a wall, then use the distraction to slip inside, and blip from security cam to security cam until you can remotely hack a target workstation.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the variety of characters and more importantly, the fact that most of them feel unique, with their own abilities and personalities.”
There’s even a robotic spider, which agents can deploy and use for sneaking through air vents to reach platforming-style hacking puzzles set in ribbon cable-filled server rooms. As seen in last year’s E3 demo, this near-future version of The Big Smoke is also flush with flying drones, which can be hacked and used for makeshift air platforms. They’re frustratingly slow, but at least the views are nice.
But the most compelling use of Legion’s hacking skills is the aforementioned Play as Anyone system, which allows players to use their phone to profile anyone in the environment and display personal details such as their profession, and any unique traits that may come in handy, such as the ability to summon and hack drones, call in gang members to help in combat, or blend in with enemies as a police officer.
Impressively, players can even bring up a diary for each NPC to see exactly where they will be and what they’ll be doing at any given time in the game world.
Once you’ve identified an NPC with appropriate skills, you can kick off a mission to recruit them. Thankfully, these missions appear to be more narrative-driven than the cookie-cutter side quests we’re used to seeing in most open-world games – although there will inevitably be some repetition.
For example, we recruited some of our team members by helping stop a car bomb designed to frame our target, and by hacking into the NHS to steal meds to help with a sibling’s drug addiction.
Last year, we weren’t fully convinced Ubisoft would be able to pull off its ambitious NPC feature to a relevant quality level, but after three hours with the latest press build, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety of characters and more importantly, the fact that most of them feel unique, with their own abilities and personalities.
The amount of voice work alone is difficult to get your head around: in our team, we had an Irish assassin, an African football hooligan, a cockney builder, a clumsy street performer and a Northern MI6 spy. Each controllable NPC felt like a character in their own right, with each chirping out comments, reacting to gameplay situations, and speaking dialogue in cut-scenes as if they were designed to star in the game.
It remains to be seen if Ubisoft can keep the illusion of custom player heroes going, to this level of quality, over the tens of hours players typically spend in these open-world games, but from what we’ve played so far it certainly looks promising. And in a worst case scenario, at least players will probably now have something to laugh about.