Watch Dogs: Legion review – the London formula
The third Watch Dogs game moves the action to London and has a cameo from Stormzy but what is its vision of future Britain really like?
Since London has the most CCTV cameras of any Western country in the world it’s almost surprising it hasn’t featured in Watch Dogs before. Ubisoft’s mix of Grand Theft Auto and virtual hacktivism has now finally realised the potential of the setting, although one of the many disappointing things about Legion is that, really, it could be set in any city or country for all the difference it makes to the story and gameplay. Although that doesn’t mean it’s not entirely without merit.
None of the Watch Dogs games have any close connection, just the idea that each city they’re set in uses a pervasive computer system called ctOS, which means everything from a webcam to a heavily-armed drone is connected and hackable via your smartphone. The first game was set in Chicago and the second in San Francisco, but by the time of Legion ctOS has become an everyday part of life and the real concern is that the British government has all but collapsed and an evil private military company has essentially taken over London.
Before release there was much talk of Legion being set post-Brexit and reflecting current news headlines in its portrayal of a near future dystopia. But the backstory of the world is never really mentioned and while the game promotes a healthily sceptical view of politics and capitalism it doesn’t offer any serious critique.
Apart from the London setting the major difference between Legion and previous games is that you don’t play as any pre-set characters. Instead you’re able to play as literally anyone else in the game, recruiting people off the street almost instantaneously if they’re sympathetic or after doing a quick side quest for them if they’re not.
Some people are more useful than others and have specific skills or equipment that makes them desirable, especially special recruits whose existence is occasionally advertised to you and which include the likes of hitmen and James Bond style superspies.
You can play the game with permadeath on but otherwise characters are taken out of action for up to 30 minutes if they ‘die’ and sent to either jail or hospital. Recruiting lawyers, barristers, and medics to your cause can help reduce this time, although usually those characters are no use in a fight.
It’s a neat gimmick, that’s fascinating at first, but has the obvious downside that none of the characters are given a proper story arc or well-defined personality, since you could be playing with literally anyone. It doesn’t help that most characters are created at random in terms of visuals, voices, and scripts, which leads to frequently bizarre match-ups, such as our barrister that sounds like a cockney barrow boy and a low level security guard who talks like she went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
Such things are not impossible but it’s very obvious the game is just generating characters at random and ruining the sense of verisimilitude as it does so. Especially as everyone’s accent and clothing is so exaggerated, often to the point of parody. Really, when have you ever seen anyone wearing a bowler hat non-ironically in London?
In gameplay terms, if you’ve played an open world game before then you’ve played Watch Dogs: Legion. From the simplistic stealth mechanics, one-note combat, and wireframe detective mode to the Mutt ‘n’ Jeff enemies with goldfish memories, everything is competent and nothing is surprising.
The only wrinkle is that most enemies will fight you hand-to-hand at first, unless you pull out a gun yourself. This is a neat way to reflect Britain’s very different gun culture, compared to the US, but the melee combat, with its flailing, weightless animation, is so shallow it’s too tempting to just pull out a gun and get things over with more quickly.
None of the gameplay evolves at all throughout the course of the game, including a simple puzzle mechanic where you hack networks by rotating junction points in the wall to make a complete loop. The same puzzle type is used in the first proper story mission and is still being used in identical fashion in the final one. Which is all the sadder given the camera-based puzzles of the earlier games are no longer really a thing, probably because they were viewed as too difficult (read: interesting).
There is a range of unlockable gadgets but the spiderbot with a turret is so useful it’s usually all you need – especially as you can just hijack flying drones if you need them. In fact, some abilities are so handy there’s almost no point in choosing any other, especially the construction worker who can call in a cargo drone that you can climb onto – which can be used to circumvent great chunks of the game, including what was clearly supposed to be an extra hard mission towards the end.
Legion is an easy game to pick fault with, but we shouldn’t give the impression it’s not fun. Everything, from the driving to the shooting, works very competently – and is notably better than the likes of Grand Theft Auto 5 – but if you haven’t seen it all a dozen times before then we can only assume this is your first ever video game.
Visually the game is, again, competent without ever being exceptional. The whole dystopia angle means London is portrayed in a particularly grubby state but the replication of the city is highly impressive, even more so than Spider-Man’s New York – given the size and complexity of the real location. There’s some texture and pop-in, occasional screen tearing, and some other minor glitches but compared to the Ubisoft norm it’s virtually bug free. It really could do with Sony’s patent fast loading though, which will make the next gen versions interesting to see.
Rather than fighting the status quo the plot actually revolves around bringing down five ‘villains of London’. This includes a tech billionaire with mummy issues and a mockney crime boss, who are portrayed as so one-dimensionally evil they might as well have just thrown Skeletor into the mix and given up any pretence of taking things seriously.
The three lead writers are all North American and it’s clear they don’t have a complete grasp of British culture and slang, with words like mate and quid frequently being used in odd ways and one bizarre scene where a character visits a pub and is given ale to drink out of a can, instead of a glass. We know it’s supposed to be a dystopia, but nothing else in the game portrays quite that level of barbarism.
Surprisingly, the most authentic moment comes from a brief optional mission featuring Stormzy. It only lasts long enough to play his new music video on the outside of the Waterloo IMAX but not only does he look and sound like a real person but his speech comprises one of the only pointedly political moments in the whole game. It’s delivered with great gusto too and it’s shame he’s not a bigger part of the plot.
It was inevitable that the Watch Dogs formula would begin to show signs of age the third time round, even with the play as anyone gimmick. We had hoped the setting and storyline would help to compensate but both are utilised in a very superficial and unengaging way. Unlike Stormzy, the game doesn’t really have anything to say other than to give vague warnings about capitalism, surveillance society, and increased mechanisation.
It’s good to see any game, especially one from Ubisoft, address such issues but Legion does it in such a superficial and charmless manner it never really registers. Legion is obviously similar to previous Watch Dogs games but its bland competence also reminded us of Days Gone, with characters that are never changed by anything that happens to them and gameplay so derivative and repetitive you can almost play it on autopilot.
Where the series goes next is impossible to tell until Legion’s public reception becomes clear but we hope that whatever city it fixates on next time it’s used as something more than just a new backdrop to the same old gameplay.
Watch Dogs: Legion review summary
In Short: A disappointingly tame vision of a near future dystopia, that represents a perfectly competent use of the Ubisoft formula but falters in its attempts to add anything new to it.
Pros: The gameplay mechanics are all above average for a modern day open world game and the plot toys with some interesting issues. Play as anyone feature is clever, if flawed. Stormzy is great.
Cons: Extremely derivative and repetitive from the first moment, in terms of action, stealth, and puzzles. Toothless script, with a lack of compelling characters.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and PC
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Release Date: 29th October 2020 (10/11 on XSX, 12/11 on PS5)
Age Rating: 18
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