Review

Watch Dogs Legion review: Liberating London in Ubisoft's ambitious if uneven techno-thriller

3/5

Watch Dogs Legion's innovative 'play as anyone' gimmick gives a fresh twist to the open-world template

Watch Dogs Legion
Watch Dogs Legion is out now for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC and Stadia

There is something unnerving about skidding through Islington in a hacked autonomous black cab going 100mph with a retired granny at the wheel. For all that video games offer portals into fantasy lands and parallel universes, London remains strangely untapped. In Watch Dogs Legion, Ubisoft’s ambitious --if uneven-- hacking thriller, our capital city is the star of the show. Set in a post-Brexit near-future, the inexorable rise of populism has led to the boroughs being controlled by a malevolent private military company, Albion. Uniformed goons stalk the streets, harassing and beating down its citizens, armed drones patrol the skies, while giant holographic signs warning Londoners to stay in line are projected all over famous landmarks.

The bleak techno-fascism that you are looking to overthrow gives a menacing air that feels dangerously close to home, but what impresses is that London’s character still breaks through. A hideout for Ded-Sec, your merry band of hacktivists, lies beneath a traditional English boozer where patrons quaff pints of bitter and argue over games of darts. Outside The Shard pierces into the night air, London’s luminous skyline --London Bridge, the Eye, the Houses of Parliament-- is awash with light and colour. The narrow back-streets have a degree of scruffy, graffito charm distinct from the bright lights and posh shops of Piccadilly Circus.

It’s a convincing facsimile, which makes trying to save it from Albion and its assorted cronies a more compelling task. And Legion’s big gimmick is that you can play as, well, anyone. Construction workers, lawyers, YouTube stars, retired cage fighters, Anarchists, football hooligans. All are served up by Ubisoft’s smart procedurally-generated trick, each with their own look, background and sometimes even voting record.

Stand in the street and aim your magic hacking phone at a passer-by and you can bring up their data, should you like the cut of their jib you can then approach them to recruit. Some are more open to joining Ded-Sec than others, but even Albion employees can be turned (offering a nifty disguise in restricted areas) but it will take a lot more convincing.

Most will require you to nick off and do a job for them before they’ll agree to join, but once they are part of your crew you can swap to control them at almost any point. Some have special skills or their own private vehicle -- perenially useful construction workers, for example, smack people with a wrench and can summon a construction drone to take them to high places. Most are pretty ordinary, which I guess is kind of the point, aside from the fact they can all throw a punch, handle a gun and hack into billion-dollar paramilitary contractors at the touch of a button. We all have our hobbies.

The ‘Legion’ aspect is an impressive feat of technical engineering and a clever change of pace, but can give rise to the game’s biggest strengths and most glaring weaknesses. Being able to swap between operatives given the task at hand is a welcome boon, whether you are stealthily infiltrating tech labs, getting your more grizzled folk to fight in underground boxing matches or going in guns blazing.

One of my more masochistic approaches is to send in one operative to cause an enormous ruckus, setting off alarms and picking off bad guys. Should that come to its natural conclusion with being captured or, god forbid, being killed. I then send my next operative in quietly while the remaining goons are dealing with the chaos. Yet that gives you an idea of how disposable your characters in the game can feel. Yes, you can select a ‘permadeath’ option to make you more careful with your hacking-trained army. But by being able to play as everyone, you then play as no-one. You may become attached to one or two operatives, but with interchangeable dialogue performed by algorithmically modulated voices, there is a sense of artificiality that is difficult to shake.

It somewhat puts the game at odds with itself, on one hand you have this bleak story about state surveillance, the unbridled power of big tech and rumblings of underground crime. Yet you can find yourself on the streets of London, responding to the terrifying oppression of fascist soldiers by simply kicking their heads in with a geriatric radio DJ. Which, don’t get me wrong, is enormous fun, but clashes with a game that can’t decide if it wants to be an absurdist techno-playground or a thoughtful rumination on the way our society is wilfully heading towards dystopia.

To Ubisoft’s credit, this isn’t a game that is hiding its politics or the view it is trying to espouse. Though it looks to deliberately chamfer that edge with comically villainous antagonists and a comedy AI sidekick called Bagley who makes nob jokes.

Nevertheless, Watch Dogs Legion is unlike open-world games you would have played before. As a game about an uprising more than it is a hero, throughout London’s boroughs are acts of defiance you can perform that will make its residents more open to joining your cause. These tasks do fall into classic video game abstraction; such as swapping out Albion propaganda for an edgy Ded-Sec call to arms on Piccadilly Circus' jumbotron for +1 defiance in the borough.

But there is certainly a distinct satisfaction in sticking it to the fascists by tooling around the city and turning its people and its buildings in a giant middle-fingered salute. Taking a slightly more anarchic approach to the game suits it better than its main mission stories, which tend to fall into a pattern of go to place, beat up a few bad guys and send your scuttling spiderbot to hack into various machines sporting handy spiderbot-sized back doors.

All perfectly fine, but not as gratifying as exacting instant justice on gormless fascists harassing people in the street or causing merry havoc at Buckingham Palace with a drone and an automated bus. That Watch Dogs Legion allows us that pleasure is a fine thing, even if it is often a game at odds with itself.