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.