Watch Dogs Legion Preview: Dystopian London is a bizarre joy to explore

Watch Dogs Legion

2020 hasn’t been kind to humanity. A global pandemic, economic depression and political upheaval across the globe have left us all in a state of paranoia. So, it would be nice to sink into a relaxing, considerate virtual outing to close out the year. 

Watch Dogs Legion isn’t that game, thrusting us into a dystopian London which has seen the Brexit referendum sink England’s capital to the lowest lows. It’s a grim concept which tries to balance its hefty thematic elements with a playful cockney attitude, but stumbles thanks to writing that is far too drenched in cliches to stand out. 

But the “play as anyone” mechanic that allows you to play as literally anyone in the open-world has a lot of potential, allowing me to approach situations in a number of different ways whether I decide to opt for a stealthy spiderbot or a full-frontal assault with a slew of electronic weaponry. This variety helps Legion shine at the best times, so long as you can put its irksome setting to the back of your mind. 

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Watch Dogs Legion

Taking place in the near future, a terrorist act performed by a mysterious organisation has allowed paramilitary forces to dominate the streets, bringing the populace to its knees as minorities are hurled into prison camps and mandatory curfews are enforced. It’s a grim situation, with London’s inhabitants a mixture of apathetic and outraged at the tyranny they’re now forced to exist under. 

In a world seemingly on the brink, the resistance group DedSec is confident it can overthrow the powers that be and bring things back to normality. This organisation of skilled hackers operates at the fringes of society, making sure that those in power willing to commit crimes are brought to justice by any means necessary. But now they are far from a dozen millennials hiding in a San Francisco basement. Now, with the right intentions, anyone can join the collective. 

As a founding member of DedSec, you can scan anyone in the streets of London and learn of their skills, affiliation and general feelings towards the world right now. Depending on where they stand, you can recruit them with ease or dedicate time to optional missions before bringing them over to the good side. It’s a compelling idea, with the finest recruits being locked behind bespoke side missions and with abilities you likely won’t find anywhere else. 

However, such a system does come with a few foils. The lack of a consistent spoken protagonist means the narrative leans on a handful of side characters, many of which simply don’t feel very developed or interesting when compared to Watch Dogs 2’s mismatched crew of lovable rogues. Your crew operates out of a pub basement which would look right at home in Eastenders, with your humble abode filled with an unusual amount of mannequins and graffiti. 

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Watch Dogs Legion

Swapping between multiple operatives during a chain of missions can have the finished product feeling weirdly inconsistent, especially when they’re all appearing in cutscenes addressing events they may or may not have experienced themselves. Because of this, I can see myself assembling a team of operatives I connect with in terms of mechanics and personalities before sticking with them indefinitely. 

Legion’s abrasive tone and writing means that you aren’t exactly missing much for failing to fully explore its open-world, at least from the decent chunk of London I witnessed during my time with it. But that could change with the full release, having only experienced snapshots of the overall narrative it remains unclear which direction this conspiracy-laden caper will pursue. But my expectations aren’t too high right now, even if the final adventure will be a good bit of fun. 

During a recent preview session I was given relative freedom to pursue the story after being dropped a number of hours into the game. I could jump into main missions or ignore them completely and explore the world in search of side activities, collectibles and potential operatives. So I could conjure a solid understanding of this dystopian world, I jumped into the main campaign and was immediately tasked with infiltrating a heavily guarded compound. 

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Watch Dogs Legion

Many of the missions in Legion will have a member of DedSec leading you to a location and tasking you with infiltrating a random building, oftentimes a monument, to uncover what’s inside. You’ll normally see an open window begging for a spiderbot to be hurled inside to hack open a gate before sneaking inside to crack some heads. It’s a compelling loop, and operatives afford more than enough flexibility to how you approach situations like this.  

Controlling my arachnid companion as he leaps across office supplies and ventilation shafts in search of a laptop to hack as I desperately hope I’m not spotted before sprinting inside and murdering everyone was immensely satisfying, especially when these locales possess an impressive sense of verticality. 

Enemies will attack from below, above and straight ahead as you infiltrate buildings such as The Nexus Tower, which is basically The Shard but Ubisoft must have run into some copyright issues. It’s unfortunate that the middling impact of gunplay and overly simplistic melee combat brings this sense of experimentation down, making it tempting to opt for the easiest path forward. 

While not all of its elements shine, Legion offers up so many distinct approaches to combat and stealth that it seldom matters. You’re jumping between different weapons and gadgets so frequently that it’s hard to find yourself hung up about the lacking aspectsof DedSec’s arsenal. Those willing to swap between operatives at a rapid pace will find a number of creative melee weapons and gadgets which fit perfectly with the personalities they belong to. 

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Watch Dogs Legion

Construction workers can batter fascists with comically oversized wrenches while graffiti artists can blind foes with an excessive blast of spray paint. Ubisoft has clearly opted for a goofy approach to this universe, which I’m unsure is the right approach when compared to the world and narrative Legion is trying to convey. It’s a mixed bag, and feels abrasively outdated now the political landscape of 2020 has made itself comfortable.  

There’s enough ingredients in this bubbling cauldron of an open-world experience to hopefully remain engaging throughout, although mileage will be heavily dependent on how the story and overall progression turns out in the full release. I’ve only seen snapshots of dystopian London throughout my time with Watch Dogs Legion, and it’s yet to convince me that it has a message worth hearing, no matter how much fun I’ll have causing chaos as a member of DedSec. 

While it might be dominated by an authoritarian regime, there’s still some fun to be had in London on your downtime. You can attend fight clubs and let the fists fly against myriad cockney opponents, causing them to join the DedSec cause after beating them senseless. Footballs in public parks can also be commandeered for a rhythm minigame which poses a surprising amount of challenge. 

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Watch Dogs Legion

Legion shines the most when it’s willing to lean into its more surreal elements. One story mission had me infiltrating a famous scientist’s London home, only to find out that her basement housed an entire world conjured up by augmented reality. Exploring this and piecing together a standalone story was excellent, especially when it turns out the inventor had planted her mother’s dying consciousness into the building’s artificial intelligence system.

This borders on science-fiction, but is arguably the right direction for Watch Dogs Legion to pursue instead of floating daring themes to the surface and throwing them aside in favour of a tongue-in-cheek hacker adventure. They simply don’t gel, and if Ubisoft isn’t willing to tell an enthralling story with such poignant themes, I’d much rather they abandon them and opt for something more outlandish. Time will tell how it all shapes out.

Latest Impressions

Watch Dogs Legion continues to impress, and pushes the boundaries of freedom with its “play as anyone” mechanic in some daringly creative ways. But this mechanical ambition is held back by a tonally barbaric setting with a narrative that currently feels drenched in lazy cliches. 

But it’s too early to paint a full picture of the story and themes Ubisoft is pitching here, and whether or not the company manages to stick the landing. Right now, I remain sceptical despite the huge amounts of fun I had infiltrating enemy strongholds with an array of gadgets and my trusty spiderbot. 

That, and the absurd heights Watch Dogs Legion has ascended to arguably robs the franchise of future development, since it’s hard to tell what’s next after twisting London into a dystopian wasteland bordering on parody. 

 

 

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