I’m a Londoner – born and bred, as us Londoners are oddly fond of saying – so getting to run around an uncannily accurate recreation of London in a video game on the scale and openness of Watch Dogs: Legion really appealed to me. Sure, we’ve seen London recreated before – the first time it was ever done on a size, scale and level of accuracy that really blew me away was on the Dreamcast’s excellent Metropolis Street Racer, 20 years ago – but never at this level of detail. It really is astonishing; I have been able to navigate vast swathes of the open world in-game just from my knowledge of the real world locations it features – and it’s amazing to see so much of it in there, even if the scale is reduced and, naturally, bits and pieces of it are missing to ensure that different districts can be included. Though many players and reviewers seem to mention it as being an unrelentingly grim and depressing place, for me it feels like home – not just despite the grime, litter and urban decay, but because of it too. It’s become even more enticing for me due to the on/off lockdown orders we’ve gone through in the UK this year, which have meant that I’ve been unable to visit my beloved city in real life.
It’s a shame that the game we’re given to play in this virtual, five-minutes-into-the-future London isn’t anywhere near as ambitious as the world itself though, with much of it based on the now-UBIquitous (see what I did there?) Ubisoft open world formula of huge maps drowning in icons, swamped with collectables and side missions, revealed by ‘towers’ (though here the ‘towers’ in question are Boroughs which reveal icons when certain missions are completed). That said, it does have features that make it stand out, such as being able to recruit – and therefore take control of – anyone you come into contact with while out and about. It’s a pretty remarkable feature, though if you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself a core team of just a few people (a hacker, a getaway driver and a brawler, for example) once the novelty wears off – and you’ll barely use anyone else.
The main thrust of the campaign sees hacker group DedSec framed for a series of devastating bombings across London, actually carried out by mysterious techno-terrorists Zero Day. Amidst the bombings, several factions are rising up and increasing their stranglehold on London’s citizens in different ways: the private security firm Albion (headed by cartoonishly evil authoritarian Nigel Cass, who even seems to unknowingly quote Judge Dredd at one point), powerful gang the Kelley Clan (led by the vicious, xenophobic psychopath Mary Kelley) and massively pervasive technology firm Broca Tech (whose founder and figurehead, Skye Larsen, is a reclusive transhumanist who hasn’t been seen in person for a number of years when the game starts). It’s up to DedSec – who are able to recruit any citizen in London to their cause – to clear their name, find out who Zero Day are and take them out once and for all…
Though the campaign starts explosively and compellingly, the open world setting and nature of the game – being able to carry out missions in order to recruit operatives on a whim, to fill out your team – means that the story quite often grinds to a halt as you build up a varied set of operatives (to convince someone to join DedSec, you’ll often have to engage in one or more missions in order to recruit them). The campaign should feel exciting – it’s full of bombings, double bluffs, shifting loyalties and betrayals – but it really starts to drag after just a few of the factions are taken out. There’s too many factions in play to keep things interesting – and the themes are all over the place, from the overreach of surveillance and law enforcement, to the mistreatment of immigrants, black market organ harvesting, transhumanism and oh so much more. Though it often has some interesting and socially relevant (even important) stuff to say, Watch Dogs Legion is just overburdened with different storylines, some of which don’t seem to have much bearing on the outcome as you head towards the climax anyway. It likely would have been a lot more satisfying had there been less villains in play, though of course it keeps you guessing as to who Zero Day are right up until the very end (however, once you reach a certain point, I thought the ultimate reveal was a touch too obvious). The climax also commits a cardinal sin of showing action in cut scenes that you have no influence over whatsoever, removing control from you at several vital points. Not only that, but the final few missions are a real letdown in dramatic terms, feeling incredibly anti-climactic as the credits roll (with the very first post-campaign mission that unlocks making the ending even less meaningful than it did just a few minutes beforehand).
Missions themselves are rarely varied or interesting, with only a handful of the dozens of campaign missions really being memorable. Some are quite repetitive too, tasking you with infiltrating a building that you’ve already cleared a few times in other missions, for example. There are, at least, numerous approaches that can be taken to complete the missions on offer – and, should the campaign wear you down (and at times, the story can be incredibly dark and grim – so it does get to be a bit of a slog), there’s always side missions on offer or activities such as liberating the London Boroughs from under Albion’s bootheels. Liberating Boroughs is one of the best aspects of the game, allowing for a somewhat open approach to missions and feeling quite varied outside of the main mission structure.
The numerous approaches on offer with which you can complete missions and the gather collectables are where I had the most fun with Watch Dogs: Legion. Using stealthy, adorably puppyish spider bots (there’s even an in-game explanation for their cute, pet-like behaviour) to collect tech points, documents or masks, triggering traps and shocking enemies along the way, never seems to get old. Should you wish to be more direct in your approach, characters adept in fist fighting or equipped with their own custom weapons are also able to assist you with clearing out buildings or reaching objectives. Hacking cargo drones and riding them across the city for a bird’s eye view of London is also an oddly relaxing pursuit – and a vital skill to have when hoovering up the collectables on your journey across the city.
The diversity available with your DedSec team is really impressive given that you can recruit anyone you want, as is the fact that you’ll often run into people in the street who have some sort of relationship or involvement with your operatives. Though the operatives with the most useful abilities and equipment will come from completing Borough Uprising missions, it’s easy to get attached to the random weirdos you’ll pick up on the streets. The lack of a single, non-random protagonist can be a detriment at times, but given that the main character of the first Watch Dogs was the famously dull and unlikeable Aiden Pearce, it’s great that you can fill the team with people you actually like – even if they are procedurally generated (which has the odd effect of a character voice or look sometimes being a bit off).
Though I found the campaign a real slog for almost the entire second half of the story (with the aforementioned too-many-villains issue) I still had an awful lot of fun with the more open aspects of the game – particularly once I’d improved my tech trees to such a level that I was able to turn any type of drone against the enemies or cloak my double jumping spider bot to avoid detection. It’s a shame that the campaign feels as if it sucks the fun out of the big open world you play in – its often repetitive missions and grim subject matter at times just feel at odds with the freewheeling fun the world seems set up for – but there’s no denying that I did enjoy getting to know the game’s systems and recruiting a team of absolute oddballs to embody (though I never want to see another one damn rotating gateway puzzles ever again). It’s a hugely ambitious game and it was fantastic to spend it in an environment that I was intimately familiar with in real life, but I wish there’d been a more compelling – perhaps shorter and definitely more focused – narrative holding everything together. I certainly hope we haven’t seen the last of the ‘anyone can be a player character’ approach in any case.
Note: At the time of writing, there’s still a serious save bug present on the Series S/X version of the game which causes a loss of progress – there’s no manual save in Watch Dogs: Legion, which means you rely on the game to save for you when you exit or reach certain checkpoints in-game. In the Series S/X version, the save happens far too infrequently or sometimes not at all, which more than a few times caused me to lose hours of progress. It’s nigh on unforgivable for a game to do this when it’s the size of Watch Dogs: Legion – even more so when it remains this broken more than a month after launch. Though there have already been a few patches issued, this problem isn’t one that’s been taken care of – and continues to plague players who only have access to the game on Microsoft’s new machines. It really leaves a bad taste in the mouth, quite frankly.
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