Watch Dogs: Legion is powered by astoundingly ambitious technology, weaving together systems that allow you to play as anyone, hack into anything, and do (nearly) anything you can think of. But what’s the catch? How many characters are there really? Are these really all unique characters that you can play as? As I sat through Ubisoft’s private E3 presentation, I kept thinking that this is all too good to be true. But then I got to actually play it.
Brexit, Boris, CCTV, policing by facial recognition– the UK has been in a state of political and social turmoil since the 2016 referendum on EU membership, and Ubisoft have been paying attention. Watch Dogs: Legion is set to be their most political game ever, painting a vision of a ghastly post-Brexit Britain taken over by fear of the other, an automated security state, and a pound crashed in favor of cryptocurrency. There’s touches of Children of Men‘s dystopian London and Half Life 2′s City 17 in parts of the presentation of Watch Dogs Legion, but it’s more playful, more openly satirical.
I started out as a wrinkled old lady who specialized in hacking and robotics: she had the ability to send out a spider-like robot to climb through vents, slip over gates, or jump, headcrab style, onto pesky security officers. It was probably not a great character to start a press demo with (and I only had a bit under an hour to play the alpha), considering her movement speed was somewhere between a sloth and a dung beetle, but she made up for it (at least in part) by the depth of her skill set.
But on we went: as I hacked into the power grid of New Scotland Yard, suddenly the power went out. Not in the game, mind you– in the desk, then the room, then the entire convention center. “Is this DedSec?,” another writer playing the demo quipped. Nope: just a boring old power outage. As our handlers panicked and rushed to get the demo rebooted, I launched back in, no longer an old lady but instead a lithe young DJ. Much better!
Our first task was to recruit an NPC to our cause: fighting against the private security contractor Albion, who seem to have taken over the role of the British security and intelligence services. Here’s one of the really cool parts of Watch Dogs: Legion: the flexibility of approach that missions allow.
I could walk in the front door guns blazing, climb up a drainpipe on the side of the building, send a robot in to do my dirty work, and so on. In a stroke of luck (which wasn’t actually scripted, as this didn’t happen in my first run through this section of the demo before the power outage), an incident outside the building caused some of the security personnel to rush outside.
I proceeded to slip in the front door, up the stairs, and with a little sneaking around managed to hack into New Scotland Yard’s systems. And that’s mission one done. I wanted to screw around a bit, though, and so I hopped into a sleek sports car and started scooting around Westminster. Ubisoft encouraged us to “try and break it” when we played our demo, so I did. The handling feels pretty good, but a few crushed civilians later, I had Albion on my tail.
Whipping and drifting around a corner, I cut through the middle of a park and over a civilian bridge that definitely wasn’t made for this kind of thing. I thought I was clever– I’d lost them! Nope: there are checkpoints on certain streets that will notify Albion of your location if you pass through them while you’re wanted.
Character switching is very cool: players can boot into a menu in Watch Dogs Legion with a grid of characters you’ve already recruited from your team. Find their location and you can instantly switch between them. After I recruited a new bruiser to my team, I switched over to their character and was hugely impressed by how different they felt, how their skill sets changed across characters.
Your character is very closely monitored in Watch Dogs: Legion, and it increases the sense of excitement in chases with the authorities knowing how many tools your opponents have for tracking you down. Drones, checkpoints, and their surveillance networks across the city all network in a fluid way. Self-driving vehicles are a big element of Watch Dogs: Legion, and I could hack a self-driving bus to cause a traffic jam or distract security.
You’ll remember one mission I played from Ubisoft’s press conference: a character climbed on top of a delivery drone to sneak into a complex in Camden Market. But instead of following the same path, I used the delivery drone to go up to the very top of the buildings, and I dropped the package on an enemy I was targeting, killing him. But be careful: if you die in Watch Dogs: Legion, it’s permadeath. That character is gone forever, and you’ll have to switch to another recruit.
I appreciate it when open world games provide a flexible tool-set to play around with rather than trying to force players down the same fixed path. And it’s cool that Watch Dogs: Legion isn’t trying to be about the hero of DedSec who saves London through his sheer force of will and wits, but instead about trying to weave together the stories of the legion of people it takes to build a social movement.
I can’t help but be excited to see what else the team at Ubisoft is going to doing with Watch Dogs: Legion after my hour with the game. I tried to break it, but I couldn’t, really, other than a few glitchy enemies who didn’t seem to notice me. But it’s alpha, so they have plenty of time to work that kind of thing out, and there honestly wasn’t a moment of the demo where I wasn’t struck by how fun it felt to play, to see all these new systems interact with each other in London’s sandbox.
There’s no doubt that the team’s ambition is beyond most (if not every) other open world title. But it still remains to be seen if the final product can deliver on all of those ambitions.