Watch Dogs Legion Review by Lewis Empson | ★★★★☆
*Review copy and images of Watch Dogs Legion provided by Ubisoft – thoughts and opinions are my own*
Watch Dogs Legion is the most ambitious game I have played in years… maybe the most ambitious game I have played ever. As a series, Watch Dogs is a strange one as after a frankly “meh” first entry in the series, Watch Dogs 2 came back swinging with a stellar fresh and quirky take on the open world action/hacker premise and made some truly meaningful gameplay and story upgrades to make one of my favourite games of the generation. Legion somehow manages to up the stakes yet again with a gritty yet quirky sci-fi dystopian story, villains that give 007 baddies a run for their money and the most mind blowing take on open world NPCs ever – it’s truly revolutionary.
Watch Dogs Legion takes place in a near future London in which notorious hacker group DedSec are classed as terrorists and facist militant corporation, Albion, holds an iron grip over the citizens, making personal and digital freedom hard to come by. London is on its knees and “you” (notice the lack of a protagonist’s name – we’ll address that later) and your DedSec allies are all that remains to fight back against the evil tech corporations. The story isn’t afraid to take darker turns than its predecessor’s with some truly disturbing dystopian takes on cybercrime, digital ethics and cyberterrorism; its some heavy sci-fi stuff here so it’s lucky that we’re accompanied by Bagley, one of my favourite companions in recent gaming history. His never ending stereotypically British sarcastic and dry wit is the hilariously unexpected star of Watch Dogs Legion and in true Watch Dogs fashion of course he’s a super intelligent AI, so no matter where you are in London’s bustling streets, he’ll always be there to help you out.
This future, proto-cyberpunk approach to London is as grim as it is gorgeous, vehicle designs are an awesome blend of futuristic and classic British retroism and all the landmarks of London look stunning (even when they’re covered in propaganda). There’s plenty of cheeky nods to British culture and politics – my favourite being the “GBB” being a parody of a certain well known British news organisation which is constantly criticised for being (and as the game quotes) “once great but now a bit shit”. However my favourite aspect of this bustling open world would have to be how the citizens of London interact with it; something I haven’t seen any other reviewer mention is how NPCs dynamically walk in and out of buildings to give a real sense of an actual lived in city that’s not just a load of building facades, its a genius method to making London feel alive. Finally, the soundtrack completes the London feel with plenty of grime courtesy of Stormzy, Skepta and J Hus as well as some head banging British pop rock from Muse, Foals and Sam Fender – bopping along to banging tunes whilst cruising around London is good, clean and simple fun. The activities around the city are also fun and quintessentially British with darts and my favourite pastime: going to the pub, which is lovingly labelled on the map as “get pissed” – this game understands me.
Now onto the main attraction. During its reveal at E3 2019 my first impression was “no way this is going to work, its way too ambitious, how is the story going to work, will it not be too overwhelming?” and I was left cautiously concerned at best. However, I am happy to report that I was so so so wrong, the recruiting operatives aspect of this game is inventive at worst and revolutionary at best. It changes the game completely, every NPC can be your main character and they have their own lives, schedule and even family members (I managed to recruit a grandfather and grandson without even realising – call that joining the family business). Walking the streets to try to find the perfect operative with a mix of hacking skills, helpful attributes and killer arsenal is like playing the lottery and there is nothing more satisfying than finding the right Londoner to join your team. I’ve yet to come across a repeat operative which is great as it makes the game that more immersive and makes you care about each of your unique DedSec team members. An unexpected side effect to this new recruit system is unlike any other open world game I’ve played before is the immense guilt I feel when an NPC gets caught in the crossfire between my operative and whoever I have pissed off. There is nothing more gutting than finding what could have been the perfect operative that is now glorified virtual London roadkill – as awfully practical as that sounds it makes sense when you’re playing.
On a brighter note, a major aspect of the mission structure in Watch Dogs is finding the perfect operative for the job and it’s a genuinely engaging quest to match up operatives to their corresponding missions. Need to sneak into an Albion stronghold? You’ll have to win over an Albion employee and sneak in there in your uniform Hitman style. A mission requiring more brawn than brains? The special operative hitman type has an arsenal of high caliber weapons, dodge roll ability and the awesome Gunkata skill that fuses lethal weapon takedowns with brutal kung fu combat – this is my favourite special operator class as it lets me channel my inner John Wick. Overall this system needs to be seen to be believed, it’s surprisingly intuitive and cathartic to build a varied hacker army.
Although it’s mostly improvements across the board there are a few things that had to be sacrificed. Overall, a lot of the signature Watch Dogs mainstays seem to be absent such as the mobile phone interface, the multiple hacking options such as disabling door panels, and the 3D printed weapons arsenal from Watch Dogs 2 are all absent – this is somewhat made up for by some fun additions such as nail and paintball guns, however not all operatives are equipped with these so are stuck with the lackluster, non-lethal shock weapons. I can accept that you can’t buy weapons on the high street as that wouldn’t make sense with Britain’s strict gun control laws, however, this makes it all the more baffling that the 3D printed guns aren’t in this game as they would make more sense here. I understand it’s an aspect of the operative system that they have pre determined loadouts and there’s the whole weaponry/attributes tradeoff, however, it begins to feel limiting at points as it would have just been nice to enhance your operatives with a new arsenal as upgrading operatives just isn’t really a compelling option with the slightly underwhelming tech upgrades and dull shock weapons. Also the game promotes these weapons as non-lethal however I can’t seem to find a benefit of using these weapons (apart from if you’re a super ethical gamer or want to role play a non-lethal character by choice) as of yet so I usually opt for the much more fun lethal artillery when possible.
I would also recommend turning the difficulty up to hard as, personally, I’ve found the game a little too easy on normal. I got away with a few too many close calls and police chases became less of a tense game of cat and mouse and more of a prolonged obstacle on my way to the next objective – however if you’re going for a permadeath run (which the game lets you choose from the outset) you may find the more forgiving difficulty a blessing. Finally, there are a few aggravating quality of life features missing. For instance, when selecting an objective, you have to press a separate button to also plot a route there on the minimap. This may be to encourage different ways to explore and traverse London, but it gets irritating repeating the process of ‘open map, find waypoint, set a route’ every time you begin a mission.
I’ve also experienced a couple of technical issues regarding crashes which is annoying but has not impacted my enjoyment of the game hugely, and technical issues appear to have been addressed quickly which is a bonus as Ubisoft appears to be committed to delivering a smooth and optimised experience. It is also worth noting here that if you purchase the current gen version of the game that you will receive an upgraded next gen version if you’re planning on picking up one of the new shiny PS5s or Xbox Series X – keep an eye out for our upcoming PS5 thoughts as we’ll definitely be giving it a go on the next gen powerhouse to see what upgrades Legion gets for the next generation.
Overall, I cannot fault Watch Dogs Legion for its ambition and it mostly pulls it off. Combined with an engaging and unique open world interpretation of London and a surprisingly deep story; Watch Dogs Legion is a fantastically unique title within an over-encumbered genre of samey open world games. Its stand out ‘play as anyone’ feature truly feels like the future and I can’t wait to see where they take this concept as I feel a couple refinements could make this feature a stand-out within the industry.