Monday, 20 September 2021

Watch_Dogs: Legion

International hacker collectivist DedSec has been blamed for a series of terrorist bombings that have ripped through London, killing hundreds. The British government has called on private security company Albion to replace the Metropolitan Police and stop further attacks, but the capital is now a morass of security checkpoints, heavily-armed guards with no accountability and constant drone surveillance. DedSec is regrouping with a new mission: to clear its name and expose those responsible for the bombings. But it needs new recruits...

Watch_Dogs: Legion is the third game in the Watch Underscore Dogs series from Ubisoft. The series has, to date, made an entertaining fist of its premise, which is basically being a Tesco own-brand version of Grand Theft Auto with worse driving, combat and storytelling, but the entertaining ability to hack the world around you. This gives the player some control over the environment, allowing you to remotely open gates, take over turrets, seize control of drones and wrestle control over passing cars and send them flying into a river, if you want.

Legion is the third game in the series and introduces a potentially very interesting and powerful idea: the game does not have a set cast of major characters as such. Instead, it allows DedSec to recruit literally any passing character off the street. Using the traditional Watch_Dogs device of scanning each passer-by's mobile phone, you can quickly discover their political leanings, sports team affiliations and medical or criminal history, working out if they'd be a good recruit for DedSec or not. Sometimes the recruitment systems is as easy as asking, "Wanna join DedSec, bruv?" and sometimes it triggers a mission where you have to do them a favour, like rescuing a family member who's being intimidated by thugs or deleting evidence about their criminal behaviour from a server. The only constants are Sabine, the sole survivor of the original London DedSec cell from before the bombings, and Bagley, a powerful AI that has been subverted to DedSec's cause and serves as your omnipresent "man in a van" assistant.

This initially sounds amazing, and for the first hour or so of the game it was as I had to undertake a series of missions with an elderly pensioner, which lent things a rather different vibe to the usual well-trained, young protagonists who feature in video games. After a while I'd built up a small team of what felt like everyday people, but I found myself defaulting to Myrtle, a late-twenties Irish construction worker who could legitimately enter many of the city's no-go security areas thanks to her job ID, and was impressive in hand-to-hand combat thanks to an unfeasibly massive wrench that was her signature weapon. Most impressively, she could at any time summon a cargo drone which she could use to get around the city and reach the tops of buildings, which a non-drone-equipped operative might have to go through a laborious infiltration mission to achieve. Myrtle became my default protagonist as I set about liberating London's boroughs early on, a surprisingly easy task which you can knock out in a couple of hours and unlocks a whole set of new, more powerful recruits. I did find myself swapping in Rosalind, a spy with a silenced armour-piercing pistol and a mildly ridiculous car with a built-in missile launcher and cloaking device, for missions that required heavy combat. When she got arrested on a mission, I instead deployed Ayodele, a formidable ex-hitman with a varied weapons arsenal. However, even Myrtle remained a viable character through to the endgame.

This signature feature of the game therefore ended up being both impressive but then undercooked: you'll probably find yourself defaulting to a small pool of 3-4 hyper-capable characters and ignoring everyone else. The game does offer up an ironman mode, so if a character dies, they die for good (and Legion's save game system is pretty much limited to saving on shutdown, so there's no easy way to do over missions if things go south), but it's easy to replace even hardcore combat agents with 1:1 replacements even if they fall on a mission. The game is also rather straightforward even on the hardest difficulty, so that's not a major obstacle.

Combat and stealth are functional rather than attractive. As usual for the series, setting traps and luring bad guys into them is a great way of thinning out the ranks from afar before you engage personally; many missions actually allow you to complete them by just using your spiderbot, a remote access drone which can merrily scurry through tiny vents to reach areas humans can't reach. The spiderbot is ridiculously capable, and after you've upgraded it, it can switch on a short-burn cloaking device and knock out enemies with an electrical discharge. I'd estimate I completed around 50% of the missions in the game using the spiderbot alone whilst the operator sat well outside of the mission area, almost impervious to detection. The game does try to make things a bit more challenging than Watch_Dogs 2 by only giving you a spiderbot and not an aerial drone as well, but there's so many passing aerial drones you can take over at any second, this really ends up not being a limitation at all.

However, the lengthy time spent carefully infiltrating enemy locations or hacking your way steadily to victory with a low body count feels a bit redundant when you can often shoot your way to victory in a fifth of the time. The first two games in the series encouraged you not to murder every security guard and police offer in sight, pointing out these were often ordinary people doing their day job. However, in Legion almost all areas are defended by either Albion security guards - whom you see punching pensioners on the street and arresting innocent people for no reason on a regular basis - or by the enforcers of Clan Kelly, a criminal gang engaged in people trafficking, slavery, gun-running and drug-dealing. This removes a lot of the moral nuance of the earlier games and gives you the green light to wade into areas with all guns blazing, especially as your characters in this game are hardier than Marcus in Watch_Dogs 2.

Legion's portrayal of London is excellent. The city itself is well-depicted, with major landmarks all present and correct but also many individual buildings, pubs and even flower stands. There is some compression - where there are five parallel residential streets in a row in reality, there might be one here, and Liverpool Street Station is bizarrely missing when the surrounding tube stations are correctly present - but overall Legion effortlessly becomes the single finest realisation of London in a video game to date.

More of a mixed bag is voice acting and writing. Not having a central protagonist or even a cast of protagonists is a major handicap. Procedurally-generated missions where you have to save one of your recruits who's been kidnapped have your character awkwardly saying, "We have to save our friend!" rather than their name, which sounds okay once but not five or six times through a mission. It's hard to see how this could be overcome, with apparently tens of thousands of name combinations and around twenty different voice actors with several versions of the script for each mission and cut scene, but it does add an artificial air to proceedings. The acting is mostly fine from the actual named, recurring characters, but many of the protagonists feel off, with extremely generic lines delivered in ways that don't always make sense. It turns out having an effectively infinite pool of characters with potentially infinite personalities makes voicing and writing for them in a reasonable timeframe impossible.

The game is pretty solid, but it does feel a little wanting in content compared to Watch_Dogs 2. That game gave you an absolutely massive list of optional activities to take part in, including car, kart and drone racing, and Uber-driving. None of these are present in Legion. Watch_Dogs 2 also had a more interactable environment, allowing you to blow up gas mains under the street to deter pursuit, change traffic lights to create chaos and frame people, even police and security, so they get carted off by the law and thin out enemy ranks before you engage them. None of this is present in Legion, either. Watch_Dogs 2 also had a fairly well-developed mobile phone you could interact with, playing with apps and watching news channels. Mobiles are still in Legion but are extremely limited in their use.

Watch_Dogs: Legion (***½) is a mixed bag, but ultimately enjoyable and worth playing, especially for its excellent depiction of London. The significantly reduced amount of content compared to its immediate forebear is disappointing, and the "play anyone" idea is an absolutely brilliant one which falters somewhat in the execution, but this kind of experimentation in the AAA space is rare and should be applauded, even if ultimately it doesn't entirely deliver on its promise. The game is available now.

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