My first ten minutes with with Watch Dogs Legion saw me invade a high security compound to delete bank records as a dodderry old woman armed with a stun gun and a turret drone before making a daring escape through Camden Town on a moped.
I think it’s safe to say that that’s the quickest a game I was skeptical about has ever won me over.
It’s not that Legion had to try that hard to win me over, to be fair. I’m actually a pretty big fan of Watch Dogs. I’m of the opinion that Ubisoft’s hacktivist stealth action franchise is severely underrated. Okay, so the first game really was just bang average, but Watch Dogs 2 was genuinely superb, thanks in no small part to its stunning depiction of San Francisco.
So why was I initially skeptical about Watch Dogs Legion, the third game in the series? It was all to do with the game’s central concept, which allows the player to take control of anyone, anywhere in Ubisoft Montreal’s digital recreation of London.
Every single NPC is waiting to become a character in the story, I was told by the game’s director Clint Hocking just before my hands-on session. Through the magic of some impressive procedurally generated AI, each has a unique backstory, daily business that they go about, family, personal relationships, and jobs.
In previous Watch Dogs games you could target an NPC and take a quick look at who they were and maybe what they did for a living. Legion doesn’t open a window into their lives, it tears the wall down completely. They have full, actual lives, and there’s an entire world full of ’em.
It’s a stunningly ambitious concept, and a deeply fascinating one to boot. Can you really blame me for being a little nervous that Ubisoft Montreal would crumble under the sheer weight of its own incredibly lofty goals?
Based on what I’ve played so far, it looks like the studio knows what it’s doing. When the demo loaded up, I found myself in a pub with a darts world champion who would typically hang around until 1AM before going home. Across the bar from her was a social media influencer who once pulled seven people out of a burning building.
Each character also has a unique perk. One might be extra stealthy, while another will be able to do ten percent extra damage with shotguns, and so on.
Once you’ve found an NPC you like the look of, you can undertake a quick mission to win them over and recruit them to Dedsec, the hacktivisit group from the previous two games that are dedicated to fighting oppression misuse of power.
I don’t know exactly how diverse these recruitment missions will be, but the one I undertook was the aforementioned caper as a little old lady. It didn’t take long to complete, and I’d soon recruited Reginald to join the good fight.
From there, you can choose between your recruited “troops” at any time from a menu to summon them to where your current character is, or fast travel to wherever they are at that time on the map. I’m told that when you aren’t controlling one of your team, they’ll simply be going about their daily business.
Each character on your team can choose from one of three classes. You’ve got your standard stealth, an assault class for more aggressive play, and a tech expert that favours gadgets over basic combat.
Oh, and contrary to previous rumours about Watch Dogs Legion there are guns and lethal weapons in the game. On the flispide, you can approach all fights with non lethal weapons such as tasers and stun guns, if you so choose.
The amount of variety in approaching missions is incredibly promising, and should help keep things fresh over Legions 50 or so main mission and countless side missions and open world tasks, because this is a Ubisoft game after all.
Gameplay is, as far as I saw, pretty much exactly the same as it was in Watch Dogs 2. You can approach fights however you want, whether that be via stealth, gadgets, weapons, melee, or simply find ways to avoid conflict completely.
During my opening mission with gran, I managed to sneak into the compound by hacking into cameras and downloading the access codes, but soon had to shoot my way out after I was spotted.
Both stealth and shooting feel great in Legion, and being able to switch between so many different characters with different classes and abilities on the fly means we’ll be able to approach every mission in whatever fashion feels the most appropriate.
As far as gameplay goes, my only real complaint right now is that driving feels a little bit naff. This was the case in the original Watch Dogs, but was something Ubisoft managed to sort in the sequel, so I’m hoping the shoddy driving is simply a case of the alpha build, and isn’t representative of the final product.
Finally, we have the setting of Watch Dogs Legion; the big smoke itself. One of the most impressive things about Watch Dogs 2 was its recreation of San Francisco, and it’s obvious that this same level of care and passion has gone into building a digital London.
I only really saw Westminister and Camden in my demo, but I think I can safely say that this is the best version of the English capital that I’ve ever seen in a video game. Exploring Camden Lock and the market – a place I’ve visited countless times over the years – was an absolute joy. I’m seriously impressed by the amount of detail in the world, and I can’t wait to see the rest of the city.
A big part of the wonder of Watch Dogs 2’s open world was in its perfectly curated soundtrack that captured the vibe, and while Ubisoft couldn’t tell me anything specific in terms of music choices at this stage, I was assured that a similar effort will be put into Legion.
If that means I can zip around town on a motorbike as an old lady while listening to The Sex Pistols, I am 100 percent in and will be campaigning for Legion to win every award going.
I’m especially intrigued by Ubisoft’s depiction of the city on the brink of collapse, thanks to the rise of AI and something called Brexit. As it turns out, it was a corrupt government and artificial intelligence that were stealing jobs and ruining lives, so deporting immigrants didn’t actually solve anything. In the game at least – I’m sure everything will be fine in real life. Probably. Maybe.
Whether or not Ubisoft fully embrace the political commentary that’s bubbling under the surface of Watch Dogs Legion remains to be seen, but it would be a real shame if it didn’t. Whatever your opinion on Brexit, it is a very real thing that will have an impact on the UK, and I’m intrigued to see Ubisoft’s take on it – even if it is obviously exaggerated.
For now, I have to say I’m seriously impressed by Watch Dogs Legion. It manages to successfully build on the solid foundations that were put down by Watch Dogs 2, while introducing a ton of exciting new mechanics and concepts. I can’t wait to head back into this digital London when the game launches next March.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.