The old adage says it’s grim up North, but I’m not sure anything north of the M25 is as grim as Ubisoft’s devastating vision of a broken, near-future London.
As a fairly dark and twisty person myself, I figured I’d embrace DedSec London’s tale a little more greedily than the sunshine and sea lions of Watch Dogs 2’s San Francisco, but Legion is too terrifyingly real, and just a tad too grim. I doubt the very real climate in the UK is helping much – which clearly isn’t Ubisoft’s fault – but I usually play games to escape the ills of Westminster, not to be smacked over the head by them. I appreciate that terrorist attacks and food banks and too many homeless people add a frosty layer of authenticity to this fictional vision of the capital, and I know this isn’t Ubisoft’s fault, either, but good grief, it’s depressing to recognise so many signs of a fictional dystopia from your local real-life news reports.
Anyway. A devastating terrorist attack rips the capital apart, and DedSec – the hacktivist organisation we’ve known since the start of the franchise – sets to right the wrongs and uncover who was responsible for the attacks and hold them to account. No, it’s not an especially new or engaging conceit, but it’s fit for purpose – just about.
Unlike the games before it that boasted both a sullen facsimile of a human being – that’s Aiden Pierce, in case you forgot him (and most of us have, let’s face it) – and his very antithesis, Marcus Holloway, a man stuffed with charm and good humour – there is no central character in Watch Dogs: Legion. Instead, you play as… well, anyone you fancy, really. Want to be a living statue clad in a golden spacesuit? Fill your boots. Fancy living life as a football eff-wit who lives to smash things up? Off you pop. The world is full of potential recruits, and you can play as any one of them. It’s an astonishing feat.
Trouble is, without a central playable character, there’s little to tether you to DedSec’s cockney HQ. Although the supporting cast is suitably eccentric and delightfully sweary, they lack the larger-than-life personalities of Watch Dogs 2’s Marcus and his crew, which makes them curiously expendable. It’s just as well the game’s chief conceit is that we can play as anyone because I feel no emotional connection to a single one of them. They’re procedurally-generated shells that never feel anything other than procedurally-generated shells and therefore foster no sense of camaraderie, no matter how many group photos you foist upon them at the safe house.
And while the permadeath feature undoubtedly adds a dash of peril to your encounters, ultimately, it only serves to further sever you from the cast. What’s the point of getting attached when their lines are transferable to the next operative on the rota and there are Riot Drones and permadeath to contend with?
The problem’s further compounded by some truly dodgy voice acting that feels peculiarly at odds with the faces attached to it. Stormzy’s voice work is one of few performances that felt nuanced and sincere, but otherwise they only served to divorce me from the world, not immerse me in it, and I ended up with three different women in my squad who all had the same voice and lines. I know it’s not practical to have individual voices for the literally infinite numbers of NPCs strutting about the place, but there’s significantly less variety than I’d been expecting (and if you’ll permit me a stroppy tangent: has Ubisoft never heard of Wales? Despite many Scottish and Irish accents flying the flag for the Celts, I didn’t encounter a single Welsh accent on my travels).
The story, though passable, fails to innovate on the excellent Watch Dogs 2, and it felt very much as if the skills and gadgets – while admittedly expanded this time around – don’t bring much added value to the party. I chiefly defaulted to camo or my spiderbot, particularly when I unlocked the ability to shroud fallen enemies. Few things are more satisfying than taking down an unsuspecting foe with a facehugger-esque squeeze to the face and then shrouding the corpse from view.
Sadly, there’s very little variety in the mission types, too, with most revolving around infiltration, hacking – which is perfunctory if occasionally clumsy – and escaping a restricted area. Once you’ve upgraded your spiderbot and get adept at spotting handy vents, you can often complete missions without ever setting foot in the place, and while it’s initially thrilling to creep around a secret base on the top of Tower Bridge when your operative is tucked away on the ground below, it will eventually grow stale as missions rarely deviate from this template.
I got so good at infiltration, actually, that my efficiency surprised the game as much as it shocked me. In one particularly memorable sequence, I was directed to “survive” whilst my AI companion Bagley – who irritates more than he assists – unlocked a secret elevator. But as I’d stealthily killed every goon in the place with my trusty spiderbot beforehand, there was nothing to endure except the boredom as I waited for Bagley to do his thing. The gunplay remains a little spotty, too, but there are definite improvements in hand-to-hand combat, and it feels like our London foes are made of sturdier stuff than the insta-crumble population of Watch Dogs 2.
You’ll no doubt gauge by the lateness of these words that I was one of the reviewers afflicted by the console-crashing bug that almost bricked my Xbox One X. Sadly, I can’t say I’d been having a particularly great time up until that point anyway, but the bug did put a premature halt to my campaign progress and instead sent me out into London to explore at my leisure. Like many games forged in the Ubisoft mould, this is where the world opens up and I started to enjoy myself.
Driving around mindlessly doesn’t do much for me – I still hate the driving in this series, not least because the music selection is astonishingly meagre, and although I had never heard of Boston Manor before, I am now far more informed of their work than I ever expected to be. Also, the AI of the people roaming the streets of London is flawed to the point of hilarity. Pedestrians frequently – inexplicably – jump into the road rather than away from it.
By the time you start collating Tech Points and unlocking and upgrading your gadgets and gizmos, though, things get considerably more enjoyable. I spent a lot of time as a construction worker, not because of that snazzy hi-viz vest, but because of their super handy cargo drone. Big enough to accommodate both you and its cargo, you can not only use it to get across the city, but also access the collectibles frequently secreted on or around rooftops, too. While it’s not the speediest device, it’s certainly a relaxing way to take in the sights of London and move around.
Unlocking the ability to hijack drones also had a positive impact on my enjoyment, too. At first, the things are hideously overpowered and thanks to the floaty driving, you can’t even outpace the bloody things, but once you’re able to get them and turrets on-side, it should certainly make encounters feel a little less unbalanced, and a hell of a lot more more.
But it’s desperately underbaked. Dialogue cuts out part way through, either because you’ve inadvertently triggered yet another loading screen, or because the game simply crapped out. Sometimes operatives won’t go into cover, which is super fun when you’re in the middle of a gunfight. Although you’ll encounter a number of UK-flavoured tracks adorning the city’s airwaves as you go about your business, the in-car radio – which mysterious follows you from vehicle to vehicle – offers the same two and a half songs over and over again and – sad news – WD2’s earbuds have been removed.
Accents and voice work are dodgy. Missions bug out and either don’t start or can’t be completed. Enemy drones are desperately overpowered, particularly early-game, and there are a plethora of other, less inconsequential issues and bugs including a funny half-hour in which my DedSec recruit was stuck looping her melee animation. They’re not all hangable offences, no, but combined they speak of a game that – despite its delays – may still have benefited from a little extra spitshine and polish.
Yes, it’s fun to pootle around London. Yes, it’s exciting to step past the roped-off areas and explore such iconic landmarks and yes, I did enjoy it the more I played, particularly when I leapt off the predictable story path and made my own entertainment. But without a compelling story or any tangible improvements to the mighty standards set by Watch Dogs 2, Watch Dogs Legion is dark and unpleasant in more ways than one, and it doesn’t matter how many protagonists a game boasts if you’re unable to care about a single one of them.