Watch Dogs: Legion is the third entry in Ubisoft's near-future sci-fi stealth sandbox game. Watch Dogs is set in an unsettling vision of the future, controlled by a cabal of corrupt corporations, in a nightmarish always-connected world that examines the extreme possibilities that could emerge as we continue to indulge in tech and convenience at the expense of privacy.
Watch Dogs: Legion is set in London, where virtually every aspect of society has been privatized, run for shareholder profits rather than good service. As you might expect, the populace is on edge, as tensions between the establishment and the impoverished reach fever pitch.
In the middle is Deadsec, the hacker collective framed for terror attacks across the city. Not only must you fight to clear your name, but you must also work to dismantle the corrupt regime, and discover who was really behind the terror attacks taking place across the country.
We went hands-on with Watch Dogs: Legion at a recent remote press event with Ubisoft and came away thoroughly impressed and hungry for more.
A more intricate sandbox
There's a school of thought that Ubisoft's open-world formula is getting a bit repetitive, but Watch Dogs: Legion aims to spice things up with a unique approach to playable NPCs, and a multi-layered approach to its sandbox.
Like in previous installments, you can scan any NPC in the game and learn some aspects of their lives. It gives you a glimpse into the voyeuristic hacker world that is Deadsec, the game's protagonist hacktivist group. In Watch Dogs: Legion, though, the mechanic is dialed up to 11.
Through recruitment missions, you'll actually build up your very own London Deadsec cell using the game's randomly generated NPCs that live in the game's world. And I do mean live. If you're investigating specific NPCs, you'll notice that they have routines, too. They go to work, they go drinking, they go home. In some cases, they might break the law, or you'll find out they're sleeping rough. This investigative work may be required to recruit less sympathetic NPCs, giving you insights into how you can give them a hand to soften their view of your organization.
Each NPC has unique proficiencies when it comes to undertaking missions. Say you want to infiltrate New Scotland Yard, which is London's police HQ, now taken over by a shadowy private military corporation. You might want to use one of your Deadsec recruits that has a particular affinity for stealth and infiltration.
In our three-hour remote play session with Watch Dogs: Legion, we recruited various NPCs and experienced an impressive range of unique events and missions for getting those characters into your group. It's not all fighting and hacking either, maybe you'll just end up in a pub playing darts, or having a pint.
Once recruited, you can then customize them further with unique outfits to create a signature look for your group, or just go in with total random designs. You may want to customize them too, since every now and then you'll end up with a pretty wacky voice and style combo that doesn't always seem to add up.
Starting a revolution
At a higher level, you're effectively trying to start a revolution in Watch Dogs: Legion, as the near-future UK setting imagines what Britain would look like if practically everything had become privatized and automated. Millions are out of work having lost their jobs to robots, delivery drones litter the skies, and there are CCTV cameras literally everywhere.
The presence of the game's for-profit law enforcement and governance can be felt everywhere, from self-driving connected cars, to propaganda in the news, to gigantic holographic billboards plastering Big Ben and other London landmarks. Watch Dogs: Legion portrays an oppressed society on the brink of a revolutionary war, and Deadsec is quite happily sewing chaos from the middle.
Although we were playing remotely, it was easy to tell how much of a step up Watch Dogs: Legion is in terms of visual quality. Ray tracing reflections and lighting add a new dimension to the game, which makes you oftentimes just want to stop playing and stare at the scenery. The game's interior locations are also quite impressive. One segment had us climbing through Big Ben from the perspective of a mechanical spider drone, which presented a surreal juxtaposition between Victorian engineering and modern-day robotics.
To help incite revolution, it's these sorts of symbolic acts of defiance that help drive public opinion in Deadsec's favor, which has been used a scapegoat by the media and privatized government to cover up their corruption. In typical Ubisoft fashion, changing public opinion will result in more impressive scripted story events and missions that drive the plot forward. This time around though, it feels a little less like the game came off an assembly line, and instead, feels like it had more of a human touch, with more hand-crafted areas and sequences that add another dimension to the impressive realism of Ubisoft's open-world design.
Although we only experienced a small slice of Watch Dogs: Legion's array of tech gadgets and weapons, it felt as though they were more than enough toys and overlapping interactions to make the sandbox more entertaining than ever. You can do some impressive and creative trap setting using the spider drone to sneak around and investigate opportunities in the environment. The game's very British non-lethal weapons still feel great to use if you do end up in a gunfight. For the most part, though, the game does feel oriented around stealth.
Alerting the authorities creates stacking hazards GTA-style, which will eventually see aerial attack drones converge on your position. Watch Dogs: Legion felt fairly tough, which is a rewarding change of pace from some of Ubisoft's previous games. You are, at the end of the day, just a regular citizen with crazy hacking skills, and that sense of vulnerability adds tension and, in some ways, invention, to the game's combat. Making sure you have the advantage often comes down to your wits, rather than brute force.
We are Legion
It remains to be seen if Watch Dogs: Legion can truly subvert the expected limitations of Ubisoft's heavily-used open-world design, but these early glimpses we've gotten are incredibly promising. The interior locations we explored felt a little more hand-crafted than some of Ubisoft's previous games, with surprisingly grisly environmental narrative beats to discover, and a world that felt believable to the point of being slightly unsettling. And I mean that as a compliment.
Watch Dogs: Legion drops on October 27, 2020 for Xbox and PC. Watch Dogs: Legion comes with unique optimizations for the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, which are up for preorder if you can find any stock, ahead of November 10 general availability.