How Watch Dogs: Legion finds its feet with this limitless dystopia set in merry ol' London

Watch Dogs Legion Crew
Watch Dogs Legion Crew (Image credit: Ubisoft)

While the first Watch Dogs installment fell short of meeting high expectations, a Bay Area-bound 2016 sequel delivered the sweeping diversity an alluring open world. Watch Dogs: Legion shakes up Ubisoft's open-world adventure once again; a move that finally helps the rebellious trilogy stand out in the crowded action-adventure space. The result is an interconnected and vivid dystopian London, matching the awe of the series' first debut.

After an action-brimming E3 2019 demo, we've wrapped up our early impressions ahead of its slated 2020 debut.

Taking the keys to the city

Watch Dogs: Legion doubles down on the complexity of its backdrop, aided by both new gameplay systems and a foreign metropolis. Across the pond to dystopian near-future London, Ubisoft strives for heightened emphasis on non-player characters (NPCs) and the world they inhabit. The Toronto-sited studio dubs its vivacious locale a "simulation," only affirming strides to expand its action-adventure playground.

Recruitable NPCs are Watch Dogs' long-needed differentiator

The new "play-as-anyone" mechanic lies at the heart of Watch Dogs: Legion, tapping into the franchise's past groundwork of diverse bystanders. With no successor to ex-protagonists Pearce and Holloway, the focus shifts to inhabitants themselves. Using tools to recruit a digital army of up to 20 NPCs, this newest installment ushers richer strategy. It highlights an ongoing push to expand Ubisoft's open-world sandboxes with added granularity and role-playing traits, mirrored by Far Cry: New Dawn and Tom Clancy's The Division 2.

Adopting a European city is an understated upgrade, ditching the grid-based layout of U.S. hotspots and welcoming a varied palette. Seeing modern London streets represented in games is an unusual sight, bringing complex road layouts and centuries of diverse architecture. The result is familiar (though condensed) depiction as a London native, justified by a post-Brexit twist – even if Ubisoft distances itself from the raw politics.

Friend or foe? You decide.

Ubisoft claims every NPC in Watch Dogs: Legion can be recruited to your squad, each bestowing defining traits, backstories, relationships, and schedules among the city. It extends to bespoke real-time cutscene animations in line with personas, also branching into fundamental gameplay traits. The result is characters that simply feel more authentic – with the added weight of permadeath raising the stakes across your crew.

All NPCs have a stance on the DedSec and their allegiance to the rebel group determines the ease of enlisting them to your hacking roster. The more favorable to your cause, the quicker to recruit, with side quests achievable for each NPC to improve your standing. We singled out and tracked one bypasser in our demo, confronting his brother's harasser, with sprawling effects on DedSec's perception across the family.

The shift helps make Legion's London feel deep and thriving; two traits where previous Watch Dogs titles have faltered. However, the lack of a sole curated protagonist leaves room for doubt to deliver a compelling narrative. Ubisoft has provided only a brief glimpse of its world so far, touting five storylines comprised of 60 main missions. But with such scale and versatility, it's yet to prove it won't lose sight of its curated story.

Watch Dogs Legion promo shot

Watch Dogs Legion promo shot (Image credit: Ubisoft)

Legion conveys a city visibly denser and more dynamic

Further building on advancements of Watch Dogs 2, the latest open-world encourages player choice via flexible encounters. Combat thrives on shared elements of predecessors, accommodating both stealthy tactic-driven hacking and unhinged chaos.

The new NPC system expands on these philosophies, leveraging a class-based system for character progression. Every budding recruit must be assigned one of three classes, determining field abilities and upgrades. The "Enforcer" carves an assault role reliant on heavy arms and combat proficiency, while the "Infiltrator" using augmented reality to stay in the shadows. The accompanying "Hacker" class expands the interactive environment with further advanced options. Each brings new scale and opportunity gameplay while adding essential depth the NPC recruitment.

Watch Dogs: Legion conveys a city visibly denser and more dynamic than past entries, with new-found NPC twist expanding strategy and role-playing influences. It's the differentiator the franchise needs to thrive among a sea of open-world rivals, founded on concepts that feel genuinely innovative to play. While moment-to-moment gameplay will be familiar for veterans, veering from its tried and tested sandbox could finally help Watch Dogs stand independently.

Watch Dogs: Legion is due on March 6, 2020, headed to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.

Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.