Watch Dogs: Legion Review: Drone Away in Dystopic London


With Watch Dogs: Legion, the Ubisoft game about rebelling against surveillance states has finally arrived in the surveillance capital of the world: London. The English capital has one of the widest networks of CCTV cameras on the planet, with over 60 cameras per 1,000 people. Of course, that’s not the only reason it’s been picked. London is also one of the most recognised cities in the world. And Ubisoft Toronto — the developer who took over from Ubisoft Montreal, which is busy with another major 2020 release, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla — also chose London for the diversity it offers, and the value of coming together to fight for a common good. That, in turn, fuels the new Watch Dogs mechanic: play as anyone.

It’s why the game isn’t called Watch Dogs 3 or Watch Dogs: London, but Watch Dogs: Legion. Unlike Aiden Pearce in Watch Dogs and Marcus Holloway in Watch Dogs 2, there isn’t a central protagonist in Watch Dogs: Legion. Instead, you can choose to play as any London citizen (save for the antagonists that drive the story) once they have been recruited into the hacktivist group DedSec. It could be a young athlete, a beekeeper, a drone enthusiast, a professional hitman, a renegade judge, a former MI5 spy, or even an enemy who once hated your guts. Instead of building a legion of followers, as Watch Dogs 2 had you do, Watch Dogs: Legion wants you to assemble a team of myriad individuals — a maximum of 40 — who all bring something unique to the group.

This could be something obvious, like expertise with guns or drones, or access to resources such as a flashy car or construction tools. Or it could be something different. For example, a homeless man who sweeps the streets helps him blend into the environment, escape detection, and evade pursuit. Operatives, as they are called on Watch Dogs: Legion, have weaknesses too. Some include being a shopaholic, less physically fit, gambling away money, or giving themselves away in stealth due to a chronic medical condition.

Speaking of stealth, Watch Dogs: Legion involves a lot of it. It’s not only DedSec policy to use weapons as a last resort, which is the game’s way of asking players to prioritise hacking, the thing that drives Watch Dogs. Rather, going in guns blazing will attract so much enemy firepower that you’re likely to find yourself overpowered. Even if you manage to sneak in quietly, there’s always the rise of being spotted by a human or a drone. And if you don’t take them out quickly and silently, it’ll escalate to gun use. I found it much better to remain at a distance, hack phones to distract opponents and security cameras to discover a path to the target, use drones to move around facilities and then use the all-new “spiderbot” — an eight-legged drone — to get the job done.

Day Zero

All this helps you tackle the threats hanging over London. Those threats not only touch upon the ideas that have been running through Watch Dogs’ core from the start — the likes of datamining, mass surveillance, government overreach, and invasion of privacy — but also trade on civil rights, militarisation, immigration, authoritarianism, artificial intelligence, and human consciousness among others. In doing so, it’s able to draw parallels to British history, from the recent debacle of Brexit to its days as a colonialist force. Watch Dogs: Legion shows London at its most dystopic, where football stadiums have been converted into “processing centres” for immigrant detainees, and where civil liberties are routinely and aggressively violated, with the casual oppression on the streets.

Watch Dogs: Legion begins with a series of coordinated terrorist bombings (they will remind many of the 7/7 London bombings) in a near-future post-Brexit London, after a DedSec member and a talking artificial intelligence called Bagley put an end to a plot to blow up the Parliament (which is naturally inspired by Guy Fawkes’ infamous failed Gunpowder Plot). A rival hacking group called Zero Day blamed DedSec for the attacks, and its members were largely hunted down and killed. Meanwhile, London’s Metropolitan Police is disbanded, and private security firm Albion takes a very literal hands-on approach to rule of law. Albion is once described as the largest private army in the world. Bagley jokingly compares them to the British government, though in this case they are more like the East India Company.

With London’s DedSec affiliate at its lowest, Watch Dogs: Legion asks you to pick your first new operative from 18 presets. With assistance from Bagley the AI and access to DedSec code embedded into ctOS (central Operating System) that has centralised all computer networks, you set out to build a resistance to take down the new military rulers (Albion) and find the real culprits (Zero Day). But that’s not all. There are four main storylines on Watch Dogs: Legion — Zero Day hackers, Albion private security, Clan Kelley mafia, and a techpreneur called Skye Larsen. To help in your quest, you can even recruit Albion employees and members of Clan Kelley, who help you gain access to restricted locations that would otherwise be a lot tougher.

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The unseen face of Zero Day in Watch Dogs: Legion
Photo Credit: Ubisoft

Team up

Recruiting is at the heart of Watch Dogs: Legion, and it helps unlock gameplay choices that were not possible before on previous entries. For instance, a construction worker can stroll into a construction site undetected. Barristers, on the other hand, will help reduce jail time for your operatives. You’ll need them if you’re arrested — depending on modifiers you’ve got on your team, you’ll be locked out of your character for 20 minutes; that increases with successive arrests — which happens if you’re detained in a place you’re not supposed to be. Watch Dogs: Legion also offers an optional “permadeath” feature. If all your operatives are dead, hospitalised, or arrested at the same time, the game ends. Of course, this is more palatable in a game where you can have a team of 40 playable characters.

As you roam around London, you can select any passer-by to see what they have to offer. If you think they would be a good addition, simply add them to the team. In some cases, this would be enough to make them join DedSec. But in most cases, you will need to chat them up. Watch Dogs: Legion will also suggest you to hire skilled recruits from time to time. These recruit missions are temporarily available and must be started within the time mentioned. The process usually involves doing a life-saving or professional favour before they agree to come on board. It involves a bit more work if the person you’re trying to recruit doesn’t like DedSec. And if they are a sworn enemy of DedSec, forget it, because they will never listen to you to begin with.

To recruit someone who hates DedSec (a red thumb signifies that on their profile), you’ll need to “deep profile” them, an option that becomes available with a tech upgrade. This shows their full daily calendar, from what they do for work, the friends and family they see, and any illicit activities they are up to. The game will highlight recruitment opportunities as you browse through their calendar, and you might have to spend some time observing an individual before you chance upon something you can use to recruit them. Watch Dogs: Legion wants its fictitious near-future London to feel like a living, breathing city, and the developers say they have spent considerable time to ensure that these routines don’t feel like a hotchpotch of elements fused together by sheer randomisation.

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The profile UI you see when you hover over anyone in Watch Dogs: Legion
Photo Credit: Ubisoft

For all the work that has gone into crafting the London populace, the interactions between them are hardly convincing. Your operatives simply walk up to strangers to try and recruit them. If someone walked up to me on the street in a heavily militarised city, asked me to help build a revolution, and join an organisation that’s being blamed for multiple terrorist attacks, I would laugh at them and say: “Are you a cop?” It feels unrealistic that strangers would open up to each other so quickly, as Watch Dogs: Legion shows. The game does much better with the tinier throwaway moments. If you roam around in your Albion uniform outside of missions, prepare to hear profanity-laden insults shouted at you. “Pig” is among the words used.

Hack and drone

Watch Dogs: Legion currencies

There are three in-game currencies in the new Watch Dogs game. The previously explained Tech Points (a green hollow diamond) allows you to buy and upgrade tech. ETO (e symbol) is the game’s version of bitcoin that has replaced the British pound. It is used for all purchases inside in-game clothing shops and such. And finally, there are WD Credits (gold coin inscribed with “W”) that are bought with real money in the menu store. It can be used to buy not just cosmetics but also ETO, a collectibles map, and new operatives.

Of course, the more important thing is what you get to do with your recruits. Most missions are about figuring out a building’s labyrinthine layout by hacking into CCTV cameras and looking for the most hassle-free path to the assigned target. The last bit is usually a ctOS access port or an item that can be triggered or picked up by your spiderbot — that must stay hidden from enemies and enemy-controlled drones. In some cases, you’ll need to unlock a network by solving a puzzle that involves a bunch of levers to reroute data flow. And sometimes, you will have no choice but to walk into the front door to physically interact with an object.

To help you stay undetected and navigate the complex web, Watch Dogs: Legion gifts you a wide array of technological upgrades — gadgets, weapons, hacks, and more — that you can unlock with “Tech Points”, one of three in-game currencies. You can make yourself temporarily invisible with AR Cloak or cloak enemy bodies with AR Shroud. You can disrupt enemies or jam their guns as you can get in closer for a melee takedown. Or you can distract them as you covertly make your way elsewhere. You can also disable/ hijack enemy drones or even have them betray their masters. Or you can deploy your own spiderbot with an automated turret to cover angles for you.

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Hijack drones and turn them on enemies from a distance in Watch Dogs: Legion
Photo Credit: Ubisoft

At times, there are so many things to hack in Watch Dogs: Legion, that with a quick glance, I wasn’t quite sure what the cursor and imaginary line that points to it was actually attached to. Owing to that, on a couple of occasions, I accidentally triggered something I didn’t want to, which led to guards being alerted and a temporary setback. In short: the UI can get overcrowded.

For our non-lethal tastes, Watch Dogs: Legion feels very much a drone game. After all, the spiderbot is technically a drone too, given it’s a remote-controlled vehicle. My favourite mission takes place on the smallest of scales — it involves a mini-mini-mini-drone — and still kept me at the edge of my seat, thanks to the tiny margins that you’ve to perform within and the fact that it lacks in checkpoints, which means you’ve to be extra cautious. Another enjoyable one is set inside Big Ben, turned into a vertical platformer.

London Calling

As you build out your DedSec team and tackle the missions, you’ll get the opportunity to explore London. Well, more like a compact and redesigned version of eight London boroughs: City of London, City of Westminster, Camden, Islington & Hackey, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, and Nine Elms. I took a walk along some non-touristy London streets that I remember and found them to be massively compressed. Albion has a tight grip and heavy presence across London, but you can do a bunch of activities to “free” boroughs and turn them into a defiant force. Freeing a borough not only reduces Albion presence and makes its populace easier to recruit, it also unlocks new missions, a skilled operative (no recruitment needed), and the locations of all Tech Points.

You can move around London’s boroughs on foot, in vehicles, or on the top of cargo drones. We didn’t enjoy driving in Watch Dogs: Legion as there seems to be no weight to the game’s cars. Bikes feel heavier and hence control better. You can also turn on a new “Autodrive” self-drive feature for all vehicles on Watch Dogs: Legion if you don’t feel like driving. You can use this to look around the world for hacking or recruiting opportunities, but Autodrive is buggy. It ran over a pedestrian once and brought down Albion heat, which forced me to take manual control if I didn’t want to be arrested for the AI’s fault. In other more forgivable cases, it would end up in the wrong lane and then have to take a detour, increasing driving time.

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Bikes are admittedly more fun in Watch Dogs: Legion
Photo Credit: Ubisoft

And that’s not the only bug in Watch Dogs: Legion at launch. We encountered severe frame rate drops on multiple occasions with the Xbox One X. Watch Dogs: Legion also got stuck on a loading screen once; I waited 10 minutes and then killed the game. There are a lot of loading screens in general and they take a while (a minute easy). It’s a shame Ubisoft didn’t use the London Underground like Marvel’s Spider-Man did for New York Subway to infuse some creativity into loading screens. Speaking of the Underground, you can use its stops for fast travel, which I preferred over driving.

Theoretically, that should be much less of an issue on next-gen consoles. Watch Dogs: Legion arrives on the cusp of console generations, with new machines due in two weeks or so. This isn’t the best version of the game, and neither is this the complete experience. Ubisoft will ship four-player co-op multiplayer in December, and that is why this review pertains to single-player only. In its current state, Watch Dogs: Legion is largely about avoiding or studying humans. As such, it can feel like a lonely game. And since you can recruit and then play with anyone, there’s no personality to the characters and no one you particularly care about. Watch Dogs: Legion lacks a soul. It’s also a passive game, since there’s no active push-and-pull. Albion took over London, and now you push them out one borough at a time.

Some of this is fitting, for what it’s worth. For a game about hacktivists whose expertise lies in getting access to data that is being hidden or secured to keep the public in the dark, Watch Dogs: Legion usually tasks you to do just that — information retrieval. Multiple storylines deal with the human element, and how that’s being erased with the promise of a safer and more advanced world. Except that’s not what it’s really about. Surveillance capitalism reduces humans to numbers and patterns, and if those ones and zeroes are going to take on the insidious power structures, it’s going to require a large group of dedicated individuals — a legion.

Pros:

  • Ability to recruit any passer-by
  • Recruiting offers unique gameplay choices
  • De-emphasising guns over hacking, stealth
  • Attention to detail to London’s diversity
  • Near-futuristic London looks believable
  • Some small-scale missions are terrific

Cons:

  • Lacks in personality
  • Citizens’ behaviour in militarised London unrealistic
  • Too many hacking opportunities causes overcrowded UI
  • Frame rate drops on Xbox One X
  • Driving is not enjoyable
  • “Autodrive” is buggy
  • Long, bland loading screens

Rating (out of 10): 8

Gadgets 360 played Watch Dogs: Legion on the Xbox One X. The game is available October 29 worldwide on PC, PS4, Stadia, and Xbox One. It costs Rs. 3,999 on PlayStation Store and Microsoft Store, $44 (about Rs. 3,250) on Epic Games Store, and €60 (about Rs. 5,200) on Ubisoft Store. You can also get Watch Dogs: Legion as part of UPlay+ (soon to be Ubisoft+) for €15 (about Rs. 1,300) per month.

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