Ahead of its release, we take a final look at how Ubisoft has developed the Watch Dogs series.
Do you folks know what a "secret game of the year" is? It's sort of an internal topic of discussion here, and what constitutes such as title, is quite simple; it's a game that critically, or perhaps even logically, is too flawed to be considered a true Game of the Year contender, but it is, when push comes to shove, the one you had the most fun with.
Back in 2016, that's what Watch Dogs 2 was to me. Incredibly dense, filled with exciting objectives that could be tackled in a number of ways, and filled to the brim with obvious mistakes. A classic Secret Game of the Year. And now it looks like Ubisoft might be able to repeat that same success.
After a delay of more than six months, Watch Dogs: Legion is finally upon us, and I recently spent four hours playing around with the game's recruitment system, its hacking and its deep, dense open world, and it quickly became clear that Ubisoft has been both ambitious and precise in its conceptual framework here, and Legion might be the series' best entry yet.
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But let's back up a bit. We're talking dystopian London in a frighteningly realistic near-future rendition. Brexit, the advancement in AI technology, unemployment and general unrest, has led to the take-over of Albion, a private security and semi-militaristic organisation that promises personal safety at the cost of freedom - you know the drill. Albion obviously must be challenged, and so DedSec enters the narrative framework, the group that played central roles in both Watch Dogs and Watch Dogs 2. Here though, you are not an outsider looking in, but rather you play as the organisation itself, and this gathering of freedom fighting hackers are your protagonists.
The set-up isn't really innovative, nor particularly creative, but it does lend itself well to the overarching structural framework that Legion attempts to establish. Gradually, bit by bit, you have to retake London, utilising a vast gallery of characters, which you, at will, can expand by recruiting whoever you come across in London. Recruiting, rebelling and taking the fight to Albion strongholds is the name of the game here, and while recruiting can easily be described as Legion's central gimmick, consider this more a basic step forward for the series in general.
But the point is; I don't mind that, and depending on your personal tastes, neither should you. First off, this version of London is actually one of the more impressive open worlds I've come across in recent years, completely blowing other Ubisoft worlds out of the water. Every backstreet, every nook and cranny is brimming with detail that separates each borough from the others, and if you head down a drowsy street, you are likely to come across something handcrafted, something built by designers. That's big for Ubisoft, a company that does have a tendency to create worlds that are too big yet that have too little in them to see and do.
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Furthermore, one big fear I had going into the session was that the recruitment mechanic, which has remained central in Ubisoft's showcase strategy, would ultimately detract from the amount of strategic freedom the hacking abilities would give the player. After all, solving open objectives using a variety of tools is the hallmark of Watch Dogs, and so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that it remains just that; when entering an enemy compound, you can still bounce between security cameras, hack keys for various locks, take control over enemy machinery, and gain access to previously inaccessible areas using cargo drones or cherry pickers. It's a delight to experience a sequel which only expands and doesn't remove or dumb-down popular features, and that's what Legion does. This is still Watch Dogs, in all its forms, there are just more layers on top.
And let's talk about those layers for a minute. No, I didn't play Watch Dogs: Legion long enough in order to properly assess whether there's sufficient versatility in the mission design in terms of when you recruit Londoners to your cause. Sure, there's nothing inherently personal to the process in and of itself, as you simply approach an individual, and solve problems for them, but judging from our four-hour playtime, and five separate recruitments, it remained an enjoyable addition to the formula. In one case, I had to help a friendly hacker redirect organ transplants to needy civilians, rather than being stored for military use, and to do that I had to complete several missions. Sure, the objectives are usually the same, like hacking a terminal or stealing a vehicle, yet strung together they form unexpected patterns that remain enjoyable throughout. Another mission had me go undercover in an Albion stronghold, in order to retrieve sensitive documents. Will that versatility and freshness remain through 20+ hours of playtime? That's hard to say.
There is a more prominent discussion to be had around this mechanic, though. I was personally worried about not anchoring the story through one central protagonist. If you are all of London, isn't that the same as being nobody? A story needs a focal point, and if you care so little about the character you are controlling, well how can you possibly grow to care? I found there to be a pretty simple solution though - I started thinking about it like Pokémon. You collect, but you also pick out individual units to form a tightknit group, an Ocean's 11 of cockney hackers if you will, a cast of characters that you grow to know and like. So, not expanding too much, but maintaining a small number of favourites that you grow accustomed to ended up making that potential problem seem more bearable.
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Any issues? Sure, technically some glitches remain, and while London did look rather beautiful (with Ray Tracing enabled, mind you), facial animations and up-close details aren't the most next-gen I've laid my eyes upon. Furthermore, Legion continues the trend of not having a jump button, which remains a quite puzzling decision. While we're at it, expect it to take a while for you to get a grip on the sheer number of in-game systems, mechanics and strategies at play here. It's not necessarily a compliment either, because Watch Dogs: Legion is so brimming with stuff to do, mechanics to use and systems to understand, it can sometimes get in the way of itself. Oh, and yeah, the driving is still unsatisfactory, but you already knew that.
What remains though is a solid impression of a game that does justify the wait, and which does have things to say. I was thoroughly impressed with what Hocking and the crew have put together here, and it'll be interesting to see whether they can actually pull this off. At least I'm rooting for them.