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It's distinctly strange to be standing outside the window of a virtual recreation of my old flat in Brixton. It's even stranger because I'm two floors up and standing on the back of a giant drone hovering above the faithfully recreated London street below. But that's Watch Dogs Legion for you, a game that lets you walk in a familiar world but bend technology to let you see it in new ways.
Modern London is perfectly suited for being given the open world treatment - and it's a shame we've not seen it done on this scale since The Getaway back in 2002. Carved in two by the River Thames and made up of many visually distinct buroughts, It's easy to pick up the geography and navigate through London without always opening up the map screen - and that's even with the changes Ubisoft has made.
Set in the near future, the familiar London streets are populated by self-driving cars, adverts for fictional companies, and signs of protest are everywhere. The differences aren't just the nods to the future, though, Brixton's famous Bovril art has been replaced with a giant broth sign, the Ritzy cinema has become just a bar, and the country's first Franco Manca pizzeria is missing from Brixont's Market Row. Other recognisable brands like Starbucks have been replaced with fictional equivalents, too. Much of the architecture remains the same, though, and some key bits of art remain, like the David Bowie memorial and the big neon Electric Avenue sign (and with all the letters lighting up for once).
But the broad strokes are enough and it's great to be in a place that feels so different from the US cities we're used to seeing in games.
Much of Legion is familiar, too, you're again playing in a third-person open world game, able to hack the technology around you, turning it against your enemies. Though there are new systems at work, and while they sound dramatic - you can now recruit and play as anyone in the city - they also feel like natural progressions from what came in the last game.
The set up is that Dedsec, the hacker group from the second game, is now a global movement. They're particularly active in London as the city has seen an authoritarian government lean heavily on a private security firm called Albion to surveil and police its citizens. There are protests throughout the city, and Dedsec is supporting the resistance by disrupting Albion and digging up dirt on the company.
Rather than play a single character as in the previous Watch Dogs games, you are now in control of the gang, swapping between its members at will and anyone you meet in the open world can be made into a new recruit.
As I walk through the streets of London I can scan anyone who walks by - this is much as it has been in previous Watch Dogs games. I'm presented with their name and occupation, some biographical details, but also a summary of their skills. There's the barrister who will lower the arrest times of anyone in my gang caught by the police, the construction worker who can summon in a cargo drone you can hijack and use to fly around the city, and the spy who comes equipped with a sports car that shoots rockets - it looks like Ubisoft is happy to lean into the silliness of its world.
What's also exciting to see in the scanning system is that the biographical information of a character feeds into passive abilities. For instance, I scan a character who is a famous fashion designer and, if I was to recruit them into my gang, I'd find that they are more quickly recognised by guards - making them less than ideal for sneaking into high-security facilities.
Ubisoft appears to have done a lot of work to make the variety and diversity of the characters shine through the game. So, for instance, in cutscenes, the team has recorded different versions of the dialogue for your characters, so if your character is a Carribean woman they'll deliver the lines in the correct accent, similarly for a Russian man. This might sound obvious, but that means for every story mission, every line has had to have multiple versions recorded. It's seamless, impressive, and very quickly makes me warm to the people I've recruited into my Dedsec gang.
After exploring Brixton, I moved to Southwark and began seeing what was on offer in the riverside district. Each borough of London looks to have side-missions that bring the area on side. In Southwark that meant hacking a ctOS station, sabotaging an Albion factory, and turning a digital sign into a massive recruitment poster for DedSec.
The ctOS stations are mini-bases that have been in all the Watch Dogs games, and they're a hangover of Ubisoft's old tower design, where every open world game had you climb a tower to reveal the nearby area. Now, though, they're more developed - not just a tower dropped into the environment but a unique space that offers its own challenges.
I needed to reach the roof of the ctOS facility to physically access and hack a panel to loosen Albion's control of the area. I could have gone in guns blazing and fought my way up to the third floor, using lethal or non-lethal weapons. I could have sneaked past the guards, taking them down with silent melee attacks and hiding the bodies. Or using hacked security cameras, turned unsecured devices into explosives to distract and take out passing guards. What I did instead was disable a passing cargo drone, climb onto the back of it, take control of its processor and make it fly me up to the roof - bypassing three floors of guards.
Hacking the ctOS station itself opened up a mission where I had a link to a Albion plane that was flying protestors out of the country. I was able to hack the plane and have it land at a nearby airfield, raising support for Dedsec in the Southwark area.
This is Watch Dogs Legion at its best. The vibrant city is a web of systems that you're free to manipulate or ignore depending on your playstyle. That means you can both play the game how you would like and the decisions you're making are carried through the game - with you playing your customised and hand-picked gang members in each mission. However, all this opportunity does mean the game has rough edges.
I was playing on PC but using an Xbox One gamepad and there are a lot of controls to deal with. Hopefully, with time you'll develop a good muscle memory to press the right button in the moment, but I did have awkward moments like when I tried to switch to my silent pistol with the wrong d-pad button and instead activated my shout emoji, alerting the guard I was trying to sneak up on. Or there was the time I managed to wedge an ambulance between two bollards and spent two minutes trying to get it out with an Austin Powers-esque three-point turn.
While you might not get those rough edges in more generic open world games, like Days Gone or Far Cry: New Dawn, that's only because those games give you far fewer tools to play with. From what I've played of Watch Dogs Legion, I'm happy to play through a few rough edges if it means playing a game that isn't just made up of the same tired open world tropes that have filled games in this generation. I've come away from Watch Dogs Legion genuinely excited to spend time in that city and push at the seams of the city, looking for surprising ways to manipulate its systems.
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