james debate
james debate

Tuesday 8 December 2020

Developed by Ubisoft Toronto
Published by Ubisoft
Genre Action-Adventure
Platform PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Stadia

watch dogs legion brexit london game ubisoft xbox playstation pc windows trump
A great game needs to successfully marry the essential trio of concept, execution and fun. Those that only manage to pull off two of the three will always feel as though they have fallen short.

Watch Dogs: Legion is the latest entry in Ubisoft's Watch Dogs franchise. For the uninitiated: picture an open world action game in the style of Grand Theft Auto, but with more computer hacking. The unique hook of the Watch Dogs world is the ability to get up to all kinds of Mr. Robot-style computer wizardry. Using your in-game phone you can disable security systems, remote control vehicles and drones, create distractions and perform any multitude of other fun shenanigans. 

But this is not just "Anarchy: the Videogame". The Watch Dogs franchise differentiates itself from its peers with its boldly political worldview, never more so than they have done with this latest iteration. With Legion, Watch Dogs takes its aim firmly at Brexit. Set in a near future London where Brexit has happened, and the country has devolved into a far right dystopia where politicians get away with literal murder and corporate greed runs amok (in other words, 2021). Players are tasked with organising the resistance, recruiting freedom-loving Londoners to fight against the corrupt powers that be, and take back the streets for the people.

The big new feature with Legion is "play as anyone", the idea that you can recruit literally any person you see in the game into your ragtag bunch of hacktivist rebels. That drunk football hooligan at the pub? Sure. Kindly meter-maid? You bet. Batty old pensioner who you wouldn't think could hurt a fly? Of course, and she will absolutely decimate a highly trained squad of assassins in a heartbeat. You can even recruit enemy NPCs with a little extra work that offer infiltration benefits. Basically anyone you see walking around London, friend or foe, can be added to the team. 

This impressive feat is achieved through some pretty clever randomisation algorithms. Every NPC in the game has a randomised physical appearance, personality, backstory, skillset and voice - there are apparently twenty or so voices in game, which are modified in pitch and speed to create the illusion of variety, to mixed success.

As a concept, I think it's fantastic. The London setting obviously appeals to me as a lifelong London resident, while the far-too-close-to-home political storyline will hold extra significance for those of a more moderate or left wing persuasion who have been horrified by the events of the past few years. The ability to live out some rebel fantasy and stick it to fictional baddies who are clearly allegories for the baddies of the real world provides some undeniable catharsis.

The execution, unfortunately, is somewhat mixed. As is usually the case with randomisation in games, the algorithm can produce some weird results. This can include some pretty terrible looking or sounding characters and, more problematically, some weird combinations. In my play-through I came across old white ladies with thick Jamaican accents, posh suited men with "chav" voices, and several other jarring results that frankly didn't work. In addition, despite the efforts that have supposedly gone into the game to create variety in NPCs, I only ended up encountering five or so distinct voices. Of my thirty-strong gang of rebels I had maybe fifteen with the same bland cockney yobbo voice, one effete British posh-guy, one Irish accent, and most of the rest with the same "chav" voice remixed into different pitches. This may be simply a bug that will get ironed out, but in my experience at least I found a disappointingly slight amount of variety.

This system also has a few fundamental issues to it. In particular, Legion sorely lacks any kind of a character progression. What the game really needs is some kind of an RPG style skills and levelling system that adds an actual character arc for the people you recruit. Without this, it all just feels a bit superficial. The characters you recruit are little more that action figures that you pick out for a particular look or ability, there's no real depth to them and no narrative beyond that which you imagine for yourself. That character you recruited might only have a few short lines of history in the game, but in their mind the player might have their own sense of who this character is and what they're about that helps enrich the experience.  Gamers without that sense of imagination might find it a bit lacking. 

But for all its flaws, this play as anyone approach is ambitious and undeniably fun, particularly when you find the right group of characters. My core team included a smarmy, alcoholic private detective, a corporate IT assistant and homebrew drone enthusiast, a street artist, along with many others. It was a pretty awesome group. If you're like me you'll spend most of your playtime roaming around finding characters you like, and leave the main story campaign until you get bored. That's fine, but eventually it does wear thin.

It doesn't help that there's not actually all that much to do in this game. Aside from recruiting characters, there is a main story campaign, 2-3 "defiance" objectives in each part of town that allows you gin up a rebellion, and a single stream of repeatable hacking missions that are pretty bland. The endgame in particular is really disappointingly lacking in content and could have used a few more types of repeatable or procedurally generated missions. London is beautiful in-game, but they really could have done more with it.

The core gameplay itself is pretty fun. Solid stealth mechanics, serviceable ranged and close combat. It's competent rather than spectacular, but it feels right. The pinnacle comes with the addition of remote spider-bots and drones that are capable of infiltrating a building through means not available to humans, such as flying or squeezing through tight air-vents. The ability to hack into computer systems provides a lot of fun options, whether it's jumping between cameras to get close to the target and hacking remotely, or abusing the security systems to mess with the enemy. There is also a series of upgrades that the player can purchase to augment all of the above and add a few additional tricks to the repertoire.

There's good bones here, but ultimately I think so much of the development time for Legion was spent on trying to make this wildly ambitious play as anyone idea work that they've neglected the game in other key areas. The result is something that is undeniably good fun to play, with a clever gimmick that sometimes works, but not a huge amount of depth or longevity. If they can tighten up the randomisation algorithm and expand the game with a chunky mission pack, then Legion could be truly great. For now it's merely good, a proof of concept for something much grander.

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