The basic pitch for Watch Dogs: Legion (opens in new tab) pretty much boils down ‘what if Hitman was a hacker?’ That original reveal idea of being able to recruit and play as any NPC you see has been expanded to include archetypes that can act as disguises and let you get into certain areas without raising an alarm. Need to get into a building site? Why not recruit a construction worker whose hi-vis vest and hard hat will let them move freely around unbothered. When you do that, it’s hard not to feel like a certain suited assassin, as you weave through guard patrols to your goal. And that’s before you start hacking the life out of everything in sight or taking pot shots at enemies when your cover eventually gets blown.
Dressed for success
It’s a character perk known as ‘Uniform Access’ and while, just like a Hitman’s disguise, it’s not a completely free pass – guards still get suspicious if they get a good look at you, or see you doing anything unusual like running – it’s a twist on the usual wall-hugging creep-a-thon of the last two games’ more covert stealth action. Being able to wander freely creates a very similar game of cat and mouse to IO Interactive’s stealthy disguise ‘em up, only this time with a far more technological edge. Using your magic hacker phone to send someone a text message, or trigger mechanical distraction, so you can slip by while they’re looking has a whiff of Mission Impossible to it all as well, as you stand in plain sight, planning what to do next and feeling cool.
You can still recruit anyone, but Watch Dogs: Legion has added much more obvious pros and cons via character perks. When the game was first revealed recruits had more arbitrary buffs like extra melee damage, more health, or extra effective gadgets. Now there are clearer, role-based benefits with options like police and security guards joining construction workers for a uniformed free pass in certain areas. Other characters have abilities that clearly change the way a mission plays – a Hacktivist can scan keys to open doors from any range, which can make a huge difference if it avoids sneaking through a heavily guarded area to otherwise get in range. Elsewhere a Spy has a 007-style watch that can jam enemy weapons, a football hooligan (yes, really) can summon other people in a fight. There are even buff style characters – a recruited lawyer will get an arrested member of your team released sooner, while a paramedic will heal injured ones faster.
These obvious ‘hero’ recruits are highlighted on the map to save you scanning anyone that walks past but you can still sign up… anyone that walks past. That way you can pick people just because they look cool and usually still find something you can work with. A Transit Operator might come with a double-decker bus as their personal vehicle for example, or a homeless person has the ‘Panhandler’ perk that lets them beg for ETO, the in-game currency.
The idea of building the team you need to save London from its dystopian totalitarian oppression using such a varied range of candidates adds an interesting layer to the flexibility that’s already there. The hacking of the previous two games is largely unchanged from what I’ve played so far. It’s more streamlined in terms of control but still lets you hack endless chains of computers, cameras and more, to pop locked doors, reach sensitive data, blow junction boxes to stun enemies, or move cranes to reach new areas. This time the near-future setting adds in extras like heavy-duty cargo drones you can hijack and ride on to reach new areas.
The near-future setting is an interesting one too. It’s recognisably London – from its rows of grimy Victorian townhouses, inner-city areas, Thames’ side locations and tourist spots like bridges and The Tower. It’s all subtly altered, however, by a sky full of drones and a brutally unforgiving police state, enforced following a series of terrorist bombings. Dedsec, the underdog hacking group of the previous games, has taken the blame for the attacks which were actually engineered by a mysterious Illuminati-style group called Zero Day (which is a computer term for an exploitable security flaw that hasn’t been found by whoever it affects). That’s led to Dedsec being designated a terrorist organisation and Albion, effectively a mercenary force, seizing permanent control of London after a temporary security assignment following the bombings.
The more things change
There’s more than a whiff of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s cultish villains here as the game’s overall aim seems to follow a similar structure – bring down Zero Day by finding and working your way through the lower ranks to reach the upper layers of leadership and finally the big bad behind it all. Here, though, instead of being a member of an ancient secret organisation trying to free people from an unseen oppressor pulling the strings in the background, you’re a member of an all-new… secret organisation trying to free people from an unseen oppressor pulling the strings in the background.
It looks like there’s a lot more potential here than both the previous watch Dogs or Assassin’s Creed games. Both from your hacking powers and the abilities of those you recruit, and that’s the most interesting thing about Legion. During my three hours hand-on I focused on completing the missions as they were laid out for me but it often felt like there were plenty of alternate options to explore – ideas and combinations to experiment with in an ‘am I actually meant to be able to do this?’ sort of way. Like previous games there are security barriers to turn off, distance doors to reach, and window cleaning lifts to take to the roof. But now there are new questions like ‘what sort of chaos could I cause if I recruited that bus driver and used the bus?’ Or ‘what happens if I use a protester’s Megaphone perk that ‘rallies people to fight’ in a mission area before I start?’
It’s that sort of freedom that looks like it’s giving Legion’s open-world an edge on its previous instalments. As fun as they could be, they were also basically a third-person cover shooter with the added ability to trigger vending machines from a distance. From what I’ve seen with my hands on there’s a sense of far more things to combine and play with in unpredictable ways. Simply being able to experiment in what almost feels like game-breaking ways while tracking down recruits with interesting abilities feels like a game in its own right, which bodes well for the actual story side of things.