Hands-on Impressions: Watch Dogs: Legion

Watch Dogs is one of those interesting video game franchises that’s big, but hasn’t usually felt huge. Sure, the first pre-release footage from the original Watch Dogs at E3 2012 set the world on fire, igniting speculation about where the then-upcoming PS4 and Xbox One consoles would take new visual and design standards in video games. That said, when the game finally released, its downgraded visuals and generic storytelling were met with some derision by early adopters, despite Watch Dogs nonetheless being an enormous sales success, particularly on PS4. The follow-up, Watch Dogs 2, then seemed to move the series in the right direction, delivering a more interesting story and characters, along with a brighter, more fun game world. It took quite a few years for this sequel to catch up to the original’s massive sales numbers though, despite Watch Dogs 2 generally being better received than its predecessor. When it came down to it, Watch Dogs just felt like it was missing something, even considering its legacy as the rebirth of the highly popular Driver franchise.

The series’ upcoming third entry however might just be providing that extra something that Watch Dogs has truly needed as a brand. Watch Dogs: Legion is completely changing the game for its franchise, without forsaking its hacktivist-flavoured, open-world roots. The setting has been moved to a dystopian, near-future London, England, for starters (possibly in response to the prior two Watch Dogs games being especially big commercial hits in the U.K.), and rather than feature one player character to succeed Aiden Pearce or Marcus Holloway, Watch Dogs: Legion instead offers a literal legion of characters to play as! This is because Watch Dogs: Legion allows you to build an entire hacktivist resistance to London’s corrupt authorities, allowing players to recruit whomever they please from the game’s open-world pool of NPC’s, regardless of race, age, gender or whatever else. It’s a brilliant idea for both innovation and inclusivity, while proudly elevating the Watch Dogs franchise for its debut on the upcoming next-gen consoles, the PS5 and Xbox Series X.

Watch Dogs: Legion made an impressive splash during its announcement showcase at Ubisoft’s E3 2019 keynote too, but it’s gone a little quiet since that point, particularly after suffering a lengthy delay out of its originally planned March 2020 release window. Fortunately, developer, Ubisoft Toronto appears to have been doing some solid work with the game since it was pushed back, as I saw for myself, once I was given the chance to go hands-on with an in-development build of Watch Dogs: Legion. I had about four hours to play some story missions, recruit new allies, and get a taste of how the various gameplay mechanics work. To put it succinctly, I came away very impressed as well. We’ll have to see how the final release shapes up, of course, but in its current form, Watch Dogs: Legion appears to be a very promising next step for open-world sandbox games as a whole, let alone this somewhat unlucky franchise that’s always this close to joining the esteemed ranks of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Rainbow Six as the cream of Ubisoft’s crop.

As my play session began, I started out as the kind of protagonist you may expect in a London-set action-adventure game with stealth elements; A handsome British secret agent in a suit. This would suggest that Watch Dogs: Legion isn’t completely throwing out the more bright and fun direction of Watch Dogs 2, despite its bleak setting and premise. Acting off of a tip that someone was planning an attack on Parliament, my spy character eventually makes his way into an underground tunnel, at which point, I’m introduced to the game’s fundamental mechanics; Sneaking around, performing stealth takedowns, hacking the environment to open paths and see vital information, and of course, survivng the odd firefight. All the while, my A.I. overseer, Bagley delivers some witty snark over my mission, while Sabine, my human handler, tries to direct me to my objective. It’s equal parts classy and comical, and this provides an authentically British sophistication to the writing and characterization behind Watch Dogs: Legion’s personalities.

As usual, the otherwise complex activity of hacking is made very simple in Watch Dogs: Legion as well. A mere tap of the left bumper activates context-sensitive hacks that can distract enemies or open paths, while holding the bumper down can give you more options, including arming traps for unsuspecting enemies. The spy character I started out as during this intro mission also has access to exclusive spy gear, though most of it was sadly restricted, due to my being stuck in a claustrophobic underground environment. Even here however, I got a chance to enjoy some of Watch Dogs: Legion’s enhanced ray tracing effects, among other graphical flourishes. Watch Dogs: Legion feels remarkably polished, I must say, even with my demo being capped at 1080p resolution and 30fps performance.

While this means I unfortunately couldn’t assess the next-gen PS5/Xbox Series X potential of Watch Dogs: Legion, I did at least get to enjoy some PC-specific enhancements, thanks to play testing the PC build of the game, using an Xbox One controller. The settings were nonetheless capped at the level of performance and graphical fidelity that one can no doubt expect in the current-gen PS4 and Xbox One builds of Watch Dogs: Legion however, complete with some stubborn, somewhat intrusive load times every time I was defeated, or switched characters. On the bright side, Watch Dogs: Legion still looks pretty good on current-gen console/mid-range PC settings, but eliminating these load times would mark a huge incentive to play the game on PS5 or Xbox Series X!

In any case, combat and navigation should be very familiar to Watch Dogs veterans, complete with the ability to jump between camera hacks, in order to get an ideal view of your surroundings, while also remotely hacking visible, context-sensitive prompts. A big difference in Watch Dogs: Legion however is a more reliable melee combat system. Now, even if you’re spotted, you can perform a simple combo to knock out enemies, possibly cancelling an alert before it reaches any other foes. It’s very much appreciated, especially when you’re playing as characters like construction workers, who wield heavy wrenches that make melee attacks even more powerful. Even as a spy though, I found that a combination of stealth and targeted frontal melee strikes were an ideal way to stay undetected, while also dispatching whichever enemies crossed my path. The combat has never felt smoother or more satisfying, and that immediately made me quite happy, as a longtime fan of this series.

Despite my valiant effort to stop the threat to London however, it was ultimately for naught. Not only do several bombs explode throughout London, but DedSec, the hacker collective that routinely employs Watch Dogs protagonists, including the many characters you’ll control in Watch Dogs: Legion, are framed for the attack. This chaos also easily allows several enemy factions to consolidate their power in the city, including a crooked security company called Albion, and an organized crime syndicate called Clan Kelley, both of which served as the main threats I faced throughout my demo session. At this point, the demo skipped ahead to somewhat later in the game, finally allowing me to explore the open-world London on my own terms, starting with the ability to begin building my very own DedSec resistance!

I already had a few usable characters upon gaining control again, mind you, including a fresh new spy character. I was also given the ability to control a female construction worker, a male police officer, and a male hacktivist, each of whom offered their own unique perks and abilities. These characters can permanently die if they’re felled in the line of duty as well, though thankfully, permadeath is also not forced on the player, and was disabled in my demo. If you don’t want the stakes to be quite so high, you can elect to simply have your defeated characters be injured or arrested, rather than permanently killed, which is less believable, but does save you the trouble of constantly having to recruit new allies, if you have a habit of playing more recklessly. As with many recent Ubisoft games, there’s no wrong way to play Watch Dogs: Legion, per se, though you’ll definitely have an easier time preserving your allies if you don’t constantly run everywhere, guns blazing!

While I was technically given the option to recruit whomever I wanted from the streets of London, I was tipped off by the game map to an especially valuable NPC, specifically a retired hitwoman that’s single-handedly trying to take down Clan Kelley with her bare fists! Certainly a woman of conviction, but she probably needs a few friends. You can profile anyone with your in-game smartphone in Watch Dogs: Legion, so long as they’re nearby, and it’s very impressive how detailed the NPC’s and their routines are. You can probe their activities by the hour, see where they work, whether they have many friends or enemies, relationship problems, addictions, and whether they like or dislike DedSec already. There’s bound to be overlap between NPC habits after several hours of play especially, but it’s amazing how much detail has been put into each separate person in the game world, making them all feel unique and meaningful to recruit in their own way, especially when they come in all races, genders and dispositions.

For now though, my hitwoman needed to join the cause! She was a bit of a drive away, necessitating that I snatch a car from a grumpy bystander, but fortunately, the Albion thugs in the area didn’t notice nor pursue me, which they sometimes do if you steal cars or assault civilians within their line of vision. Players will also appreciate that even the heavier cars are very speedy and easy to control in Watch Dogs: Legion as well, with some driver-optional vehicles even gliding over the road with barely any friction! I only caused one police chase that I can recall, after accidentally ramming a pedestrian on a sidewalk, but most of the cars are so fast that Albion often struggles to keep up with you, so long as you drive a good distance, and hide for a bit. Beyond that, the ease of skillfully driving cars, in open defiance of all traffic laws, never seems to attract the attention of the authorities.

Once I did reach my prospective recruit, I was disappointed to find that she’d gotten herself captured, necessitating that I free her from an improvised Albion detention area. I discovered this after switching to my cop character, which allowed me to simply walk into a police station and use their ctOS information hub, whereas non-police characters would have been immediately flagged and attacked. After I tracked down her vigilante activity, I also got to ask around about where the hitwoman was being held, at which point I noticed that cutscenes and dialogue alter themselves around whomever you’re currently controlling. This is very cool, and seems to be perfectly seamless, with each potential character you can use having their own unique slang and mannerisms during dialogue scenes. I never detected a sense of anything seeming canned in Watch Dogs: Legion, and that’s a big deal in a game that allows you to play as literally whomever you want to recruit from the street!

The caveat of course is that most, if not all prospective recruits have a subjective mission that you have to complete before they’ll join your side, which can include any number of activities from solving problems with the law (as I’d done here), resolving personal conflicts, or performing a service for them as a gesture of goodwill, something that’s especially crucial when you’re trying to recruit someone that disapproves of DedSec. This impromptu jailbreak was the cost of recruiting my hitwoman, who happily joined my resistance after I rescued her! She brought the ability to perform instant gun takedowns and more efficient evasion, making her ideal for situations where I knew I would have to drop a lot of bodies. I decided to immediately switch to her as well, which, unfortunately, meant another several seconds of loading in the case of my demo. Like I said though, if you’re playing on PS5, Xbox Series X or high-end PC settings, you probably won’t have to put up with loading so much, if at all, in the final release.

From here, it was time to try out some story missions. My next task began with a seemingly innocent series of server pings coming out of a coffee shop, a mission that supposedly pitted me against SIRS, the sinister surveillance agency that’s responsible for more or less obliterating all of London’s privacy at this point. Along the way however, I decided to try and shoot down a surveillance drone that had been stalking me for several blocks, which unfortunately resulted in my hitwoman being incapacitated by a rush of Albion soldiers. This meant that my hitwoman was arrested, and thus inaccessible for around 45 minutes or so of real time (you can reduce this ‘time-out’ if you have a barrister on your team, which I unfortunately didn’t), forcing me to switch to my construction worker, who, helpfully, was right next to the objective. The plot thickened here to boot, since a cryptophone drop led me to a double agent within SIRS, who, conveniently enough, had just passed legislation allowing the police and Albion to shoot dissenters dead without cause. Because of course they did.

Well, it just so happened that my contact wanted to meet in a construction site. Good thing I was a construction worker then, so I could reach him without the suspicion that would have been provoked if I’d been playing as someone else. Well, I would be able to reach him at least, had he not been snatched by SIRS operatives, that is! Fortunately, after doing some hacking to gather surveillance data (using a circuit completion puzzle that should be very familiar to Watch Dogs fans!), Bagley helped me reconstruct an AR simulation, where I could find visual clues showing that the contact was nabbed by a van, which has since sped away. I then had to continue following the AR data across the streets of London for a bit, only to find that my targets had switched vehicles, which is also where I learned that the kidnappers were Albion, not SIRS.

Fortunately, after another hack by Bagley, the contact was located in, how convenient, another construction site! Since I was already playing as a construction worker that could walk through this area without arousing suspicion (so long as I didn’t accost anyone), I walked into the multi-level site, being careful not to get too close to guards. I unfortunately ended up being spotted anyway though, after trying to call a transport-friendly cargo drone a little too conspicuously, another ability unique to construction workers. This resulted in my construction worker being out of commission for a while, on account of critical injury (recruiting paramedics can reduce this inaccessibility time, much like barristers can with arrested characters), thus forcing me to switch to my cop ally. Now, the game entirely changed, since I suddenly had to be very careful sneaking through the construction area, knocking out guards when necessary, and making sure to never be spotted. After hacking a remote door key and setting a particularly clever electrical trip to knock out the guard in front of the door, I was then able to rescue the contact, who tipped me off to a group called Zero-Day potentially being the ones to frame DedSec for the London bombings. After that intel was gathered and passed on, I snuck back out of the construction site, fully undetected, and fast traveled back to one of DedSec’s safe houses.

Here, I learned that the intel checked out, and Zero-Day not only framed DedSec for the first bombing, but appeared to be planning another bombing to boot! Thus, DedSec had to quickly look for information on Zero-Day’s rogue members, and that unfortunately meant breaking into the HQ of SIRS itself. There was no easy way to do this. After walking through the front door, I had to try and disable a mess of cameras and security systems undetected, and even then, an unavoidable platoon of guards took out my cop character, right as I prepared to reach my objective. Fortunately, my hitwoman had just gotten out of jail at that point, and she finished the job for me, despite me not making any effort to sneak around this time. Fortunately, my more aggressive approach paid off in this case, allowing me to drop a lot of enemies, and power my way through to the ctOS hub that I needed. Taking control of an adorable little spider-like maintenance robot, I then crawled through to a server, while solving another circuit puzzle to expose the information I was after. My objective was now completed, but because I’d been so aggressive with getting there, I had to quickly sneak down the roof while hordes of Albion soldiers shot after me! It was a thrilling escape, from an obstacle of my own design, but it wasn’t long before I got back to the ground, fully successful.

This resolved one of the two story missions available to me in the demo. The second available story mission moved me away from SIRS, and towards Albion, whereupon I had to fast travel back to a safe house, in order to get briefed about Nigel Cass. You may remember him as the billionaire warmonger villain from Watch Dogs: Legion’s Ubisoft Forward trailer. Anyway, DedSec is desperate for a lead on where to track down Cass, and they happen to find one after an old scientist protegee of Cass, Hamish Bolaji, resurfaces from hiding in London. If DedSec can make contact with Bolaji before Albion does, they’ll know what to do next. Simple enough. Off I go!

Well, okay, maybe it’s not quite that simple. Bolaji is very understandably paranoid, so even when I do arrive at his flat, I learn from Bagley that it’s jam-packed with booby traps, booby traps that I’ll have to remotely disarm. I took my faithful hitwoman on this job, where she walked down to some docks, only to learn that necessary access to the roof isn’t available. I had two options here. If I were a construction worker, I could summon a cargo drone to ride up to the roof, Green Goblin-style. Since I’m not a construction worker however, I had to find a window washing platform to hack, which, fortunately, wasn’t too difficult, beyond a need to hack two platforms in order to get all the way up to the roof. Once I set up a rootkit at the top, I then saw just how many traps were around the apartment, and immediately got to work on the necessary circuit puzzle to remotely disable them, all while listening to a shock jock radio show called, “Claire and Present Danger.” Cute. Regardless, the puzzle spanned the apartment, required leaping between a couple of cameras, and featured several locked nodes, but eventually, I disarmed the whole mess,

After taking a leap off of the roof into the nearby water, and making my way into the flat properly, I got contacted by Bolaji via video call, who naturally didn’t believe my shady hitwoman’s story that she was DedSec, and was trying to save Bolaji from Albion. In a twist of fate however, an Albion squad found me at the apartment during my conference with Bolaji, confirming my story, and allowing Bolaji to remotely detonate the apartment so that I could get away!… Or, that was the idea. Unfortunately, I was still cornered by a large platoon of Albion soldiers at this point, whereupon I was very thankful that my current player character was a hitwoman! Even then however, an overwhelming group of soldiers and drones quickly overpowered me, rendering my poor hitwoman arrested for the second time in my demo playthrough, thus forcing me to switch to my spy character, who could thankfully skip that hair-raising escape.

Bolaji at least saw the light at this point though, tipping DedSec off to the fact that Cass is planning something big for the city, to be announced at a meeting within Albion headquarters, which just so happens to be situated in the Tower of London. A far bigger twist however is the fact that the only way to reliably eavesdrop on this meeting is to recruit a turncoat Albion soldier to DedSec! The obvious benefit to Albion soldiers is that they can wander freely through Albion-controlled spaces without arousing suspicion, so long as they don’t get too close to anyone. One Albion soldier just so happened to be illegally tapping into hospital servers as well, which I discovered after some light recon. Pefect for DedSec! As it turns out, the woman was trying to fix a security exploit that allowed Clan Kelley to make off with some stolen organs. Once I found the organ truck and stole it back for the soldier, she immediately joined my resistance, giving me the perfect route in to spy on Cass!

The next task played out much like one from a Hitman game, with me taking control of my new soldier ally, and having her carefully creep around a bunch of party guests, while trying to sneak into Cass’ room. I had to wander the tower for a bit, steal some security keys, and avoid getting too close to anyone, but once I finally got into Cass’ meeting room, I overheard the man himself, divulging his grand plans for London. Surprise, surprise, they’re bad. Cass uses this opportunity to announce Project Themis, an initiative of drones that can target anyone, anywhere in London, and take them out with perfect precision, thus preventing any perceived crime before it has a chance to take place. London’s police commissioner is the only person that expresses doubt about the ethical ramifications of Themis from here, and, in true Bond villain fashion, he gets a bullet in the head from Cass for his concern. It’s at this point that my bogus security pass gets flagged as well, forcing me to beat a heated retreat through some catacombs underneath Albion’s headquarters.

After a rather uncomfortable trek through some sinister, haunting tunnels, I finally emerge in the Thames, having satisfied all of my story missions available in the demo. I was running short on time at this point, so I was only given a quick look at some borough takeover gameplay, sadly having to miss any minigames on offer in places like pubs. Rest assured however that Watch Dogs: Legion maintains these little distractions from its two predecessors, along with some new minigame additions like darts. Anyway, borough takeover gameplay allows players to destroy Albion supplies or sabotage Albion equipment, which gradually liberates sectors of London from Albion’s control. This of course means less Albion soldiers in those sectors, and more of an ability through which NPC’s and your player characters alike can be free to avoid scrutiny from the bad guys, at least to some extent. It’s a mechanic that’s very reminiscent of Ubisoft’s own Far Cry games, which also involve players gradually chipping at a villain’s resources through destruction and sabotage, gradually weakening their grip on certain territories as a result.

I only got to two out of three borough takeover tasks before my demo time was up. That’s unfortunate, but eventually, I will get my chance to complete my London takeover, once Watch Dogs: Legion releases to the public later this year. This latest sequel appears to be the kind of franchise evolution that Watch Dogs is in need of as well. Sure, the cost of a virtually limitless pool of potential characters means that you still won’t find heaps of narrative depth, nor personality development here, but the appeal of building your own hacker resistance, and unleashing it on a dystopian London, really speaks for itself. I’m even more excited to see how Watch Dogs: Legion fares on next-gen consoles as well, where it will no doubt shed some of those pesky load times. This may be just the latest open-world Ubisoft game, but Watch Dogs: Legion feels like it could be that open-world Ubisoft game that finally allows this franchise to achieve its true potential. The sheer amount of detail behind each of London’s recruitable citizens is staggering, and the flexibility through which you can build the DedSec you want is especially impressive in cutscenes, which actively adapt to your character archetypes in surprisingly organic ways. This is a game that truly lets you be anyone, and in today’s diversity-focused society, that’s a very big deal.

Plus, you can take back London with an entire collective of badass hacker grandmas if you want to. Which other video game allows you to do that?!


Watch Dogs: Legion will release on October 29th, 2020, for Xbox One, PS4, Stadia, and PC via uPlay and the Epic Games Store. The Xbox Series X version of Watch Dogs: Legion will launch alongside the console on November 10th, 2020. The PS5 version of Watch Dogs: Legion will also launch alongside its console in Holiday 2020