After decades of running over pedestrians by the dozen in open-world action games without a second thought, it’s actually a little bit unsettling to think that each of them might have unique talents and even the potential to be a hero. Not so much that I drive more carefully or anything, but after playing Watch Dogs: Legion I think about it a little bit more. Legion’s clever twist makes this third game in the series play like a hacker version of State of Decay, where every NPC can be recruited as a playable character and each has their own weapons, abilities, and traits that can give them very different playstyles. That lends it a much more sandboxy feel than the previous games because any given character can make the same mission feel dramatically different. It can be rough and experimental in places, but I have to hand it to Ubisoft for being willing to take chances like this.
Legion’s map is a vision of a near-future London metropolitan area, and similar to Watch Dogs 2’s compressed version of the San Francisco Bay Area it is beautifully detailed and immediately recognizable – but this time it’s also starkly different from how we know it. Its skies are dense with autonomous drones patrolling the streets and ferrying parcels; streets are filled with a mix of old gas-guzzlers and Tesla-style self-driving cars; and its landmarks are emblazoned with corporate-fascist banners and bright holographic projections. It’s a cool look, though cruising around busier areas can definitely tank your frame rate even on a GeForce RTX 2080Ti and Core-i7 7700K (even without ray tracing I couldn’t get close to holding 60fps at 1440p when I was moving fast).There aren’t a lot of direct connections to the previous two games, but the story still centers around the DedSec hacker/vigilante group, this time serving as a resistance movement against a techno-fascist police state that’s clamped down on Britains’ freedom after a major terrorist attack (blamed on DedSec). There are some overt political themes in play here, such as privatizing the police being a bad idea, how giving up personal privacy for convenience and security is a good way to end up in a dystopia, and maybe immigrants shouldn’t be rounded up into camps and deported.
Each chapter of the lengthy story campaign plays out like a Black Mirror episode about technology and greed run amok in the hands of sociopaths. I’ve definitely seen most of these same ideas in movies and on TV in the past decade, but it does have some decent villains going for it, including a totalitarian tech mogul and a ruthless leader of human-trafficking gangsters. Your ally characters, meanwhile, are all fairly bland and forgettable – but DedSec’s resident smartass AI, Bagley, is a genuinely funny persistent voice in your ear who playfully mocks your human abilities without becoming a GladOS knockoff. There’s plenty of it, too. If you’re stopping on the winding road toward uncovering the identity of the mysterious Zero Day terrorists to do sidequests, recruitment missions, and collect optional stuff, I could see a playthrough lasting you in the neighborhood of 40 hours.
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It’s good that Bagley steals the show because the playable characters do not, simply because there are so many of them. Instead of controlling an individual like Aiden Pearce or Marcus Holloway, you’re controlling the entire team and can swap between them at will. More than that, the big idea of Legion is that virtually any NPC can be recruited into DedSec, and that system is pretty well realized. Just walk up to anybody you see on the street, scan them to check out their abilities, and then do a mission for them – usually something involving beating up some gangsters or wiping incriminating evidence from a server – and then they’ll join up and become playable. Whether it’s a construction worker, a stock broker, a medic, a protester, a hitman, or even a security guard, they can all be recruited in one way or another, though sometimes you have to work a little harder by drilling down into their personal profile to find ways to win them over.
It feels a bit like hunting and dominating uruks in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and finding a powerful character – such as a drone specialist or a spy – is like striking gold. Their appearances and voices are largely randomized and are enough of them in the mix that I didn’t see a lot of repetition in my single playthrough, though if you choose to spend your time recruiting an army you’re bound to see some of the same quests a few times. Also, some of the voices are changed up by modulating them heavily, which can lead to some people sounding as though they’re in the Witness Protection Program, and the lip synching overall isn’t great.
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