Diane Ganguly is a totally ordinary Londoner; one of the nine million NPCs who put the “Legion” in Watch Dogs Legion, since they can all be recruited and made playable. She’s a talent agent in her early thirties, with a pet owl, an anti-immigration voting record, and a history of going to furry conventions. As I said, totally ordinary. Until now, that is.
Underground hacker collective DedSec has just contacted Diane, tasking her with rebuilding the local resistance against omniscient, fashy security megacorp Albion. The odds, it’s made clear, are overwhelming. Diane will have to keep to the shadows, working every advantage she has, if the renewed DedSec London is to survive. Naturally then, Diane immediately steals a high-powered sports car, and embarks on a full-on, hundred-mile-an-hour Ragnarok of a joyride through Westminster, while retro footie belter “Three Lions” blasts from the stereo.
This was the first five minutes of my game. And it’s good goofs, for sure. But it’s also a perfect illustration of my biggest stumbling block with Watch Dogs Legion. Here is a game that’s extremely serviceable as a cartoonish urban mayhem generator in the vein of a GTA or a Saint’s Row, with the additional flavours of ‘dodgy geezers’ and ‘hacking’. But it also wants to be an extremely earnest game about technology, personal liberty, transhumanism and authoritarian oppression. These are two very tough things to achieve at the same time. And on a holistic level, it doesn’t really work.
I will say this up front: Watch Dogs Legion actually manages much greater political coherence than I was expecting. I think it abstracts the struggle against fascism a little too far into Saturday morning simplicity (you replaced Albion propaganda with a stylish DedSec ‘ReSisT’ poster: Camden’s DEFIANCE meter has risen by one point!), which feels grating at best, depressing at worst, in a world that has slid halfway into the game’s setting over the course of its development. There is no room, here, for the banality of evil.
But fuck it, it’s at least unapologetic about which side of history it wants to be on, and there’s little bet-hedging here for the sake of being ‘apolitical’. So on the whole, good job. Unfortunately, all of the mega-sincere hacktivist chat, the full in-universe podcasts on the ethical minefields of civic connectivity, and the reams and reams of tech-heavy lore, feel entirely at odds with the crash-bang-wallop, cor-blimey way the game is played.
I never felt like a hacker in a desperate resistance movement. I felt like an arsehole wizard with a smartphone instead of a wand, forcing a world of machines to wreak havoc on itself as I capered between blinking pellets of arbitrary achievement on the map. Never once did I have to download drivers, switch anything on or off again, create an account, identify the squares containing traffic lights, or go through any of the other purgatorial frustrations involved in making computers do anything useful. I just sat on a cargo drone like a cackling goblin, swooping over the Thames and commanding boats to smash into each other. For ages.
These riverside jaunts were cracking fun. So were Diane’s chilling rampages, and my petty afternoons spent frightening people with hijacked drones. But it all felt very… off-script. And since there were no real consequences to these adventures, no matter how high the body counts got, I felt more motivated to dick around with the Internet Of Things You Can Fuck Up than play the story crafted for me by Ubisoft. The main plot soon became the sidequest, and its story of a David and Goliath struggle felt increasingly alien to the game I was actually playing.
And this isn’t some petty, highbrow quibble. Play and premise undermine each other at every turn in Watch Dogs Legion. The game does everything possible to telegraph Albion as this monolithic, all-seeing epitome of the corporate surveillance state, but they never feel remotely credible as a threat. It’s so easy to run rings around their rent-a-grunts that I ended up feeling more sorry for them than anything. The poor bastards couldn’t surveil their way out of a paper bag.
This is testament, I suppose, to the breadth of the problem-solving toolkit on offer, via the many kinds of hackable objects in the world and the way they can interact. Putting my getaway car on auto drive, for example, and then flying a drone behind it in order to have a good old laugh compelling ambulances to smash into my pursuers, made me feel like a very clever sausage indeed. And this, of course, is what the Watch Dogs series does best.
And because it all works so well as a great big chaos generator, the worldbuilding ends up feeling superfluous, with its heart in the right place but quite annoying, like a teenager who takes every possible opportunity to mention that they’re a communist. Everything is drenched in zeitgeist: people mutter about the spineless government gutting the NHS, a sneering far-right dickhead called Nigel keeps coming on the telly to gloat. Everything is esports this, crypto that, darkweb forums the other… God, does nobody in this city just enjoy gardening?
It all wants to feel so current, and so real, and so punk. And sometimes, it gets to the edge of managing. These are good writers! But it serves only to constantly winch my disbelief into the air, only for it to crash to the ground moments later, as everything once again dissolves into an Eastenders-themed Westworld.
It is, as I have said, a right laugh when it does so. And not just because I find cockney hollering extremely funny. By and large, the mayhem is every bit as mayhemic as you would expect from such a sprawling, high budget, game. The side activities (bareknuckle fighting, parcel delivery, football keepie-uppie, darts, photo mode and so on) are solid-to-good, the close combat offers satisfyingly meaty feedback even if it’s a little shallow, and there’s a vast amount of content to get through. But as decadent as it sounds, this embarrassment of riches is exactly what you’d expect to see from a flagship release in this genre. What, exactly, is new here?
What separates Watch Dogs Legion from the pack, besides its setting, is the Legion – the fact the game has at the same time got no main character, and nine million of the bastards. It is indeed possible to “play as anyone”, but is it any good? Well, mostly, yes.
Here’s Diane again. She’s tearing through the city on a pinched motorbike, letting the beast inside run free to the upbeat sound of Baddiel, Skinner & the Lightning Seeds, when she sees an interesting pedestrian. They’d make a good DedSeccer, she decides, in a fraction of a second. So she makes a gutwrenching 90 degree turn, slams into the brick wall next to her target at half the speed of sound, and manages to suplex them into the asphalt as she’s hurled from the wreckage. “You look like someone who wants to take their city back,” she says to her potential recruit.
And rather than collapsing from injury, the pedestrian sizes up the nightmare valkyrie and chats away. They eagerly confess not just a family member’s recent spot of bother involving deeply illegal activities, but their own willingness to join DedSec, should Diane take care of the situation. You know, like you would, to a stranger asking enigmatic questions in the heart of a police state.
There is a colossal volume of writing in the game, and a library of voice acting to match, so it takes a long time for these situations to get into the territory of “ah, here we go, this guy again”. And when that does happen, at least, that guy will look very different. They’ll probably look ridiculous, of course, dressed like they’ve been sent into Cyberdog with a grand at the nadir of a weekend-long acid marathon. But that’s the near future for you.
Recruits all fall into a (massive) range of general classes, each with their own associated skills, assets and weapons – the mission introducing the recruitment system, for example, sees you pick up a construction worker, who has a big wrench for braining people, and the pet cargo drone I so enjoyed goblining about on. Any operative can also access a wide range of gadgets and weapons from the central DedSec pool, as you unlock them.
Beyond that, recruits’ madlibs-esque backstories (this is Derek “Darkweb” Saveloys. He’s… a tax preparer! With… an AK-47! And… terminal illness! His mum’s a terrorist!) will give them various perks and characteristics, and will also make them handle slightly differently.
But at the end of the day, there’s only so much variation that could have been built into the NPC base, while leaving missions still achievable by any recruit, and leaving the game possible to develop. Consequently, London’s inhabitants are, without exception, weapons-grade beasts ready to commit mass murder at a moment’s notice. You wonder why they’ve not trampled Albion into atoms long before you stepped in. And there’s little compulsion at all to roleplay; everyone feels like a sort of golem into which your malevolent presence can be decanted. But that’s all fair enough. I think Watch Dogs Legion does a damn good job of obfuscating the edges of the “play as anyone” mechanic, and it’s genuinely unlike anything I’ve played before.
It’s hugely freeing, leaping between bodies on a whim. And since I’ve been playing on Ironman mode, where your recruits can get permadannied if they take one too many Full Englishes from a pack of Rowdy Ronalds, I felt at least some of the tension, bled out when my adversaries proved to be so technologically hapless, come back into the game.
I would have enjoyed Watch Dogs Legion so much more, if it had just leaned into full Guy Ritchie nonsense with its tone. I really do appreciate what it’s trying to do with its story, but the end result is like Jason Statham beating you to death with a book of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. It’s still Jason fucking Statham, and you’re still getting battered.
While I may not identify with any of my guerrillas and their grab-bag backstories, nor feel any sense of real investment in the fate of DedSec as a whole, I’m still attached to this strange band of possessed berserkers. We’ve had a good time together, in this nonsense dystopian playground. When construction goblin finally angers one boat too many, or when Diane discovers the limits to God’s tolerance of Three Lions and is rightly obliterated, I will miss them.