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Watch Dogs: Legion does a good Lahndan, but the NPCs left me cold

Hardly united

“We've looked at the current state of the world" says the Watch Dogs: Legion developer giving my E3 presentation. "We’ve looked at politics". (A man behind me hisses, vehemently.) "We’ve looked at how people are reacting to each other, and asked 'what if these tracks took us in a very particular direction?'"

After my hands-on with Watch Dogs the third, I can confirm that direction is facist street. Oh, hissy man in the back row. Let me take you by hand, and lead you through the drone-infested streets of London. I'll show you something that will make you change your mind.

I won't, obviously, because by the time you reach the point where you're loudly hissing in a small room full of people I don't really know how to reach you. I do know that the developer went on to wax lyrical about what a sorry state Legion's London is in, then pointed his corporate finger at people's failure to set aside their differences and work together. Authoritarians step in "when we stop trusting each other as a society", he said, and "stop us from having a unified voice as a society."

Let's set aside the bewildering fact that Ubisoft's vice president of editorial recently doubled down on the idea that Ubisoft doesn't take political stances. Let's look at the game, which uses that "coming together" idea as an ideological underpinning for the whole "you can play as any NPC" deal. You can indeed.

I start off my demo by walking into a pub and looking at a man wearing a football shirt. Every NPC has a perk: they might do more damage with guns, or be faster at drone hacking. The football shirt fella does 100% more damage, but also has a chance of randomly dying. Possibly permanently [Matt, of course, means permadannied - ed.], as that can happen, though agents can also be captured or hospitalised. He also wasn't vaccinated as a child, my hack-a-phone tells me, though I'm not sure if that is the origin story for his fragile mortality or a mere coincidence. Naturally, I try to recruit him.

Everyone has a little story. It turns out the police have been blackmailing him to sabotage DedSec, which is us, the cool hackers attempting to free the world. After walking up and having a quick chat, he tells me that everything they've got on him is in one police station. The 'demoist' looking over my shoulder asks me if I want to fast travel, but I've just spotted a bus. A big red one.

Driving around London is a treat. I've never lived there, but I've clearly visited enough to let Ubisoft hack my sense of familiarity. A stop by Camden Market is particularly surreal, thanks to the presence of a little plaza I'm sure I once bought orange juice from. I have to tear myself away, and back to the police station.

Retrieving the evidence feels as uncannily familiar as the scenery. Just like Watch Dogs 2, I hack cameras to locate my target, then disable a security scanner so I can walk straight in. Again, just like Watch Dogs 2, it takes about thirty seconds before I'm discovered. I shotgun through the entire station, after they open fire on me.

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I'm disappointed, because in the presentation we were told that enemies wouldn't necessarily fire on us if we didn't fire on them. One of the first officers did try to whack me with a baton first, but his friends got trigger-happy almost straight away. "This is London, we don't want guns to dominate the game", we were told. Wrongly, it turns out. Even later on, when I'm not fighting cops, a gang comes at me guns blazing.

The NPCs have simulated relationships and schedules, and their opinion of DedSec will change if you help (or murder) their friends. If you want to recruit someone, you might, for example, try to stop their sister from being harassed by the authorities. Those threads might be interesting to follow at first, but I can't help but wonder how quickly they'll become busywork. Collecting evidence from a police station seems suspiciously repeatable.

There's also no main character, and you're incentivised to switch between different operators depending on their suitability for different missions. It'll always be some combination of sneaking, hacking and gunning, mind. You can recruit a team of up to 20 at one time, who can be one of three class types (combat, stealth, or hacking). The good people of London aren't entirely bespoke, but drawn from roughly 20 different archetypes, who have different lines and behaviours in cutscenes. Even the camera angles are supposed to change. But variety means nothing without substance. The streets might look pretty, but they're paved with problems.

I pick my prize from amongst the police corpses, and return to football man. Just like that, he's in the gang - though I'm told that normally I'd have to help him out with smaller stuff in the open world before unlocking his 'origin mission'. As it was, after I recruited him, he went straight into a mission where he menaced a hostile informant, acting as if he was a grizzled insurgent. I struggled to believe that the average Londoner is poised to take up arms in a war against an authoritarian city-state so easily, at least not outside of the Northern Line from 5-7pm.

Given how familiar it all felt, I think Legion will live or die based on how interested you are in its NPCs. For me, it's currently flopping about in limbo. I thought I was supposed to be coming together.

See our E3 2019 tag for more news, previews, opinions, and increasingly surreal liveblogs.

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