Review: Watch Dogs Legion is Ubisoft’s most meaningful sandbox

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With its backdrop of post-Brexit Armageddon, it’s fair to say we weren’t expecting Watch Dogs Legion to turn out as enjoyable and whimsical as it has.

From the start, it’s clear this isn’t some hyper-political statement on the state of the world, but an entertaining, over-the-top sandbox playground. We begin by sneaking through the Houses of Parliament as a James Bond-esque super-spy, fully suited and with his own rocket-firing car parked out front.

Later, when you’re putting armed guards to sleep as an elderly stage magician, or manoeuvring a remote-controlled spider-bot up Big Ben, you’ll know that Legion’s is definitely not as po-faced as expected.

While Ubisoft Toronto’s evocative future London channels real-world fears around corporate surveillance and authoritarian government, it’s ultimately just a stage for the game’s ambitious ‘Play as Anyone’ feature, an equally absurd and brilliant mechanic which will quickly have you fighting fascism with a ragtag crew of cockney builders and football hooligans in funny hats.

Tonally, Legion can occasionally feel jarring, but otherwise Play As Anywhere is a triumph. Watch Dogs has always been a power fantasy, and Legion makes this concept much more compelling by allowing players to manipulate not just the world, but the characters within it as well.

The player character – literally whoever you want – is a member of the DedSec resistance movement. Whether banker or toilet attendant, you’re out to expose the shady dealings of the corrupt British state, which has gone full Orwell and contracted various corporate kingpins to spy on its own citizens, police the streets with machine guns and generally oppress anyone who wanders too close.

As you’d expect from the world’s biggest producer of open-world games, the futuristic version of London is both beautiful and unsettlingly reminiscent of the real city. As Londoners, we were often able to navigate by memory in Legion’s key landmark areas, which is a testament to the game’s commitment to blending authenticity with strong open-world design.

Gameplay again revolves around the Watch Dogs series’ trademark cell phone, which you’ll use to hack and manipulate the environment to your advantage. But the six-year-old mechanic feels more meaningful now that it can be used to properly profile and recruit NPCs, and later use their unique abilities for the aforementioned breaking and entering.

Players can use their phone to survey literally anyone in the environment and display personal details such as their profession, and any unique traits that may come in handy, such as advanced combat skills, the ability to summon drones, or blend in with enemies as a police officer.  The better a citizens’ abilities, the more difficult they’ll be to recruit. Usually, you’ll have to complete a mission involving helping them out with a debt problem (by blasting goons), stealing medicine from a secure compound or similar.

“Many games with procedurally generated elements offer more unique results than Legion, but few manage to balance them quite as well as Ubisoft Toronto has.”

It’s here where Legion’s extra year of development time has clearly paid off, with Ubisoft Toronto able to increase the variety – and absurdity – of the Londoners you can recruit, while making smart changes to how it steers players towards them. If one of your characters is jailed, your AI companion might recommend recruiting a nearby lawyer. Similarly, you might be encouraged towards a paramedic should an agent become injured.

Legion’s campaign has its standout moments – even it’s not going to win any awards for originality – but it’s when players go off-piste that the Legion’s NPC-hopping gameplay becomes really special.

The new Deep Profiler – an add-on acquired early in the game – allows players to examine the daily schedule of any NPC, including where they’ll be during every hour of the in-game day. This is useful for recruiting enemies who don’t like DedSec by figuring out how you can win their favour, but the more fascinating aspect of the Profiler is how it shows characters’ social ties.

Legion is at its best as a sandbox.

It’s here you can uncover the friends, family and associates of any given NPC. You can use these contacts to recruit them, but they also become the ripple effect of your actions.

In one moment, we were attacked by a man who the profiler revealed was related to a character we’d accidentally run over earlier. Later, a policeman whose informants we’d managed to get killed actually kidnapped one of our own agents, requiring us to complete a mission in order to recover them. If you kill somebody, you can even find out where they’re buried and pay respects at their grave (alongside family members who will also stop by).

In these emergent moments, Watch Dogs Legion elevates itself as a far smarter experience than the gimmicky political thriller we expected from its early reveal. While the narrative elements are enjoyable on their own – and there are some real impressive scenes – Legion is most rewarding as a sandbox for those looking to veer off course and create their own stories, with their own ludicrous crew.

And with real Brexit looming just beyond the Christmas period, we could all do with some escapism.

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