The jump from the original Watch Dogs to its sequel was a big one. The initial concept — where you play as a hacker in a GTA-style open world — was fleshed out in Watch Dogs 2, with more open-ended gameplay and a tone and style that felt just right. As big as that leap was, though, the third game in the series is even more ambitious. Watch Dogs Legion, which was officially unveiled today at Ubisoft’s E3 keynote, doesn’t just take place in a sprawling, dynamic world — it also forces you to look at the people in that world in a new way.
The new game is set in the near future in post-Brexit London. (Of course, this being a Ubisoft game, it’s definitely not a game about politics.) For the most part, the city looks recognizable aside from the futuristic cars that dot the streets and the copious drones in the sky. Creative director Clint Hocking describes the setting as a “time of massive social change.” Unemployment is rampant, with millions put out of work because of automation, and the venerable pound has been overtaken by a new form of cryptocurrency.
Amidst this chaos is DedSec, the Anonymous-style hacker organization at the heart of the Watch Dogs series. The twist is that there isn’t one specific hero you play as; instead, you can take control of almost any character in the game. In previous Watch Dogs games, you could scan every non-playable character to learn a bit more about them. Legion goes a step further by letting you use this information to recruit them. Each NPC not only has a unique look, but also a unique life; they have schedules and relationships with other characters.
Once you identify someone you want to recruit, you then have to make them sympathetic to DedSec’s cause. In one example, during a hands-on demo I had with the game, there was a woman having issues with a loan shark, and she also happened to be against the idea of DedSec. Going on a mission to get the money lender off her case helped change her mind. Once you recruit someone, you can then assign them a class — there are three, which generally fall under combat, stealth, and hacking — and then voila, they’re part of your team. You can swap between recruits at any point in the game, and the cut scenes will feature whoever it is you’re playing as at that given moment, complete with new animations and voice acting.
I only had 45 minutes with the game, so it was hard to see just how much depth there is to each character. Hocking says that “they’re not just a bucket of stats with a skin on them,” emphasizing that each recruit will feel distinct. If you do get attached to one, though, watch out: Legion features permadeath, so once a recruit is killed, they’re gone for good, forcing you to utilize other members of your team. They can also be captured or arrested, and you can use a different character to rescue them.
Aside from the new recruit system, Legion feels very similar to Watch Dogs 2, at least during the small portion I played. Missions included things like stealthily breaking into a police station to hack a server, or going to Camden Market to take out some operatives. During one mission, I was ambushed in the midst of a protest at Trafalgar Square, and was forced into a Grand Theft Auto-esque car chase to get back to safety. The game seems to emphasize stealth — Ubisoft says half of the weapons in-game are nonlethal — and there are, of course, plenty of new gadgets to play around with, like nimble spider-bots and a cloaking system that hides you from the pervasive AR.
Legion is being helmed by Ubisoft’s Toronto studio, it also marks a return of sorts for Hocking. After making his name as director on games like Splinter Cell and Far Cry 2, Hocking left Ubisoft and bounced around a number of major companies, including Valve, Amazon, and LucasArts. However, he didn’t ship a game during that time, making Legion the first new Hocking-led title in around a decade.
Ultimately, a lot depends on how fully realized the recruits feel when you spend some real time with them in the game. Legion could either end up as a vibrant, constantly changing experience, or one filled with a bunch of main characters that all seem largely the same. Either way, it’s certainly an ambitious concept — and given Watch Dogs’ history, that’s probably for the best.
Watch Dogs Legion is launching on March 6th, 2020.