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‘Watch Dogs: Legion’ Hands-On

Given the opportunity to play “Watch Dogs: Legion” at this year’s E3, I found myself colliding with the differences between the games that Watch Dogs as a series has always resembled, and the specificities of Ubisoft’s city-based open world games that set it apart.

The one I’m running into the most, literally, in game? Doors. Why do I have to use a phone to open every door?

It’s a testament to the already-in-place functionality of “Watch Dogs: Legion’s” absurdly bold gambit at building a world where you can play as just about anyone that I’ve got more mundane things on my mind after playing it. The developer sitting over my shoulder as I played was eager to show me that “Legion” works as advertised, and to its credit, it really does.

The demo began in a pub in London. Thrust into the shoes of a middle-aged woman, I brought up my Dedsec enabled phone with the left bumper, scanned a random sampling of people in the pub, and started making decisions about who I would recruit. This is the foundation of “Watch Dogs: Legion’s” systems. Every NPC in the world is randomly generated first physically, then in their identity — sexual orientation, job, criminal and/or activist history, and a series of possible perks and bonuses ostensibly related to their history. This is revealed when you scan them, and then, well, you stalk them, basically.

This is marginally less creepy than it sounds. Every NPC has some kind of thing being held against them by the state, or more specifically, the private security company Albion that has largely assumed the role of law enforcement and military occupation of the city. It’s all very late-capitalism, borderline-Robocop in its heavy-handed display of corporate power and control, but well, given that reality, and, particularly London — as one of the most surveilled places in the western world — is catching up to dystopia, it’s not hard to take everything that “Watch Dogs: Legion” is presenting at face value.

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I stored a few targets in my phone, but focused on a 50-something man named Said, who has a husband and a brother who’s gotten into a fair amount of trouble with a local criminal organization. Said himself is also somewhat at the mercy of Albion, whose database contains incriminating information about less than legal activities.

It turns out Said is a more complicated mark than many other NPCs in “Legion’s” London. NPCs in the game already know who Dedsec is, apparently, or at least they think they do, and Said happens not to think too much of them. He’s predisposed against them, which means I have to work harder to secure his sympathy and actively recruit him.

To do that, I take control once again of my middle-aged British woman and head directly to Scotland Yard, which seems largely occupied by Albion. I scale the outside wall and then toss out a spider-drone, which I used to slowly make my way into the building via doors and ducts to surreptitiously penetrate their computer system, altering all records of Said’s brother’s criminal activity. However, I’m caught outside by a guard, who I’m forced to, well, beat the crap out of, knocking them unconscious, but, good news! You can track someone you knock unconscious and even prioritize their hospital care in order to get them to good health more quickly, and then go about making amends for the damage on the way to assimilating them.

In order to wipe out the info Albion was holding on Said, I switched to another Dedsec member, this time an infiltrator who has the ability to turn invisible to cameras and AR gear for brief periods of time. Thankfully, since every law enforcement officer I’ve come across so far in “Legion” depends on digital imaging to see the world around them, this made my character more or less really invisible — and I could also tag the unconscious bodies I left behind, hiding them from detection as well.

There will likely be a lot of this kind of activity in the final game, as this is the basic conceit, though there’s also explicitly John Wick-inspired gunplay available for enforcer class characters that I didn’t get time to try. Once I had cleared up Said’s problems, I was able to recruit him and then skip over to a story mission. I won’t talk much about it — I didn’t see a lot, to be honest — but it did give a glimpse into how it seems that “Legion” will handle story in a game where’s no specific main character. Like some of Ubisoft’s other recent releases, it would appear that much of the character in Legion is likely to be found in the enemies you face and the NPC allies you might find, rather than expressing it yourself. The question is how well this will be executed, but there’s still quite a while before “Watch Dogs” Legion” releases next spring for its developers to iron everything out. As it stands now, my interest in the game went from negative territory as someone who played the previous entries to very cautious, very optimistic in fairly short order.  

But it would be nice if I could open doors without using a phone to do it.

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