Watch Dogs: Legion first impressions | Believe the hype, it's worth a butcher's at the very least

The third edition in the Watch Dogs series of games by Ubisoft releases on Thursday, 29 October, on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Stadia

Every language has them. Hell, every dialect probably does too.

There's a handful of words and phrases across languages, whose usage often straddles the line between being cringe-inducing and infuriating because of just how incorrect or plain awful they sound. A case in point here is the incredibly jarring use of the term 'hench' as an adjective. It is used informally to describe a large, muscular and strong person.

Even typing it sets my teeth on edge.

The word 'henchman' makes sense when describing a follower, a loyalist, a goon or hired muscle, but 'hench'? By itself? It's almost as repugnant as people misusing the word 'nonplussed' to mean relaxed and untroubled.

Screen grab from Watch Dogs: Legion

Screen grab from Watch Dogs: Legion

Why this unprecedentedly early digression though? It's because one of the first things to strike me about the soon-to-be-released Watch Dogs: Legion was the first few accents you come across — many of which assail the eardrums like Mary Poppins-shaped bullets. Of course, there's a northern James Bond-type as whom you play in the prologue mission, but the first couple of hours largely inflict upon you accents that seem to have been inspired by Dick Van Dyke's turn as a chimneysweep in the aforementioned musical. Not the most ideal of starts, and made worse by the gratuitous use (twice in the first hour alone) of that damn word 'hench' in the big-and-strong context.

Fortunately, it's all uphill from there on... and how.

Staying with accents, and much like London itself, Watch Dogs: Legion offers up a whole variety of them as you get deeper in. Ranging from subtle southern lilts to Irish-tinged brogues and from articulation originating from the north of Hadrian's Wall to typical British (South) Asian twangs, the soundscape of Ubisoft's London is a great mix of the sort of pronunciations you'll encounter all over the city, including some that will make you wonder if the developers are indeed 'avin a right larf.

Moving from the sounds to the sights, I personally don't believe there's been a better video game depiction of London, but we'll get to that soon enough. For now, here's a whistle-stop tour:

Alright, so driving through the streets of London or taking in a quick game of keepy-uppy to the sounds of Three Lions (by Baddiel and Skinner, and Lightning Seeds) is extremely on the nose, but then so is navigating through the back alleys of Camden Town to the sounds of Belfastian punk rockers Stiff Little Fingers. Despite all that, all of those activities just feel right in Watch Dogs: Legion. And that's the second thing that grabbed me after I was done with the game's prologue and got into the story proper: It all feels right.

Whether it's the landmarks — most of which, including the 'Camden Lock' railway bridge over Chalk Farm Road, Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace, have undergone painstaking and faithful recreations — or the soundtrack that features Wagner, Fatboy Slim, Stormzy and almost everything in between, or the grey clouds and beautiful puddles, or even the fact that you drive (most of the time) on the left-hand side of the road, the experience rarely, if ever, feels inauthentic or out of place (a couple of accents that border on parody notwithstanding). Even that godawful 'hench' is also totally accurate.

Screen grab from Watch Dogs: Legion

Screen grab from Watch Dogs: Legion

Aside from looking utterly gorgeous and in the process, comparing very favourably with the New York City conjured up by Insomniac Games' 2018 offering Marvel's Spider-Man, the city itself is beautifully designed and an absolute delight to explore. If you've ever visited London, you'll lose count of the many 'A-ha' moments you experience stumbling virtually upon something or the other that you've seen in the real world. In terms of the games that came before, as I've neither been to Chicago, nor seen San Francisco very extensively, I can't really compare the Watch Dogs: Legion experience with those of Watch Dogs or Watch Dogs 2.

Looking pretty, I hear you say, is all well and good, but how's it play? While my upcoming review will go deeper into the gameplay mechanics and quirks, so far it's been a largely pleasant, if not particularly novel, experience for the most part. Driving is smooth and vehicles — whether nippy motorcycles, powerful supercars or lumbering double-decker buses — handle pretty well and more importantly, as you'd expect them to. For instance, if you plan to outrun a pack of baddies in hot pursuit and get behind the wheel of a lorry or bus, you should expect to be intercepted fairly swiftly. Whereas when zooming down a street on a motorcycle, you should prepare for the inevitable side effect of death should you get into a high-speed accident.

Character movement definitely seems more fluid in Watch Dogs: Legion than in Watch Dogs 2 and is obviously much more varied on account of the ability to play as multiple protagonists (more on this very shortly). This is also the case with drones and spider bots that aren't nearly as temperamental as the 'jumpers' in the franchise's previous outing. But be warned: Every now and then, spider bots are prone to getting themselves stuck in some silly little nook or cranny, requiring you to abandon them altogether. And speaking of abandonment, it would have been nice to see Ubisoft abandon the incredibly ropey checkpoint system (that has you almost redoing an entire mission from scratch because checkpoints are so arbitrary and rare) from the previous game. Unfortunately, it persists.

Also, while hand-to-hand combat gets a much-needed upgrade (a dodge button and break guard button are welcome additions to the single-button system from Watch Dogs 2), gun combat remains much the same as before, in that it is serviceable but no more than that. The hacking minigame is the same Pipe Dream-style system of aligning junctions so that the power flows from one end of the room to the other that we saw in Watch Dogs 2. There are also a few other minigames — darts, a bare-knuckle brawling league and football keepy-uppy — that are a fun enough distraction.

Screen grab from Watch Dogs: Legion

Screen grab from Watch Dogs: Legion

Getting into the story now (which will be detailed in the full review) and thus far anyway, it can by no means be described as pathbreaking or unique.

Near-future setting? Check
Major terror plot? Check
Police state as a response? Check
Private security contractors? Check
Massive surveillance machinery? Check
Secret society mounts resistance? Check
High-tech gadgets, weapons and systems? Check
Unravel conspiracy that goes all the way to the top? Possibly, but I have no way of being 100 percent certain at this point

A mix-and-match of these themes have been appearing in a whole host of books, TV shows, films and video games for a while and there are undoubtedly plenty more in the pipeline. And while it can be argued that these themes have been done to death (much like British regional detective series like ShoestringTaggartSpenderBergerac and Morse, as Alan Partridge helpfully points out), another way of looking at them is that people like them and want more. And by themselves, these themes would have made for an adequately entertaining experience.

Luckily for us, however, it is precisely here that the game's much-vaunted 'Play as Anyone' system comes to the party and elevates the whole shebang. While in Watch Dogs 2, you were able to profile every single NPC and either swipe money from their bank account, read their text messages, listen to their phone calls or just electrocute them, Watch Dogs: Legion lets you recruit and play as almost anyone (my fledgling powers of persuasion are still no match for some particularly stubborn NPCs). Many, myself included, dismissed this as a gimmick when word began trickling in that this game would let you recruit and play as anyone.

However, a good few hours since getting my hands on Watch Dogs: Legion, I can safely say this is anything but a gimmick. Infiltrating a construction site as a construction worker is a markedly different experience to infiltrating the same site as a doctor or a lawyer. Skill sets and occupations matter in Watch Dogs: Legion as much as, if not more than, they do in elaborate RPGs. Coupled with permadeath (if your character is killed, s/he stays dead for the rest of the game), the ability to play as a variety of different character types elevates and customises the gameplay. If, for example, you find yourself playing as an elderly man or woman, it's safe to assume that running, jumping or hand-to-hand combat may not be the best approach. In that case, it's probably smarter to find an alternate approach (drones and bots maybe) or an operative more suited for the mission.

The process of recruitment feels like a throwback to BioWare's glory days and the loyalty missions in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games. Some NPCs are easier to recruit than others and only require you to save their friend or relative from an overzealous member of security personnel. Others need you to complete a couple of fairly involved infiltration or hacking missions to earn the services of the potential recruit. Admittedly, it was very difficult to motivate myself to get onto the actual story missions, because recruitment is just so damn fun. As is the process of stockpiling operatives to ensure you're never caught out by permadeath. Trust me, the last thing you want is to be short of construction workers and paramedics.

Screen grab from Watch Dogs: Legion

Screen grab from Watch Dogs: Legion

Elsewhere, the tone of the game also seems perfect. If Watch Dogs took itself far too seriously as the story of Aiden Pearce (basically Max Payne with an incredibly powerful smartphone), Watch Dogs 2 was far too playful and the afterschool club vibe of the team was at total odds with the sort of violence they were undertaking. Watch Dogs: Legion sits neatly in the 'just right' niche occupied by Goldilocks' third bowl of porridge and third bed in that it is undoubtedly a dark setting, but one that is replete with all sorts of colourful characters — some flippant, some intense.

In short, ropey checkpoints, tiny spider bot glitches and dodgy accents apart, Watch Dogs: Legion is an immensely polished and immersive game that more than lives up to the hype. You'd do well to hand over your 'bees and honey', guv'nor.

Game being reviewed on PS4 Pro. Review code provided by publisher

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