Video games have become extraordinarily adept at simulating geography, from Assassin’s Creed’s detailed, architecturally accurate takes on ancient Egypt or 18th-century Paris to Microsoft Flight Simulator’s virtual simulacrum of the Earth’s surface. But they are still no good at simulating people, and their cities are populated with reactive automatons who forget you tried to run them over two seconds ago. This makes Watch Dogs Legion’s attempt to simulate the entire population of a futuristic, technocratic London one of the most ambitious things a game has tried in years. Walk from Camden to Nine Elms and every person you see has a name, a cluster of attributes (gambler, fashion expert, paramedic, low mobility) and a custom-generated voice and appearance. You can recruit any of them to your hacker resistance movement and step into their shoes.
I played most of Watch Dogs Legion as a construction worker named Hassan. He has no particular special skills; he can summon a cargo drone and ride it up to rooftops, but he hasn’t got any useful weapons or technical expertise. I picked him because he was nearby, and I liked his haircut and accent: not too EastEnders, not too plummy. But then I accidentally took Hassan into the bowels of one of Watch Dogs Legion’s autocratic tech giants, on a mission that I thought would be easy but turned out to involve hiding in a vent from heavily armed private security guards while using a spiderbot to steal encrypted information. Hassan barely escaped with his life. I became rather attached to him after that.
This is this game’s particular magic. After 20 hours I had a team of spies, former hitmen, adult film stars, baristas, barristers, publicans and transients, some of whom could summon personal getaway vehicles or silenced submachine guns or, in one case, swarms of bees. And yet there I was, infiltrating Scotland Yard with Hassan and his nailgun. Because this isn’t a game about violent resistance – there are guns in Watch Dogs Legion, but if you have to bring one out it usually means you’ve messed up badly – it’s free to include the most diverse cast in gaming history.
There are many technical problems and weirdnesses. In the build I played, a game-breaking bug halted my progress and temporarily disabled my Xbox just a few hours in. I was once sent to steal a car for someone, and the vehicle appeared parked vertically in the middle of a wall. Another time I accidentally killed one of my operatives when trying to save them from a kidnapper, only to have them promptly reappear in my roster. The worst of this now appears to have been fixed with a patch, but it is unusual for a game to be released in such a shaky state these days. 2020 has hardly been a normal year, however, and it’s obvious that the final bug-squashing phase of Watch Dogs’ development was complicated by global lockdowns and distributed working.
Watch Dogs Legion wants to be a game about the power of collective action, one that challenges the hero narrative that dominates the medium. Anyone on London’s streets can make a difference and push back against the fascist forces that have taken over the city, if you carry out a couple of favours so they’ll join up with you. I found it much more interesting to try and hack drones and steal info with a British-Caribbean granny who couldn’t run or crouch than with one of the overpowered superspies that came with my review copy of the game. Watch Dogs Legion’s unrealistic portrait of popular resistance has little to do with what it takes to defeat fascism in real life, but it is different, and turns a game that would otherwise be yet another chaotic romp around a realistic virtual city into an interesting experiment that gave me plenty to think over and play around with.
There’s not much of a human element to Watch Dogs Legion’s Londoners. They do have connections – spend enough time in the streets and you’ll notice little tags telling you that’s so-and-so’s uncle, or cousin, or ex-boyfriend – but they don’t meaningfully interact with each other. There is a diverse range of appearances and accents but they all say and do largely the same things when you’re playing – ie, driving around, hijacking security cameras, piloting drones, sneaking into server rooms and avoiding guards. It would, however, be a bit overambitious to expect emotional richness from a game that’s simulating millions of individuals. Legion does not revolutionise the open-world game so much as give you plenty of different ways to approach it, and wrap it up in a pleasing anti-fascist message.
It’s certainly not shy about its politics, refreshingly for a commercial game like this – usually such developers will do all they can to paint their creations as totally apolitical, despite being about, for example, a group of black-ops US government operatives killing people in other countries. Watch Dogs Legion takes us further down a path that the UK has already started on, with a weak government in thrall to corporate interests and populist forces that weaponise divisive rhetoric on immigration. Listen to the in-game radio or stop by a street protest and you will hear some impressively well-written speeches about the forces of populism and the sinister influence of the world’s data giants. It’s tempting to think that this game might be an anti-fascism primer for the odd oblivious teenager out there.
The thing is, though, that when it comes to the actual story, these messages and subtleties are lost to pantomime evil. It’s not enough that Legion’s government is pulling immigrants off the streets of London and imprisoning them: no, they have to be in league with a criminal gang that’s putting killer microchips in their prisoners and harvesting their organs. The paramilitary corporation in charge of London’s security is headed up by a violent psychopath who shoots people at meetings; it’s not enough that the corporation makes autonomous weaponised drones. The data-harvesting tech giant can’t just be evil because it violates privacy, distorts information and colludes with fascists – its founder has dark, morbid secrets. There’s a sinister black site in Battersea power station. You get the picture.
I was not into this paranoid, ghoulish sci-fi-horror nightmare of a storyline. It doesn’t gel with the script or voice acting, which are wacky, stuffed with puns and British slang and of wildly variable quality, or with the experience of play, which is antifascist-flavoured urban mayhem. When that game-breaking bug prevented me from engaging with the story for days, I invented a much more appealing game for myself about collecting a gang of misfits, messing with the cops, hacking the Oxo Tower, pasting up anarchist graffiti and scuttling up the inside of Big Ben with a spiderbot. I loved spending time in this London, so perfectly recognisable and yet unsettlingly dystopian. I rarely used the tube stations to jump around the city, preferring to doodle around in driverless black cabs and soak the place up, stopping now and then to recruit someone new or infiltrate a paramilitary base or otherwise fight the power.
I haven’t played a game as odd as Legion in a very long time. Unlike the glossy, beautiful, but samey open-worlds that have dominated the genre in the past few years, it is ambitious, imperfect and unashamedly weird. To me it’s a fascinating, flawed, well-intentioned experiment in what a game can have to say, and how it can say it, while still conforming to the established fun-first template of an open-world action game. London’s landmarks are all here, from the Tower to the Eye, but rather than reducing the city to a pretty backdrop for generic madcap violence, it lets you find your own fun – or even your own meaning – in what you do there.