(Pocket-lint) - The Watch Dogs series of games has evolved somewhat in just three outings - from a largely po-faced debut to Legion and its satirical, often cartoon-like take on a dystopian future London. In the process, it has finally, firmly found its feet.
And, for a franchise so steeped in tech culture, it seems somewhat poetic that its evolution has occurred across an entire console generation, with the original Watch Dogs being a flag waver for the abilities of the initial PS4 and Xbox One machines, while this second sequel sees them out with a bang - in 4K HDR quality where compatible.
The game will be delivered to next-gen as free upgrade from current, but we played it on Xbox One X and, bar ray-tracing and loading speeds, we doubt much else will ne enhanced. Besides, it's very impressive as it is.
Power to the people
That's mainly thanks to the new gimmick adopted for Legion. The first Watch Dogs game introduced the idea of being able to hack any in-game tech or device, the second added an arsenal of gadgets and gizmos, while the latest goes several steps further - this time you can play as anyone in the game. Anyone at all.
It starts with friendly, responsible hacker group DedSec being framed for a number of terrorist attacks simultaneously triggered across England's capital. You are then tasked with finding the genuine culprits. However, unlike the first two games in the series, you don't play as a set character. Instead, you get the choice between a pool of operatives, each with their own skill sets, weapons, gadgets and styles.
Even then, you shouldn't get attached to him or her. Not only will you be tempted to switch your lead often, you will likely need to - especially if you opted to play with permadeath from the start. Yup, even these virtual characters can shuffle from their mortal coil to never return.
In Watch Dogs: Legion, you can chop and change between operatives as easily as Agent 47 switches clothing in Hitman. The game's main feature is the ability to recruit literally any non-playable character (NPC) that walks the streets of London, add them to your team of DedSec die-hards, and then swap to them at any point in the game.
It could be a young activist with a hatred for the private police force Albion, or a nurse, doctor, old lady, spy, even just a street performer. Each person has his or her own abilities and, should you fancy, can be targeted for membership. Some will resist more that others - police officers, for example - but all can eventually be encouraged to join your crew. Each has one or more tasks they require you to complete first, which take the form of side missions, but all could add something to the party.
Later in the game, you even get the chance to recruit more specialised operatives, such as a barrister who will reduce the amount of time a team member will be incarcerated after being caught. Or, they might come with unique weaponry that could better help during certain story missions. Indeed, this is where the game excels most, with campaign missions often being able to be completed in many different ways, depending on the recruit you choose to undertake each with.
Even just travelling around London looking for potential members who could help balance out your team is fun in itself. We spent hours upon hours doing just that - often without furthering the story at all.
Basing the game in near-future London was always going to give it a more unique feel in comparison to the army of other open-world games out there. London is relatively underused in gaming terms - The Getaway, GTA: London, and Assassin's Creed: Syndicate are notable exceptions - yet it is rich in architectural design, famous landmarks and contrasts. Once you get used to driving on the left-hand side of the road (even we had to, considering how many games adhere to right-hand driving), it's a thrill to travel its streets and boroughs.
In-game tourism is a thing these days and there are few destinations as alluring as Watch Dogs: Legion, so even just taking in the sights is a pleasant way to spend some time.
Of course, it's not quite London as we know it. After the Zero Day attacks, private security firm Albion has largely taken over law enforcement with an iron fist, while Clan Kelly - a Guy Ritchie-style gang - has thrived. Add the fact that the Blume Corporation's stranglehold on tech has reached this side of the pond too, and you have a capital city that's part 2020, part Blade Runner.
This allows for some spectacular views, with holographic neon signs permeating the night skies. When it's not raining, at least - which is does often. How accurate.
There's also plenty to do in London when you're not chasing the story or acting as a recruitment officer. You can play keepy-uppy in Parliament Square, or darts in the pub. There are clothes shops dotted around everywhere to kit out your current avatar in some new clobber - as long as you want to look like a sci-fi hipster - and plenty of secrets and bonuses to collect.
Yes, the city is slightly truncated - the road in which we grew up in Camden, just off the market, is literally walled-up and you can't really go much further north than Islington. But, it's all recognisable and beautifully, accurately researched to feel just right.
Considering the game starts with significant parts of the capital being blown up and many people killed, the story is a little darker than in Watch Dogs 2, although it does have its predecessor's sense of satire about it too.
The masks the operatives wear in battle and/or stealth areas are wacky enough to lend the game a lighter edge by themselves. And, to be honest, the sometimes 'mockney' accents give it an air of pantomime over realism.
Being from London ourselves, it can be a little cringeworthy at times, with some accents being spot on and accurate for the location, and others straight out of Dick Van Dyke's Mary Poppins research notes. The swearing seems to have been toned down a bit since we played an early build, although there are still f-bombs here and there, so it's certainly not a game for kids or those sensitive to such things.
There is variety in characterisations, however, even if some don't really hit the nail on the head. There is also great variety in story missions. Side tasks and quests can, at times, feel samey - even regularly taking place in the same buildings - but the story throws all manner of different play styles and puzzle elements at you.
As well as the path to unlock puzzles lifted from the last game, others can present different, sometimes unique challenges. You might need to use a hacked CTOS drone to navigate through air ducts, for example, or a heavy lifting drone which you can ride on to enter through the roof of a suspect. This keeps things fresh and, again, Hitman-like with its multiple routes and opportunities to complete the same missions. Certainly, the story is captivating enough to keep you interested throughout.
One of the reasons why we're happy to play the current-gen version over next-gen, albeit on the still powerful Xbox One X, is that Legion simply looks superb. The lighting effects are great, especially with the lit streets at night time.
Our only criticism is with character models. With so many NPCs needing to be created, and potentially playable, the game randomises appearances, with different facial properties and hairstyles. Sometimes this results in characters that just look odd, even quite bad. Men with beards look especially creepy at times.
In addition, voices don't always match their owners. You know how someone almost always sounds like they look? Such as a big burly man having a deep, gruff voice? Well, that's not always the case here. We met up with a posh, well-to-do, older spy with the accent and vocabulary of a 15-year-old street kid. It just felt weird.
Still, to get the play as anyone mechanic working as well as it does, there are always likely to be a few oddities that fall through the cracks. On the whole, it is an amazing concept very capably delivered.
Watch Dogs: Legion has such an interesting premise that it's easy to overlook its other charms in the process. The gamified London, for example, is a star unto itself, providing an interesting, unique playground.
Then there is the story, which delivers everything you'd hope for from a Watch Dogs game - without the glumness of the first. It is serious when it needs to be, yet still manages to have the ocassional dig at Big Tech.
And finally, the vast number of gadgets, weapons, clothing and operative styles ensure it rarely gets boring. Yes, there are elements of rinse and repeat, but they are often non-essential side missions rather than main.
The most important aspect of Legion is that it is fun. It delivers a huge sandbox that you can just muck around in, and surely that's all that matters really - especially considering what's really going on outside our windows.