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Watch Dogs Legion: It is Project Terifying for video game set in post-Brexit London dystopia

Watch Dogs Legion
Watch Dogs Legion is set in a dystopian, post-Brexit London

Ubisoftofficially unveiled techno-thriller sequel Watch Dogs Legion at the publisher's E3 2019 showcase. Ahead of its reveal, Dan Silver had the chance to visit the game's dystopian, post-Brexit London and talk to its creators

To say Ubisoft have previously shied away from making political statements would be putting it mildly. As recently as 2018 the French publisher went to near-comical lengths to prevent its modern day Montana-set shooter Far Cry 5 from being interpreted as a commentary on American conservatism. Forbes described that game as being ‘apolitical to the point of absurdity’ - which makes Watch Dogs Legion’s near-future dystopian depiction of London a case of going from the ridiculous to the sublime. 

“In our fiction, in our backstory, Brexit is a thing of the past,” explains Clint Hocking, the game’s creative lead. “Brexit isn’t the cause of the problems in our world. However the causes of Brexit, which are real and important things, are the causes of the problems in our world - and we’ve turned those problems up to eleven.”

This isn’t so much Project Fear as Project Absolutely Terrifying. In Legion’s Britain the march of technological progress has trampled much of the populace underfoot.

Automation and artificial Intelligence has all but wiped out the white collar sector and sparked mass unemployment, the Pound has been usurped by cryptocurrency, and extremists have polarised society. Oh, and the country is also effectively being run by a private military corporation.

“Albion was there when the economy was collapsing and the government was losing funding,” says Hocking.  “They stepped in and offered what I call the devil’s bargain. They can give you cheaper professional security services for lower cost than the Met and the military but in exchange what you’re really giving up is transparency and accountability. And so with the pound in free fall and people divesting in the currency and investing in cryptocurrency you accidentally end up giving away power to really bad people.”

Enter Dead Sec, the shadowy network of hacktivists from the previous two Watch Dogs games whose London cell is now forming a de facto resistance. However in a striking break from convention there’s no hero leading the charge. In fact, there’s no one single player character at all. In a neat metaphor for collectivism, you have the ability to recruit and take control of anyone you come across in the game world.

“It ties into the core theme of the game,” says Hocking of the decision to do away with a lead character. “It’s not about the hero who’s going to come down from the mountain and save us all. We really wanted to abdicate that notion that there’s someone in the end who’s going to be responsible for it all. It’s not - it’s going to be us.

"We’re all in it together. It was really tough to give up on the things we could achieve with the ease of having a core protagonist. But then again all of the innovation is driven towards making it so that anyone you pick off the street can be that protagonist for you.”

Remarkably each and every character you see in the game’s city not has a unique backstory, set of attributes and daily routine. This isn’t the result of a random character generator, though. Using cutting edge AI techniques of their own, Hocking’s team have instead engineered a fully featured city simulation. 

“Every character in the game has a persistent life,” he explains. “They have a home and job and friends and family, relationships and schedule. They live their lives every single day. 

“If someone’s got a sister who’s sick in the hospital you can go and prioritise her medical treatment. She'll be let out of the hospital and they’ll both like you more. If you find someone with a problem with their drug dealer, you can go and beat up the drug dealer. He’ll like you more but the drug dealer will like you less. The drug dealer’s going to go to the hospital and you can go get him out of the hospital and help him out if you want.

“This is one of the most ambitious living worlds we’ve ever embarked on. It’s not just a world full of buildings and traffic, it’s a world with a simulation of an entire population and every individual in it.”

It’s a mind-bending proposition - “it was hard as s--- to do but it’s a dream, right?” chuckles Hocking - that’s even more impressive in action. My exclusive hands on session with the game begins in a packed pub (implausibly situated in Parliament Square but, hey). Scanning the mobile phones of the patrons brings up a bewildering array of personal information, ranging from their job and salary to nuggets of trivia about their various interests and peccadillos.

Picking a punter at random - a junior IT worker called Mike who earns £24k and is allergic to dogs, if you’re wondering - starts a quest that involves breaking into New Scotland Yard to erase his record from Albion’s database. Gameplay is more prosaic fare that will be familiar to anyone who’s played a previous entry in the series. Objectives can be tackled in any way you see fit, although the introduction of character classes adds a new flavour. My character is a Hacker, meaning she can drop remote controlled spider bots to bypass security systems and neutralise nosy guards. Enforcers are more combat focused, while Infiltrators have high-tech stealth abilities.

If the action is rote then there’s a definite thrill to the setting. Legion’s take on London perhaps feels a little on the small side but it’s brilliantly realised. The map incorporates most of the city’s central Zone 1, taking in Westminster, Tower Hamlets and Lambeth in the south, with landmarks like The Shard and the London Eye dominate the skyline. "The game world roughly extends from Wellington Arch in the west to Limehouse Basin in the east," said Hocking. "From Camden Market in the north to Windrush Square in the south."

It’s possible to fast travel around the map via Tube stations but driving these streets is such a novelty you surely won’t want to.

That real world recognition adds a frisson to the game’s missions too. One involves assassinating Albion agents in Camden market while another centred around a dead drop in Trafalgar Square. The latter featured a dead drop of a different kind when my character accidentally drew her gun and provoked a lethal response from a watching militia man. And here’s the rub: when characters in Watch Dogs Legion die, they stay dead. 

Permadeath is a hard sell to mainstream gamers but, as Hocking later revealed, given the near-infinite supply of player characters it proved to be a practical necessity. 

“If you can recruit anyone and grow your team eventually your team is going to get full. And we also needed to create a reason for you to swap between characters. If you can keep replaying a checkpoint over and over again you don’t have a need for other characters. So making your investment in the characters matter, making you care about these characters and putting them in real jeopardy, that’s how we forge that bond.”

It remains to be seen whether these concepts will prove to be genuine game changers or just gimmicks but you have to admire Hocking’s ambition to test the boundaries of what and open world game can be. And that applies to Legion’s political stance too.

“This game has a message for sure,” he says with conviction. “Things in the world are pretty rough and from a certain perspective it looks like things might be getting rougher. We might be in for a rough ride. The message of this game is: ordinary people need to put aside their differences and come together. It’s not the politicians, it’s not the dude from the mountain who’s going to come down and save us all. It’s us. Putting aside our differences and fighting back against things that are obviously wrong - that’s what we need to do.”