Watch Dogs: Legion (4 stars)

Watch Dogs: Legion

Technically ambitious sequel set in a dystopian near-future London

Post-Brexit London is under curfew. Shady private companies operate secretively under lucrative government contracts, purportedly to keep the capital's citizens safe from harm, while provoking civil unrest. Yes, when Ubisoft started work on their third Watch Dogs game, they could hardly have expected to release it at a time when all their fears have coalesced into one real-life nightmare scenario.

When the original Watch Dogs released in 2014 it was technically a big step down from the gorgeous previews Ubisoft had released to great fanfare two years prior. Another two years and its sequel – set in a sumptuously detailed rendition of San Francisco – was a much more laid-back affair, a change in tone that worked very much in its favour. And now, with the underlying mechanics settled, the action turns to a near-future London. While the game's map is true to the spirit of England's capital, anyone familiar with its labyrinthine alleyways and squares will trip up often if they rely too heavily on the Knowledge to navigate. And the sight of thousands of drones (including parcel deliveries, surveillance and riot control) sailing through the sky will provoke a dystopian reflex in the most hopeful of souls.

As before, missions involve hacking into buildings using a combination of old-fashioned stealth with a variety of tools, notably a spider-bot and drones which can be used to connect to computer systems, identify enemies and – once isolated – take them down. Hacking is yet again visualised as a pipe puzzle laid out over building interiors and exteriors, a mechanic unchanged for the better and worse.

Your main objective is to clear the name of your hacker organisation – wrongfully accused of a series of bombings across the capital – and reveal the true culprit, all while neutralising various London gangs. The headline feature is your ability to recruit anyone you meet in the game to join your cause. Each character has a unique set of skills and both positive and negative attributes which will make them ideal for certain missions but a liability for others. As a result of this almost limitless customisation, the voice acting inevitably suffers as the script tries to cater to all possibilities. Where Watch Dogs 2 was populated with a fun set of personalities, Legion's player-controlled characters feel distinctly one-dimensional, a problem compounded by their irritating hacker slang.

Very few games have tried to accurately replicate modern London. PlayStation 2's The Getaway achieved extraordinary levels of detail for 2002, including real shop fronts in situ. Legion's London is no facsimile but vast swathes of the skyline are distinctly recognisable, and many landmark streets are spectacularly realised. Thankfully, this fictional London is far less busy than the real one, making driving a much more plausible way to get around, although – unlike the first two games – the city's relatively small scale makes driving a lot less interesting; unlike Chicago and San Francisco, there are no real suburbs here: central London is a city growing skywards. Hijacking and riding cargo drones quickly becomes an essential and novel way to scale its vast edifices, and London always looks better the higher you climb.

Watch Dogs: Legion is a technically ambitious game which manages to capture the essence of its real-world location, including some of its real-life socio-political battles. Its 'play as anyone' feature isn't quite the game-changer it might appear, but if you've always yearned to recruit a gang of senior citizens to usurp a corrupt political administration from within then Legion can make your dreams come true.

Out now for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S.

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