Watch Dogs Legion E3 2019 Preview: Hands-on as Helen

An open world without NPCs, because all characters are playable.

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Watch Dogs Legion has five storylines and no protagonist. It has an active open world but no NPCs, because all characters are playable. Not only is it doing things differently, it’s doing things we have never seen before if this concept is realised in full. You won’t play as one or even an ensemble cast of characters. Play as any character in the game, as many or as few as you like; and yes, if you only have eyes for grandma-assassin Helen and deeply desire to make this her game, you can.

It’s a shame it leaked a couple of days prior to E3. In a year where the blanket appraisal of the show has been “good but lacking memorable surprises,” I genuinely believe an unexpected Watch Dogs Legion would have been a showstopper. Even without the element of surprise, it’s still the most intriguing announcement of the week. A few years ago, a game like this would have been announced by a man on stage trumpeting buzz words like “ambitious” and “our most [insert buzz term here] yet.” Ubisoft didn’t need to do that. Yes, Creative Director Clint Hocking took to the stage, but only after 10 minutes of gameplay footage that showed how Watch Dogs Legion is truly unique.

Set in a near future post-Brexit London, Legion is both remarkably faithful in its recreation of iconic landmarks and completely fictitious in its depiction of British life. This isn’t the London you know, but considering the current social, political and technological climate, it’s a near future rendition that could eventuate, if all scenarios tread the bleakest path.

During Stevivor’s 45 minutes with Watch Dogs Legion at E3, we played a main mission in its entirety, experienced the entirely reworked melee combat designed to reduce the reliance on guns and, most importantly, recruited new characters to add to DedSec’s roster of anonymous hackers saving the world.

The crux of Watch Dogs is being tethered to a world of perpetual interaction, through hacking almost anything to turn the odds in your favour, gather intel or simply kill some bad guys. Watch Dogs 2 let you profile any character to learn more about them, and in hindsight taking control is the next logical step; except, it’s actually a giant leap.

We haven’t seen much of the narrative, and don’t know how the five storylines will intertwine, but it’s amazing to think every cutscene — in fact, the entire story — has been crafted to play out as any character, with their own animations, dialogue and voice acting. We saw a brief glimpse of the same conversation unfold with four different characters. With their own personality, each of them slightly altered the context. Across the entire game, I imagine who you choose to play as will drastically influence your experience. The missions will be identical and gameplay perimeters aren’t shifting, but when you choose to play as an 18-year-old student, an 80-year-old retiree or anything in-between — and assuming they fit seamlessly and naturally into the story as demonstrated at E3 — the who surpasses the how, what, when, where and why. 

It’s a pioneering product of its time, as a game promoting diversity of playable characters. There are increasingly more games that let you choose nationality, race, gender, age, sexuality, beliefs and lifestyle, but Watch Dogs Legion is allowing you to do so amongst fully established characters, not just one you have created yourself. But that’s only part of the package. With mechanics that encourage regularly swapping between characters, it will be a rare opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes, set on shuffle instead of repeat. Even when given a choice of character traits, it’s easiest to default to similar avatars whenever we are tasked with creating one. I’m looking forward to playing as a variety of very different people, without having to create them myself.

Our hands-on demo began with the star of the show, the retired assassin Helen. You have never played a game as anyone like her, and to be honest, with such slow mobility, I doubt that’s going to change here. I couldn’t wait to get into the shoes of somebody more nimble — it was merely a matter of who to choose.

Potential recruits can be profiled instantly with a tap of the left bumper. From there, you can choose to delve further into their potential to be recruited or save them for later if there’s another more pressing objective. Cyber-stalking up to 50 characters ensures a chance meeting can be arranged when the time comes to add them to the active DedSec crew. Drafting characters isn’t as easy as finding an athletic millennial with a talent for hacking drones and sliding into their DMs. To become playable, characters must be convinced to join DedSec. Some of them will be easily persuaded, while others will need help with their own problems and eventually join out of indebted loyalty to the organisation.

Each recruit is assigned one of three classes that determines their special ability — the Hacker, combat-focused Enforcer or stealthy Infiltrator. Once a part of your team of 20, characters can be swapped at any time, and when not being played, they occasionally provide backup. The exception comes via the permadeath system, which sees downed characters given the choice of surrendering to authorities or making a final stand. The former makes them temporarily unavailable, while the latter removes the safety net by permanently removing the character, should you die again.

This is merely a taste of a very complex character system. The Ubisoft Toronto developers on hand were buzzing with excitement to reinforce this is more than a few archetypes in different skins — that each character will feel unique and like their own person. There will be limitations somewhere, but so long as they don’t bubble to the surface, the ambitious concept of all playable characters can be pulled off.

Characterisation is the game-changer, but combat has been overhauled to give a better balance between melee and range attacks, as well as lethal and non-lethal options. Around half of the weapons in Legion are non-lethal, but the Hacker and Infiltrator mightn’t need to use them at all.

Whereas the Enforcer is still trigger heavy, the Infiltrator skews towards the new melee system. I only got in one group tussle, but fist fights are a lot more dynamic, especially against multiple opponents. Timing attacks and counters is imperative, as is knowing when you use the special AR Cloak ability to suddenly disappear, or when to abandon the quieter approach by bringing a gun to a fist fight — at some point, enemies certainly will.

With only 45 minutes, it was hard to get a read on missions and gameplay beyond combat. But I did get a very promising overall feel for the concept. It’s still early days, and ultimately success replies upon recruits feeling unique for the duration of Legion, but it has a bit of an Assassin’s Creed II vibe about it. With an established premise, Watch Dogs Legion looks to have found the missing ingredients to turn a good series into a very special game.

Watch Dogs Legion is planned for a release on Windows PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Stadia on 6 March 2020.

Ben Salter traveled to Los Angeles to cover E3 as a guest of Ubisoft. The arrangement does not impact our Ubisoft coverage, nor limit additional E3 2019 coverage.