My name is Margareta Ionescu, and I am a spy.
I spent the last several minutes on the trail of a possible informant, investigating a series of crime scenes and tailing the ghostlike AR apparitions of getaway vehicles in my Aston Martin-inspired spy car that fires missiles like I’m in Spy Hunter. I’m wearing a designer suit and way-beyond-smart watch, which is useful for hacking into the high technology of near-future dystopian London in Watch Dogs: Legion.
All of that led me here — a city block that’ll one day be a building but is now little more than a crater filled with construction equipment and ramps and bare concrete rooms. I crouch behind a Jersey barrier and consider my options.
I put my spy skills to the test, and I looked good while doing it. But now I’m wearing a mask that looks like a pig with a monocle mouthing a stick of dynamite like it’s Churchill’s cigar, and honestly, it’s cramping my style.
I can’t take off the mask, though. And anybody who sees Jane Bond here will throw me some serious side-eye. Probably attack me on sight, now that I think of it. Everything that makes me a credible MI6 agent also makes me a terrible fit for the next phase of this subterfuge.
I consider the possibilities, pull out my phone, and call my teammate for an assist. A few seconds later, I’m no longer a spy.
My name is Pam Ahmadi, and I am an unassuming blue-collar construction worker.
When I saunter into the construction site, nobody cares. My reflective vest, hardhat, and the wrench that I’m carrying reflect my humble origins and also hide me in plain sight. To the baddies patrolling, I look like I belong here. No pig mask necessary.
I spend the next 15 minutes or more role-playing as a lowly construction worker. But I’m really a DedSec agent, a member of the heroic faction in Watch Dogs: Legion. We fight for the people, I’m told, and against the forces of technological oppression.
I hack the closest surveillance camera and use my electronic vantage points to mark enemies. I arc to another camera where I disable the alarm systems above doors. A few cameras later, I even find the hostage I’m looking for.
I turn the surveillance systems against their owners, and I sneak up behind armed guards and choke them unconscious. When stealth fails me, I knock the forces of evil out cold with my wrench.
This is the ideal, I think. This is how those at Ubisoft want me to play Watch Dogs: Legion.
The moment-to-moment gameplay in an open-world city is so familiar that it’s hardly worth discussing. I can do all of the things I expect — wander around, hijack cars, bump into people, fast travel, accidentally punch people when I hit the wrong button, find missions and liberate neighborhoods. Exploring greater London lifts the fog of war that’s covering most of my map, so incentive abounds to check my map for hotspots, missions, and landmarks.
If that was all there was, I’d be bored. But Watch Dogs’ twist has always been a layer of futurism — a not-too-distant, more or less credible version of our future world where high technology allows you to do more than just run around a city. That continues in Watch Dogs: Legion with ambition — everyone you meet in its vast open world of near-future London is potentially a playable character.
That’s why I could trade my spy for a construction worker. I have a roster, and I can and should bring the best person possible to the front. But I’d need to put in the work first using the system to recruit Londoners to my squad. If I showed up to that mission without a construction worker, things would have played out very differently. But if, say, a few hours before, I found and recruited someone from a construction site, contacted them, went on a mission to convince them that I was helpful, and then folded them into my team of rebels, I could be better prepared later. Apply the same logic to a Bobby or an office worker, and the argument for team diversity makes itself.
Speaking of which, my construction worker is still on the trail of the prisoner, and there are two doors leading into the room where he’s tied up. Both of them are locked. (Of course they are.) I need a key. Fair enough, I figure. I’ve played video games before. I know what I need to do.
I spend the next five minutes or so looking for the people I haven’t knocked out yet. And I’m getting good at this. I’m hacking and downing drones, I’m stealthing my way through, and I’m enjoying myself. It’s only when I think that everybody’s incapacitated and nobody’s dropped a card that I find myself confused. Where’s the key card?
To answer that, I have to think like Watch Dogs: Legion, which is unlike basically any other game.
So I walk back to the room where the prisoner’s waiting patiently. I peek through a window and hack into a surveillance camera, and wait — what’s that I see in the corner of the room? An item labeled “Smart Tablet / Access Key!” But if I can’t get in the room, how do I get the … oh.
I’m not thinking in the way that Watch Dogs: Legion wants me to. I don’t need a physical key.
I highlight the tablet, press my controller’s left bumper, and I’m downloading the key’s data. A few seconds later, I open the door and save the prisoner’s day. Not bad for a construction worker. And not bad for an open-world game that’s trying to do something different.
This is Watch Dogs: Legion’s potential, if you ask me (and thanks for asking, by the way!). It’s also what sets Watch Dogs apart from its city-based open-world competitor cousins. Grand Theft Auto games have grit and grime. Saints Row games have smut and superpowers. Watch Dogs has a layer of in-game tech that twists open-world ideas into a game that wants you to rely on the near-future hacking skills as much as (if not more than) your punching or shooting.
If you aren’t building a team of everyman subversives and switching between characters and cameras, then you’re just playing it like yet another open-world game set inside of a city, and that’d be pretty boring. This, on the other hand? Whether I’m Margareta Ionescu or Pam Ahmadi or potentially thousands of other characters, this twist has potential.
Watch Dogs: Legion will be released Oct. 29, 2020 on Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows and later on next-gen consoles.