Watch Dogs: Legion’s London is remarkably true to life. It has dingy little dive bars dotted all across its dreary take on England’s main metropolis, as well as some wanky little hipster spots in Camden that I always quite like when I visit. But from the overused visual cues of “welcome… to dystopia!” to the fact it’s got about as much green as the red Power Ranger, it’s all just a bit gloomy.
Obviously, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s Lunden is a different animal. As opposed to neon lights and large swarms of devilish drones, it’s got sprawling Roman ruins looming large over medieval towns. Lunden — the 9th Century one, not the one that’s been taken over by a militant police government — has personality to burn, and is genuinely enjoyable to knock about in. It helps that the surrounding area is made up of boundless open plains, dominated by imposing mountains and rolling hills. It’s a much more refreshing kind of verticality, I think, than the highrise corporatocratic skyscrapers that make Legion’s London feel oppressively miserable. I already know that there are loads of issues with non-consensual surveillance technology. I’ve seen plenty of capitalist pigs taint the earth with their grubby pork fingers. I’ve had enough of all that slime, thanks, and I’d much rather ride across a field on my great big wolf than drive an Aston Martin around a city where I’ve been lamped by a self-driving car about eight times. That just reminds me that Elon Musk still has access to his Twitter account.
Put it this way: it’s been a bit of a shit year. We got some good news recently: Trump is out, and let’s not forget the Four Seasons Total Landscaping debacle. Karmic justice might actually exist. Still, it’s a bit rubbish having to sit inside all of the time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be dismissive towards the necessity of mindful behaviour right now. I’m just being honest and saying it’s not exactly very fun — so why on earth would I want to play a game where everything is infinitely more shit than it is in real life? To make me grateful about that old, “Well, it could be worse” adage? I don’t care if it could be worse. It’s still shit! Tell me, reader, why I would willingly play a game that makes me realize how futile us irrelevant little specks can be in the eyes of people who speak in ones and zeros when I can rock up to a Viking longboat full of drengir and sail through the breathtakingly gorgeous fjords of medieval Norway instead? If I could go on any holiday I wanted after things go back to normal, it wouldn’t be to a noisy and nebulous nightmare city. It would be to, like, Svalbard or something. Or somewhere with loads of ruins. Honestly, skyscrapers can get royally fucked.
It’s not just the fjords of Norway I’m after, though. Working in games means I often go to London (in normal times), so I was curious to mosey around Watch Dogs: Legion’s virtual reconstruction of it for a bit. I can admit that it’s impressively accurate, but it just wasn’t a very nice experience, if I’m honest. It’s okay to say that something is very well-designed while simultaneously admitting that it didn’t click with you, or make you feel good, or help suppress the “oh shit, oh shit” mantra reeling in the back of your head with everything that’s going on in the world. Legion is just not a very helpful or refreshing place to be right now — and it’s not supposed to be. That’s fine! But, by some serendipitous stroke of fate, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has launched right in the middle of this global maelstrom and offered us the opportunity to explore the dilapidated ruins of Roman England as they appeared at the beginning of the Viking Age.
Lunden is teeming with the hustle and bustle you’d expect from a global hub, but instead of luxury cars and fancy tech, you’re watching people have a little projectile sick on the side of the road, or wobbling around the market after nicking some grade-A hooch from the back of their neighbour’s modest little hut. That sounds rank, doesn’t it? But that’s why it’s brilliant, I think. The stalls are noisy and filled to the brim with unfiltered mayhem, but not in an overbearing way. Because even though it’s chaotic, being in Lunden feels like hanging around a crowded area where everyone’s heads are facing up instead of — to get a little gammon on you for a minute — being buried in their phones. Believe it or not, they didn’t have Samsung back in 900AD. People here just shout profanities at each other — the juxtaposition of unsavoury language and immensely profound historical structures is amazing. Look how gorgeous that is — listen to how absurd that sounds.
It’s fairly self explanatory, really — I’m having fun in Valhalla’s Lunden because it’s loud, busy, and drop-dead gorgeous without being plagued by all the shite contemporary or futuristic stuff Legion touches on, which is largely miserable. There’s laughter in Lunden, and enthusiasm. The boozers don’t have tacky neon lights hanging over the door frame and if you complain about your Tom Collins coming in a whiskey tumbler you’ll be rewarded with a swift kick up the arse, because nobody knows what a Tom Collins is but you can piss off for asking anyway.
I’m still having a lovely time wandering around Lunden, even though I’ve already technically completed everything there is to do there. It feels like a portal to the past, but also a medium through which we can access the bits of life that have been locked away this year. I don’t just mean fields and trees and mountains and rivers — you can still visit those if you go out on your own and live near them. What I’m on about is the atmosphere of being around actual people with actual faces that you don’t just see through Zoom. Yes, Valhalla is still virtual, but at least it’s not virtual nightmare fuel. In Legion I just feel this pervasively constant sense of doom and gloom and wonder (see: worry) about all the ways things could be worse. Valhalla, meanwhile, makes me think, “Shit, things are going to get better, aren’t they?” And that’s a much, much lovelier feeling.
Read next: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review — An Assassin And A Drengr Walk Into A Longhouse
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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