Note: Review copy provided by Ubisoft
Watch Dogs has always felt like an underdog series with Ubisoft. The past games either had a bland main character while introducing a cool concept, or just not sticking the landing; both not reaching critical success levels compared to other recent Ubisoft properties. Which may have been why they decided to change up the formula this time around by doing away with the main character and focusing primarily on the setting, near-futuristic Late 2020’s London. And let me tell you, while this game feels like a culmination of past works, the ambitious ideas don’t exactly stick the landing and hurt the overall project. Let’s delve into why.
As mentioned above, Watch Dogs: Legion decided to do away with the idea of a “main character”. In the past, we’ve played as the moody Aidan Pearce at the start of ctOS integration in Chicago and Marcus Holloway during the next generation rollout of ctOS in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. This time, Ubisoft took a leap about 15 years into the future since the events of Watch_Dogs 2 to show us what a world with a centralized system for security, identification, automation, and safety could lead to in one of the oldest cities in the world, London, England. With that, you don’t play as one character. The biggest selling point is you can potentially play as every single person you run across as you are exploring the streets of London. So what leads to this grassroots revolution with the citizens of London turning against ctOS and its government?
At the start of the game, you start off as a member of DedSec, the hacker organization devoted to fighting against the Big Brother company Blume, investigating planted explosives in the House of Parliaments This ends with the reveal of a new rogue hacker group, “Zero Day” and it all being a trap to pin DedSec for a mass attack on the city, leading to the group going underground and becoming a husk of its former glory. Following this, a government contract group, Albion, quickly takes over the city and takes out DedSec while enacting a quasi-militaristic control of the city and its inhabitants, for better or worse. Over time, Albion is the enforcer of the law changing London into one big surveillance state with the support of London’s intelligence agency Signals Intelligence Response (SIRS) and organized crime bribing their way into relevance. So, in the midst of this complete dystopian society, the first citizen of London is pinged by DedSec’s special AI Bagley and is recruited into the hacker organization to help stop Albion, SIRS, and organized crime, discover who truly is Zero Day, why DedSec got framed, and rebuild the organization from the ground up back to its former glory.
The best way this game shines is with its villains. The leaders of each organization are the best realized villains I’ve come across in recent memory and that’s for a good reason. It feels so much like the story team used the time and effort from character building for a main character to really flesh out each of the leaders you face, while also thinking about how each of these different organizations can create a worse dystopia. For instance, Albion hopes to launch a new drone that instantly eliminates any person who commits a crime, while the organized crime group, the Kelleys, wants to kidnap and enslave people, put microchips in them, and harvest their organs to make a profit. You will hate the villains, but not just because they are Evil™, but because you see how cruel these people actually are. You see how if these people achieve their dreams what that would mean for the greater society. This hatred for these major groups is what will drive you rallying London to fight with you and take each of them out one by one.
Another strong suits for Watch Dogs: Legion is its world. The world feels so much more alive than past games. People are everywhere walking around, others are working at their shops, and above all else, they interact with each other. With the citizens of London being the main character of this game, you can feel that Ubisoft focused on the bigger picture here to make it feel that way. Citizens will randomly pick fights or get picked on by Albion. Citizens will try to fight back. They interact with you. It’s a really cool experience to feel like you’re walking around such a well realized city. Let alone the fact that this rendition of London is simply breathtaking. Ubisoft’s take on the near-future feels real and achievable. Something that we will see in the next couple of years as automation becomes more realized. Cars are driving themselves to places, there’s digital banners and posters that furl and unfurl, and ads are 3D flying through the space to show off a big exhibit. What’s more is that many of this stuff is interactable via different missions. You really feel like as a hacker, this world is the best playground for what you want to do, and I need to commend Ubisoft on doing such a great job on their work here. But, with a focus on the greater picture of the citizens, this is also where the game’s greatest weakness comes into play.
As mentioned above, the big mechanic for this game is you can recruit any citizen of London you see on the streets. You can recruit anyone from a living statue, to armed guards, all the way to elderly people who will die at any second (yes, really). Each person you scan with your device has an occupation, and sometimes special perks. While the game says you need to recruit many different people to succeed, that is far from the truth. I found myself playing as one or two people maximum and only changing to someone else if my character got arrested or died. Permadeath is an option and adds the much needed sense of danger this game needs. But permadeath also feels more annoying than fun. This is my personal preference but I found myself just turning it off after losing a couple characters that I actually felt attached to after working hard to unlock them and use them for numerous missions. Each character does have their own personality but they do eventually repeat. In the end though, the perks of each person is just that. It’s a perk that doesn’t feel necessary to progress the game (except for 1-2 missions where the game introduces you some extra benefits of specific roles). Most missions can just be completed by using the same character over and over again without much consequence except maybe a little higher difficulty. Because of that, the idea that the city of London being the main character also removes the individuality of the people you play which is a shame because if there was a little extra time to make perks feel more useful or giving the characters more personality, like changing the radio to specific channels whenever getting into a car, or interacting differently with the people around them, then the overall experience would feel that much better. Otherwise, the general gameplay experience between the fun action/hacky missions feels bland.
Additionally, while fun for the first couple of recruits, the process for onboarding new people does feel more like a chore than a fun side-mission. Whenever you come across someone you want to make a member of DedSec, you walk up to them and hold Y (or hold RB to save them for later). This starts their recruitment mission. These tend to vary from multi-part missions that involve getting that person out of hot water, or helping them do something for the greater good (like stealing back a truck full of organs ready for transplant from black market dealers). If someone isn't initially a fan of DedSec you need to coerce them into liking your cause. This involves taking out enemies, blackmail, etc. They're quick 20-30 minute objectives but each part of the mission tended to be way across town. After fast traveling back and forth several times just to bring one new person on board, it felt old. It would've been nice if as you unlocked more people to join the team, the process shortened and shortened, eventually leading you to recruiting people with a click of a button, just to add some extra incentive to keep recruiting people. Other than that, I was just recruiting people just to make sure I didn't accidentally run out of members and get a Game Over screen. I hope that as more patches come out along with the next-gen upgrade, Ubisoft adds more mission variety as well for recruiting people.
So how does an average mission play out? Well that depends on how far in the game you are, and what skills you unlock. In the early parts of the game, the gameplay loop is more stealth based. You need to sneakily take out enemies and use low powered stun weapons to shoot people when a mission eventually pops off. Later on, you can use drones or spider-bots to infiltrate an area and complete most of a mission before you even step inside a heavily guarded building. Outside of combat, the gameplay involves finding an infiltration point into a facility and gaining the necessary access to a specific gate or door by downloading a key from a guard or using a spider-bot to unlock closed access terminals. Like past games, you can use cameras to scout around an area or hack traps to take out enemies early. While it does feel repetitive in the late-game, the many, many different layouts of the buildings and guards keep the game feeling fresh. Watch Dogs almost feels more like a puzzle game than an action adventure game just because of that reason. The gameplay truly shines though when it forces you to integrate hacking with combat to make you feel like a badass hacker who is taking out these organizations. Without spoiling anything, one of my current favorite Ubisoft boss fights is in this game specifically for combining a hacking puzzle into the combat mechanics to take out a boss and its goons.
Now, beyond the general monotony of the gameplay detailed above, I did come across a couple bugs and issues. Not until near the end of the game, my Xbox One X crashed about 3 times, all during a switch between characters. Twice during the last mission where it forces a switch several times. Beyond that, there were also several visual and animation glitches I experienced. These tend to feel commonplace around launch for Ubisoft games, but surprisingly they were few and far between this time around in this ambitious project. But even for a game that runs fairly smooth, I keep finding myself thinking that even with the major positives discussed above, the game just feels bland. Watch Dogs: Legion had its fair share of delays, and at the end of the day, it feels like maybe one more delay to make this a truly next gen game would have helped it in the long run. More resources should have been devoted to the character randomizer to give characters more personality, more meaningful perks, and a more variety in looks and voice lines. I had about 10 people recruited at the end of the game and at that point I started to hear repeating voice actors from past characters who were no longer a part of the team (not my fault, I swear).
Watch Dogs: Legion feels like a culmination of Ubisoft’s hard work in creating fun open worlds. Along with its ambition to make any character playable, and focusing on the city of London as a whole, the developers succeeded with making an enjoyable experience that does encapsulate a well realized future we could be living in in the next 10ish years. But several parts of the game, particularly the very ambitious system of recruiting and playing as almost anyone feels like the Achilles heel. While the city promotes fun exploration, and the villains do feel deeply realized, it all feels null and void when the characters you play in the sandbox feel almost like lifeless shells that you don’t want to get attached to.