Game name: Watch Dogs: Legion
Release date: October 29, 2020
Available on: Uplay
Genre: Action, open world
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Disclaimer: Review code provided by Ubisoft.
Watch Dogs: Legion is a weird beast, as the follow-up to two successful but somewhat uninspired open world action titles focused on hacker groups trying to do good in a world that’s moving towards total surveillance, it has to do something similar, but at the same time its director, Clint Hocking, is the man responsible for some of Ubisoft’s most interesting titles (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and the extremely underrated Far Cry 2). This meant that, while I wasn’t too interested in a Watch Dogs sequel (the first game bored me with its “iconic” protagonist, and while that aspect of the sequel was massively improved, the rest was pretty much GTA with a hacking theme and some cool puzzles), I knew I was going to check out Legion anyway, because when Clint Hocking touches something, it’s going to be at the very least different from the norm. So, with that introduction out of the way, join me as I share what I thought about the latest entry in this budding franchise.
If you’ve been following the game, or have watched one of the many trailers released over the past few months, then you will probably know that the “legion” in the title actually refers to the “play as anyone” system that made its debut with Watch Dogs: Legion. For the uninitiated, the basic idea is that you can go around virtual London, tagging people and recruiting them for DedSec (the hacker group that has been the common thread between all three games). This means that there isn’t a single protagonist (or even a story mandated one) and that most of the game’s missions can be played with pretty much any London bystander, though their efficiency might be compromised, depending on their traits. This system gets even more interesting if you choose to play with permadeath enabled (if you lose a character, it’s gone for good) and it can be the source of interesting unscripted scenarios that don’t really have an equal on similar games available right now.
At the heart of the “play as anyone” system is the fact that every citizen of this simulated futuristic London has a routine, and the player can hack into their Optiks (a device that the fictional government of London forces everyone to wear) and learn all about them. If a potential recruit doesn’t want anything to do with DedSec, we can purchase an early game upgrade that lets us peer into their personal life even more, learning about their family and friends, or anything they want to accomplish where our organization can help, thus making our recruit more amenable towards our cause. As an example, during an early mission, I ran into a group of Albion (the fictional PMC that rules this version of London with an iron fist) personnel who were hanging out on the streets near a building where I had an objective to complete. Their uniforms would let me get into the restricted area with relative ease, but their affiliation to Albion meant that they pre-emptively disliked DedSec, so I couldn’t directly approach them in order to recruit them to my cause. A quick Deep Profiler hack let me know that one of them had some issues with a local gang, and would enjoy seeing their dirty laundry aired in public, so I set out to find the offending gang member, hacked their Optik, uploaded their data to the web, and soon after, I got a call from my prospective recruit asking for a meeting. This unlocked a sort of “loyalty mission” where I had to steal some stuff from the same gang I’d humiliated previously, and once I did that, the Albion guard agreed to join my motley crew, and with her under my direct control, I was able to infiltrate the building and proceed with my mission with ease.
That mission pretty much acted as my introduction to Legion‘s central mechanic, but it was far from the most interesting thing to come out of it, as the game uses its interlocking systems to create stories that will be unique to each player. During another mission, I recruited a professional hitman with a Central European accent and a penchant for direct action, and while I’d been playing the game as non-lethally as possible, having him under my command sort of made me commit to a more violent playstyle for the missions where he seemed like a good fit. This had two unexpected side effects, with the first one being his horrified reaction at the events that unveiled during a main quest (a warranted reaction, but not the one that I expected from someone who kills for a living) and the second being that my newfound commitment to riding virtual London of some of its citizens came back to bite me when I got the call that another of my agents had been kidnapped… by someone who had a grudge with my hitman, because I’d killed his cousin during a previous mission. Yes, you read that right, the game tracks who killed (or injured) who, and if you have the bad luck of murdering or maiming someone who had contacts, they will try to get their revenge. I’ve also been attacked on the street by friends of victims (apparently, they are informed of who’s the perpetrator, though the fact that the in-game police doesn’t come after you even if they should have that information handy does undermine the illusion a bit).
This sort of “memory” system extends to other areas as well. For instance, if you want to recruit someone who doesn’t hold a grudge against DedSec, you will usually do a loyalty mission for them and that’s it. There are alternatives, however (such as doing a Deep Profiler scan like we’ve discussed above for other cases) and one of them involves doing favors to their friends or family, or even doing enough good things in their borough that they notice and might just give you a call informing you of their decision to join your team. People will remember that DedSec stopped an Albion officer from assaulting them, and they will share this information with their circle of friends. It’s an idea that might look like window dressing, but from my experience it works far better than you might expect from the first time you launch the game. Ubisoft Toronto have taken the randomly generated descriptions found in the first two Watch Dogs games, and created an entirely new system around them, one that constantly tracks every action you make that could have an impact on potential recruits.
Speaking of recruits, the ideal way to play Legion, from my experience, involves building a team of characters that have useful traits and abilities, and then choosing our hero for each mission carefully, as their suitability will affect our efficiency and whether they make it out alive or not (a pretty important detail when you play with permadeath on, and I suggest you do so, as it adds a lot to the experience). This means we’ll do a fair amount of recruitment missions or favors for potential new members of DedSec, and that we’ll meet a lot of new faces, each with their own voice and regional accent (though after a while you start to see repeated voices that have been put through a modulator to change the pitch, something that makes sense, considering the amount of different protagonists that all have voice lines for 99% of the missions in the game). Some of the passive traits that our recruits can bring to the table don’t require us to ever control them (for instance, I have an older gentleman who’s a barrister and can negotiate the quick release of any DedSec agent who finds themselves caught by law enforcement, and I’ve never played as him). Others are useful for a certain type of operative (such as stealthier steps, quicker hacking times, etc) and others are actually negative and might lead to funny situations from time to time. Aside from those passive traits, we also have active abilities, such as the power to summon a special spy car that comes equipped with missiles and Bond-esque cloaking capabilities, or my professional hitman’s knack for instant knockouts if he’s holding a gun in his hands, to name a few.
While you can pretty much find anyone you want if you spend time walking the streets and scanning everyone, a good way of getting some guaranteed skilled agents is to complete the borough liberation missions, which aren’t exactly hard, and will net you currency and special operatives that could otherwise prove hard to find on your own.
Most main missions are designed with the use of some of these abilities in mind, but the game believes in your ability to improvise most of the time and it won’t nag you with suggestions aside from a few specific cases. I know I’m going to get some raised eyebrows for saying this, but there are a lot of similarities to the way Deus Ex works here, and while it’s obviously not as detailed or intricate, Watch Dogs: Legion is probably the closest I’ve seen a big budget AAA game come to the magic of immersive sims. Most quests will show you what your target is and what to do, but won’t tell you how to get to it, deferring to our own specific approach to the situations presented to us. The contextual hacking mechanics let us take control of cameras, drones and vehicles, and combining things can lead to some pretty inventive situations. As an example, I had a mission where my objective was to obtain information that was stored onboard an Albion boat. The area was heavily guarded and I wasn’t very interested in leaving a trail of dead bodies in my wake, so I took control of one of my spiderbot, hacked the gates that kept the boat in the pier, then switched to an Albion drone, and from this bird’s eye view, hacked the boat’s controls in order to make it leave the restricted area. I then commandeered a cargo drone with my own character as its freight, got to the boat, and sailed it to its objective without raising a single alarm or hurting anyone. That’s not the kind of thing you can do in GTA, for instance, and it wasn’t a scripted sequence or anything of the sort.
Of course this doesn’t mean that every mission can be approached in such a way, as there are some main story missions that are designed with set pieces in mind, but those are mostly in the minority (I will forever hate a few missions that forced me to complete obstacle courses in a specific way, with checkpoints that were far too spread out). Speaking of the story, it’s full of clichés and some of the twists are way too predictable, but I was engaged enough to keep going for the 36 hours it took me to finish the main questlines. The star of the show is the emergent storytelling that comes from the game’s different systems interacting with each other, however. I will remember a few of the story missions because they had some cool ideas, but stories like the life of my Central European professional hitman (who, by the way, managed to survive the whole game, even as other characters I recruited way later sacrificed their life for the cause) will probably stay with me a lot longer.
Other areas of the game aren’t as forward thinking as the “play as anyone” system, sadly. There is a basic sector liberation system that will reward us with skilled operatives and currency, and it works pretty much the same way that similar systems worked in Assassin’s Creed games (do a few activities, then trigger a liberation mission, and that’s it), an upgrade tree that will unlock cool gadgets and some weapons, and a basic clothing customization system that seems to be the only way we can spend our hard-earned in-game cash, as weapons are now obtained either from the tech tree, or come with the operatives we’ve recruited. The combat system is rather basic, letting us shoot our way of situations with either lethal or non-lethal weaponry, or bash people in the head with our fists or some melee weapon that comes with the operative we are controlling. It’s far from something like Max Payne 3, but it’s serviceable. You can also become wanted by the police if you do something they consider wrong while in plain sight (or in sight of the multitude of drones that populate the skies of futuristic London) and it works just like it does in GTA or a million similar titles, with wanted levels, a timer that slowly depletes as you stay out of sight, etc.
I did enjoy quite a bit the fact that most cars in the city can be automatically driven by an AI that can do a pretty good job of taking you from A to B, and that all the taxis are driver-less, which means it’s pretty easy to get a vehicle without raising the attention of the fuzz (certain operatives come with their own personal vehicles that they can summon, like the spy I talked about earlier, but it’s always nice to have a backup plan).
Tech-wise, I have to say that Legion can be a mixed bag. On the one hand, the game supports RTX effects and DLSS, and it can look gorgeous, especially at night, or during rain scenes. The reflections are top notch, and depending on our hardware we can have a grand old time admiring the graphics. On the other hand, however, all of this comes at a cost, and the game had a hard time keeping to 60fps while driving on my mid-end computer running at 1080p (Ryzen 5 3600, 32GB, 2060 Super). I’ve also read reports of graphical anomalies, which I thankfully didn’t experience, and I had three crashes during my 36 hours with the game. Hopefully these kinks will be worked out as Ubisoft releases more patches, because it’s a shame that such a unique game has to suffer from poor performance.
Tech issues aside, I had a blast with Watch Dogs: Legion. It’s the rare big budget open world AAA game that takes chances and introduces cool ideas to the mix, instead of playing the same tune we all know, but with better graphics or a bigger map. I hope that it won’t be a one-off, because this is undoubtedly the best title in the franchise so far, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
9/10 – Great.
Note: There’s an online component that should go live on December 3rd. I haven’t included any thoughts on it, as it’s not yet available.