Guest writer Dylan Burns delves into Ubisoft’s latest open world monster and finds while there’s some magic to be found in this dysotopian future London, it takes a bit of effort to track it down.
Would you be willing to die to liberate your city?
It’s a question that Watch Dogs: Legion first asks, then blurs over, as characters that rightly express concern for their personal safety when sought to join DedSec first hesitate, then quickly decide they’d rather go out blazing if they have to.
It’s eyebrow-raising to think that general citizens would be willing to stick their necks out against almost certain harm, yet Legion’s entire premise and gameplay loop rests on the assumption that every Londoner is a boiling kettle of hatred just waiting to be recruited.
Legion is a game about resistance via Ubisoft’s ideas of what resistance entails. You won’t be joining protests in the street or sharing whistle-blown information or joining social media waves against authoritarian brutality or, I don’t know, whatever else is realistically resistant-y these days. No, instead you’ll paste up sick wall posters and replace corporate propaganda with, erm, DedSec propaganda…
Then there’s the big thing that Watch Dogs: Legion does differently – the ability to recruit and play as any NPC. Arguably inspired by GTA V’s multiple protagonists, Legion takes this ball and runs with it, populating its futuristic virtual London with various classes of citizenry, all ready to be convinced to join DedSec for the price of a randomly generated favour.
Without exception, every citizen you recruit is dead keen, full of ocker slang and ostensibly trained in takedown combat and hacking protocols needed to be a full member of DedSec. Heck, if there are this many well-trained operatives just waiting around, it begs the question why none of them have formed their own vigilante groups or – indeed – how Albion succeeded in taking over the city in the first place. Credit does need to be given, though, for the variety and breadth of characters you can play as, men and women of all ages, nationalities and career types. They may not be particularly deep, personality wise, but effort has gone into making them appear diverse and representative of a thriving future metropolis.
If you can get past this dissonance, then the act of scanning potential recruits, adding them to the roster, and searching for even better operatives becomes rather fun, if wrought with inconsistencies.
Several times, I came across conflicting scans, such as a citizen that is “extremely fragile” with a special skill of being able to take more damage. Even if you choose not to recruit those suggested to you, such as a paramedic to reduce hospital times for all operative, then the main missions are structured to pull into the fold several recruits in order to show the player how each class of citizen can shine in the right circumstances.
For instance, a uniformed officer can just stroll into off-limits areas and will remain in disguise – Hitman style – if you walk slowly and don’t let guards get too close a look at you. Similarly, construction workers can enter work sites without drawing suspicion, while a drunk can take more damage or a hacker gains download speed bonus and may dominate drones easily. The specific skills you receive for each random citizen differ, but not to the point where any set of skills becomes too dominant that it will become your favourite.
All classes can get the job done, while some are more suited to specific missions than others.
Which brings us to a large problem with Legion: it’s just not that difficult to cheat the system
entirely. Firstly, the world is generally persistent. This means that whatever you accomplish with a character remains – such as collecting things in restricted areas or successfully hacking a system just nanoseconds before death. Upon respawn – which in this game requires jumping bodies to another recruit – the likelihood that you’ll retain the spoils of what your previous self did is very high.
This encourages you to rush into guarded areas, do what you need to and get out, if you can. This approach works almost every single time because enemy AI is incredibly, laughably, head-shakingly bad. If you are spotted, you can often fight them and no one else in the area will be any the wiser.
Even if you do stir a hornet nest, as long as you keep moving, keep disrupting enemies and taking them out, you’ll almost always run rings around them, leaving them to waddle around their tiny patrol routes calling the same three lines into their network – honestly, you’ll hear six people saying the same thing all at once, over and over again. Yes, you might die, but unless you’ve turned on Permadeath it’s never much of an inconvenience.
Legion’s themes are mature in nature. This is not something to be playing while the kids are around. There’s so much awkward swearing that my wife ended up hating me playing and asked me to put my headphones in. The dialogue is full of awkwardly written slang that I’ve never heard before … Which brings me to the voices themselves.
Given the random nature of your recruits, it seems that the phrases they utter come from a bank of recorded phrases, which use voice modulation to diversify delivery. This makes some characters sound like early prototypes for a mobile phone provider’s helpline.
The writing is just awful, although I am starting to wonder if it’s deliberately so. One mission saw me recruiting an Albion guard who was apparently a prize fighter on the side, who had a hit out on her because she decided not to lose a fight – that’s just one of the whacky (I’m sure someone at Ubisoft giggled as they thought it up) situations that makes you think: Really?
In other random weirdness, I experienced about an hour of open world gameplay where all of the police cars would light up and wail their sirens whenever I got near to them, but would not actually be looking for me – I had no heat level at all. Other times, I would finish everything in a red zone undetected, with no takedowns or other evidence, only to have every enemy suddenly start looking for me as soon as I left the area, shouting through my audio as I stood on the exterior in complete anonymity.
There are, however, some things I like. I like how the driving route guide ramps up on corners like an AR rollercoaster. I like how you feel all-powerful hacking through cameras and spider-bots, sometimes completing missions without ever setting foot inside restricted zones. I like that you can summon a cargo drone, jump on and fly yourself across the city, albeit slowly. I like that there is always some way to breach a target complex by looking for a back entrance or climbing up somewhere or sending a drone through to unlock a door for you. All these things are make Watch Dogs: Legion fun to play.
The world that’s been created is very impressive, a miniaturised version of London with a lens to the future. There are driverless cars and everything has a sleek, futuristic element. Every building is wired up with gadgets and scanners and cameras and network terminals. And it looks great, too, even if clearly designed with next-gen consoles in mind. Every surface is so detailed and textured that I could feel my Xbox One S straining with effort. It’s interesting, then, that some of the missions involve loading screens that have had no effort extended to hide them.
Need to travel down to a basement for a mission? You’ll just rock up to the lift, press a button and be greeted with a load screen. Same for entering DedSec HQ, which happens a lot as you return there for mission briefings – despite the world being perfectly set up for these to take place via the network. Such old-school design speaks of a focus on presentation over form, of dreaming of the future but not being in it, of expounding resistance without understanding what that might look like or what it might entail, of propagating locations and upgrades and liberation missions over truly pushing the series forward.
The themes deal with technology itself and how it can be misused by those in power. One arc
follows the horrific story of a scientist experimenting with downloading her dying mother’s brain
into her house’s AI system. It’s Black Mirror-esque and quite engaging to follow to the chapter’s
It’s telling that the moment your character confronts the villain of each chapter, they require a
written character to step in for them to actually confront the antagonist and hold a meaningful
conversation. I kept expecting them to say, “And you are?”. This is because Legion has traded
character depth for breadth, turning every recruitable character into a shallow pool of motivation, relegated to “Fuck the system” lines.
While my general review may lean negative, Watch Dogs: Legion is still a well put together open-world game. It ticks all the Ubi-points. There’s that familiar feeling of work-like progress that many players find enjoyable. Sometimes you might wonder why you are doing what you’re doing, but then you’ll have a cool hacking puzzle or find a funny Assassin’s Creed Easter Egg or take over a turret and shoot the shit out of a bunch of Albion guards and you’ll be right for another five hours.
The map is packed with skill points to hunt down and the act of recruiting is possibly endless.
Watch Dogs: Legion is comfort gaming. A generous serving of camera-hopping, stealth takedowns, spider bot exploration and circuit puzzles. There’s nothing here that surpasses Watch Dogs 2, and in many ways the series treads water, exploring dark corners of technological misuse without pushing the series itself forward.
Recruiting NPCs is not the future, at least not yet. The lack of motivation and character depth creates dissonance at so many intersections that the whole thing feels like an experiment straining to maintain momentum.
Yet, I can’t deny the thrill of summoning a drone and wreaking havoc, or the satisfaction of downloading the key for a locked door from an unaware guard. There’s some magic to be unlocked, it just requires effort to find and turn the key.
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review code to Dylan.
Dylan Burns (@d_p_burns) is a games writer of many years experience. Ex-editor of both Hyper Magazine and Pixel Hunt, he is also a teacher, artist, father and trainee accountant. He does not understand most Simpsons memes.