Watch Dogs: Legion takes place in a future London where drones cruise through the sky, cars drive themselves and everybody dress like they’ve just walked off the set of a punk rock video. However, a private security company by the name of Albion essentially rules London following a series of devastating bombings that are blamed on DedSec, the same group we’ve been following for the prior two games. As a member of DedSec you know that your hacktivist group has been framed, but by who and why is the mystery that needs solving. Luckily for you, the people of London are ready to rise up, and you can literally play as any single one of them. Previous Watch Dogs have presented the idea of anyone being able to rise up and make a difference, but Legion makes it a reality by making every NPC you meet a potential DedSec operative. So, is Watch Dogs: Legion another by-the-numbers Ubisoft game, or something special?
Turns out the problem with having thousands of playable NPCs is that you can’t give each of them an identity of their own. They become thousands of empty shells just waiting for the player who possess them. And as I’ll try to explain through this review, Watch Dogs: Legion suffers from its own identity crisis as it tries to follow the standard Ubisoft template of having something for everyone.
But first, the story. It…it works. Watch Dogs: Legion attempts to deal with a lot of themes, from the over-reliance of technology to the very real threat of a country becoming a fascist state by over-reacting to the threat of terrorism. Albion rules London with an iron fist, squashing all criticism, grabbing citizens off the street, abusing personal data and turning the city into a surveillance state. There’s other dark topics as well, like slavery or someone using disturbing methods to create an A.I. It dumps these heavy subjects in front of you like someone dropping the mic after an epic speech, and then trips over them itself. Every time it gets remotely dark or comes close to having to properly tackle something, your character will insert a dumbass comments that feels completely at odds with what’s happening. Legion wants the grittier style of the first game but also wants the more bouncy, cheery vibe of the second game and doesn’t manage to properly weld the two together.
With every chav on the streets of London a potential DeadSec operative, Watch Dogs: Legion doesn’t have a single central character. Surely the best way to tackle this would be to really focus on all the other character’s then, so that lack of a true player-controlled protagonist isn’t so keenly felt. And good grief does Legion fail on this point with a cast of dull, forgettable characters. The only exception is Bagley, your snarky, sarcastic A.I. pal who consistently made me laugh. It’s worth going through the story just to enjoy his company. Aside from Bagley though, it’s hard to get invested in the story and its characters. There are a few decent moments, but that’s it.
The headlining feature for Legion is that you can recruit and play as anyone you find in the world. It’s true, too: you can sidle up to any hapless human on the street and recruit them into DedSec, often by doing a mission for them that’s randomly selected from a pool of simple objectives. You can bring an old lady into the cause and then proceed to use her to beat the shit out of guards, shoot up Buckingham Palace, fly a drone and drive too fast. Or you can find somebody who makes a job as a living statue and use that particular skill to evade pursuit. People that already have a dislike of DedSec (understandable given how I had literally just hacked three buses to reverse madly down the road for my own amusement) are a bit trickier as you’ll need to deep profile them, which is surprisingly not a sex position. With the deep profiler you can check out their entire schedule and investigate any leads that might help you win their favour.
It’s such a cool concept, like the reverse of the Nemesis system that Shadow of Mordor introduced and which I loved so much. I spent the first few hours happily collecting humans like how child me used to obsessively collect Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. It’s a concept that loses its appeal quickly, though, because the problem with recruiting anyone you want is that you can recruit anyone you want. And most of them are more boring than a sack of potatoes. Unless you’re Irish, in which case the potatoes are probably quite exciting. But I digress.
Where Ubisoft seemed to struggle to marry their fun new idea to their typical game template is that they need everyone to be able to do everything. It doesn’t matter if you recruit an old man or a janitor or a hobo, he or she is instantly able able to hack anything, get into a gunfight and beat a heavily armoured opponent in a fist fight without breaking a sweat. On the one hand, it means you can approach any situation however you like without swapping operatives all the time, but on the other hand, it means everyone is the same. None of them stand out. Why bother swapping from a teacher to a board game designer when both of them will get the job done?
That’s where the perks should come into play, in theory, at least. Whenever you scan someone with your phone you can view their perks, as well as see their occupation and 4 or 5 words about them, which is as much personality as they get. Some people might come with a gun, others may have a sporty car (which is useless considering you can hijack any of the dozens of cars around you at any time) or dish out more damage in combat. Naturally, some abilities are just more useful than others, like being able to summon a cargo drone that you can then stand on and fly around, making it easy to reach tricky spots. The vast majority of plebs wandering the streets of London have one or two perks like a wrench and slightly more damage in melee, making them basically pointless. After the initial novelty wore off I stopped bothering to scan random people because they offered so little. Rarer characters are handed out as awards for liberating the boroughs of London, or clearly marked on your map. But even the ones that boast some great skills don’t really change how you tackle the game except in small ways. A dedicated hacker might be able to propagate hacks which can be useful, but it doesn’t drastically change anything in the way you might hope.
Having a world full of NPC characters that can be recruited and played as brings many design challenges. How do you voice them all? How do they look? Ubisoft have handled this by using hefty doses of randomisation so that they are all unique. Quite frankly what this ends up doing is make everyone look like they fell out of the ugly tree and hit every possible branch on the way down. Finding a recruit that actually just looked like a person instead of a horror movie monster was more of a rarity than finding one with cool perks. By far the worst visual elements are the beards which are truly horrifying to behold, but facial animations and lip-syncing are also very poor. But since a lot of things are randomised you do get some fun combinations, like a judge who also happens to own an assault rifle, will occasionally gamble your cash away and might apparently spontaneously die. Which is funny exactly one time.
The other thing Ubisoft does in a bid to sell the idea of everyone being recruitable and different is to modulate the voice acting. Basically, there’s a pool of voice actors that have recorded bunches of generic dialogue, and then those voices are pitched up or down or have other aspects tweaked in a bid to make it sound like there are a lot more voice actors than there actually are. It…doesn’t work, to be honest. For one, the core voice acting is cringe enough, but once you overlay effects it’s downright comical. On top of that, the actors are having to spout lines so stereotypical and over-the-top that it’s almost offensive.
I don’t want to come across like I think the whole recruitment idea is a disaster. In fact, I think it’s a fun idea that just needs more time be properly fleshed out. And in its current state it does throw out some cool moments, like recruiting a stage magician who can hypnotize people or finding an NPC in the world who doesn’t like you because one of your other operatives ran over their sister. It’s like watching someone very nervously trying to create a D&D character for the first time: “So he’s…uh, he’s a teacher? That has stun-gun? And can…er, download stuff quickly? And farts a lot so he sucks at stealth! Yeah!” There’s a satisfaction to be had from swaying an Albion operative over to DedSec and then using their uniform to stroll into a restricted area, or delving into the deep profile of someone and finding out they’ve been tracing a Clan Kelley crypto-currency thief so you go and beat the crap out of the thief. Unfortunately, the novelty of the whole thing wears off fast, and once that’s gone your left with a bog-standard Ubisoft open-world game.
It’s also hilarious how happy everyone is to take up arms and go on killing sprees. The story paints London as oppressed, and that Albion has a lot of support from the common people. And yet anyone you chat to seems incredibly willing to snatch up a gun and turn full Jason Statham on a rampage. I’m not sure why DedSec is even needed – I’m pretty sure that old granny down the road who owns a shotgun and a shock drone is capable of handling this shit on her own.
But for a game where I’m supposed to be building my own personal team of heroes who will battle tyranny and free London, it’s a problem that I don’t care about any of them. Even with perma-death turned on (which I suggest) and a few of my operatives being killed, I just didn’t give a damn. They were empty husks, easily replaced by some random person yanked off the street and handed a gun. For all of Legion’s darker themes, it never once deals with the fact that DeadSec will willingly churn through bodies without a second thought and barely ever a nod to the countless operatives that die in its name. In the end, your operatives are mindless drones, just like the metal ones you hack into.
There’s also some problems with how the story deals with you swapping out operatives whenever you want, problems it just ignores. If you swap to a different character the story and the characters carry on as if you’re the same person. It’s jarring, but you get used to it.
Most missions and enemy outposts you tackle are designed with an impressive amount of options in mind. Yeah, you could just bumble in and shoot everything that looks even vaguely threatening, but there’s so many more ways to get the job done. You could find yourself a cargo drone, climb aboard and use it to fly straight to your destination. Or there might be a nearby crane that you could hack into and use to get you over the walls. You could sneak your way through, or maybe recruit somebody with a uniform that lets you walk straight in. It’s even possible to complete objectives without ever physically entering the area by using a mix of hacking cameras or your handy spider-drone. I genuinely enjoyed trying out different things, using cameras to scout the area and just seeing how many ways in there was.
The sacrifice that’s made for this variety is that Watch Dogs: Legion isn’t very good at any one thing. The gunplay feels clumsy and awkward, the stealth is very basic, the driving is meh and so on and so on. It’s the old dilemma: do you want to be okay at lots of things, or great at one or two? Ubisoft always want to be everything to everyone, and that’s why there games so often feel like they don’t have an identity of their own. Like the people you recruit, Legion feels empty and soulless.
Kudos have to go to the occasional mission that tries something a little different, like clambering up the Tower of London using a spider-bot. You get to jump around huge cogs as they go about their business of displaying the time for all of London to see, and its a highlight of the whole game. Likewise, piloting a micro-drone through circuitry is a great moment.
Unfortunately the A.I. is never capable of handling the variety with which you ruin their entire day. Instead the Albion guards, police and thugs you punch, shoot and drop things on have roughly the intelligence of a bag of brain-dead Lemmings. They consistently fail to notice things, stand out of cover during gunfights, get stuck and are basically little more than minor inconveniences unless you’re very, very stupid.
Dished out as rewards for story missions or found lying around the world are Tech Points that you can spend to unlock or upgrade gadgets that are available to your entire team of operatives. Some of them are hidden away in little puzzles, often inaccessible to all but a sneaky spider-drone tossed over a fence. There’s nothing to spend your points on that’s truly awesome, but it’s cool to be able to hack into deadly counter-terrorism drones or unlock the ability to make a turret turn on its allies. Hell, my personal favourite method of tackling situations was to stay outside and use drones and turrets to rain down electronic death from on high.
London itself is a beautiful recreation that is incredibly accurate to reality, albeit in condensed form. You can take a tour of Buckingham Palace, check out the Tower of London, run around Chinatown and take in the sights at Piccadilly Circus. In fact, if you know London reasonably well I’m pretty sure you could actually navigate Watch Dogs: Legion without needing the mini-map. In fact, it’s such an accurate recreation of London that walking down the sidewalk will result in every nearby NPC unleashing a torrent of abuse about invading their personal space despite barely even being in the same damn postcode as them. You’ll also see people getting into fights for absolutely no reason. Fuck, the accuracy is amazing, Ubisoft.
And I have to commend Ubisoft for actually resisting the urge to splatter quest markers and other nonsense across their map like an embarrassing cum-stain. Usually their open-world games are filled with menial tasks, but Watch Dogs: Legion actually only has a few side-quest chains and a couple of activities. But because the driving is utterly drab and because there isn’t a lot to do outside of stalking women under the pretence of maybe recruiting them. Because of this I found myself using the fast travel a lot once the novelty of belting around London had worn off.
Fast travel does bring us to performance. Ubisoft provided me with code for the Xbox One X version of Watch Dogs: Legion and it quickly became clear that it’s a game which will benefit a lot from the faster storage of the new generation. Initial load times are quite long, as are load times when entering interior areas. But by far the most annoying loads are those when fast travelling. They aren’t aren’t truly terribly, but they are far from good, especially when you have games like Ghost of Tsushima powering through loading times even without the benefit of an SSD.
Aside from that though, performance on the Xbox One X was generally pretty good. For the most part Legion held itself at 30FPS, with drops only occurring when I was driving quickly through London. That’s also the point where pop-in and even pop-out became very noticeable. It’s a bit bewildering to have a car vanish in front of you while another randomly appears like it was just beamed in from the Enterprise.
Being a Ubisoft game there’s a fair number of bugs and glitches to enjoy as well, ranging from the annoying ( a couple of crashes) to the funny (people floating in the air, people getting into random fights, people stuck in doorways.)
And then there’s the seemingly inevitable microtransactions that plague games with their smelly presence. By the standards we tend to see these days though, I have to admit that Watch Dogs: Legion’s microtransactions aren’t the absolute worse. Basically, you can spend some real cash to buy fancy paintjobs for cars and guns, or you can purchase new operatives. These don’t have any skills or perks that you can’t find within the game, so that’s good, but they do have fancy clothes that don’t appear anywhere else. These have to be some of the most pointless microtransactions I’ve seen in a triple-A title, and if you buy any of them shame on you. SHAME!
Watch Dogs: Legion’s big concept of making every NPC a recruitable, playable character is an amazing idea that almost turns the game into Pokemon with humans but as it turns out if you can play as everybody, you end up playing as nobody. If Ubisoft are smart they’ll stick with the idea and flesh it out further, making for a potentially excellent sequel. For now, Legion is more of a testing ground for this new idea.
As for everything else surrounding recruiting chumps for your own personal army, it’s fine. At this point the Ubisoft template is perfected and you either enjoy it or you don’t. I love variety in which you can approach a lot of the mission, be it stealthy like a ninja or a hacking God, but that variety comes at the cost of gameplay mechanics being very, very basic. If you’re after some open-world shenanigans and are happy with the idea of another Ubisoft game, go for it, but maybe wait for the price to drop first.
- Recruiting anyone and everyone is fun for a while.
- solid open world.
- Good mission design
- A couple of excellent story missions.
- Some awesome story themes.
- Story is meh.
- Doesn’t excel in any particular area.
- Your operatives are basically meat drones.
- Pointless microtransactions.