“London is fucked,” according to Ubisoft’s latest installment in the Watch Dogs franchise, and it’s up to you and your hacking skills to “un-fuck” it. London in the near future is in a dark place, where a terrorist incident leaves the city in the hands of the private military group Albion to keep order in increasingly authoritarian ways. With the city transformed into a surveillance state, and with their liberties hanging in the balance, the citizens of London must rise up and fight back. Watch Dogs Legion is the third title in the Watch Dogs franchise. This time, you follow the London cell of the hacker group Dedsec, who was framed for the bombings that resulted in London being turned into a police state in the hands of private military group Albion and its CEO Nigel Cass. Like the first two games, you are endowed with hacking skills that allow you to sneak in, download or alter information via London’s cTOS network (the surveillance network used in the series). Unlike before, you do not control a specific protagonist. Instead, you will have to recruit from London’s citizens, controlling them and taking advantage of their individual skills.
The Sounds and Sights of London
I am honestly amazed by Legion’s version of London. Most of the city’s trademark sights are there, tempting me to go on a virtual tour instead of saving the day. And I did walk around a lot in between story missions because I wanted to soak in the scenery. It’s as close as I can get, for example, to walking down Savile Row to buy a suit. The city is a huge flex of Ubisoft’s ability to create huge cities for their games, hampered only by the limitations of the hardware I am playing it on. There are pop-ups and other graphical hiccups like NPCs spawning out of thin air, but I only noticed them while using the cargo drone to fly over the city. On the ground, there’s a lot going on that I didn’t notice the first pop-up until after I had played for three days.
As beautiful as these exteriors are, not all of them have interiors, being limited mostly on locations where there are important story missions. The most you’ll see are NPCs going in and out of their “homes” and “offices” but you can’t follow them in. Many of the locations you do have access to have standard lay-outs with special rooms only accessible via a loading screen. A warehouse in one Borough has the same interior as one in another and even offices, car-parks, gang hide-outs, and construction areas all look the same. Whether this is due to time pressure, or design efficiency, I do not know, but while it didn’t bother me that much, I would think that it might be immersion-breaking for other players.
London though, is not just the buildings and the sounds, but the people. As expected, the NPCs of Watch Dogs Legion is standard Ubisoft in that a lot of character models share the same face and body type. But the game does give them various wardrobe options that it somewhat helps in the game’s attempts at giving them some semblance of individuality. Their clothes mostly reflect their identities and occupations which is a nice touch considering that there’s nothing at all remarkable at their designs. It could have been better especially with the body types, but at least it works. While faces and “templates” would inevitably get “repeated” as the game generates NPCs from a finite pool of choices, it still gives them some form of identity.
The game’s music is standard Watch Dogs fare, with the obvious additions of British-flavored music and dialogue. I loved the car music so much that I bemoan the lack of ability to listen to them outside of it. With regards to voice-acting, I would say that the game is quite inconsistent. Characters like Sabine, Mary Kelley, and the AI named Bagley all had good voice-acting, but the other characters can range from passable to absolutely emotionless. This may be due to the fact that the game generates a lot of character types and the voice actors would have to repeat the same line in different ways again and again and again. The funny thing was, that in the end it didn’t really matter because they all delivered the same even with the different accents. Does it bother me? Absolutely not. But it’s not commendable either.
Simple but fun….
As far as gameplay goes, Watch Dogs Legion doesn’t try to radically change the established mechanics, they’re just tweaked enough to give it its own identity. In some ways, the gameplay feels rather simplistic, with all character types sharing pretty much the same basic skills. Weapon choices are rather limited with lethal options available only to specific character types. Even with unlocking new non-lethal weapons via the Tech Points, I still would not recommend you to fight an army with them.
The fun in Watch Dogs Legion lies in the people you recruit to Dedsec. These come with their own sets of skills and abilities that suit specific styles of gameplay. Although these eventually blur out as you recruit more and more people but find yourself favoring certain types over the others, they at least add to the illusion of the NPCs having their own distinct identity. And it was definitely fun to be in that kind of a bubble while playing the game. Where in the previous two titles, these NPCs are nothing more than random character models with a name and one brief description (usually one-liners), Legion adds a bit more info into them as well as a “schedule” they follow. Follow this schedule and you’ll discover that they do work at a specific place, meet specific people, and go home to a specific house. Harm them, and their friends, colleagues, or partners might try to get back at you by kidnapping you. I can’t even imagine how much work was put into their code to make this work.
I guess Ubisoft wasn’t kidding when they said you can recruit everyone in this game with the exception of main antagonists, of course. Instead of putting you in the shoes of a vigilante or a Deadsec member, you ARE Deadsec, and the game ends once you lose all of your members. After recruitment, these members would still go through their own activities when you’re not controlling them. You can either switch to them, teleporting them where you made the switch, or take control of them from where they are currently located. If you’re a fan of the Bourne movies, think how Treadstone activates its agents, and you’ll get the picture.
There are two approaches to recruiting new members for Dedsec: first is the practical approach where you pick people with specific sets of skills that will make life easier for you, like easier access to restricted sites like an Albion guard, a Clan Kelly gang member, or a construction worker. Some story missions force you to recruit specific members but otherwise, you have full freedom on who you want to have in your team. I personally favor types like the Professional (or Amateur) Hitman, the Spy, Intelligence Officer, or former MI6 agent who can carry lethal weapons making them more versatile. Some types I recruit because of the perks they give me, like faster healing for injured members, or instant release from prison, though I rarely use them directly. Others I recruit just for entertainment, like senior citizens tasing an Albion guard, or cute celebrities if only to be amused by the fact that they can actually be considered credible operatives.
Combat in Legion is entertaining, if not particularly deep. All character types can competently fight back against hordes of enemies, but it is those with the Gun Kata skill where I had the most fun. This skill allows you to do takedowns even with a full alert, and these aren’t just normal takedowns, but John Wick-style takedowns that makes it so worth it. It makes you feel very powerful, but you’re still very much vulnerable if you’re not careful, and the consequences may be dire especially if you have permadeath mode on (and I really recommend everyone to do so) since you risk losing your operative. It makes you much more careful about doing certain missions, and in my case, made me feel a certain sense of loss whenever I lose an important operative.
The hacking is virtually unchanged since Watch Dogs 2, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that. The driving feels a lot more OK this year, though it can still feel slippery at times. The cars have an auto-drive function that’s a good help if you don’t want to always have to drive yourself and have a lot of time to kill. I did take me some time to get used to driving at the left-hand side of the road.
The game also has enough accessibility options that cater to various handicaps and help players tweak the experience to their own liking and ability. The game as a whole isn’t very difficult, but it was nice to see Ubisoft have these kinds of options as well. One thing I don’t like, however, is the load times. The game loads whenever you go to certain areas, the game loads when you switch operatives, the game loads all the fricking time! I imagine this won’t be an issue in next gen and PC (with SSDs) but it’s clearly something that got into my nerves playing on the PS4.
Watch Dogs Legion continues the tradition of standing up to groups or organizations who desire total control. In this case, since you control Deadsec the organization instead of just one member, the majority of the story missions do not feel personal. Nigel Cass, the CEO of Albion and one of the game’s main antagonists, felt cartoonish at times. But you will come across some missions with profoundly disturbing themes dealing with human organ trafficking, modern day slavery, and using living things as experiments in the name of science and progress. While I’m not going to reveal any story spoilers, Mary Kelley and Skye Larson has got to be the most evil and most disturbing characters I’ve ever met in video games.
The story structure though, doesn’t particularly impress. It’s not bad, but it’s pretty much standard Watch Dogs missions without the emotional impact they used to have because you don’t feel as invested in these stories. You do feel invested and eventually attached towards specific characters, but only because you kind of like them more than the others. In my case, I find that I project certain personalities to these characters, and it sort of adds flavor to my gaming experience. As long as I keep that illusion, I’m having a blast. But that’s because I chose to like them, not because the story featured any meaningful character development whatsoever.
It’s not like the game doesn’t try. Certain missions appeal to your humanity and to a certain extent, it makes me care about the outcome. It’s just that if you look at it without objectively, it’s just the same missions over and over again. I’m not saying that it’s not enjoyable (fun fact: I’m having a lot of fun with this game), but it might take some convincing for players to whom a good story matters.
Like the other titles in the series, Watch Dogs Legion is a very fun game especially if you don’t take it too seriously. It has obvious technical and narrative shortcomings that may bother some players, but it’s not bad, all things considered. The beauty of London, and the opportunity to be an organization can be a lot of fun especially if you dig the fantasy, and the recruitment system is pretty impressive enough that you’d at least be covered until the next game comes in. In a year full of Game of The Year caliber titles, Watch Dogs Legion might not be a contender. But at least, it’s worth checking out.