Title: Watch Dogs: Legion Released On: October 29, 2020 Genre: Action-Adventure Reviewed On: Xbox One X Also Available On: PC, PlayStation 4 Developer: Ubisoft Toronto Publisher: Ubisoft MSRP: $59.99 USD / $79.99 CAD
The London of the future is a dark place. It’s a city where private military contractors and gangs work together to profit from crime, and xenophobia runs as rampant as the surveillance. The perfect setting for a group like DedSec to capture the hearts and minds of a disenfranchised and persecuted population.
Watch Dogs: Legion is a new chapter in the saga that allows the player to tap into the entire city to rebuild DedSec after they are framed by a mysterious group for a series of bombings across London. Using Ubisoft’s “Play As Anyone” system, you can recruit any NPC that you encounter in the world, so long as you can convince them to join the cause. Alongside this groundbreaking system is a completely new direction for the Watch Dogs series, featuring a fine-tuned hacking system, engaging combat, and a deeply impactful narrative that resonates with our current society.
Legion is not simply a sequel to Watch Dogs 2, but a reimagining of the series. Instead of simply giving us more than we experienced in the second game — more hacking opportunities, more weapons, more side missions and activities to sink dozens of hours into — Ubisoft has refined the systems that were already in place and given players a much more streamlined experience. Their core addition focuses on “Play As Anyone”, their new system that brings London to life and allows you to recruit any NPC in the game into a playable character.
In terms of actual open-world hacking, it’s actually been scaled back substantially from the second game, which at times could almost feel a little overwhelming. You don’t have as many options when hacking people, apart from the usual Disrupt, and there aren’t traffic lights to change or sewer grates to blow up every twenty feet. While this initially felt limiting after the wealth of options in San Francisco, it created a much cleaner concept that felt less muddied. Don’t get me wrong; you can still control people’s vehicles or raise barriers to evade pursuit, and since surveillance is London’s forte there are cameras and drones galore to hijack, but the entire hacking system feels more purposeful.
I have always been a huge fan of Ubisoft games, but if there was ever an issue it was that some have felt like they lost their own direction in trying to do and be too many things at once. Watch Dogs: Legion shows first and foremost that this lesson has been taken to heart, as the game serves as a well balanced juxtaposition of direction and distraction, which is what many of us are looking for in an open-world action adventure.
The slightly futuristic version of London has been faithfully recreated, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Ubisoft’s attention to detail in crafting their game environments. I’ve only travelled there once myself, but I was delighted to see the accurate representation of Piccadilly Circus, to gaze across the river Thames from Parliament at the London Eye, and to have the opportunity to infiltrate the infamous Tower of London. It’s a city that not only feels like an accurate representation of its real-world counterpart, but one that has a familiar atmosphere to it because of the work that has been done to make it feel like a living, breathing city.
Watch Dogs: Legion has a very concrete direction that it aims to take the player, and one that is thoroughly fleshed out and impactful through both its narrative and your interaction with the world itself. In addition to scaling back the hacking infrastructure, London doesn’t feel as heavily clogged with icons denoting side activities, collectibles and other distractions, making the city feel much tidier. Not literally of course; it is London after all.
While the core of Watch Dogs: Legion‘s narrative focuses on exploring how Albion, a militarized private security force, has wrested control of law enforcement from the hands of actual authorities on the guise of security against terrorists and “illegals”, there are a lot of less-than-subtle mirrors that Ubisoft Toronto has held up to reflect the current world we live in. While Ubisoft is known for peripherally touching upon social or political issues in their games, Legion hits home hard with issues that we as a global society have been grappling with.
Specifically and very poignantly, Legion spends substantial time looking at how Albion uses fabricated or perceived threats to people’s safety to enforce drastic security measures and round up immigrants or anyone classified as “illegal” to deport them or worse. People are jailed from routine ID scans that security forces are performing on every block, and drones scan citizens to ensure they have no connection to DedSec or any of their affiliates. These types of activities aren’t just happening in the background of the narrative though; you actually see them play out on the streets as you make your way through London and have the ability to intervene if you choose to.
Watch Dogs: Legion also explores the heavy use of force by law enforcement, albeit in this example it is the jack-booted Albion enforcers doling out “justice” since the actual bobbies have been completely hamstrung. It is no coincidence that in a game set in a near-future London there is a focus on public xenophobia fueled by propaganda, and made worse by violence at the hands of the authorities.
There has been a rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in England over the past decade, which is part of what fueled the recent Brexit movement. This isn’t to say that England is at all alone in experiencing growing nationalism, but the real-world combination of rising xenophobia in what has long been a surveillance city makes for a eerily perfect setting for Watch Dogs special brand of resistance.
The crux of Watch Dogs: Legion‘s side missions revolve around you taking control back from Albion: sabotaging propaganda, taking pictures of incriminating evidence against the contractor, and other activities that help to show people that DedSec is not the enemy. Through accomplishing enough of these missions in each borough, you can inspire people to become Defiant and unlock special missions to deal a serious blow to Albion’s hold on the district. The added bonus is that these missions also unlock a special operative, who has abilities that typically far outweigh those of the regular citizen.
You won’t have to look long or hard to start seeing military contractors rounding people up on the street and arresting them, while onlookers continue about their day, or move away from the scene. What truly amazed me was that I actually hit a point after I had led enough boroughs to revolt where people started fighting back against Albion when they saw these types of injustices occurring on the streets. You can actually start to really see and feel the impact that you’re having on society as new areas become Defiant.
After DedSec is framed, not much is left of the organization to strike back at Albion and help to free the people of London. One of the former leaders of the London chapter has fled the city to escape persecution, and all that remains at DedSec HQ is their stolen super-intelligent and all-knowing AI, Bagley. Bagley could have a game to himself, and is arguably the most fully fleshed out character in the entire game. His sarcastic charm and unbelievably dry British wit comprise a large portion of the background narrative to your missions, and his quips throughout the story comprised some of the best dialogue in the game.
While there are a handful of main characters in addition to Bagley that all of us will meet and engage with, you’ll spend the majority of your time getting to know the people of London through Ubisoft’s “Play As Anyone” system. In Watch Dogs: Legion, you can legitimately recruit and play as any single person that you encounter in the game, including those very same jack-booted stormtroopers you’re fighting against. Some of them must be tired of being fascist thugs, right?
Much like in previous Watch Dogs games, scanning people will give you a brief synopsis of them, as well as let you know what their current job is and whatever activity they are currently engaged in. In Legion however, you can then choose to save any intriguing NPCs to your recruitment list. From here, depending on their sentiments towards DedSec, you’ll have to work to win over their trust and convince them to join the organization. NPCs who are already sympathetic to your cause may only require a single mission, whereas those who distrust the hacker group require additional recruitment leads.
Through using your profiler, you can investigate recruitment leads on potential recruits to try and determine ways you may be able to sway them. This is in addition to getting their full schedule, which essentially allows you to track any NPC around the map as they go about their daily routine. Most NPCs typically have a single recruitment lead which can often be solved with a simple hack, whereas others require you to undergo serious operations to gain their trust.
The living statue has gambling debts with a gang, so you find out where their friend hangs out to get more information and hopefully save them. Only upon tracking them to the gang’s hideout, you find out that he was intentionally accruing heavy losses to infiltrate their organization and plant a virus. Or the mother of an immigrant DJ from Trinidad and Tobago who is under threat of being deported, so you rescue her from Albion and inform her son to gain his trust. The best part here was, I didn’t actively seek out his mother immediately because I was otherwise preoccupied, but then I came across her being arrested and intervened.
The “Play As Anyone” system alone breathes so much life into the world of Watch Dogs: Legion in ways we’ve never seen before. Every single NPC has a story to tell, if you take the time to look closely enough. For someone like me who absolutely loses themselves over a thoroughly fleshed out world, it was nearly impossible at first not to get lost down the multiple rabbit holes stemming from recruitment leads and fun characters I’d run into on the streets.
The way that members of your team interact with each other and the world is another part of the charm behind the system. When you complete a mission, you’ll often liaise with random operatives about your thoughts or next moves, of course with a quip here and there from Bagley. It really makes it feel like you’re growing a grassroots hacker organization, as new recruits join in on conversations and lend their voice to the greater cause.
The characters do all manage to feel like unique personalities as well, with the help of different stories and connections to the world. It was announced previously that the developers have used voice modulation because of the sheer impossibility of having enough different people to records the thousands of different NPCs. While you’ll occasionally come across similar dialogue coming from different characters, the voice modulation was so well done that if I hadn’t been told this was how it was achieved, I would have assumed there were many more voice actors than actually worked on Legion.
Every single NPC has layers to their story, which are only added upon by their own family, friends, and associates. And these stories are playing out all across the boroughs of London, just waiting for you to stumble into them. You’ll undoubtedly get attached to certain characters, not just because of their special abilities but because of their personality or style. Or maybe just because you keep helping out their associates and hindering their rivals throughout the city.
If you do help out an NPC or an associate of theirs, you’ll end up having a positive impact on them, both improving their outlook of DedSec and making them an easier candidate for recruitment. Conversely, if you have a negative affect on someone, either through harming them or their associates, they’ll have a negative opinion of DedSec and may even grow to hate them with repeated offenses. Who knows, you might even end up with your own Adversary.
For the purposes of this review I played without Permadeath turned on, which meant that my characters were arrested or hospitalized but not lost to me forever. Having every single non-player character be so fleshed out already adds such a weight to all of your actions, and permadeath really makes you consider how you want to engage with every scenario.
In addition to having their own stories and connections to the world, many characters even have personal weapons or their own distinct set of abilities, both passive and active, which greatly advantage them as an operative in specific situations. These abilities or weapons are often tied into their line of work; an anarchist can throw smoke bombs and attack with a truncheon, while a living statue can pose to escape a pursuit. A barrister can bail other operatives out of jail if they get arrested, while suiting up as a construction worker or Albion security can get you into restricted areas. You’ll run into characters who have different combinations of abilities and weapons, so it’s all about picking the team of operatives that you want to run with.
This system also means that there are some huge divides from how we are typically used to playing open-world action games. There is no store where you can go buy cars or weapons to outfit your favorite character. You can change your Tech Gadget and your special DedSec non-lethal weapons, but otherwise each character comes as a complete package. If you want a serious arsenal, you’ll have to recruit gang members, professional hitmen, or just that random passerby who happens to own a G36. Similarly some characters may own their own car that they can call on demand, but most will have to hitch a ride from one of London’s many self-automated cars.
There are still of course a healthy number of collectibles to seek out as you’re moving your way through the world, and side missions and other distractions that you can engage with, but everything feels purposeful instead of tacked-on. You can pick up audio and data files which will give you more insight into the not-so-near-future London, and relics that give the player some actual English history, on everything from WWII resistance to Mod subculture in the 60s. Most importantly though, are the plethora of masks that can typically be found in hostile areas or out of reach places that will require you to make smart use of your versatile operatives as well as your own ability to deduce a solution.
The game is not without its flaws, but I found them to be peripheral to my main experiences with Legion and never something that detracted from my enjoyment. They were more the usual graphical hiccups you might expect to see in a game of this size; the occasional NPC clipping into an object or other NPC, or a bit of a graphical anomaly. There were never any substantial technical issues that I encountered during my playthrough which actually impacted my experience.
In lieu of giving us more with Watch Dogs: Legion, Ubisoft chose to reinvent the series based around the core concept of “Play As Anyone’ and it’s massively paid off. In addition to the main storyline, Legion is absolutely full of all sorts of missions and distractions, but all of them are joined together through rallying the people of London around DedSec. Every action you take in the world has a weight, and one that causes ripples that permeate through society.
Watch Dogs: Legion is a game that will truly be experienced differently by every single player. How we choose to assemble our operatives, how we choose to play them, and most importantly how we decide to intervene into the lives of everyday Londoners will greatly shape each person’s experience. With the release of Legion‘s online mode in December and the ability to recruit and play with our friends, taking back London will truly be in the people’s hands.
Final Score: 9/10
Watch Dogs: Legion is the perfect evolution of the series, with the ability to play as any character bringing substantial depth to the gameplay and world.
The review copy of this game was a digital code provided by the publisher.