Watch Dogs: Legion Review
Allow me to introduce my selves
Publishers are always on the lookout for their next big franchise, and it's pretty common to try and grab the attention of fans through the launch of a new console generation. That's roughly the formula that Ubisoft followed with the original Watch Dogs back in 2014. The game generated a lot of attention with its unique city-hacking gameplay mechanics, and next-gen quality visuals. Although it was lacking in some areas, the game turned out to be a great new IP. So it's no surprise that a sequel followed; however, it didn't really improve on the original mechanics or push the franchise further. With Watch Dogs: Legion, the franchise returns for a third iteration, and though it packs a new "control any NPC" trick, the lackluster performance and gameplay loop that's growing increasingly stale prevent it from grabbing headlines during the new console generation launch in 2020.
Legion takes players to a futuristic version of London. Following a series of terrorist attacks, the DedSec organization of vigilante hackers gets blamed, and subsequently outlawed and nearly exterminated. Afraid of further issues, the British government agrees to allow a private military company named Albion to take control of the streets and the law. Led by CEO Nigel Cass, and with complete access to the ctOS control program that runs the whole city, the company swiftly institutes law and order. But as months go by, people get restless as jobs are lost to drones and Albion institutes harsher tactics. Once again, there is a need for someone to stand up to the regime, and a new DedSec group begins to form.
During the initial attack, a select few DedSec members survive, along with their powerful AI named Bagley. You are one of the first recruits in this new organization, and your goal is to grow the resistance, investigate who was really behind the bombings, and stop Albion from further oppressing the people. The campaign will take you into the various criminal circles, from organizations that try to implant controlling devices into people, human traffickers, and those who wish to ascend into the online afterlife.
The narrative in Legion isn't particularly memorable or engaging. The shockingly stark contrast that Watch Dogs 2 suffered from is mostly avoided here, even as the game tackles some gruesome scenes and still tries to make jokes. Bagley tries his best to carry the entire experience and pretends to be a funny version of Jarvis, as he talks the most and is your multi-tool to solve all major issues. The villains are untouchable until the story says they are, and the twists don't really surprise. The game also backs out of an ending that would have at least made it original, and opts instead to return to the status quo so players can continue into the open world after the story's conclusion.
Legion's story also faces a very unique challenge – since the player is able to swap between different DedSec operatives at any time, they must be able to react and talk. To that end, while it is true that you can recruit every single NPC in the game, this also means that developers had to use some tricks and not record thousands of lines of dialogue depending on who you choose to play as. All of the NPCs roughly fall into a few different personality types in how they react to the events and the rest of the team, and then their voices are further mixed to produce some seemingly randomized results. What this means is that you can end up with some decent sounding characters, but also some that sound incredibly poor and alien. Further, the dialogue you're given is absolutely awful. But thankfully, your conversation time is pretty clearly limited (compared to a typical protagonist), and the villains and non-NPC story characters do most of the talking. So, while an interesting experience, the story definitely suffers from the "play as anyone" mechanic – and it doesn't try to explain it.
In gameplay, this major player-swapping feature of Legion comes off as a bit of a dud. It feels bad to criticize, as work has clearly gone into making this a world full of randomized characters rather than just roadside padding for your corner drifts. Each has a schedule that they keep to, based on in-game time, and you can actually follow them around and see it executed. You can quickly hack the NPCs like in the past games and see their information, such as their job or what they had for dinner. The personal details are much more stripped down this time – instead, most of the information window is taken up by their abilities, should you choose to recruit them.
In order to recruit a new character, you simply talk to them. They then act relieved to have been contacted by DedSec, and tell you of their trouble. Once you help them, which always involves sneaking in somewhere and destroying/stealing data, they happily join the roster. Swapping between your characters is done easily via a menu and a loading screen. As another step to increase NPC cohesion, they remember events such as being rescued from Albion by DedSec, or having been caught in a crossfire, which may mean pre-existing positive or negative feelings towards your offer. For those who are not interested (such as enemy faction members), you have to first find where they hang out and meet them there, and perform additional tasks. On the other hand, if you run into friends or family members of your existing recruits, they may join you without doing a mission for them.
Characters have a few randomly generated weapons or abilities, which are locked to them. The weapons include shotguns, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and so on. They also have a multitude of special abilities and buffs like more melee damage or better hacking speed. Abilities like personal cars and uniforms are also a possibility; with uniforms, you can enter restricted spaces and walk around without raising alarms, as long as you keep a distance. Some abilities are less desirable, like being weak to gunfire, having a chance to have a heart attack, or having hiccups that can alert enemies during stealth. You never know who you're going to run into, so it becomes a bit of a lucky draw to get an operative that has a good combo of perks. To help against overwhelming odds, the game will sometimes recommend specific, time-limited quality recruits on the map.
While this recruitment mechanic is interesting, it also takes away from the core aspect of flexibility. All your recruits keep their own weapons and abilities, so it's not like you can swap them within the team. This means you are severely lacking in options compared to the previous games when it comes to tackling missions. Didn't bring a brawler and things get dicey? Better run. There is a nice path you can see that a Spiderbot could utilize? Hope you brought it with you. If you come across interesting or diverse opportunities mid-mission, you must stick with what you've got. There is no sense of progression – your DedSec army members remain exactly the same from the time you recruit them to however long you play; there is no experience to earn or further abilities to unlock.
You can customize the weapons that you bring along, but again, the only truly flexible slot is your gadget item. The first two slots are for weapons; you can equip everyone with non-lethal weapons that are developed by DedSec and are shared with the whole group, or stick with lethal options that many characters come with. The gadget item slot options range from a remotely controlled Spiderbot for infiltration or a combat version, to a temporary cloak, a shock trap, and a missile drone. With only one gadget that can be brought along, there's very little reason to carry anything other than the Spiderbot. To unlock more gadgets or improve existing ones, you find Tech Points scattered around the game world or gain them from main missions.
You'll need the weapons and a gadget on missions, where the vast majority of the time you will sneak into an enemy area and retrieve something. You scout the area from the outside, look for any security cameras, hack into them, and jump around between different views. You can mark enemies to track them through walls, setup and dispatch traps by explosive objects within the environment, and so on. You'll need to unlock doors by interacting with nearby panels, download keys, and solve the power-redirecting minigames from the past entries. Objectives vary, and may need you to only interact with them remotely, with the help of a Spiderbot, or directly hands-on. If you've enjoyed the core Watch Dogs experience to this point, not much has changed for this chapter. It can still be thrilling to accomplish your goals without physically setting a foot inside a facility, but things are starting to feel rather notably repetitive.
One new addition is the cargo drone, which is large enough for you to ride on. Intentionally or not, this ability makes much of the game trivial. Being able to call in the drone and ride it to the rooftop or right into the heart of enemy compound takes you right to your objectives, bypassing much of the sneaking or fighting. It's an equally valuable escape tool. The game obviously wants players to use it – some areas are only accessible with the drone – but it also reduces the value of the level design when most of it can be bypassed.
Mission variety could have helped at least a little bit with the core gameplay being unchanged. The campaign is split up between main story missions and optional ones, along with the possibly endless pool of missions to recruit new DedSec members. Sadly, the vast majority play out exactly as above – just sneaking into some enemy compound. The optional borough liberation missions are the best, by at least using original locations or creating a unique scenario by combining action and hacking. But most of the structured content takes you into generic urban depots, construction sites, and Albion outposts that look alike, and that the game makes you revisit over and over for optional quests.
So, after a while you might find it dull to sit in a corner and jump between cameras, so you'll go for a more aggressive approach. The various enemy factions that you come across may have different motivations, and different weapons and clothing, but functionally they are all the same. There are no interesting enemy units – just people with melee weapons and/or guns, sometimes with some armor. Some may shoot from distance, others try to close in with a shotgun. Everyone can be dispatched with a stealthy takedown equally easily, and so there's not much of a sense of progress. The drones and turrets you occasionally encounter do get tougher, but they can be simply disabled with a hack like any other piece of ctOS world.
The controls don't feel particularly responsive, and character movement is sluggish, though at least controlling drones and Spiderbots is fine. When engaging in combat, you can utilize melee, which is simplistic – a punch, a grab to break an enemy block, and a dodge. It's not particularly satisfying, and every single enemy is apparently a hobbyist boxer as they all take a while to beat down. They will also mostly keep their weapons holstered as long as you do. When it comes time for shootouts, it doesn't feel like your weapons pack a punch, whether you go lethal or not. There's little feedback and the enemies go down easily with headshots. Controls can be finicky when shooting, especially in cover. Lastly, the cars also feel awkward to drive, but thankfully the game and even Albion doesn't care if you accidentally run over half of London.
If things go wrong, your character is either injured or arrested, and you switch to another and start from outside of the area, but with progress still intact. There is an option to play with permadeath, in which case your character could be gone for good. Otherwise, they need some real-time to recover, and you can recruit NPCs who are doctors or lawyers to shorten those cooldown timers and make the characters selectable again.
But things don't go wrong very often – on Medium difficulty, Legion doesn't offer much challenge. A lot of it comes from the relatively streamlined level design (plus the cargo drone), and one-hit stealth takedowns on all enemies. Sure, you won't be able to take a full clip to the chest and walk away, but such situations are rare. But it's also easy due to the numerous issues with enemy AI. The NPC behavior is very simple and not well designed. They will follow their patrols, and can be distracted for a stealth takedown even from directly in front. If they notice you and engage, the rest of the area isn't alerted unless there is gunfire. It's very easy to lose them after you're spotted, and they lose interested and return to patrols quite fast.
The problems with AI extend beyond the enemies and into the general issues with lack of polish. Watch Dogs: Legion is a game that's pretty rough around the edges, and could have really used more time to iron out the problems. Some problems are mostly harmless – like NPCs teleporting around, climbing over obstacles and cars, spawning underground, and generally behaving erratically. It kind of ruins stealth and immersion, but it's not as bad as when physics glitches come calling. Anytime you're driving, there is a chance a random thing you ran over will catapult you into the air or cause fatal damage. Those chances are at least doubled when using bikes. But perhaps worst of all are the rare crashes, and general menu instability, along with an exuberant amount of loading screens - when entering any location, and even once inside. There are also cases of cars and buses clipping through the road frantically, or a mission objective vehicle spawning suspended in the air, rendering it unreachable.
The game's performance is also pretty shaky. Legion is not a great looking game – running on Xbox One X at 4K, it doesn't look very impressive except for certain vistas; there are plenty of issues with draw distance and texture streaming. The quality of the textures and characters leaves much to be desired – including their animations and very poor lip syncing. Just like the poor results of mass-producing voices, the animations just can't be good when they have to account for possibly character being controlled by the player. The framerate also dips quite frequently, and these issues become more apparent the faster you're traversing the world. There is a day and night cycle, but no weather changes.
So it may not always look particularly pretty, but at least this digital recreation of London seems true to life and is pleasant to explore. The game consists of the six boroughs in the heart of the city, which feature many of the known landmarks. Between missions you can run around collecting Tech Points for your gadget upgrades, visit a pub to have a drink and play a darts minigame, play a kick ups minigame, join a fight club, or deliver packages. Still, there is a shortage of worthwhile side activities – given that all structured content feels very much the same. The game cleverly uses any underground Tube stations you've come across as fast travel points.
Most side activities and missions earn you ETO points. This second currency is used to buy new clothing items for all of your characters, and there are tons of different options. In fact, this open world city is more littered with icons for clothing shops than anything else. You can also buy new skins for weapons and cars that your characters own. It's good news if you're into that sort of thing; you can of course buy extra special clothing items with real money via microtransactions, as well as skilled members that join your team without having to find or recruit them.
It's worth noting that the game launches without a multiplayer mode, which is planned to be added in December as a free stand-alone experience. The franchise's unique cat and mouse online gameplay will hopefully remain engaging.
Watch Dogs: Legion delivers on its main promise – you can truly recruit anyone in the game and make them a playable character - but it comes at a price. The story and presentation suffers as it has to account for any one of them being involved and speaking. Events have become less personal, and more about taking down generic criminal organizations. The gameplay, while remaining very much Watch Dogs, is growing stale, and the lack of mission variety doesn't help. This title could have also used more polish – from bugs, to presentation issues, to controls and even the feel of the action. It's just a bit of a troubled package. If you've been patiently waiting for more Watch Dogs, Legion is a satisfactory addition to the franchise, but its biggest idea falters the overall execution.