When Ubisoft set out to start crafting their vision of a near-future London fueled by invasive cyber-security and a harsh imbalance of political power, it probably didn’t seem like it would be as immediately relatable of a setting as it is. The truth is that this game is releasing in a political climate where so many of the grim challenges this virtual version of London faces are perfectly mirrored by society today. Across the globe, protests fill the streets and police brutalise their own citizens in broad daylight – sights you’ll come across all too often as you navigate the open world of Watch Dogs Legion.
The latest entry in Ubisoft’s open world hacker adventure isn’t squarely focused on these shockingly true-to-life themes, though. While part of your focus in the game is aiming to fight back against the authoritarian regime that has risen to power in London, you’ll also be diving into a variety of other cyber-crime adventures that all circle back to a coordinated terrorist bombing in London that caused immeasurable damage and, by all public accounts, was coordinated entirely by nonviolent hacktivist group DedSec. Most of the group winds up being taken down in the aftermath, but they’ve been framed and soon start rebuilding in order to tackle an organised crime family, a mind-hacking tech mogul, spy conspiracies, and the true organisers of the bombing that set everything in motion.
The reborn DedSec is coordinated by veteran member Sabine and hyper-intelligent AI assistant Bagsley, but there’s no one particular protagonist for you to step into the shoes of. Instead, anyone and everyone in London is a potential DedSec recruit and prospective leader of the story-driven uprising. It’s the kind of game mechanic that feels like something you and your pals would gush about wanting back in middle school; what if there was a huge open-world game with a bunch of robots and cars and you can play as anyone you want?! Well, Watch Dogs Legion is that.
You’ll kick things off as a potential recruit chosen from a list of candidates, but recruitment after that is up to you. You can profile anyone you come across in the world, tapping a button to see their name, occupation, skills, negative traits, and their current opinion on DedSec. If you want to recruit them, some people will happily join you if you just perform a quick favor for them – rescue them from cruel Albion officers, or even assist a friend or relative somewhere else in the city – but other will have a negative view of DedSec. For them, you’ll have to work a bit harder, digging into their profile to see what they’ve been up to and then inserting yourself into their business to do them a few favors and turn their opinions on the group.
It’s a fascinating system that feels like a sort of expansive offshoot of the Nemesis system in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and from a gameplay perspective, it works flawlessly. Early in the game, I wanted to recruit a construction worker because they typically have access to a summonable construction drone that you can ride to reach high-places or scope out scenes. I drove around until I found a construction yard full of workers, but before getting there I profiled someone in plain-clothes who seemed very cool and… oh hey, a construction worker! I tried talking to her, but she was in the middle of being harassed by a bookie. I promptly beat the piss out of her harasser and she happily joined up with me to repay the favour. Just like that, my team expanded.
For as naturally as the system of making anyone a playable character works out in terms of gameplay, it doesn’t quite gel as nicely with the narrative of the game. Sure, all of these characters have names and jobs, and there are purportedly over a dozen different voices and personality types to make them feel and act differently through dialogue and cutscenes, and yet they end up coming across as ideas of characters more than fully fledged heroes. Even worse, their dialogue in cutscenes sometimes doesn’t quite match with what was being said to them. On more than one occasion I saw two recruitable characters talk to each other in a cutscene and basically sound like they were having entirely different conversations. I loved Watch Dogs 2 because it had a core cast of characters with incredibly unique personalities who you saw grow and change throughout the game. Watch Dogs Legion, by comparison, makes you do a lot of that work and growth in your own head.
It was sometimes fun imagining what would cause a secret agent to join DedSec or how my shy and meek hacker character felt confronting huge military goons, but without a strong lead to attach myself to like the previous games had, it was a lot harder to get emotionally invested in any of the story beats presented to me. That said, the story missions flow together a lot better than they previously did, pacing things out at a much more engaging rate than Watch Dogs 2.
Watch Dogs Legion leans far more into the gameplay, presenting a huge toy-box for you to create your own fun in. The game isn’t shy on activities. There are loads of side-quests, parcel delivery missions, boatloads of clothing customization, borough liberation challenges, and more. The amount of depth in the recruitment system is staggering too. You’ll rarely encounter the same kind of task being given to you twice by potential recruits. Plus, the cascade of relationships that begins to build up the more you play is wild. I turned the game on once and found that one of my favourite characters had been kidnapped, only to find that the ringleader was a Clan Kelley goon that I smacked up during a previous mission.
All of these activities and seamless recruitment mechanics would be for naught if the game wasn’t fun, and trust me, it’s fun. The same snappy gunplay and fluid car controls of the previous game return, alongside even more hacking-related tools to bust out. You had a summonable drone and RC car in Watch Dogs 2, but in Legion, drones of all types are flying around everywhere. You can hack a news drone to scope out buildings and stun enemies, or you can hack an anti-terror drone to lay supressing fire on baddies while you pilot your character’s spider-bot into the building to hack a terminal or download an encryption key. Every mission, challenge, and activity in the game has multiple ways to approach it, building on the emergent and creative gameplay opportunities of the last game.
I imagine that there’s a version of Watch Dogs Legion where you have skill-trees presenting you with all of the possible abilities and traits in the game, and I’m so happy that I’m not playing that version. The inundation of modern triple-A games with RPG mechanics like skill trees and levelling numbs my brain, so it’s refreshing to see Watch Dogs Legion take a different approach to things.
Plus, it makes gameplay way more challenging and interesting when I have to constantly consider which limited toolkit to bring into the field. Do I play as an ex-Albion officer to sneak into their HQ in uniform? Or do I bust out my hacker who will have to sneak in much more carefully, but has a way easier time downloading encryption keys and disabling security drones? It’s a fun and engaging back and forth that, above all else, manages to keep every mission of the game just as engaging from the beginning to the end.