Review: Watch Dogs: Legion

The Watch Dogs series has had a rocky road when it comes to its reputation. The first game was revealed in 2012, and its intense open-world action hacking abilities, and the fact that it was a major new IP at a time when we needed more got everyone hyped up for it. But while the final product was a pretty good game in general, the graphics downgrade and underwhelming gameplay compared to the initial reveal caused people to be more negative towards it. This meant that that when Watch Dogs 2 came out, expectations were lowered, especially given the drastic shift in tone. But it turned out to actually be a better game and more people became appreciative towards it in the months that followed after positive word-of-mouth spread. So now, here’s the third game, Watch Dogs: Legion, which now goes in with quite a bit of hype behind it, and let’s just say that there’s a continuing cycle now, to say the least.

Set in a technologically-advanced London sometime in the near future, Watch Dogs: Legion sees you again playing as the hacktivist group known as DedSec, who have suffered a crushing blow. It would appear that another hacker group known as Zero-Day has committed bombings around London and have framed DedSec for the attack. The results sees almost all of DedSec London’s operatives captured, and a few months after the attack, the PMC Albion has been hired to take care of things and basically rules with an iron fist, while other enemies the Kelley Clan haven risen up in the world of organized crime following the aftermath. So in order to to get DedSec going again and clean up London, you’re tasked with recruiting a bunch of new agents. And as luck would have it, all of London is at your disposal, with every NPC a possible recruit.

One of the first things you do when you start up Watch Dogs: Legion is choose whether you want to play with permadeath on or not. The original plans for the game called for any DedSec recruits you control to die if they took lethal damage, requiring players to fully judge how to manage their operatives, deciding who to properly send out. But earlier this year, it was revealed that permadeath would actually be optional, allowing players to enjoy it with characters being hospitalized or jailed for a while instead of killed. And in an age where accessibility options are becoming the norm, I congratulate the developers on allowing us to make such a choice when it comes to deciding how to play the game, giving more people the opportunity to enjoy it. And with that said, if you play Watch Dogs: Legion, please do it with permadeath turned on and never look back.

I played through with permadeath turned off and it was a mistake. And unfortunately, you can’t switch permadeath on mid-game, and that also goes for if you start with permadeath and decide to turn it off. Nor can you start a new permadeath run without erasing all your progress so far. This becomes an issue as sadly the non-permadeath version completely undermines the much-touted Legion system. You can go and potentially recruit every NPC that appears during proper gameplay, but even with every character having a random set of skills, there wasn’t much need to determine who’s best for what mission without any real risk. At worst, they would be knocked out and get a cooldown timer, and even then, if you have a medical professional or a lawyer/barrister with the right skills, they can be brought back into action almost immediately.

The end result is that despite having an entire city of playable characters at my disposal, I only stuck to an elite group of three or four characters from the mid-game forward, as they had the largest skillsets and there was no real danger of them going away. There wasn’t exactly much motivation for me to seek anyone out when I already had who I wanted. And it’s a shame, because there are a few unique twists to the Legion system. There’s a Deep Profiler that you can unlock which reveals entire schedules for a character, allowing you to find different ways to recruit characters that aren’t on your side yet. Or there’s the fact that if you use lethal force against enemies, those who were close to them can retaliate by kidnapping other recruits. It’s definitely interesting.

Unfortunately, there are more reasons why I didn’t want to recruit more people for DedSec. For one, the recruitment missions can get tedious and repetitive. Every single person in London has a beef with Albion or the Kelley Clan (to the point where you almost wonder how either is still standing when there’s a mountain of evidence against them) and just wants you to carry out a certain action against them that basically devolves into a couple of standard objectives. Knock out a certain enemy, rescue a certain captive, destroy a certain object, all at certain locations. At times they seem to feel dragged out to the length of any other side mission, even if the potential recruit is arguably lower-tier. At a certain point, it just feels like more trouble than its worth.

But more importantly, they’re lacking entirely in variety. Again, every single citizen basically either tasks you with a generic, randomly-generated mission that basically requires you to go from Point A to Point B and do a thing, preferably without anyone detecting you. And I just kept asking “Is there really nothing else they can do?” There’s not a single NPC who wants to join DedSec without some favor, no one who wants to join just to help out with the fight because they believe in it, or those who wants to join for frivolous reasons like just finding it cool, or those who might just join only if you pay them, beat them in a game of darts, do certain deliveries or challenges…yeah those are insane reasons, but anything like that would have made for a nice change of pace.

The Legion system in Watch Dogs: Legion is underwhelming, and not just from a gameplay perspective. At the start of a game, you’ll have an entire city of unique, randomly-generated NPCs to work with — to a point, at least. When you have a game where practically every character you encounter can become the protagonist in a certain set story, it can become hard to accommodate all of them when it comes to writing and dialogue. And alas, the solution to that problem presented here was a particularly bad one, that being to give every character the same personality. It’s extremely awkward to see this game craft so many citizens of London in so many unique ways and use it as a selling point, only for every one of those citizens become little more than a generic snarky Ubisoft protagonist the second you actually get invested in them. All of their actual unique quirks and histories are only represented via the gear and skills they have, and several lines of text about supposed personality traits and actions they’ve performed. Any actual character in these people only ends up being implied and never on display. Even when seeing them on the streets, you can’t actually talk to them unless it’s for recruitment-related purposes. They just follow their designated schedules and maybe perform certain actions if they have certain skills, but once they join DedSec, the schedule and any shred of individuality is gone, and they basically become part of a hive mind (which, given the title is kind of appropriate, but still annoying).

While I realize giving every character unique dialogue and scripted bits would be impossible, I was at least expecting something for the more elite/skilled recruits that the game often highlights. Even if it’s just a single side quip during gameplay related to their profession. To illustrate how awkward this can be, during one mission while breaking into government facilities to spy on data, my current protagonist started talking about how cool it was for a seemingly regular citizen like them to be doing spy-related stuff. The only problem was that said skilled citizen’s occupation was already that of an actual spy. He even had a uniform and everything! Granted, I didn’t have him wearing it then (why would a spy have a specific look anyway?), but it was still an awkward moment.

I haven’t even gotten to the occasional mismatched voice and appearance, but I think that illustrates the point by now: the Legion system, while cool in theory, is kind of a bust. As our own Chris Shive pointed out recently, it instead just creates a major sense of detachment. And this is a major problem since once you remove the Legion system, what’s left in Watch Dogs: Legion is basically just more of the same Watch Dogs gameplay. Actually, I take that back: Watch Dogs: Legion may actually have less to offer at its core than Watch Dogs 2 (or possibly even the first game). Watch Dogs 2 had various races you can compete in, random encounters to engage in, skill trees that were much deeper, and characters and missions that actually felt fun and light-hearted, like stealing a car from a sci-fi film or accompanying your colleague to his day job at the local Google parody. The world there actually felt vivid, enjoyable and fleshed out, with lots to do, like any good open-world game should have. Legion has a few things like darts, bare knuckle arenas and hidden street art locations to find, but they don’t feel as satisfying.

And even more damning is the fact that Watch Dogs 2 actually feels like a better game about building a resistance. Some may rightfully scoff at the “progress bar” approach to advancement that it took, but gaining a huge batch of new DedSec followers after every mission to double as experience felt like actually building a following (and yes, I’m aware of the twist mid-way in the game). In Legion, the story advances after each mission whether or not you actually have a resistance. Aside from recruitment (which tops out at forty-some operatives), the only signs of a resistance come in optional ways to make the eight different districts defiant. You’re given three particular generic side mission tasks (again) for each district, you infiltrate a restricted area, carry one out, repeat until the checklist is complete, do one final mission, and boom, district liberated. That doesn’t even feel like Watch Dogs, more like something from a Far Cry game.

Then there’s the plot. While Watch Dogs 2 was mocked for basically ripping missions from the headlines, taking on Martin Shkreli, Anonymous vs. Scientology, the mass collection of data by corporations, etc, it was at least some attempt to look at them. And Legion does deal with a lot of the issues currently plaguing UK or the current world in general right now: police brutality and the militarization of the police, xenophobia, surveillance states, advancements in technology that may be questionable, datamining yet again, civil unrest, and more, but unfortunately it ends up assigning these issues to what are basically protagonists with no investments in them, and more annoyingly, what are basically Captain Planet villains.

Watch Dogs: Legion has four sets of missions and an overarching story — each tackling their own themes, as discussed in an interview here at HG earlier — and unfortunately, all of them are either unsubtle, too goofy or essentially pointless, and all have lousy, one-dimensional villains that barely get any development. Whatever material they try to tackle either ends up being completely squandered, isn’t dealt with in a mature manner or just feels like padding. The one exception out of these five storylines is the SIRS plot. It’s a set of missions and a plot that are all so well done, fit in with the theme so well, and have a villain that’s so much more clever, I kept wondering why we weren’t focusing on this story for the majority of the game. I’d go into the failures of the plot further, but that basically requires an entire other op-ed.

About eighty percent of the story is rubbish, and only barely dabbles in the themes it brings up. The pirate radio broadcasts you can unlock in-game actually go into greater length about the issues of technology, big government and more, as if to say that the developers could have taken a mature approach to all of this, but chose not to to avoid stepping on any toes, mainly just assigning them to boogeymen instead. All of Britain’s government seemingly doesn’t exist (one broadcast even says no one’s seen from the Prime Minister) and any mention of Brexit is seemingly reduced to a single hidden collectible. For comparison, Watch Dogs 2 had at least one entire mission tackling issues related to the 2016 presidential election, and in Legion, we just get a villain who says that they’ll “…make London great again.”

While I may seem like I’m rambling, it’s hard to talk about anything else, including the gameplay, because it’s basically just your generic third-person Ubisoft action/adventure setup. Cover-based shooting, stealth and takedowns, line-of sight hacking…there are a couple of new additions like cargo drones and spiderbots (which function pretty much like the RC vehicle from the second game), but you’ve been down this road before. That’s not to say it’s bad — it’s still solid and even good gameplay, actually — but there’s not much meat to it beyond that. Not helped by the Legion system again seemingly resulting in even more oversimplified and repetitive story missions. In fact, even with the basic gameplay still being mostly enjoyable, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Watch Dogs: Legion felt like it got too easy at times. The game throws a lot of new gear and abilities at you to play with, but even with players having to hunt for Tech Points to purchase and upgrade them (having to hunt down experience being an especially annoying change), I finished with several options being unused. The game gave me six different bits of gear to grab, but four of them went untouched by me. Once I had the AR invisibility cloak and AR shroud that instantly made any enemy I took down invisible, missions became s cake walk as a I snuck my way through them, focusing on stealth. But to be fair, that’s just my approach and perhaps others might find the variety of options more satisfying.

In the end, Watch Dogs: Legion reminded me of a game like Dead Rising 4, something functional and arguably still good that tries to smooth things out and appeal to everyone in various ways, but in doing so polishes over the stuff that gave its predecessors charm. This even extends to the few non-recruit DedSec characters we have, who get very little in the way of personality…except for Bagley, the snarky AI helper that acts as mission control, best summed up as (Siri * (Yahtzee – heavy swearing)). They are the only character here that feels like a fun remnant left over from Watch Dogs 2 and I loved every bit of them. There’s also the vibrant city as well, detailed in gorgeous graphics and littered with cool visuals and punk/anarchy aesthetics, with tons of work poured into the visuals (including the endless clothing options). The soundtrack is also good, even if the licensed soundtrack repeats too often. But a lot of the rest of the game feels like an awkward attempt to marry the more serious tones of Watch Dogs with the light-hearted tones of the sequel, and ends up succeeding in neither department. (Oh, and one final note: Despite a supposed hotfix, the game still appears to be buggy, as evidenced by one streamer I know finding their PC version of game not only having a few messed-up NPC moments, but also seeing it crash five times over the course of three hours, all live and on air, until they eventually decided to just quit early for the night, so I further emphasize how you shouldn’t buy Legion until this is all fixed).

Closing Comments:

Watch Dogs: Legion aims to be a truly ambitious entry in the series with its Legion system, but to paraphrase Ian Malcolm, the developers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. Whatever unique perks the system provides are undermined by how it results in tedious and repetitive missions, flat characters with no real personalities, and weak story moments, not helped by a particularly bad plot. The potential is there for something great, even with the standard Ubisoft action/adventure base to build on, but even if the end result is arguably competent overall, there’s way too little here to get invested in. Watch Dogs: Legion is a bold move with a few highlights here and there, but still a disappointment that will have you going back to Watch Dogs 2 instead.