Hands-on: Watch Dogs Legion allows players to embrace the chaos of revolution, or avoid it entirely

Freedom is a word that’s touted a lot these days when describing video games, especially open-world ones. “The freedom to go anywhere,” “the freedom to make any choice you want,” “the freedom to stick to the story, or go entirely off the rails” are buzz phrases you’ve likely heard more than once by now. There’s only so much a developer can do to make good on such freedom-based promises, but with Watch Dogs Legion, launching on October 29, Ubisoft has managed to clear the high bar and then some.

During a recent hands-on play session with Legion, I got to experience the game’s unprecedented levels of freedom for myself, and I came away impressed with how much the game is willing to conform to a player’s individual style. I was admittedly a bit skeptical at first about the whole “recruit and play as anyone” shtick, but my apprehension quickly disappeared when I realized how much that system feeds into Legion’s emphasis on freedom of choice.

If a player is careful, they can progress through the entire game without ever so much as tripping an alarm or firing a bullet. Or they can fully lean into the chaos of Legion’s riotous London setting, bypassing every obstacle they encounter with violence and explosions. In this near-future world that Ubisoft has built, every problem has multiple solutions, and how a player solves them depends largely on the specific makeup of their particular DedSec roster.

All Hands On Deck

My hands-on session began with me playing through Legion’s opening sequence where I stepped into the immaculately-tailored shoes of a slick James Bond-esque DedSec operative named Dalton Wolfe. A series of text prompts showed me how to perform various actions such as sneaking around, climbing ledges, and performing stealth-based takedowns as I guided Dalton through an enemy base.

A little later on, I also got a crash course in both the game’s hand-to-hand and firearms-based combat systems. Hand-to-hand combat is simplified to the point that players only have to manage three buttons: an attack button, a grab button, and a dodge button.

The presence of three different button-contextual actions means that melee fights boil down to a fast-paced game of rock, paper, scissors. If an enemy’s guard is down, you want to pressure them with attacks, but if their guard is up you’ll instead want to first break it with a grab. Dodging is naturally used to avoid enemy retaliation, and well-timed dodges leave them open to counter-attacks.

Every character you play as in Legion can handle themselves in a melee scrap to some degree, and how they fight and what weapons they prefer changes depending on their character archetype. Trained operatives such as spies (like Dalton) or hitmen can unleash stylish martial arts attacks like backfists and spin kicks. Meanwhile, more everyday DedSec recruits like construction workers and security guards utilize melee weapons like batons and large wrenches, preferring to skip the flash and just give their enemies a proper no-nonsense beatdown.

After becoming acquainted with Dalton’s supporting team, his handler Sabine Brandt and a cheeky A.I. named Bagley, I segued into a sequence where I had to defend a terminal as Bagley worked to disarm a series of bombs. This segment served as the firearms tutorial and showed how most characters usually have both a lethal and a non-lethal option for dealing with distant adversaries.

A basic non-lethal shock pistol is part of the standard DedSec operative kit (meaning every playable character can use it regardless of their archetype), while a character’s lethal firearm of choice is, again, based on their archetype.

Dalton’s firearm of choice was a compact SMG, but other characters can also use archetype-appropriate weapons like silenced or non-silenced pistols and even larger firearms like assault rifles. As for the process of actually shooting at adversaries, I personally found Legion’s shooting mechanics to be a little floaty and hard to maintain during my demo session.

Of course, I was also streaming the game remotely while also using a game controller while playing a PC game, so the lack of aim assist wasn’t entirely unprecedented (my guess is that Legion’s final build will have some form of aim assist, at least on consoles).

The opening mission ended after Dalton and DedSec succeeded in stopping one bombing only to realize there was a series of additional bomb sites spread around the city that they couldn’t stop in time. A cinematic later explained that DedSec had been blamed for the bombings, making the organization public enemy number one in the eyes of Albion, the private security firm which had been dispatched to restore order to the city. Once the cinematic ended, I was dropped into the middle of London as a new character, a fellow spy named Erin Nicoara.

The demoist who was on hand to assist me with my play session explained there were a number of avenues I could pursue at this point. I could go out and recruit some highly specialized individuals for DedSec, I could do some local ‘borough liberation’ tasks to unlock a liberation mission, or I could attempt the four-story missions included in the playtest build. I figured that filling out my DedSec roster with some specialized operatives would be a good first step so I pinged the closest one on my map, hopped into a nearby car, and headed out.

Tactical Insertion

The process of recruiting specialized individuals in Watch Dogs Legion is pretty formulaic in that you have to overcome their initial apprehension by performing some tasks on their behalf. The exact nature of this task changes from person to person, though it usually involves infiltrating a restricted area in some capacity. For example, recruiting my first target, an expert hacker named Cornelius Powell required that I break into a secure Albion facility so I could erase some fabricated criminal evidence involving one of Powell’s friends.

When breaking into a restricted area, Legion players have a number of approaches they can take. Certain characters are naturally better-suited for specific approaches (silenced weapons and/or an Albion guard uniform make stealth much more viable, for example), but the various gadgets at a DedSec operative’s disposal can make up for character-specific weak spots. There’s the AR Cloak gadget that affords the player several seconds of near-invisibility, a combat robot that can assist during firefights, and the old go-to spider robot that can hack door locks and other devices remotely.

Clever players can also utilize archetype-specific abilities to find unique workarounds for certain obstacles and mission goals. As an example, construction worker DedSec operatives can summon a large cargo drone which they can then use to freely move around the city by air. During one mission, I used this drone to float straight up to my mission goal on a building roof, completely bypassing the various henchmen and security traps I otherwise would have had to deal with.

If you’d rather go into a Legion encounter guns blazing, having a police officer on your roster is also handy, even if you’re not actively playing as them. Any operatives who are defeated during a mission are arrested and thus unavailable for a certain period of time (usually a half-hour in real-time). However, a police officer can cut that timer down, ensuring that the player always has access to the operatives they need for a given mission or approach.

During my play session, I found that virtually every mission and encounter I did was amiable to at least two or three different approaches, if not more. If I wanted to clandestinely hack and/or sneak my way in, I could do so without ever alerting the guards as long as I was careful. Conversely, if my stealth attempt didn’t pan out or I just felt like stirring up trouble, I never felt like the game was punishing me for shooting and fighting my way through a mission, it was just a different type of challenge.

Always Prepared

Aside from the specialized folks I recruited at the beginning of my play session, I sadly didn’t get to experiment too much with fleshing out my total DedSec operative roster, but I could certainly see the potential. Players are free to only recruit specific types of operatives if they want, building up a squad of hackers or brawlers or whatever else they want. However, I got the impression as I played that the best DedSec rosters will be the ones who are prepared to tackle any situation.

If nothing else, Legion allows players to take a certain level of pride in the diverse nature of their DedSec roster since, as has been touched on many times before, anyone you run into on the streets of London can be recruited. Even within the limited context of the demo session, I couldn’t help but crack a smile as I watched my DedSec team, a high heels-wearing female spy, a black vigilante hitman, a stylish hacker with a thick Jamaican accent, and a no-nonsense construction worker with an Irish brogue, formulate plans to liberate a city they all cared about.

There’s no denying that Watch Dogs Legion will be an incredibly busy game with lots to do and an overwhelming amount of information to throw at the player. Those who take the time to learn and properly utilize the game’s various systems, though, will soon uncover a level of gameplay freedom unlike any other.

The whole concept of being able to play as anyone is admittedly a bit of a gimmicky smoke-and-mirrors trick (I noticed my hacker and hitman both had eerily similar Jamaican accents and voice lines), but it’s also merely a gateway to how Legion truly embraces player freedom and choice.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by a game railroading you into a gameplay approach you didn’t want to take, rest assured you won’t have that problem should you decide to take Watch Dogs Legion for a spin later this year.