Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, PS5, XSX, Stadia
Watch Dogs: Legion does something few other games can do. It makes you care about NPCs. The game’s central mechanic of letting every character in the game become a potential ally, and more than that player character, means that no one is just window dressing that you can recklessly mow down in a car like GTA style. Instead, you care about everyone… EVERYONE… and this is both the game’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness.
Story: Antifascist to the core
Watch Dogs: Legion is set in a near-futuristic London. The game opens with the same sort of hacking shenanigans that you were used to in previous Watch Dogs but the idea of warring with rival hacker groups quickly falls away to reveal the actual enemy:
Yes, in Legion, London has become a fascist state after a few false flag operations successfully made a good portion of the public paranoid about DedSec and its hacker ilk. The result? More police with more power, which is eventually abused and wielded against the populace, corrupt government officials ignoring the very laws that put them in office in the first place, and constant surveillance technology recording what we do and targeting people that dissent.
It’s a world where one day you could have a normal life, and then suddenly you’ll lose everything. Your job? Gone. Opportunities? Non-existent. Your health? Failing. And just when you thought you could go to a bar to get your mind off stuff, talking to the wrong person makes you an enemy of the fascist police state and now you are on the run.
It’s a 2020 mood, man.
Legion is unafraid to be political and honestly, that’s a relief. You can’t tackle issues like this while dancing around the core topics so as to “both sides” and not hurt anyone’s feelings. It will directly call out conservatives using that very word and it directly links that worldview to the actions that brought it to a near-apocalyptic police state, one that you, as the hero, is trying to take down.
Granted it’s very rooted in British culture, so when it calls out “conservatives” who it’s calling out is the Tories. It takes its inspiration fairly heavily from the British punk scene which, in itself, is heavily antifascist. You can actually see that in the character design. Everyone joins you looking like a normal dude, but take them into the character editor and practically your only options are to dress them up like a punk rocker or a reject from Fortnite.
Its core theme is revolution, and that revolution happens in small steps enacted by lots of people. There is no one hero in Legion. The people are the hero. The masses who have gotten fed up with the abuse of power by the rich and corrupt. It ties in very well with the central mechanic of being able to recruit anyone and everyone to your side. Everyone has something that will push them far enough to join the revolution. What will push you?
Some people might be upset about this game. Some will see it as anti-right propaganda right out of the gate. Otherwise will say that people like me are reading an agenda into an otherwise non-political game… as they go on missions to blow up police stations and attempt to take down CEOs of corrupt corporations that privately own the tech that surveils your every move. Non-political my ass. If you are one of those people, then duh, Watch Dogs: Legion isn’t for you. However, if you are the type of person who is frustrated with the state of the world right now, are morbidly curious to see how much worse it can get, and desperately wants to fight back against it, then Watch Dogs: Legion is not just entertaining, it’s empowering.
Mechanics: How many will you recruit?
Watch Dogs: Legion turns the entire formula of Watch Dogs on its head. Instead of playing as one character that just keeps getting better, you play as a multitude of characters, each with their own skills and equipment. If you want to get in a car and outrun the cops, you’ll want to pick up a driver. Want to sneak around? Pick up a spy. Attack enemies from afar? Get a drone specialist. Hackers do hacking. Brawlers do brawling. Grandmothers do… well they are looked over by the cops before they put on a mask and tase the pigs.
Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses and while you can upgrade each character’s skills and loadout, you can’t spend nearly as many resources on them as you could on the protagonists of previous Watch Dogs games.
This is why playing this game with permadeath is the only way to go. There are a ton of different options in Watch Dogs: Legion but by default, permadeath is on, because that’s the way it wants you to experience its central mechanic. You might build up the greatest super soldier in all of London, give them all your equipment, train them in all the skills, but when they die who is left to pick up the pieces? It’s Steve from the bar and Amy from the grocery store down the way. They aren’t superheroes, but they have to rise to the call nonetheless.
Recruiting party members is simple. Find an NPC, scan them or chat them up, and you’ll be given a short mission to do in order to recruit them. Take out a few enemies here, infiltrate a tech company there, steal some evidence over there, boom, now they are in your party. It’s actually pretty astounding how each person feels like… well… a person, and each mission somehow ties into what pushes them to join the revolution.
You can get about halfway through the game until the paint starts chipping off. At that point, you’ll notice that some of these missions start looping. Others are just the same goals in different locations with slightly different intro and outro sequences. Repetition does set in, and this is where the game’s first big weakness lies.
You see, Watch Dogs: Legion actually shares something in common with the crazy anime tactical RPG Disgaea. In Disgaea, each item has a dungeon and each dungeon gets you more items. So you go into an item dungeon which gets you more items with more dungeons to go into which get you more items… and so on and so on until you simply choose to stop engaging with that content.
Watch Dogs: Legion is the same, but with people. You need to recruit people for your missions, and to do so you have to go on a mission, where you come across people, which you can recruit with a mission, where you will come across more people, and so on. Each person you recruit introduces you to more people to recruit, and this keeps going until you actively choose to not interact with the system anymore.
And when you do you’ll realize that the game only has 37 core missions and 8 chapters to play through. It’s just… shorter than you’d expect when you aren’t constantly making more content for yourself by recruiting everyone you find.
I, personally, found myself paralyzed by the abundance of choice more than once. I’m a bit of a completionist at heart, and there simply wasn’t a good way to scratch a completionist itch when the missions are functionally infinite. When I did decide to get down to the main missions, I found that most of the recruiting I did wasn’t super necessary. This too is a strength and a weakness.
Almost every mission in the game can be approached in several different ways. You never need a driver. It would simply be nice if you had one. You never need a hacker. You can always just send Barry the Bartender in to punch a few dudes and tap a few keys. If you can play well and adapt to each character’s skill set, you can mainline the game from start to finish (I had three unbelievably powerful characters right from the start and frankly they were all I really needed).
In a way, it feels somewhat like Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system. You don’t really have to interact with it much to finish the game…. but it’s also kind of the main attraction so why wouldn’t you?
Style: Play as you want to play
Now I’ve said a lot of back and forth on Legion’s major recruitment system, but really its biggest accomplishment is making each mission of the game work regardless of your skills. You can tackle pretty much every mission non-lethally if you want, or you can go in guns blazing and shoot your way to victory. You can hack security cameras to divert your opponents, fly drones in to cause distractions or remotely take out your enemies, sneak around and stealth kill like this was some sort of budget Hitman, and more. This is so many games rolled up into one, and that is something Ubisoft needs to be commended for.
Unfortunately, its sandbox doesn’t quite support this style as much as you’d like it to. This is one of those GTA style games where you can make one wrong move and suddenly the police are hot on your tail, and this is a fascist police state. They aren’t looking to take you in. They are looking to kill you. As a result, you can suddenly find yourself losing key operatives for practically no reason. It’s frustrating, yes, but it’s avoidable if you turn permadeath off, and even if you don’t there is something to the idea of just getting screwed randomly that kind of plays into the general setting being unfair and unbalanced against you.
One of my biggest complaints about Legion is that it paints a lot of these characters as expendable, which kind of counteracts its general message of “each individual in a revolution is important.” Yeah, losing a legendary or unique character hurts but you can practically retrace your steps and recruit another one if you want. Meanwhile, more standard characters can simply be replaced with no work at all. At the start I was really invested any time a character died… and then I just wasn’t when I realized people were a dime a dozen. I’m not sure that’s the takeaway Ubisoft was going for here.
Another issue is that there simply isn’t a whole lot of variety in the game, even in the main story. You’ll see just about everything Legion has to offer in the first quarter of the game. The only thing that keeps it feeling fresh is the ability to tackle similar missions with different characters, and it works. If you keep recruiting and using new characters the game will feel fresh from start to finish… but if you are good at the same and rarely lose your favorite characters then it feels like there is far less content. In a way, it feels like it’s punishing you for playing well.
Content: A game with promise, a game incomplete
In general, I had a lot of fun with Watch Dogs: Legion but it still didn’t feel like a full game to me, and I think that’s because it isn’t. Online multiplayer isn’t going to be coming around until December, for example. It's also very clear that it wouldn’t take Ubisoft much to patch in new types of characters to recruit or new weapons to fool around with. This can be a growing, living game, and that makes me excited. Watch Dogs: Legion is having a second release on next-generation consoles in a few weeks which will probably come with yet more content. It will be really interesting to compare the two versions.
But is it great now? Well, yeah, if you play it the right way.
I won’t say that Watch Dogs: Legion hooked me from start to finish. In fact, the plot had to be made more generic just to support its central system, and it shows. Voice acting feels kind of canned at points, and the script feels more like a series of one-liners than a plot.
Yet someone with a healthy desire to complete sidequests and explore the world will probably get 40-ish hours out of Watch Dogs: Legion without feeling disappointed. If it gets boring, you can always shortcut your way through main quests and be done in about 20, or if you are one of those people who will dive into recursive content until you forget to eat, sleep, or bathe, then you’ll squeeze well over 80 hours just recruiting your perfect DedSec army.
It’s not for everyone. Heck, it’s not even necessarily going to be fans of previous entries in the series, but Watch Dogs Legion takes the franchise in an interesting direction and gives players a truly remarkable amount of freedom to fool around with. As sandbox games go, this is one of the best, especially since it works its sandbox system into its greater plot and themes. But sandbox games aren’t for everyone and this certainly isn’t going to be the title to convert you. Go into it knowing that you are going to need dedication and focus to get to the end, and you’ll have a good time. Get distracted at every single character you can unlock, and you’ll probably end up paralyzed by choice.