Unlike most people I know who played the original Watch Dogs, I enjoyed the heck out of its edgy hacker-revenge story. I skipped Watch Dogs 2, so I didn’t know what to expect out of Watch Dogs: Legion, but I was optimistic going into my hands-on demo because of the game's interesting ‘play anyone’ mechanic. However, after sitting down to play Watch Dogs: Legion for four hours, I found myself rather bored.
Ubisoft crafted an incredibly gorgeous futuristic London city-scape that immersed me for hours, and being able to play as any character you meet was a fun novelty, but that excitement wore off quickly. A cool premise was downplayed by goofy dialogue and stiff gameplay. The beautiful open-world felt empty, and unless there's a seamless online co-op system at launch, I’m not sure if Watch Dogs: Legion will keep my attention until the end. It'll have to do more to be one of the best PC games around.
A tone in the wrong direction
In Watch Dogs: Legion, you play as a number of random NPCs recruited by a group of hackers called DedSec that intends to take back London from military, criminal and fanatic hacker oppressors. Joining the resistance and fighting against groups that aim to oppress the people can lead to some pretty dark moments. The problem with this game, however, is that the subject matter doesn’t match the tone of the presentation.
Instead of being dark and mysterious, the game presents itself in the goofiest way imaginable. This is plenty evident in the way you recruit NPCs to your cause. I’m paraphrasing, but this is basically how these interactions proceed:
Recruit: “Hey, you’re DedSec? Do something for me and I’ll join up.”
You: “Let’s do it.”
Yes, Watch Dogs: Legion is a game, but it’s supposed to be a narrative experience with characters that feel real. It’s like the developers attempted to speed up the process of recruiting people by making it so recruits are well-informed, but this takes away from what makes this game so unique. You can play as anyone because you can recruit damn-near everyone, so every recruitment should be unique, subtle and made with major discretion.
You can’t just run up to people on the street and tell them you’re a part of a secret underground resistance group of hackers. As a member of the resistance, you’re supposed to be low-key, so some nuance in these conversations is desperately needed. There’s seemingly no risk to recruiting people at random; everyone on the street is ready to fight, apparently.
It would be cool to see players accidentally recruit spies into their ranks and then have to flush them out in later missions. And, say, before each recruitment, a player can investigate a recruit, but they only have a limited time to do it before the recruitment window is closed. This would add a risk-vs-reward system for the player, so they would be forced to decide whether it’s worth \investigating someone or not. Would this take way too much time to recruit people? Yes, probably, but maybe that’s a good thing because my next problem brings us to how bloated the current system is.
Quantity over quality comes at a cost
You can recruit many people off of the streets, but how many people are you actually going to play? During my demo, I jumped between three to four people but had nearly double that in my roster. Of course, you may play way more NPCs than I ever would, but getting to play whoever you want comes with a cost: character development.
Are we going to see any character changes from any of the NPCs? If we do, that means Ubisoft put a crap-ton more work into this than I expected, but how is every NPC going to be unique? From what I played, the NPC's dialogue lacked weight because I knew nothing about them apart from the bit of information I gathered during recruitment. As a result, I struggled to invest in each character.
How do you solve this problem? Don’t make every NPC recruitable. While it’s a cool feature, it’s limiting. Instead, create a pool of 25-to-50 unique NPCs that roam throughout the world and are recruitable at different stages of the story, each with unique backstories and side-quests.
Additionally, characters can just die. Some can spontaneously die because that’s just a “perk” they have, while others can get killed off because you died. It’s unclear how permadeath works in this game vs. getting locked up or stuck in a hospital, but there appears to be a chance of character death regardless. So, even if you manage to see some semblance of character development from your favorite NPC, they could disappear forever. This brings us to another problem with this game: being stuck with low-risk, low-reward gameplay.
The unsatisfying adventures of spiderbot
To avoid character deaths or even penalties (ranging between 30 mins to 1 hour out of commission), playing stealthy is the only smart way to play, but it’s just so damn unsatisfying.
Stealth gameplay consists of hacking traps and leading goons into them or tossing your spiderbot and instantly taking them down. Sure, there are other gadgets you can use, like invisibility or shock traps, but why would you use those when the spiderbot is an over-powered killing machine? Meanwhile, if you want to go guns blazing, the enemies act like bullet sponges, and I’ve found myself overwhelmed because of it.
The game itself relies on the spiderbot (a remote-control robot spider that jumps and face-hugs people to death) as a crutch to the point where I’ve experienced long and drawn-out portions of platforming and sneaking through areas as the spiderbot. I scaled all of Big Ben as spiderbot via an entire platforming section. While it was kind of neat, platforming as a spiderbot is not what I imagined when I joined up with a group of hackers to fight oppressive baddies.
The hacking in Watch Dogs is achieved by clicking a button. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to send a car flying by a simple click, but a game all about hacking should have cool puzzles or difficult button combos. The closest I came to the game not spoon-feeding me simple hacks was when I had to hack a camera and align some virtual joints in order to open the door in front of me. Despite being more complex than most other hacks, this process wasn’t thoughtful or fulfilling.
Another contributing factor to the stiff gameplay is the clunky character movement. There’s no dedicated jump button, so you have to rely on prompts to vault over things, which causes issues like being stuck against a ledge that’s a foot off of the ground. It also hurts my soul that some NPCs can’t even run or take cover. It’s funny to see an old person with no stamina knocking people out with a sucker punch; the game already lacks mobility so it feels unnecessary to hinder these characters even further.
Assembling your crew
Putting the lack of character development and stiff gameplay aside, the incentive to build out your team is to acquire unique passive skills. Even if I’m only playing a handful of characters, it benefits me to recruit characters who have skills, like Bail Out and Triage. The former gets your character out of jail while the latter gets them out of the hospital.
I didn’t see any other passive skills like these in my session, but if the game is filled with characters with unique traits, then it gives the player incentive to recruit more and more people.
Watch Dogs: Legion is reminiscent of a strategy game in this regard, as each character has unique active skills to go along with those passive ones. One trait is Uniformed Access, which can give you free access to places like medical facilities. One of my favorite traits is the spy car, featuring a James Bond-esque vehicle with heat-seeking missiles and invisibility.
Unfortunately, I walked around the streets of London for a good 10 minutes and scanned every pedestrian to see what kind of unique abilities, weapons and traits they have, but I wasn’t blown away. (There really should be more to do with NPCs apart from simply recruiting them.) One of the more unique abilities was someone with a Megaphone and Tear Gas. The former allows the NPC to rally people to fight. However, when I used this to create a distraction, I only caught the attention of one person and they didn’t do anything to help. If this mechanic was fleshed out, it could make this NPC incredibly unique. This issue is reflective of most of the traits that NPCs get, except the spy car -- that’s just cool.
I’ve never been to London, but damn, it looks good
While I’ve torn down the mechanics of Watch Dogs: Legion, there is one aspect that Ubisoft excels at in almost each and every one of its games: world design. From The Division to Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft has mastered the craft of creating life-like replicas of real-life locations.
I’ve never actually been to London, but there was something refreshing about riding my motorcycle down city streets at night and seeing how the light from the lamp posts refracted off the ground and small puddles. And seeing the headlight from my motorcycle reveal the detailed cracks in the pavement in front of me made me feel like I was back in New York City. Apart from the sci-fi-esque military checkpoints and drones flying about in the sky, Watch Dogs: Legion is incredibly immersive.
However, where the city looks fantastic, the character models stumble. Between the hair, facial hair and details on their faces, the characters look like discount custom characters in a WWE game. The character that looks the most realistic is Sabine Brandt, who appears to be acting as the leader of DedSec (or at least the leader of the London operation). I assume her realistic design is a result of her being specifically designed as opposed to randomly generated.
Hack the city and kick a ball around?
Watch Dogs: Legion presents a visually immersive environment, but when you’re not taking down baddies and hacking random cars in traffic, what is there to do?
Well, of course, people in England are obviously fans of football (or what we call soccer), so why not add a mini-game that lets them perform some sick tricks with a football? That’s exactly what Ubisoft did and it's as boring as it sounds. In a game where you’re playing a skilled hacker, you can go to the park and play Kick-Up, which is a mini-game that makes you coordinate between several buttons to juggle a ball.
Other epic mini-games include Darts (self-explanatory), Parcel Fox (delivering mail) and Getting Pissed, which is simply you taking a free drink from a bar and getting drunk. You get bonus points for playing other mini-games while drunk (so exciting).
The issue with these mini-games is that they simply aren't fun. Watch Dogs: Legion has so much potential for fun and appropriate mini-games, like hacking your way through casino games, screwing with ATMs, hacking into government buildings, and stealing files while you’re on a time crunch — so why am I kicking a ball in the air?
There’s only one mini-game/side-mission that I actually enjoyed. It involved underground fighting rings, and while that had nothing to do with hacking per se, you were rewarded with potential recruits that had improved melee abilities.
The potential multiplayer experience
I can’t see myself playing Watch Dogs: Legion for hours on end and thoroughly enjoying myself, but when you throw co-op into the mix, that could change the game. Ubisoft confirmed that there would be up to four-player co-op, but it’s unclear how exactly that’s going to function.
The co-op could be purely mission-based or be drop-in/drop-out so players can do everything cooperatively. If it’s the latter, then I’m sold on this game, if not, I have my doubts that it’ll keep me entertained for very long.
My first impression of Watch Dogs: Legion isn't good, but I didn’t get to experience everything, so there’s still a lot of potential for a fun, open-world action game. The gameplay might get smoother, the dialogue could get better, and there might even be less spiderbot as well as better mini-games. Of course, that’s a lot of change to expect, and I’m not anticipating being blown away when the game launches, but I’m going to give it a fair chance.
What Watch Dogs: Legion has going for it is a creative system where you can manage and play a team of kooky NPCs at any time, a vast and detailed open-world as well as a huge potential for multiplayer co-op chaos. Watch Dogs: Legion seems like the perfect multiplayer game, and if the online experience is done right, I can see myself being endlessly entertained from start to finish with friends.