Alex Birlo on November 15, 2020
It took 28 hours to finish the main story. In short, I did not expect a lot from this Watch Dogs, so I was not disappointed when it all started falling apart. But it is not all bad news, so let us unpack it all in order, starting with the story.
The game’s events transpire in a “near future” version of London.
Set after the events of the first two games, Blume Corporation kept spreading across the world and their improved version of the ctOS is being implemented across many developed countries, including the entirety of the United Kingdom.
The story starts with a very good intro. You play as a member of the London DedSec cell, trying to stop a terrorist attack on the Palace of Westminster.
Long story short, stuff happens and DedSec London gets framed for several terror attacks, and the game begins with you rebuilding this London cell.
All while a private militia, called Albion (very poetic), moves in and occupies London on behalf of the government. But in fact, all it does is create an “oppressive police state” kind of situation.
This opening, instantly puts you in a tense situation with high stakes, sprinkled with some good old “shock value”.
But then, the rhythm of the game does not simply slow down – it disappears completely. Every time you see another main mission marker, you do not feel more compelled to go there, than you would to go for a side mission.
Some hours into the game, I understood that the story is just kind of there… nothing about it.
Without noticing, I started drowning in an unending sequence of identical mission, that only had different context.
Coming back to the topic of the plot. The story did have a couple of moments where I felt like I did something significant and achieved change in London, and a few plot twists here and there, that made it all feel worth the work.
But it did not change the fact that they almost completely ditched the story this time. It is simply a gameplay scenario, after a gameplay scenario.
I would describe the story as a bunch of disjointed chapters, about several different faction bosses, that last a couple of hours each. And only are partially connected to each other, by an ephemeral plot line, of finding who framed DedSec at the beginning of the game.
There are only around 5, or so, proper cinematics throughout the entire game.
The rest is covered by relatively unimpressive “shot, reverse shot” conversations, with funky facial animations and lagging lip-sink, or chatter over comms.
I must admit, that most of the time they do come up with interesting context for each mission, but it still all felt like a series of side quests.
I would also like to touch on the subject of the main gameplay mechanic in Legion, before we talk about gameplay. Because it has a crucial effect on the story – the recruitment system.
Basically it is what we heard throughout the entire pre-release campaign. You can recruit absolutely anyone in the city except for the leaders of the main factions.
Even opponents you meet on missions, can have their dossier saved and then recruited later.
Of course the story does not change one bit, regardless of whom you play as. But the gameplay does – drastically.
And there is also this interesting feeling you get, when your friend’s first operative that started the resistance was a babysitter, whose perk was owning an MP-5. And yours was a novelist, who has a “6G data plan” that means she can download data during missions much faster.
So in spots you do feel like the character matters, but objectively the story stays the same.
The only actual characters, are a couple of main villains and set story allies you meet. But the best of them is of course Bagley!
Bagley is the witty AI that unites the entire DedSec operation in London.
He is so much fun! He always has a smart comment, he curses, his vocabulary is stellar!
I would laugh so much at his interactions with the members of DedSec. To the point that, by the time the credits rolled, I felt most attached to him and no one else!
As much as the lack of a “conventional” protagonist hurts the story of the game, the way this game is built around the fact that “no matter who you are” you can join forces and make a change – is exactly the theme for such a game as Watch Dogs.
It can be the right direction and it is definitely a suiting evolution for the franchise. I think Watchdogs may have found its identity!
What you have to understand, going into Watch Dogs Legion, is that this game’s moment to moment gameplay is what creates these little stories, that are told in a thousand faces all across the city.
The turncoat private militia member, who decided to help the rebels; the crazy immigrant babysitter, that saved a bunch of protestors from false accusations and prosecution.
I think that is exactly what they wanted to achieve, and it sort of works… you just have to shift your view of a usual game’s structure to fully appreciate this.
Though I do not think it is an excuse to treat proper story telling like they did, but that is beside the point.
If you don’t go completely bonkers with the recruitment system, but instead pick and choose who to recruit, you will end up with a cool crew of people to whom you get attached and for whom you worry.
My entire playthrough transformed into this spy game. Where the main protagonist was a mole – a soldier from Albion. He decided it was enough and joined DedSec.
He turned out to be a polite and educated person, with a heavy British accent. While throughout the story, all the spots for the supporting cast were filled with this cool band of misfits who were all in on it.
A punk girl, who is also a genius hacker; a novelist, with strong ideas about freedom; a spy, who talks like a street kid and a construction worker, who sells hacked Blume “iPhones” when he is off duty.
Even though the story this time is very detached, and nowhere near the pumping atmosphere of the second Watch Dogs, if you will be the one to assign that meaning and value by caring for your recruits and playing along, the game can transform.
In any case, at least the gameplay this time, creates an interesting identity for the franchise and, I think, does move the franchise into interesting territory as we approach next-gen.
Let me tell you straight away – the world is beautiful. The better your gear is, the better are the visuals obviously. But what I talk about is the way the city was designed!
London was recreated at such a perfect balance between creative liberty and faithful recreation, that in some places I could navigate because I have actually been there a lot! And in some places I had fun exploring what new and different spots the developers designed.
The NPCs in this game are very much a part of this world. The city has different districts where you are more likely to meet people of the corresponding social status, i.e. in a business center you will find more middle to high class corporate types, rather than hobos.
But, although the world is populated by much more interesting and thought through NPCs, as a result of the randomized recruitment system, they are as dumb as ever. By that I mean the same old crowd reaction mechanics as ever.
For example: when you turn a corner and the front of your car faces a pedestrian on the sidewalk, for a split second, they react as though you are about to run them over, then jump out of the way, thus end up on the road, where in turn you actually end up running them over.
Never the less, when everything works as intended, the city is so refreshing and gives out similar vibes as the real place.
So much, as to the point where I felt no need to use the GPS, and simply enjoyed the rides I took from one place to the other, exploring London with my eyeballs.
In terms of open world activities, there is zero interaction with the world, besides the recruitment system.
There are some small things like a football mini-game, a darts mini-game, drawing graffiti and delivering parcels.
As is typical for Ubisoft games, the world is only a backdrop for the gameplay and is nothing but decorations on the stage.
I don’t mind it, because the game mechanics have me all hooked up. But this shallow facade sometimes takes you out of the immersion and reminds you it’s just another game you’re playing.
In terms of structure, the city is broken up into several areas. Each has just a couple of small activities that help you lower Albion’s hold on the location. Things like release an important suspect they locked up, or destroy some propaganda.
When you do all of these, you get a small side quest where you get into the final stage of undermining Albion’s influence.
When successful, there is a strange cutscene where loads of fireworks go off in this area, and DedSec’s symbol appears where everyone can see it. The area becomes – defiant.
This changes literally nothing.
Your only reward for this, is revealing the locations of all the “Tech Points”, you use to unlock skills and gadgets, in that area and a special elite recruit instantly joining your team.
Since that is the only useful reward, I found myself lacking motivation to “liberate” areas. I simply got the specialists I wanted and went on with my business.
Finally, let us move to “the good, the bad and the ugly” of gameplay in Watch Dogs Legion.
Starting with the good, let us get onto more details about the recruitment system.
It allows you to choose from a huge variety of randomly generated NPCs. The variety is so good I actually felt like I might get addicted to studying them, when I started playing.
It is because they have enough variety in terms of the random qualities they can have, to make it fun to explore them. One is an old investor with a contact in the police, the other is a Sneaker Designer who has a discount on purchasing clothing etc.
Another layer of the recruitment system is that you can accidentally stumble across NPCs who are somehow related to the operatives you already recruited. Like someone’s aunt or best friend, for example.
And if you leave a lot of your enemies alive, chances are that one of them will one day come back at you, by kidnapping one of your DedSec members. This will trigger a side mission, where you have to locate where they are interrogating your operative and rescue them.
One important subject is the Permadeath feature.
Usually, when one of your operatives receives lethal damage, they go either to the hospital or spend time in jail. And only in rare cases, a person recruited might have a negative perk called “Death Wish”, that makes it so that they have a chance to actually die, and be lost for eve.
When Permadeath is enabled, all you characters basically have the “Death Wish”.
It was technically, supposed to turn the recruitment system into something like XCOM – where you have to take care of your operatives during missions, since if they die – you lose them forever.
Instead, it creates an unnecessary feeling of tension and makes certain character perks absolutely useless.
I played the entire game with this mode turned on, and was largely disappointed.
Certain missions place you in extremely disadvantages scenarios, where you cannot avoid open combat and are forced to face off against an army that is sure to kill you on higher difficulties.
In other situations, there are bugs and mechanical issues that can see you accidentally killing your favorite characters.
While characters that have perks to reduce jail time, or heal faster and leave the hospital still exist in the world, and can be recruited. Despite their perks being completely useless and wasted.
With Permadeath enabled, you lose more than you gain.
The shooting in this game is not destiny level stuff, but it surely does the work and feels snappy. Also, there is nothing a little bit of aim assist can’t fix when you play on console.
One good thing that comes from Ubisoft’s formula of identically systematic open world games, is that when one game makes an improvement, it gets implemented in all the other ones. Of course that goes both ways, but I digress.
The shooting here feels like its own take on how the shooting mechanic works in The Division – in a good way.
Hand-to-hand combat is simple. It is a 3 button system. You got your punch, you got your guard break and evasion, all of which you combine depending on the opponent you face.
I would describe it as flashy but weird. What I mean by that is that the animations are great, they look impressive and have a sense of brutal efficiency.
But what’s weird, is that any character you use (accept for old grandmas and grandpas) are suddenly so adept at hand-to-hand combat that it feels out of place!
Imagine a librarian, whom you recruited 5 seconds ago, suddenly pulling off CQC like a trained soldier…
Most of the time it is a good stealth action game, where the amount of epic shootouts depends on your tendency to make things violent.
I loved to use the recruitment system in sequences that reminded me of the Hitman games. When you use a recruit who has the required uniform and can infiltrate restricted areas.
It felt tense and fun to walk around, avoiding close visual contact with guards as to not raise their suspicion. Or prompt them to try and ask me what the hell am I doing on this “super-secret restricted level of the facility”.
Every mission has a plethora of ways to approach it. Each building has so many infiltration points, that I sometimes just could not choose!
Use a spider bot to enter through a vent, or find the manager and download their key card and so on and so forth.
Some might find it boring, but I had so much fun passing through entire missions, that otherwise would have been suicidal, by only using drones, bots and cameras, without ever even entering the area!
This time they really nailed it, with lots of creative scenarios and hacking puzzles. That’s what tells me the developers are on the right track.
Though, there are a couple missions that absolutely ruin this.
They first allow you to play through the entire thing simply by hacking and driving bots, but then it turns out that you absolutely had to be there in person to finish something.
Or there is a shootout sequence, for which you had to be present, but since you are not, the enemies automatically swarm you wherever you are hiding regardless of whether it was even physically possible for them to spot you.
There is one big, overarching problem with this.
Whether you infiltrate a police station, to delete someone’s criminal record from the servers; or you infiltrate a gang’s safe house, to download sensitive data from the servers – you still do the same things, in the same sequence. And neither the locations nor the objectives feel memorable.
Story missions aside, everything you ever do essentially boils down to, go here, infiltrate, hack a server, evacuate – that is it!
There are some side quests that will be provided by a small handful of allies you will acquire throughout the main story bits.
These provide a bit more meaning to the above mentioned routine, but beyond that, once you finish the game there is literally almost nothing interesting to do.
This might be fixed when they launch the multiplayer component, and they do have an extensive season pass plan ahead, so that should be factored in as well.
And yes, the multiplayer is not available at launch. It will come online in December 2020 and I wonder how much it will add to the value of the game. But for that, we will have to wait and see.
Skills in this game, are a mixed bag for me.
To unlock skills, you have to search for collectables, called Tech Points. Then you can spend these to unlock 6 items in each of the following 4 categories: Upgrades, hacks, weapons and gadgets. Each has 3 levels with increasing unlock cost.
All happens through a mediocre screen, that looks like a bunch of bootleg merchandise covers, for ambiguous products.
None of them were necessary to play the game through and through, and none of them felt like real game changers either.
Besides the ones that allow you to hack each individual drone type, and the one that applies an AR cloak on bodies of knocked out enemies, there was nothing I really wanted or needed.
In terms of bugs, the game is rough around the edges even a while after release.
Particularly the voice lines that overlap and some specific animations bugging, plus the AI reactions that are either delayed or triggered for no good enough reason.
You definitely see that Ubisoft finally took their time to release a game in a playable shape and relatively polished. But Watch Dogs still feels like a last-gen “Ubisoft game”.
Now, here is my biggest criticism of this game, a thing that really hampered my experience and something which I hope they solve in the next game.
In the previous games, you had a single main character, and thus all the possible hacking and fighting abilities were condensed into a skill tree, with several progression paths, into which you could sink points.
Here though, they spread all of them across all the randomly generated characters as passive talents, sounds cool right? I thought so too.
But by the end of the game, I realized that I have been using none of them, exactly because of this.
If I want to have the hack that allows me to move aside all the cars on the road during a getaway – I need a getaway driver. If I want to be able to roll-evade – I need a Hitman or a Police Officer.
But the game does not let you take several operatives to a mission, only one. And you cannot swap between your characters or gadgets while you are inside a restricted area or in combat.
So what is the point of having a getaway driver, with good car hacks, when you need to use a recruit with a police uniform to infiltrate a guarded location first?
I cannot teach these skills to those operatives I like the most – that would kind of beat the purpose of the system right?
But it causes a dumber gameplay loop that you initially don’t think of. The idea that “anyone can join the resistance” does not hold up if you want to pass the game.
You cannot make something out of a nobody you picked up on the street. You just end up ignoring the regular people that have almost no perks, and hunt for the professionals that have up to 4 or 5 of them.
But even then, you end up using around 3 to 4 recruits with uniform access, so to make it easier to infiltrate restricted areas, that otherwise would be suicidal.
Due to this, you end up not playing with any of the dozens of skills they have in the game.
The only way I really see this working is in multiplayer. Where each of the team members can bring their own specific skill set to the mission.
While someone infiltrates the facility wearing a uniform, the hacker can support them from afar, and the getaway driver can help them escape at the end.
In single players though, this would have to be something like an instant swap mechanic. Where you take a team of four operatives, for example, and swap between them on the fly, during the different stages of the mission.
The lack of proper usage of the recruitment system shows in the very last mission.
Without spoiling anything, the last mission is technically what I expected the entire story to be like. Not in terms of action, but in terms of the recruitment system being actually utilized.
Seeing or hearing all your operatives at random, and feeling some sort of interaction instead of a disjointed “here I’ll go as that bloke, and there I’ll infiltrate as that lass”.
What I expected was: having several characters working either together or acting simultaneously across different objectives. But you will not see that throughout the entire game.
As final thoughts about this game, my conclusion is as follows:
Watch Dogs Legion finally creates a signature mechanic, sort of, and is trying to implement it into its world. But they succeed only in creating a good foundation, for something that has to be improved upon.
The recruitment system lacks functions that would make it viable, the gameplay feels like a good enough stealth game, but the story essentially consists of just the very first and the very last missions – everything in between plays like filler.
While they manage to design amazing locations for gameplay purposes, with a great multitude of ways to tackle each infiltration mission – it’s all there is.
There is no exploration, even though the city was beautifully created; there is no “world shaping”, even though you do important things that impact everything and everyone; there are no memorable story moments except for some 3-5 missions, even though the stakes are high and the risks are well-defined.
This game got me on the fence. I, personally, will enjoy playing it further, specially the multiplayer.
But don’t be surprised when you will see so many people going online saying it’s boring and is the worst Watch Dogs game.