Review Copy provided by Ubisoft. Reviewed on PC.
“Watch Dogs: Legion” might fall victim to some unfortunate timing. In the midst of a prolonged global pandemic, not to mention cascading economic and political crises, developer Ubisoft Toronto’s vision of dystopian techno-serfdom and widespread government repression might hit a bit too close to home for audiences seeking escapism. But if you can push past its muddled message and subpar storytelling, “Legion” is a surprisingly good time. Its carefully crafted simulation of London, along with the creative set of tools it provides the player to navigate that world, make this gloomy future worth visiting.
“Legion” takes place in a near-future vision of a London completely dominated and occupied by a private military contractor named Albion, contracted by the UK government to supplant the traditional police force after a series of major bombings. Like the other entries in the series, players find themself part of the guerilla hacker group Dedsec. Framed for the bombings by the true culprits, a mysterious group known as Zero Day, Dedsec sets out to end Albion’s domination of London and stop Zero Day.
The game’s story takes aim at some pretty heavy subject matter: human trafficking, authoritarianism, police brutality. It’s a story that we’ve heard many times before: the plucky rebel group rises up against the evil empire. And it’s been told in much more creative ways, with more defined and memorable characters, with a less predictable plot. When the shocking final villain reveal happens, it’s telegraphed too far in advance for any sense of surprise to kick in.
When I interviewed Kent Hudson, “Legion”‘s Game Design Director, at E3 last year, he made his team’s position clear.
“Against that backdrop of political drama there are opportunists,” he said. “We’re saying that when people are divided, people will try to take advantage of that situation.”
Hudson positioned the game’s idea of a united resistance force fighting back against a tyrannical state power as an implicit criticism of the rise of nativist nationalism worldwide and a paean to global street protest movements. So it’s a bit surprising that more than a year later, the politics of the final product feel so anodyne.
“Legion”‘s supposedly anti-establishment message is undermined by its own narrative and gameplay trappings. Dedsec is supposedly an anti-authority revolutionary group, yet it regularly finds itself working directly with the police. It’s supposedly a peaceful movement that uses violence only as a last resort, but you’ll still find multiple story chapters where the player is forced to mow down waves of enemies.
These might seem like small complaints, but the game’s failure to marry its mechanics to its message makes it a less interesting and enjoyable game than it could have been. The game’s central conceit is the “play as anyone” mechanic, the ability to recruit any NPC in the streets of London to Dedsec as a playable character. But that squad of Dedsec operatives never really feel like a properly networked team of agents, let alone a part of a broader political movement. There’s not really any evidence of other Dedsec members doing anything out in the open world. I could only find one mission that required multiple operatives to actually cooperate. Most of the time the active member of the team feels like a lone wolf, and every inactive member feels invisible until you pass control off to them.
There’s a world of possibility hidden inside this character-switching mechanic, but Ubisoft haven’t quite nailed it. The need to make every single NPC in London into a potential lead character with full voice acting has some strange repercussions. It means that despite the seemingly diverse set of character backgrounds on offer in any given team, the agents themself feel a bit lifeless and identikit. These characters look and sound like what happens when you press the randomize button on a character generator. They’re just a bit uncanny. You can always tell the difference between the carefully designed characters featured in the storyline and the procedurally generated misfits that populate your team. While they have their own accents and verbal cues, the fact that every line in the game has to be written to suit any given character strips personality out of the dialogue by design.
That’s not to say that you won’t miss certain agents when they die, though. One of “Watch Dogs: Legion”‘s smartest and most well-implemented mechanics is its Permadeath system. Players have the option to enable or disable this feature when they start a new game. I highly recommend enabling it. The knowledge that one of your most valued operatives could be gone, and that you could lose their set of perks forever, fundamentally changes the way you approach encounters. It adds an extra layer of tension and excitement to the game: I was genuinely upset when I lost an operative who specialized in drones and had to plan accordingly.
While players can still scout and recruit new Londoners to replace fallen agents, “Legion” does manage to create at least some sense of attachment to the individual members of the team. It does a decent job of balancing each character so that, while their perks and bonuses are helpful, all the story missions can still be completed with any character. And the city of London is as much of a living character as any of the Dedsec recruits. It feels great to pilot a motorboat down the Thames or fly over Buckingham Palace on a cargo drone. Ubisoft Toronto have effectively compressed London’s landmarks down into a map that feels real: they’ve nailed the sense of scale here.
It feels good to shoot things in “Watch Dogs: Legion.” There’s not a huge variety of guns, but you’ll still find agents with AK-47s and Uzis crammed somehow into their tight jeans. By default, “Legion” uses a lock-on aiming system reminiscent of Red Dead Redemption 2, but it feels snappier and more responsive than that game. Ubisoft have made the wise decision to avoid shoehorning in a bunch of pointless RPG elements, a tendency that their other open-world games have too often indulged in recent years. You’ll find points that let you buy more advanced tech and weapons for your agents, but that’s about it.
And the tech that your agents acquire feels well integrated into the game world, whether it’s a spider-bot that scutters around secure compounds to interface with computers or a cargo drone the player can climb onto and fly around with. But the scenarios these tools are used in start to feel pretty repetitive by the end. Most missions boil down to the same basic template of stealthing into a location and interfacing with a computer terminal over and over. While there’s a few interesting twists on this formula, it did start to grate towards the end of the campaign.
I’ve only tested the PC version, but I found “Watch Dogs: Legion” to have pretty subpar performance. It’s incredibly resource intensive, even without the game’s RTX ray-tracing features enabled. Even after extensive settings tweaks, it seems nearly impossible to get completely stable performance, and hitches and drops under 60 fps are pretty common. Luckily, I didn’t encounter any major bugs or crashes, and the game’s implementation of ray-traced reflections looks great. I’ve seen reports of performance issues particular to AMD Ryzen CPUs like the one in my PC, so I’m hoping some of those performance quirks can be solved in future updates.
“Watch Dogs: Legion” feels like a bundle of contradictions, but tinkering with and unraveling those seemingly contradictory pieces can still be a lot of fun. There’s a lot to love here, from the fantastically detailed rendering of London to the fluid combat. But the story lacks any real stakes or compelling characters. “Legion” gets a bit repetitive in its second half, without enough iterations on the “sneak here, hack this” formula to completely justify its twenty-hour runtime. Yet I’m still itching to return to London. That feels like “Legion”‘s final lesson: a fresh setting can go a long way.