Watch Dogs: Legion Review

Watch Dogs: Legion Review
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Friday, October 30, 2020

Watch Dogs: Legion

Watch Dogs: Legion takes the foundations and ideas of its predecessors and expands upon them exponentially. The core conceit of Legion lies in the old adage of "strength in numbers," which manifests in the game letting you recruit and play as nearly any character you come across, amassing a ragtag crew of freedom fighters. This open-ended stance to fighting the system is a significant change for the franchise, and it's bolstered by improved hacking and social-engineering gameplay. Legion's approach, while admirable, does have some unintended issues that make its powerful message of unity waver at inopportune times, but it still manages to make a profound statement about hope with its novel approach to player agency.

The London in Watch Dogs: Legion is presented as a more advanced and exaggerated version of the real-life London. However, this interpretation of the city still reflects the present mood of 2020, albeit with more of a cyberpunk-dystopia aesthetic. The city's history and its iconic landmarks are the backdrop for stark futurism. The majesty of Buckingham Palace and the bohemian charm of Camden are washed with parcel delivery drones, holographic advertisements, and self-driving cars that flood your line of sight. Of course, all of this also makes for an exciting playground for your hacking antics.

In a game with multiple playable characters, the one constant that you'll have across them is your connection to London itself. Each of the eight districts has its own varied cultures, demographics, and cultural stylings, making England's capital city an exciting place to explore. It's cool to see areas like the Tower of London and Piccadilly Circus recreated with stunning detail, and there's something to appreciate in how much effort went into presenting the locales through a dystopian lens. The game manages to capture the history and the cultural diversity of London, while also juxtaposing it with the banality of evil represented by the presence of Albion, who detain citizens in plain sight.

Much of the flavor and atmosphere of the city is rooted in the now. With Brexit, weaponized social media, and far-right ideologies going mainstream, Legion effectively portrays the inherent angst and bewilderment at seeing your country fall slowly into chaos--poignant for the troubles of the present day. The main story deals with topics relating to nationalism, xenophobia, and which class of people should be in control. At times it can get unnerving to see how real life seeps into Legion's story, especially when it comes to the inhumane treatment of immigrants.

The main story of Legion is heavy in its subject matter, feeling like a mix of Black Mirror and Mr. Robot. It grapples with themes around nationalism, capitalism, classism, and of course, policing. Although the execution is somewhat scattershot, the moments in which the game chooses to shine a light on these pervading issues can be sobering. The most notable example involves a guest appearance by British grime rapper Stormzy, who gives a rousing and powerful performance confronting systemic racism. He takes the stage and confronts the people with a truth of Legion's world, and it packs a powerful punch because it reflects the realities of our own. "I am the one they fear the most," he says. "I'm a black man with money."

Through text messages, podcasts, and other supplementary means of delivering narrative, Legion lays bare even more of the issues plaguing society. Text messages reveal that Albion, effectively a police force, is targeting and harassing citizens in public, and recalling this information as you watch people out on the street fall victim to these practices can sting. Radio shows mock the in-game right-wing ideologies which, when described, sound ridiculous and the stuff of fiction, but aren't all that far from what we hear in real life.

What really hits home about Watch Dogs Legion is that, as the cartoonishly bleak world comes into focus, it becomes difficult to ignore the immediate parallels to our own real-world society. Sure, it might not interrogate the issues and explore the nuances with a great deal of depth, but the broad strokes of the brush are enough to blur the line between fiction and reality, and at that point you have to confront just how far our own society has fallen. Ubisoft games have often used real-world politics as set dressing, but on this occasion, it feels like a genuine attempt to at least identify the problems it is leveraging as narrative milieu and present their cold hard truths.

For the most part, the main narrative does a good job of tackling these topics, but the impact is lessened somewhat because of the open-world format of the game. The game's scope is too wide to deliver its messages in a sharp and concise way. As a result, the 25-hour main plot can feel like it drifts into the periphery as the core narrative becomes secondary to the moment-to-moment actions and events that occur when the open-world mechanics are at work. The knock-on effect is that the side activities are left to do a lot of the heavy lifting on exploring the nuance in these themes, which they do reasonably well.

Like previous games, Watch Dogs: Legion hinges on the familiar loop of open-world gameplay, which entails exploration, combat, stealth, and in-game narrative events. While Legion uses a more streamlined hacking system, it leans much further into the systemic effects of hacking and manipulating social threads to fulfill your goals. Depending on how you utilize the city's ctOS infrastructure--which consists of cameras, phones, computers, AI drones, and other machines you can hack--you can accomplish many of your goals with your enemies being none the wiser, giving you the sense that you're always on a heist.

Watch Dogs: Legion reaches its highs when channeling elements of immersive sims, where many of your choices can cascade into a satisfying chain of reactions that yield the desired result. Hacking is your core connection to the world, and it opens up many clever opportunities when it comes to figuring out how to achieve your present goals. In one mission, I came up to an enemy base that had a vehicle I had to recover. While I could have snuck in, knocked out the guards with my non-lethal instruments, and taken the vehicle, I instead went with a more elegant solution. Using the cameras, I was able to remotely examine and download data keys from their tablets to gain access to the base's gates. With the gates now opened, I hacked into the vehicle and had it accelerate forward out of the base. I made a dash for the car and rode off while the guards were left stewing in their confusion. All of this was done without ever setting foot in the base, and it felt incredibly satisfying getting the best of them. Coupled with the randomly generated playable characters, Legion presents many interesting opportunities to take advantage of, and its core gameplay represents the prospect of the Watch Dogs hacker fantasy at its best.

Legion's true stars are London's citizens, all of whom are randomly generated based on various professions, ethnic backgrounds, and other personalized details. The previous games allowed you to learn cursory information about citizens around you, but in Legion, you can use this information to scout prospects. Depending on if they favor DedSec, they'll ask you to complete minor objectives to seal the bond. In a clever mechanic, the citizens of London will remember and react to decisions you make. For example, I was surprised a potential recruit disapproved of DedSec because a different character I played as accidentally hit them with a car--the game even makes note of this in their file.

With such a vast list of characters, you'll likely find yourself leaning on a select few operatives as your A-team, especially if they are gifted when it comes to hacking, driving, or melee combat. Still, Legion has a way of tossing in a curveball recruit that could be in the running for your new favorite. A particular standout for me was a gold-painted performance artist who could hide in plain sight to complete his goals--and collect tips while he was at it. It can be bizarre seeing what sort of characters you can pull in on your crusade, and it's solid fun getting to use whatever skills they have in some critical missions to succeed by the skin of their teeth.

While each operative is capable, missions can and will likely turn sour after a wrong decision, resulting in all sorts of enemies coming down on you with assault rifles and combat drones. Even failing recruitment missions can set you back, prompting you to work extra hard to get back into a potential candidate's good graces. Adding to this stress is the option to enhance the campaign to include permanent deaths for your operatives--meaning once they fall in a mission, they're gone for good. It's a clever addition that adds a bit more realism and a greater sense of consequence to the campaign, which can make some of the more daring missions feel more stressful, especially knowing that losing a favorite operative will leave a lasting sting. But even without permadeath, the difficulty can still be quite challenging, with failure taking your operative out of the game for a set amount of time.

I often found myself falling down a rabbit hole to gain new operatives and explore more of the city to complete the laundry list of objectives required to recruit them. In some cases, I found members of my team kidnapped by their own personal rivals, and I had to undergo an impromptu rescue mission--all of which was randomly generated. The game's constant stream of characters and the opportunities that pop up certainly makes it inviting to break off on tangents to meet the requirements needed to recruit them. However, you'll eventually also fall into a repetitive loop of recycled objectives and dialogue set in all-too-familiar areas, albeit with different voice overs. This repetition also makes London feel a bit small, considering the amount of ground you'll have to retread constantly. As engaging as it is to constantly bounce around characters, over time, Legion's many wacky excursions can also give rise to periods of aimlessness without a centralized viewpoint and structure to guide you.

Watch Dogs: Legion


And while these characters have great personalities on the surface, they can appear mismatched for the moment and context of what's happening. This can lead to some unexpected and bizarre shifts in tone. For example, during one of the game's more haunting plot threads, DedSec unearths an underground organ-harvesting operation, with its products coming from kidnapped immigrants who are kept in a detainment camp located within London. On its own, this is an incredibly gut-wrenching and profound moment where the game's drama and narrative chops are hitting its highs. However, I made the unfortunate choice of using one of the more flashy characters in the lead-up to this mission--a cosplayer who wears a bright reflective jacket and glowing holographic cat ears. Seeing her walk down the dark and bloody hallways was jarring and undermined the moment. When you couple this with the aimless structure, it can be easy to detach from what's going on or not buy into the sense of urgency the narrative wants you to believe there is.

In moments like this, the overall narrative and tonal issues that Watch Dogs: Legion has can force their way to the front of mind, but the core gameplay of hacking the world, making connections, and seeing your favorite operative succeed is satisfying enough that it makes it easier to not get hung up on them. The main story hits some impressive highs during the latter half thanks to the aforementioned Stormzy mission and the podcasts, emails, and even chats with your fellow DedSec members that tackle the heavier subject matter. At its best, Legion manages to stay on message while keeping things fun and exciting. And in some ways, the goofy absurdity of Legion's characters and wacky side activities feels like an appropriate match for the sad absurdity of Legion's world.