Watch Dogs: Legion review — Rising up in London without a leader


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Watch Dogs: Legion is an admirable attempt to send a message about how all of us have the power to rise up and fight against authoritarian governments when we need to do so. Ubisoft decided the way to send that message was to create a game without a hero.

Instead, the game set across a sprawling Londer enables us to take any one of the nine million characters in the game and recruit them as the player’s avatar in the DedSec hacking group. It’s a cool experiment as an idea and a big statement about how democracy should empower anyone to take down tyranny, but it falls short when it comes to storytelling and character development.

That said, the re-creation of London in a state of chaos is an amazing achievement, and I would recommend you play it simply because it’s so surreal to romp through the streets of the city in all of its diverse environments. Legion also has some badass missions that show us glimpses of the future of urban combat with drones and the stealthy spying of tiny spider-bots.

I played through the campaign for Watch Dogs: Legion, the third in the popular series that pits hackers against authoritarian surveillance regimes in modern cities. My job was to save London from its death spiral and “unfuck the city.” With all that’s going on in the world, I just hope this virtual life of being a revolutionary isn’t training for my real life.

Legion debuted October 29 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Stadia. It will also hit the Xbox Series X/S on November 10 and PlayStation 5 in November 12. I played it on a PC, and it looked beautiful with the real-time ray tracing of Nvidia RTX 3080 graphics.

We are anonymous

Above: Nigel Cass, the corporate bad guy and head of military contractor Albion in Watch Dogs: Legion.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

As I pointed out in previews, the absence of the main character is a problem because the heroes are nobodies, picked off the streets almost at random. It’s akin to taking actor Anthony Hopkins and making him the memorable villain, and then pitting an unknown extra as the hero who is supposed to take Hopkins down. The villains turn out to be so much more interesting as characters than the extras, who might be construction workers or graffiti artists.

I was worried about this from the very first time that I heard about the game’s design. When Watch Dogs debuted in 2014, it starred the character Aiden Pearce as a vigilante hacker who could break into the city’s operating system and bring down all of its surveillance networks in the city of Chicago. In 2016, Watch Dogs 2 featured Marcus Holloway as the DedSec hero who turned the surveillance networks against the CEOs of tech giants in San Francisco.

But in Watch Dog: Legion’s London, you have no leader. DedSec is taken down at the beginning, blamed for terrorist attacks that were actually perpetrated by a mysterious group called Zero Day. The private military contractor Albion, run by the would-be dictator Nigel Cass, takes over from the police to suppress the population. Gangster Mary Kelley seizes power in the vacuum, and DedSec is held together by a lone survivor, Sabine, and a hilarious AI assistant named Bagley.

The bad guys get off to a good start when they eliminate Dalton, one of the lead agents of DedSec in the very first scene. After that, the organization is headless, except for Sabine and Bagley, who serve the purpose of dispatching missions to the player.

Rebuilding DedSec

Vlad Voicu was my construction worker hero in Watch Dogs: Legion.

Above: Vlad Voicu is my construction worker hero in Watch Dogs: Legion.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

I proudly took on the daunting task of rebuilding DedSec, recruiting people of the street. But rather than collect as many resistance fighters as I could, I stopped at about 18, because I stopped encountering really useful people. Granted, I chose to play without Permadeath, which would have meant that every time one of my characters was caught or killed, they would be removed from the game. But I didn’t need anywhere near the full number of characters that were at my disposal.

Fortunately, I found some likable folks early on, such as construction workers Bac Phan, Vlad Voicu, and Becca Natapov. They had some funny lines, but they were about an inch-thin as characters. There was virtually no backstory to them, except they had some reason to hate the powerful.

One of the things they all had access to was critical for the missions: a cargo drone. As a construction worker, you could walk on to many enemy locations and not get hassled because of the construction uniform. And you could call the cargo drone at any time and use it to fly above the security forces and inspect the buildings, hacking into security cameras and quickly identifying the mission target.

I came to rely on these construction workers so much that I didn’t really need anyone else. Some missions left me deep inside an enemy fortress where I had to defend myself against a horde of guards and drones. For those missions, I used Gabriel Isa, a well-armed combat expert, as well as Maria Li, an Albion security guard who was disaffected with the military contractor. I felt like I scored big when I recruited a hitwoman named Maddy Wright, but she turned out to be no more useful than Isa.

The mathematical possibilities for unique gameplay were mind-boggling, given the number of characters and the different ways that I could perform the missions. But I felt that I would never need more than 50 or 100 recruits to handle any situation that the game threw at me. One of the useful design elements is that highly capable individuals are highlighted on the map for me to track down and recruit. Bagley always had good recommendations for how to turn the recruits to our side.

But one aspect of this grew stale. Every person had a grievance against the authorities, and if you go on a mission and solve the problem, the person will likely defect and join the DedSec cause. That got old, and it made all of the NPCs seem more like robots than individual characters.

Some drawbacks

Other critics have noted buggy sessions, but I saw very little of that playing on the PC. But it is true that after the interesting beginning, the initial missions aren’t that compelling. They teach you how to do some tasks, like hijack security cameras and distract enemies by ringing their smartphones, but it’s a daunting and somewhat boring task to sift through a lot of possible recruits to find the really good ones. I wish Ubisoft had better filters for this.

I occasionally ran into some great potential recruits, but many were pretty weak as secret agents go, like hair stylists, unemployed people, fashion experts, and cab drivers. The missions have you infiltrating, hacking, and stealing things. You can distract a guard and sneak up behind them for an easy takedown. If you tire of those tasks easily, this game isn’t for you.

I would suggest, however, that you stick with it through the campaign, as it is rewarding and the variety and story depth gets better.

Intense missions

Above: Skye Larsen stars in one of Watch Dogs: Legion’s haunting episodes.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

One of the things I like about Legion is that I never know if I’m going to go on a high-speed car chase or discover a vast criminal conspiracy. If a mission looks too tough, like going against the military might of Albion, I backed out and acquired better characters or tech capabilities before going into the mission.

One of Legion’s strong points comes later in the game, when the missions get more difficult, and you have to come up with stealthy ways to get the job done. That often involves using hacked security cameras or hijacked drones. I felt happy on occasion when I didn’t have to risk my operative’s skin and could get the mission done through remote counter-surveillance.

Every now and then, I had to solve hacking puzzles that involved connecting circuits. And also had to download files while staying out of the sight of roving guards or surveillance drones. Once in a while I felt strong enough to go weapons hot and take down all of the guards in a big gun battle. Those were some glorious moments, but I didn’t feel clever using brute force.

One of the most interesting missions involves tracking down a tech billionaire named Skye Larsen, who promises the utopia of transferring the human consciousness to the cloud. She created an artificial world that was like running around inside a simulation. It’s a very creative mission, and one that gives me the creeps about what unethical entrepreneurs will do with unbridled computing power. The AR reconstruction of the events that happened between Larsen and her mother are haunting.

I also enjoyed infiltrating Albion in the Tower of London, where my AR cloak and Albion guard identity came in very handy. Sneaking past the guards is pretty unnerving.

Creative problem-solving

Above: Maria Li was my Albion infiltrator in Watch Dogs: Legion.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

I liked how some of the missions called for creativity. Sometimes you can get around tough security by compromising one of the security guards and getting them to turn to DedSec. That turns the enemy’s power against itself.

I had trouble keeping pace with a van that I was tailing so that I could download files from it via a wireless connection. No matter what I did, the van sped off and a bunch of Albion police and drones converged on me. So I hijacked a counter-terrorism drone armed with missiles. I brought it up close before I approached the van, then switched to the drone. I fired my missiles, and then downloaded the files I needed from the van’s wreckage. It felt like cheating, but it worked.

The story takes some interesting twists, and the designers instill a sense of fear as I discover that the resistance has some holes in it, and the bad guys could come after us in unexpected ways. I had to figure out who to trust, and that seemed like folly in a world full of surveillance. It was important to remember that infiltration could work in more than one direction.

Over time, I unlocked a lot of technical capabilities, like hacking just about any kind of drone and turn it against its owners. I wore an augmented reality cloak, which hid me from pursuers for brief moments, sometimes enough for me to flee around a corner or evade a sharpshooter.

While London is an amazing place, and I recognized many landmarks from my multiple trips there, it is a huge city. One of the best design decisions is to use the London Underground system as Fast Travel. I rode it to mission locations and rarely had more than a few blocks to run. I could also hotwire a car with my smartphone and drive erratically while citizens fled before me in terror. Fast Travel saved me so much time, but I did tire of the loading screens when I entered or exited the stations.

As the ending looms, the missions get harder, and the plot thickens. That helped hold my attention as I tried to get through some difficult puzzles or boss fights. But taking down some of the villains wasn’t as climactic as I had hoped it would be.

Living London

Above: Watch Dogs: Legion’s view of London. It’s all playable.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

The open world experience of dystopian London offered endless variety. I could pursue the main missions, go on side missions, or just recruit a lot of characters. I didn’t do this, but I could have also spent time reducing Albion’s presence in the boroughs of the city by inspiring the residents to rise up.

You can do this by finding and recruiting key people in the boroughs to help with your cause. Once you do this, you can recruit people in that borough more easily. Every now and then, I stopped to admire the scenery. You can appreciate the sheer vastness of London and its diversity, like Halal food stalls, garbage bags, water puddles that reflect your car’s colors, and homeless people on the sidewalks. These places exist alongside historic landmarks like the Parliament building and novelties of the future, like self-driving cars.

On just about every block, I could see signs of resistance, such as protests or graffiti, and signs of oppression, where Albion mercs were harassing citizens at gunpoint. That creates the sensation of an entire city in a state of chaos and oppression.

I do wish that this landscape were woven into the story missions more. It would have been fun to do something on top of the London Eye, or go down into the basements of Churchill’s Bunker. Perhaps the closest thing to this marrying of the landscape and the missions were some incursions to the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.

If I had lots of time, I would explore the city a lot more — and take snapshots. I would estimate I got through the campaign in about 25 hours.

Conclusion

Above: Using AR reconstructions to investigate matters in Watch Dogs: Legion.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

I enjoyed my time wandering around the city of London. The main campaign had a good story and it was a straight shot that didn’t waste a lot of time. But I didn’t mind straying off course now and then to explore London.

I still wish the story were more directed with a main character. I realized I had some real freedom of being able to recruit anyone and grow attached to those recruits. I loved my construction workers dearly. But they were nowhere near as fleshed out as some of the key characters of the game, like Nigel Cass, Sabine, and even the funny AI Bagley. Pearce will be back for the downloadable content (DLC), but I felt like his presence in the main game would have been wonderful.

The villains clearly overshadow the heroes, but I didn’t always get the satisfaction of taking down the bad guys in a dramatic way. Sometimes, those villains went down as easily as a throwaway NPC. That felt like a creative defeat. While it’s entertaining, Watch Dogs: Legion has its flaws that might not hold the attention of gamers during an extremely busy holiday season.

Watch Dogs is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It will also launch on Xbox X/S on November 10 and PlayStation 5 on November 12. The publisher sent GamesBeat a PC code of the game for the purposes of this review.


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