It’s fitting that Ubisoft’s first ninth-generation release comes to us from the franchise that was very much the game at the beginning of the eighth generation. Watch Dogs: Legion ushers us into the next generation of gaming with a dystopian vision of post-Brexit London, coupled with a pretty ambitious take on the open-world sandbox design philosophy.
I’ll start with the first thing that really stuck out to me — the map. This not-quite-near future version of London is honestly one of my favourite Ubisoft open worlds, up there with the Assassin’s Creed’s best maps. There are lots of little details scattered throughout, landmarks like Big Ben are impressively scaled and it’s all infused with a light cyberpunk aesthetic, encompassing holographic advertisements and neon lit vehicles. London’s architecture lends itself well to the aesthetic, reminding me of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s rendition of Prague. It’s also on the smaller side for Ubisoft, and noticeably less cluttered. While Ubisoft has a bad habit of filling its games with absurd amounts of filler content that’s best left unplayed, Legion instead offers a more condensed, thoughtfully-designed world to traverse. There’s some neat environmental puzzles that hide tech upgrades, and liberating an area generally only takes a handful of minor tasks rather than a truckload. Collectables are also thankfully restricted to upgrade points and the occasional text or voice log, which gives a little more drive to complete their checklist like design. More than anything, though, it’s nice to be able to zoom out on the map and not see a mess of icons.
Watch Dogs: Legion’s hot new feature is the ability to recruit and play as anyone: you can recruit absolutely any NPC you meet to your cause, and each one comes with a unique set of skills and/or equipment as well as a bit of flavour text for their backstory. It’s all procedurally generated, so of course there are going to be some oddities in the mix, but it’s still impressive to be able to recruit anyone you see wandering around London.
Sadly, the novelty of recruiting anyone and everyone does wear off after the first few hours of gameplay. Instead, you’ll likely find yourself focusing on finding Skilled Operatives who randomly appear throughout the world, marked with a green dot as you walk past them. These operatives have the most utility, as they come with at least one skill and piece of equipment that can drastically alter your play style; they’re much more focused on playing a specific role — and playing it well — than the more egalitarian general public. A Hitman, for example, comes with a set of lethal firearms and experience in “gun kata” (one for all you Equilibrium fans), while a Drone Specialist will have a drone that can electrocute people… and the rabbit hole gets deeper as you go.
As you can imagine, this means that the vast majority of the missions on offer here feel a lot less scripted than previous Watch Dogs missions, as they encourage you to adapt on the fly and experiment with different operatives. I often found myself switching characters in between major objectives, trying to get things done in the most efficient way I could. It also adds an extra layer to the camera scouting you’ll do before entering certain areas, as you can use that to determine and select the best tool for the job.
With that being said, this is also where the problems start to emerge. While I love that Ubisoft experimented with more roguelike mechanics — especially with the objectively correct permadeath option turned on — the level design often doesn’t take advantage of the different mechanics these operatives offer. The missions almost always have multiple different ways to complete objectives, but they very rarely take advantage of, or require you to use, any specific set of traits. In fact, you can complete most of the missions in the game with any operative so long as you give them a Spiderbot, a tool that completes just about any task you can think of without you ever having to physically enter the area.
Once you realise just how easy it is to exploit the Spiderbot, the game’s difficulty becomes a joke. There’s absolutely no risk involved with using a Spiderbot: if the enemies spot it, you can just retrieve it with the press of a button — enemies won’t exit their areas to look for the person piloting it, and they won’t try to backtrace it either. Alternatively… perhaps they actually do both of those things, and I never noticed because the instant retrieval option makes it a non-issue. Hell, the Spiderbot can even take enemies down, completely nullifying the purpose of combat- and stealth-based operatives.
Watch Dogs: Legion even goes so far as having a number of missions that require you to use a Spiderbot. Granted, these missions are fun, and they would have served as a great change of pace if every level before and after them hadn’t been designed in a way that makes the Spiderbot the most efficient way to clear it. A painful highlight was a mission where I was told to use a drone to scout the second floor of a building; after switching to a drone specialist, I realised that the game expected me to use a conveniently-placed scissor lift to get a Spiderbot into the building in order to complete the mission. The Spiderbot is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it takes so much of the challenge out of the game that it almost would have been better if it wasn’t there.
Watch Dogs: Legion‘s over-reliance on the Spiderbot got so bad, in fact, that I had to force myself to avoid using one altogether after I saw just how great the emergent gameplay experiences were in the rare instances where I wasn’t able to use it. These moments are great, and it’s refreshing to see an open-world sandbox be this unrestrained in the AAA market. You can do some pretty crazy stuff, and the chaos that can ensue when things go wrong reminded me of the best moments of games like X-COM or even Hitman. Again, though, I never stopped feeling like I was fighting against what the game wanted from me in order to have fun and challenge myself.
This isn’t helped by the story, which is devoid of any real drive or central protagonist to keep the momentum flowing. It’s incredibly hard to care about a story where the central group of protagonists can only communicate in generic broad responses like “we don’t muck about” or “man, this so messed up” with a limited number of voices pitched up and down, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some cool moments and stories throughout: the 404 quest arc has an incredibly high point that raises interesting questions about the ethical boundaries and potential horror of transhumanism, while others attempt to tackle things like privacy in the digital age and the Minority Report-style policing system. These are all great premises on paper, but they come into constant conflict with the game’s overarching tone; it’s clear that Ubisoft has tried its best to bridge the gap between the original game’s extremely serious story and the sequel’s borderline-cartoonishly out-of-touch take on rebellious youth, and it’s done so with mixed results.
On the technical side of things, there is a distinct lack of polish in Watch Dogs: Legion, especially when you consider that it’s a triple-A title from one of the biggest developers in gaming. The movement feels quite stiff and the cover system is barebones and rather clunky — not just compared to other games in Ubisoft’s library, either, but even compared to previous Watch Dogs titles. Of course, I can see this being a deliberate decision to pair it with the more floaty and janky gunplay in an attempt to address past criticisms and move more towards a non-lethal, stealth-based gameplay loop; if that’s the case, though, then designing missions with unavoidable chase and combat encounters is baffling, especially since those moments increase in frequency as the game progresses. It devalues the importance of having a diverse team of operatives when you end up needing to turn the difficulty down if you don’t want to use combat-oriented operatives. Even then, a military-trained killer for hire is just as clunky to control as a 19-year-old student activist, leading to some frustrating deaths that I struggled to see as being my own fault. Exacerbating this frustration is the fact that Watch Dogs and Watch Dogs 2 both had really tight, responsive combat gameplay, which leaves me wondering exactly what Ubisoft’s goal was here.
Performance is a huge point of contention as well, particularly when it comes to the PC port. Despite Ubisoft touting it as “the first next-gen experience”, getting the game to look and run well is a serious challenge due to a clear lack of optimisation. Reports have stated that even high-end RTX 3080 builds are struggling to maintain a steady 60 frames per second at 4K resolution. This isn’t to say that Watch Dogs: Legion is unplayable, as I was able to get it running and looking decent with some minor ray tracing on my new build thanks to NVIDIA’s Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) technology, but the forced Temporal Anti-Aliasing (TAA) can make the game look ghastly at times in order to favour performance, so anyone with a lower-end — or even mid-tier — PC should be warned. It’s also telling that the Xbox One version of the game shipped with a bug that caused Xbox One X consoles to overheat and shut down during a certain part of the story, which is oddly specific when compared to other cases where a game has caused the Xbox One X to overheat. This has since been patched, but it says a lot for the lack of optimisation that went into this game before Ubisoft released it.
Despite its many flaws, Watch Dogs: Legion is not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s clear that Ubisoft had a lot of ambition with this title and, in a lot of ways, it reminds me of a time when the studio wasn’t afraid to try new things; I can see the inevitable Watch Dogs 4 really refining a lot of the core ideas and mechanics present here into something that could be really special. Ubisoft has managed to find a real niche, that real unique selling point that sets Watch Dogs: Legion apart from other open world sandboxes that isn’t simply “press X to hack” gameplay additions.
It’s complicated… I really do like Legion because when it gets good, it really gets good, and there’s enough there to recommend it, but it’s a recommendation that comes with a lot of caveats: if you’re like me and you can look past the issues, there’s a real gem to be found underneath all the dirt. Otherwise, wait for some patches and a sale.
Watch Dogs: Legion is an ambitious effort with a lot of unique ideas that unfortunately doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Ty reviewed Watch Dogs: Legion using a retail PC code purchased from the Ubisoft Store.
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