Reviewed on the Xbox One.
Watch Dogs: Legion is the latest from Ubisoft, having finally released on October 30th 2020 after a long delay from March. This delay was one of many from Ubisoft in late 2019 after the failed launch of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. They seemingly realised that their games needed more creativity, signalling that this would be the case moving forward. Watch Dogs: Legion proves the opposite. The game touts that it’s key ‘play as anyone’ feature makes it unique, but it’s more a hinderance than it is helpful in this case. Here’s my Watch Dogs: Legion review.
Watch Dogs: Legion functions well for the majority of the time. I did encounter occasional bugs, but none of them game-breaking. Sometimes the menus would play in slow motion, which forced me to wait patiently for a moment before I could resume play. I also found that voice lines would frequently glitch out and have a weird robotic effect. These issues were annoying, but they are minor problems amidst a much more troubled game.
Play as Anyone
Watch Dogs: Legion sells itself on the core gameplay mechanic that you can recruit anyone in London. That old lady walking down the street can team up with Dedsec, as can this random middle-aged banker, that ex-spy and some random construction worker. This idea functions well technically and, in principle, is an interesting feature. However, it fails in it’s execution – it’s plain boring.
Every character you recruit is essentially an empty, lifeless shell. They have no backstory, no real motives and no reason for you to be interested in them. Essentially, they are a random skin, ability and voice stitched together to form some kind of puppet for the player to control. The playable characters (almost everyone in London) are entirely one-note. I didn’t care about anyone from the moment I recruited them until the moment they died.
Of course, the other core pillar of Watch Dogs‘ gameplay is hacking, which makes a return in Legion. However, it seems far more finicky than it was in past games in the series. In Watch Dogs 1 and 2, the game would often predict what you were going to hack (such as switching off a traffic light) . It would then give you the button prompt to hack the object without needing to look directly at it. This was especially useful when driving, as you could keep your eyes on the road to escape the police. In comparison, Legion‘s hacking feels awful. To hack something you usually have to look directly at it. This is difficult when things are moving at high speed. The game jumps all over the place trying to determine what you’re looking at, which ultimately leaves it feeling like a mess.
Driving Continues to be Clunky
On that note, driving feels worse here too. Every vehicle feels too heavy, which makes the handling feel awful. Watch Dogs generally has driving more akin to arcade games, but the fun hacking usually makes up for it. In the original, nothing was more fun than hacking a traffic light as you drive by, looking back and seeing the chaos that ensued. Legion‘s driving is a disappointment across the board that, when coupled with the clunky hacking system, makes it feel like a chore.
Bland Level Design
Unfortunately for Watch Dogs: Legion, the issues extend even further. Despite signalling that they would focus on creativity moving forward, the level design in Watch Dogs: Legion lacks any semblance of the word. Most missions are a bland infiltration task that tend to directly tell you the easiest way forward. Bagley, the game’s AI companion, frequently tells you to use a certain drone, or hack a specific object to enter an enemy base. Past games in the series revelled in making the player think. Each mission felt like a puzzle that you could solve in your own unique way. In Legion, everything of importance is signposted in the most boring of ways.
To make matters worse, hacking is usually the least effective way to complete a mission. Thanks to the games ‘play as anyone’ feature, you can often equip a disguise that will give you access to an enemy location. For example, you can recruit a police officer to enter a police compound, or a construction worker to enter a construction site. This removes the need to hack anything, as you can simply waltz through many missions like you belong. You’re only stopped by the occasional need to hide behind a crate. The disguise ability, though novel, turns Legion into a generic stealth game and ruins the already mediocre level design.
Cool Premise, Boring Execution
The ability to recruit anyone doesn’t just contribute to making missions boring. It impacts Legion‘s story too, which is equal parts interesting and nonsensical.
Legion tells the story of London, a city controlled by a private army, an underworld mob and a mysterious organisation known as Zero Day. After the first mission, Dedsec (the player’s hacking group returning from the previous games) are branded as terrorists and forced to prove their innocence, whilst bringing justice to the real enemy. These villains are all interesting and I enjoyed watching their motives unfold. Seeing crime boss Mary Kelley or Albion CEO Nigel Cass do their nefarious work in the games cutscenes was really fun. However, that is largely due to a lack of other interesting characters rather than an engaging narrative.
It’s very hard to care about a story without an interesting main character to get behind. That’s just a fact of writing, there should be a character, good or evil, that has believable motivations, flaws and some kind of development. These are core pillars of good writing and they are exactly what Watch Dogs: Legion‘s playable characters lack. The characters you recruit to Dedsec are lifeless, as I said before. Puppets stitched together by an algorithm.
To recruit a new playable character off the streets of London, you simply walk up to them and press the Y button. Very rarely do you find someone who can’t be recruited (which is represented by a red thumbs down in their profile). If someone does refuse, this can be easily changed by doing some side activities throughout London, such as removing Albion propaganda or freeing their prisoners. When they can be recruited, they’ll simply ask you to do a little task for them. Once done, they’ll happily join Dedsec.
Why anyone would join this organisation branded as terrorists is beyond me, even if Dedsec were wrongfully accused. The point of the game is to change that misconception, but from the beginning I found that almost anyone would join my group. It just doesn’t make sense, especially when hundreds are dead supposedly by Dedsec’s hand.
The playable characters of London have no genuine motives or moral objections. Likewise, there’s no pressure surrounding whether you’ll be able to convince someone to join or not. Simply help them and they’ll sign right up. It feels painfully bland. Everyone can hack, everyone can fight and everyone can overthrow the authoritarian regime. It’s a wonderful message, but it makes for an awful story. The characters aren’t interesting and, more importantly, it just doesn’t make sense.
The worst part is that Ubisoft seemingly recognises this problem and aims to solve it with the $40 season pass. The expansions included will add four new playable characters to Watch Dogs: Legion, some returning from past games and some new to the franchise. All of these have backstories, motivations, flaws. Defined stories that fit into a defined narrative. Well-written characters. This is what the game sorely lacks, yet we are being charged an extra $40 to access that content.
The ideal situation for Legion would have been to have these characters feature in the main story as playable protagonists. The ‘play as anyone’ feature could still be there as it is now, without being the main focus of the game. Recruit people to your cause, have them do tasks for you and even swap to them for a change of pace. It’d be a novel side feature, but there needs to be a better core experience. I’m thinking of Metal Gear Solid V as a great example of this. Snake is the main character and a fantastic one, but you can swap out to a recruit if you want a different experience for a little while.
Legion‘s core feature isn’t all bad though. There are tiny little glimmers of hope in there that did make me smile. For example, you can find the relatives of your recruits around London and ask them to join Dedsec too. This relationship will be flagged by a little message when profiling someone you’ve seen, indicating that they are the mother, daughter, partner or grandparent of one of your Dedsec operatives. It’s such a minor detail, but I found it cool. However, it’s a single drop of positivity in an otherwise dry bucket.
Visually Pleasing, but Nothing Beneath the Surface
London also looks fantastic. Seeing sights such as Buckingham Palace or London Bridge is really cool, whilst the detail on display is unquestionably a delight. However, there’s very little reason to explore the many boroughs of London in the game. The side content scattered around the map is very unrewarding. It’s mostly used as a way to convince more people to join Dedsec, but this isn’t something I cared about at all. These lifeless shells give me no reason to want them on my team, other than the occasional weapon so I can brute force my way through more generic missions.
Watch Dogs: Legion Review Verdict
Watch Dogs: Legion is painfully mediocre. It strips the franchise of it’s former creativity, reducing it to a generic open-world game. The level design is bland, as are the objectives given to the player. Hacking used to be a fun mechanic, from which creativity flowed. Now, it’s barely even necessary. When you do need to hack, it’ll be a messy experience that feels far worse than Legion‘s predecessors. However, none of this compares to the disappointment I felt surrounding the ‘play as anyone’ feature. This seems like an attempt from Ubisoft to spice things up, but ultimately it makes Legion utterly boring. The many playable characters have no backstory, no interests, no development and, ultimately, leave me with no reason to keep playing.
You can buy Watch Dogs: Legion on the Xbox One here for $59.99.
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This game was reviewed with a code provided by the developer.