Watch Dogs: Legion Review
There’s something strangely comforting about booting up a Ubisoft sandbox game. Although the world may be ending, Ubisoft games have remained one of the few constants in the universe, right alongside gravity and my desire to get drunk every night. With their hit or miss stories, affinity for mostly-quality animations and maps full of busywork, there’s rarely been a year when the developer’s games haven’t provided millions of gamers with something to do during the gaming industry’s slow months. The developer has certainly had its ups and its downs, but when all is said and done, it’s hard not to crack a smile whenever a new one of their games hit the virtual shelves. Sadly, after playing Watch Dogs: Legion, that smile will feel a bit more forced than it usually is.
In Watch Dogs: Legion, you take control of an operative in the series’ DedSec organisation. Your mission is simple: you need to stop a terrorist attack in London, which in turn will stop the city from adopting the actively-evil cTOS surveillance system from the previous two games. The first few minutes of the game sees you shooting your way through the parliament building, which is full of unidentified private military goons. Then, upon reaching the top of the building, where you find a bomb, you get shot in the face. And then half of London explodes.
As far as opening missions go, killing what could’ve been the protagonist of the game is certainly unusual, but the problem is that most of that goes out the window over the following 40 hours of the game. After the first character that you take control of is killed, you quickly find yourself in control of a random denizen of London who is tasked with picking up where the previous guy left off. Following the terrorist attack in the introduction, the city was taken over by a mixture of not-Blackwater mercenaries, a sentient AI, the thought police and a criminal gang with a name that’s eerily similar to a hate group in the United States. Your task, then, is to kill all of these groups and to figure out who is really behind the attack that was blamed on your DedSec group.
To do this, you do what you do in every Ubisoft sandbox game. You climb towers, stealth-action your way through outposts, occasionally run from the police, complete main missions, and liberate sections of the city. Like in most of the games that the developer puts out, all of this feels decidedly good. The stealth is engaging, the shooting is satisfying, the driving is fun, and there’s enough variety in what you do for the overall core gameplay loop to feel good, if a tad uninspired.
The gimmick — because every Ubisoft game needs its own bloody gimmick —, however, is that there’s no set protagonist in the game. In addition to managing the typical slew of Ubisoft game mechanics, you also need to constantly be recruiting new members into the DedSec resistance, and literally any NPC in London is an eligible candidate. Admittedly, as far as gimmicks go, this is a pretty solid one. It’s fun to have your resistance start out as being a bunch of ordinary citizens, then as they get killed off thanks to the game’s (optional) permadeath mode, be forced into finding and recruiting skilled combatants. This is made better because you’ll need to often do recruitment missions for your potential soldiers, and each person in London may or may not be willing to join depending on their interactions with your group, or the interactions the people they interact with have had.
If, for example, you kill an NPC’s lover, that NPC will be less inclined to join your group. However, if you stalk the NPC for a while, and then rescue them from a group of evil cops, they’ll want to join you. This is something that truly makes London feel alive, and whereas games like Middle Earth: Shadow of War mostly made their NPC recruitment missions optional, it’s essential that you build up a good party of characters if you want to overthrow the game’s baddies.
However, like with most one-off gameplay mechanics, this praise carries with it the caveat that the mechanic becomes all but obsolete fairly quickly. Although the early game of Watch Dogs: Legion will see you frantically scouring every corner of London for a good batch of soldiers, once you recruit a few good combatants, there’s little reason to touch the system for the remainder of the game. Any operative with a silenced weapon or one who has easy access to hover-drones will make quick work of every situation you can run across, and seeing as people with these skills are hard to kill, it’s easy to simply adopt one random NPC as a stand-in for a traditional protagonist.
This is somewhat annoying because, outside of the gameplay, Watch Dogs: Legion has some profoundly serious issues, not least of which is the terrible story. The game clearly took heavy inspiration from films like V for Vendetta and Children of Men, with the central plot being about a cartoonishly evil government that’s stupidly anti-human rights, and which desperately needs to become the victims of an old fashioned rebellion. However, the problem is that it lacks the nuance and escalation of these movies. Following the bombings in the first mission of the game, the government of London immediately turns into a neo-fascist state. The local police are effectively deformed, immigrants are put into internment camps, a local crime lord is allowed to sell slaves in a borderline open market and there’s a mass-murdering private military company running checkpoints everywhere in the city.
At times it’s actually hilarious just how evil the villains are in the game. When you come across the mob leader’s mansion, you’ll see how she literally uses computer chips to enslave immigrants and sells all of their non-essential body parts on the black market. Britain's intelligence services have been replaced by no-shit thought police, and the main military baddie’s company murders an entire village in Africa that wasn’t in support of an oil pipeline. None of them have any sort of character development, and even the non-character centric missions are moronic. When you finally get around to discovering who is really responsible for all of the evil in the city, you’ll likely let out an audible “well that’s bloody stupid” then turn off the game and never bother with it again.
The result is a game that simply doesn’t say anything despite talking for 40-odd hours. Whereas previous Watch Dogs games brought up serious topics, like the nature of a police state and the benefits of technology, this iteration is too over-the-top for anything that it tries to discuss to be impactful. The most that anyone can get from the game is that immigration is probably a good thing, but even that topic is often brought up in such a stupid manner that it’s hard to really pay attention or care.
This is made especially bad because there’s not much reason to do anything outside of these main missions. Although there are the aforementioned characters to recruit and boroughs to liberate, there’s absolutely no reason to not just fast travel around the map. Driving around London just isn’t immersive because of ever-present private military checkpoints and the overly invasive HUD elements. There’s no ambiance to the game’s world, which considering how that has traditionally been a strength of Ubisoft games, it’s disappointing that this one is so bland when it comes to its worldbuilding.
All of this is compounded by the game’s downright awful technical performance. On both a PlayStation 4 Pro and a top-of-the-line gaming computer, Watch Dogs: Legion suffered from constant crashes, abysmal framerates and a myriad of random bugs. Although this would be fine if the game looked good graphically, it looks like a game made a few years ago, with terrible lighting and low-quality textures being the worst offenders in the game. It’s possible that these things will all be addressed later on, but given that we’re reaching the end of a console generation imminently, the state the game launched in is absolutely pathetic.
Overall, then, Watch Dogs: Legion is a decidedly mixed bag. Although the core gameplay loop is as solid as it is in most Ubisoft titles, and the recruiting gimmick is a lot of fun, the story and technical performance are so bloody awful that it’s hard to truly enjoy the experience. At it’s best, the game is a poorly made video game adaptation of V for Vendetta, but at its worst, it’s a buggy mess that totally misses the point of that source material.
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