After decades of running over pedestrians by the dozen in open-world action games without a second thought, it’s actually a little bit unsettling to think that each of them might have unique talents and even the potential to be a hero. Not so much that I drive more carefully or anything, but after playing Watch Dogs: Legion I think about it a little bit more. Legion’s clever twist makes this third game in the series play like a hacker version of State of Decay, where every NPC can be recruited as a playable character and each has their own weapons, abilities, and traits that can give them very different playstyles. That lends it a much more sandboxy feel than the previous games because any given character can make the same mission feel dramatically different. It can be rough and experimental in places, but I have to hand it to Ubisoft for being willing to take chances like this.
Legion’s map is a vision of a near-future London metropolitan area, and similar to Watch Dogs 2’s compressed version of the San Francisco Bay Area it is beautifully detailed and immediately recognizable – but this time it’s also starkly different from how we know it. Its skies are dense with autonomous drones patrolling the streets and ferrying parcels; streets are filled with a mix of old gas-guzzlers and Tesla-style self-driving cars; and its landmarks are emblazoned with corporate-fascist banners and bright holographic projections. It’s a cool look, though cruising around busier areas can definitely tank your frame rate even on a GeForce RTX 2080Ti and Core-i7 7700K (even without ray tracing I couldn’t get close to holding 60fps at 1440p when I was moving fast).There aren’t a lot of direct connections to the previous two games, but the story still centers around the DedSec hacker/vigilante group, this time serving as a resistance movement against a techno-fascist police state that’s clamped down on Britains’ freedom after a major terrorist attack (blamed on DedSec). There are some overt political themes in play here, such as privatizing the police being a bad idea, how giving up personal privacy for convenience and security is a good way to end up in a dystopia, and maybe immigrants shouldn’t be rounded up into camps and deported.
Each chapter of the lengthy story campaign plays out like a Black Mirror episode about technology and greed run amok in the hands of sociopaths. I’ve definitely seen most of these same ideas in movies and on TV in the past decade, but it does have some decent villains going for it, including a totalitarian tech mogul and a ruthless leader of human-trafficking gangsters. Your ally characters, meanwhile, are all fairly bland and forgettable – but DedSec’s resident smartass AI, Bagley, is a genuinely funny persistent voice in your ear who playfully mocks your human abilities without becoming a GladOS knockoff. There’s plenty of it, too. If you’re stopping on the winding road toward uncovering the identity of the mysterious Zero Day terrorists to do sidequests, recruitment missions, and collect optional stuff, I could see a playthrough lasting you in the neighborhood of 40 hours.
It’s good that Bagley steals the show because the playable characters do not, simply because there are so many of them. Instead of controlling an individual like Aiden Pearce or Marcus Holloway, you’re controlling the entire team and can swap between them at will. More than that, the big idea of Legion is that virtually any NPC can be recruited into DedSec, and that system is pretty well realized. Just walk up to anybody you see on the street, scan them to check out their abilities, and then do a mission for them – usually something involving beating up some gangsters or wiping incriminating evidence from a server – and then they’ll join up and become playable. Whether it’s a construction worker, a stock broker, a medic, a protester, a hitman, or even a security guard, they can all be recruited in one way or another, though sometimes you have to work a little harder by drilling down into their personal profile to find ways to win them over.
It feels a bit like hunting and dominating uruks in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and finding a powerful character – such as a drone specialist or a spy – is like striking gold. Their appearances and voices are largely randomized and are enough of them in the mix that I didn’t see a lot of repetition in my single playthrough, though if you choose to spend your time recruiting an army you’re bound to see some of the same quests a few times. Also, some of the voices are changed up by modulating them heavily, which can lead to some people sounding as though they’re in the Witness Protection Program, and the lip synching overall isn’t great.
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These folks are less powerful than a typical action game character because they never individually gain new abilities like Aiden and Marcus did. It can feel a bit limiting to only have access to a few weapons and skills at a time, but it’s actually kind of refreshing to not play as a jack of all trades. I did feel like I’d seen most of what Legion had to offer in the first third of the campaign, but finding new and unique people to play as refreshed it every once in a while. Happening across a street magician who dresses like a high-tech pimp was the shot in the arm my playthrough needed, especially because his special ability is to hypnotize an enemy to fight for you in the middle of combat. He’s become a favorite of mine.
That said, I’ve yet to find anybody with some of the signature abilities of Watch Dogs 1 and 2; there’s no changing traffic lights, no calling in of police or gang members to attack a target, or city-wide system crash as far as I’ve seen. I missed them a bit, but I don’t mind Legion breaking out of the series’ habits a little. Speaking of which, the extremely arcadey driving is pretty thoroughly deemphasized – only a handful of story missions involve driving vehicles at all and police chases are trivial to avoid.
Legion is much more concerned with piloting drones, and there are a few obstacles courses you have to navigate with flying drones that are more interesting diversions from the regular gameplay anyway. Many areas also integrate the same power-flow puzzles from Watch Dogs 2, overlaying their rotatable nodes onto the real world with augmented reality and sometimes asking you to complete them while under fire. They’re rarely very tricky but it’s still a very clever approach to puzzle gameplay.The most interesting characters play substantially differently. You can use someone with lots of heavy weapons (like a military veteran) to shoot your way through most missions with relatively straightforward gunfights, or just about anybody can use cameras and tiny spider drones (fact check: they only have six legs, they are not spiders!) to reach an objective and hack it without ever physically setting foot in an encounter area. Alternatively, recruiting a member of the private police corporation and using them to infiltrate guarded areas plays like a Hitman game, since you can stroll through undetected as long as you don’t let anybody get too close a look at you. There are a lot of possibilities, and the intricate level design goes a long way toward enabling you to come up with different ways to approach most of the scenarios – including using the construction worker’s slow-flying cargo drone to bypass half a mission.
While characters don’t level up, there’s a selection of persistent upgrades that you can unlock that are applied to the whole group: improved drone hacking, faster pistol reloads, a personal cloaking device, that sort of thing. It does give you some overall progression as you go through the campaign, and I like how these are unlocked using Tech Points you gather by exploring the world and going out of your way to find during missions. It’s a good way to encourage you to investigate every area of the map rather than just racking up XP with headshots.
However, this leaves the money you earn feeling pretty useless, since it’s only used to unlock clothing options that have no impact on gameplay. Similarly, just like in Watch Dogs 2, the emphasis on non-lethal weaponry is puzzling because it functions pretty much identically to bullets and no one seems to be keeping track of how many corpses you leave in DedSec’s wake – that’s all just for us to roleplay as non-murderous vigilantes if we chose to, I suppose.One of the most daring alterations to the typical open-world action game setup that Legion makes, though, is that these characters are all expendable, and that changes the way death works in very affecting ways. By default, getting shot, beaten down, or blown up in a mission sends a character to the hospital or prison and they’re unavailable while they recover or pay their debt to society, as represented by a timer on their portrait in the Team screen. But if you’re playing with permadeath enabled (as I did) the stakes of every mission immediately feel much higher than in any GTA-style game I’ve ever played.
In this mode, losing someone in combat means they’re straight-up dead and you lose access to their skills permanently. Sure, some of them are easily replaceable (every construction worker or guard has the same abilities, for instance), but the special characters are hard to come by. I’ve had some memorably close calls where I narrowly avoided death… plus a couple of losses I’d classify as “some bullshit,” like when my car barely nudged an explosive barrel I didn’t even see and instantly exploded (I’d have thought it was a bug if I hadn’t been recording the footage).
In general, though, it’s not too hard to stay alive if you’re careful. Your health recharges quickly if you can avoid damage for a few seconds, so even when things look dire a tactical retreat can save your bacon. A cheap upgrade allows you to do a free melee instakill on a bad guy every 30 seconds or so, which makes it easy to get out of trouble when you’re caught sneaking around (provided you’re not in a crowded room). And thankfully there’s barely any fall damage, because dying because you misjudge a jump by a few feet would be an awful way to go.Even if you do lose some people, or if they’re randomly kidnapped off the street (yes, this happens quite a bit) don’t worry: it’s going to be fine. Yes, your game will end if you have no more agents available, but getting more isn’t hard and Bagley will frequently point you toward new elite types to recruit. More than that, I’ve found I’ve earned a fair number of recruits just by marking people I see who have potential for later recruitment (effectively saving them so you can do their recruitment mission later) and then happening upon ways to earn their loyalty almost by accident. For instance, you’ll occasionally see a character with a red icon over their heads identifying them as an adversary of someone you know, and eliminating them will earn you a new recruit.
Those aren’t the only connections you’ll spot: icons over random pedestrians’ heads will indicate that they’re related to one of your recruits somehow, either by family or friends or lovers. One time I came across an elderly woman with an icon over her head, and when I scanned her it revealed she was the grandmother of one of the characters I’d gotten killed, saying he’d died fighting for something. That was a nice little touch that added to the illusion of all of these NPCs being actual people.
Even with all of this, I often found myself wishing Legion had gone even further to differentiate these mortal characters, and given me real reasons to take people with negative traits. I’ve seen characters with the hiccups, who alert enemies around them to their presence, and even someone with a trait called Doomed, who had a chance to spontaneously die for no reason. But why would I play as them if they have no powerful skills to balance them out? I also craved the opportunity to invest in individuals and make them even more powerful, but also take a bigger blow if I lost them. In fact, there’s a whole world of roguelike design ideas out there that Legion only seems to scratch the surface of. In a year that’s included games like Hades and Spelunky 2, I’d have loved to see it push that envelope a little further.
Finally, a heads up that we’ve seen a fair number of crashes (on both PC and Xbox One – we haven’t seen PlayStation 4 copies as of this writing), so if you can wait for a few patches to smooth things out that might be a good call. Switching to DirectX 11 instead of 12 solved a lot of my PC stability issues.