It’s been said that the true measure of the next generation of games will be defined not by the quality of its graphics*, but by the complexity of its simulations. Creators at Naughty Dog, CD Projekt Red, and more have all proposed that “the future of gaming” will come from a developer’s ability to create more intricate systems that, in turn, allow for more immersive worlds. However, by that measure, the best example of the “next-gen” experience I’ve seen yet wasn’t in a Sony keynote or on an early-access Xbox Series X – it’s in a game coming out weeks before those consoles even launch.
I recently spent four hours playing Watch Dogs Legion. I didn’t really follow the main story, nor did I focus on side missions or purchasing upgrades – you can read Tristan’s full preview (or watch the video below) for more info on the game overall. Instead, I met a random woman named Vicky.Or, perhaps more accurately, Vicky became fast acquaintances with the underside of my vintage Mini when I took my eyes off the road during a police chase.
For most open-world action-adventures, that would be the end of Vicky’s and my story. I’d quickly reverse away to carry on with whatever side activity or story mission I was pointed at, and she’d phase out of existence forever once I got far enough away for her to despawn. But not in Legion.
Feeling particularly awful about the whole situation, I used what Legion calls its “Deep Profiler” tool – an upgraded version of what Aiden Pearce and Marcus Holloway used to hack NPC’s text messages or pilfer their bank accounts in previous games – to find out what hospital Vicky had been sent to. I thought maybe I could help prioritize her treatment and make amends for the damage I did (and maybe give her a more favorable opinion of my misfit band of hackers in the process).
Before I reach the hospital’s server, however, I’m accosted on the street by a random NPC. She screamed at me in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, passersby stopping to turn and stare, and a small icon popped up next to her in my HUD: Chioma Adeyemi, Best Friend of Vicky Hadawi. I awkwardly backed away before scrambling up a nearby drainpipe to get my Matthew Lillard on, bumping Vicky to the front of the line (ignoring the deeply unsettling option to euthanize her, which… I get the whole “black hat” thing, but damn, Ubisoft) and eventually ended up recruiting both Vicky and Chioma, who ended up being one of my most reliable DedSec operatives throughout my demo.
And this was just one NPC out of… well, legions. And while I’m definitely curious to see what this latest installment of Watch Dogs does with its charged setting and near-superpower-level hacking abilities as a whole, it’s this underplayed social system running behind the scenes of its signature “Play as Anyone” feature that makes me fanatically eager to dive back into Ubisoft’s digital simulation of London.
Behind the curtain, the Deep Profiler tool – which you can purchase as an upgrade fairly early-on in Legion’s story – is a combination of two systems: the first is a scheduler, which builds out a daily routine for every NPC you profile and allows you to see where they are and what they’re up to. The second is what Ubisoft is calling the Census System, and it’s what fills in all the blanks on that schedule. It generates an NPC’s backstory, job, and – most interestingly – social ties to other NPCs in your game.
Watch Dogs: Legion Screenshots
“That was one of the first things we really tried to focus on as a major feature in the game, was building a real population simulation,” says Kent Hudson, Game Director on Legion. “[Internally] we kinda thought that it was sort of the weird part of the game that we were excited about. But what we found is that actually – in all of the playtests we’ve run – it’s been one of the most purchased upgrades. More people buy that than, like, the grenade launcher or the drone hacks.”
My story with Vicky and Chioma was far from the only time I was drawn down the rabbit hole the Deep Profiler offers. Every NPC I ran into seemed to have at least one or two branches on their social tree, be they family, friends, coworkers, and more. Some of them I’d find because I went looking for them, but others would just appear in my game organically.“It’s a feature we call ‘recasting,’” says Hudson, explaining how Legion’s Census system will take the social tree of someone you’ve interacted with and give them walk-on parts in your future adventures. Maybe the friend of someone you flagged for recruitment becomes the victim of a mugging you can stop, or the brother of someone caught in your crossfire becomes an Albion guard in a mission some hours later. “That’s one of the bummers about these events,” he laughs, referring to my hands-on demo session. “Only giving people three to four hours with the game, because as you play through the game, you accumulate the impacts of your actions…You turn a corner, and you’re like, ‘Oh shit, that’s so and so’s lawyer!’ – It keeps track of all of that stuff.”
Of course, the system doesn’t always work in your favor. At one point, I thought I’d found a cop to recruit (so I’d have uniformed access to New Scotland Yard), but before I could get him on board, I ended up in a firefight with some gangsters. I won, but one of the goons happened to be this cop’s informant – and he did not take kindly to my putting a few holes in his C.I.
“Detective Prasad hates DedSec,” my Team screen reads in bright red letters. He’s “seen the damage DedSec has often left behind,” says the profiler (it also says he’d recently been treated for rabies, so I might’ve dodged a bullet there). Hating DedSec means that character can never be recruited to your team – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the last you’ll see of them.
If an NPC hates DedSec enough, they might feel compelled to seek revenge on the hacker collective. It’s a mechanic that doesn’t kick in until after the point our demo took place at, according to Hudson, but an example he offered was that a particularly vengeful NPC might kidnap one of your operatives, resulting in a unique “Revenge Mission” to rescue them before they’re lost for good.Hudson says the “point of no return,” when an NPC decides they capital-H Hate you, is all about reinforcing the realism of the simulation. “It’s pretty f-ing goofy if you’re like, ‘Yeah, I know I shot your husband in the head, but if I take care of that gambling debt, would you maybe reconsider?’” he says with a laugh. “We don’t wanna cheapen it by saying, “Well, yeah, under the hood, it’s really just a bunch of numbers… We always want to focus on these feeling like real people.”
Given that this tech is designed for current hardware as well as the next generation, though, there does have to be a balance between the “people” and that bunch of numbers. “There are multiple stages and ways that we track those things,” says Hudson. “If you just sit there and put the controller down and just watch somebody on their way to work… and you have no interaction with them – you don’t profile them, you don’t interact with them at all you just watch them – then that person’s not going to get the high priority. But if you have any sort of interaction with them at all, we have a lot of little heuristics under the hood that determine whether the game should remember or care about them, and you’ll start to see that stuff show up in surprising ways, even if you didn’t save them to your team or try to recruit them.”Even with all of those variables, though, the rabbit hole can only go so deep. There were a couple of times that I definitely asked more of Census than it was able to give. Forcing a pair of siblings to interact in Legion’s dynamic cutscenes, for example, didn’t feature dialogue that indicated they were as familiar with one another as you’d expect, and despite “hating DedSec,” that informant from earlier kept being scheduled for regular get-togethers with a friend of theirs I’d recruited before I knew you couldn’t bring an NPC back from the Hate state.
I asked Hudson about it, and his answer was pragmatic. “To be completely frank, every simulation is eventually going to hit a boundary,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we struggled with those boundaries; we acknowledged them and looked at them and said, ’We could try to solve this thing, or we could make three new types of relationships on the main path that people are going to see more… Sometimes it’s just a development decision.”Even with those boundaries, the depth the system added to Legion’s world was something I found myself consistently impressed by throughout my demo. It reminded me of how similar social systems – the most comparable example probably being the Nemesis System from Monolith’s Shadow of Mordor/War (WarDor?) – have created some of my favorite gaming moments in recent memory. “When you look at something like The Shadow of ‘WarDor’ games,” Hudson said (editor’s note: yes, I made him say it, no, I’m not sorry), “one of the powerful elements of it – and this is something we represent in our game, too – is that players are really impacted when these systems react to stuff that they did and really acknowledge that this isn’t just randomly generated stuff.”
Perhaps the most important thing to recognize, for me at least, is that the version of the Census system we’ll see when Legion releases later this month is just the beginning. It’s the first iteration of an idea that has the potential to draw us further into a game’s world than ever before – and it sounds like Ubisoft has plans to match that lofty promise.
“We pushed this as far as we could push it on this generation,” Hudson says, “and we got to where we got, and we’re really happy with it – but at the same time, this is now the starting point for whatever we do next… And the engineers made a real point that this technology be portable to the next generation, to the next engine, whatever it is. It’s not so ingrained in how this game was made that we can’t use it for other stuff.” It’s unlikely that we’d see Census become as ubiquitous to Ubi’s library of games as, say, its meme-worthy climbable towers once were – Hudson says it probably wouldn’t be a good fit for franchises like Far Cry, for example, but other series feel ripe for the addition of Census. Perhaps a similar execution to Legion could have you recruiting armies to topple dictatorships in Ghost Recon, or an update to the Animus allows Layla to learn more about the ancient lands she visits – though it would be interesting to see how the tech was used if you couldn’t pull up a screen to see all the details the system generates, as well.
Regardless of how the system manifests in future games with more powerful hardware, what the team at Ubisoft Toronto seems to have accomplished in this game – idiosyncratic boundaries and all – is extremely promising. We’ll find out in a few weeks whether the full experience lives up to that promise, but until we do I’m hoping that it’ll be remembered as both a fitting capstone to current generation hardware and the start of something special on the next.
*Though those look really good, too.