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Watch Dogs: Legion

Watch Dogs: Legion

Written by Eric Hauter on 11/4/2020 for STA  
More On: Watch Dogs: Legion

Watch Dogs: Legion is an audacious work of science fiction. I didn’t go into Ubisoft’s latest open world epic thinking about it in those terms. But at its heart, Watch Dogs: Legion is a shrieking siren warning against the dystopia towards which our society is ever so quietly sliding. While we the people complacently tap on our phones, willingly giving up our private information and voting away the rights of our fellow citizens in the name of “security,” the Big Brother world presented in Watch Dogs: Legion is clicking steadily into focus. Sure, that reality may still be far off on the horizon. But much like the best episodes of Black Mirror, I played Watch Dogs: Legion nodding in recognition—I can clearly see how we can get from here to there.

British society (and one assumes, the rest of the world) is wildly oppressed in the world of Legion. The police have been sidelined by military contractors, and London is held in an iron grip of technological surveillance and controlling street-level terror. People are routinely stopped, either beaten in the streets or arrested for no reason. The government tracks everyone by their cell phones, able to locate anyone in an instant. Surveillance drones buzz about, occupying a significant percentage of the city sky. Does any of this sound familiar? Legion’s parallels with the real world are what makes the game so frightening. It’s reality, just cranked up a notch or two.

You might think that I’m digging a little too deeply into a game in which I spent the majority of my time sneaking around and thrashing people with a wrench. Yes, I’ve run over and killed scores of London pedestrians and potential allies with an ambulance. And I’ve used my magic floating cargo platform to drop explosive payloads onto luxury boats floating innocently in the Thames, just to see what would happen. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, I’ve been known to sic my swarm of killer bees on innocent people in museums, just to watch them run and scream. Because, after all, this is a video game, and I am a gamer. We do twisted things to our digital minions.

But all of that ruckus and mayhem doesn’t keep me from seeing Watch Dogs: Legion as a dire alarm bell. This is a work of fiction that extrapolates the work of Orwell, adds in modern sensibilities and a slick interface, and slaps a nice fresh coat of Kurzweil on the surface. While it is remarkably fun to play, Watch Dogs: Legion might be regarded by some with a mixture of awe, terror, and knowing recognition.

What makes this version of techno-terror so effective is the way that the game’s creators dropped a dystopian science-fiction overlay onto one of the world’s most familiar cities. The city in Watch Dogs: Legion is definitely London—but it has been tilted a few dimensions to the right, offering players a view into a possible alternative universe. Even as someone who has spent minimal time in London, many of its landmarks have been absorbed into my psyche over years of seeing the city represented in films and on television. As a non-Londoner, I still find myself offended by the fictional liberties taken by the fascists ruling the city in Legion—their logos and propaganda liberally splattered all over every historic and iconic surface.

Further cementing Legion as a standout work of science fiction is the fact that every character in the game has an identity. Every NPC you see walking down the street has a job, a history, and an agenda. Yes, you can literally recruit anyone you see into Deadsec, your band of techno revolutionaries. And even the saddest among them can perform at least adequately in a pinch. Even the ones that have problematic hiccups, flatulence, or the tendency to randomly drop dead.

But the fact that everybody in the game has an identity and is a possible ally forces the player to consider their video game actions more carefully, subverting a lot of that chaotic fun I was mentioning earlier. Sure, it’s still entertaining to run around London and wreak havoc, wrecking cars and smashing through traffic. And yes, driving on the left side of the road causes you to accidentally clip people, leaving a wake of dead pedestrians and ejected scooter-drivers behind you every time you need to run from the law. But doing this now carries weight. Who are these people you are mindlessly killing? What skills did they have? How could they have benefited your cause if you had taken the time to recruit them instead of sideswiping them carelessly while you were escaping pursuit?

Obviously, Legion isn’t the first game to lend weight to NPCs in a game. I remember cringing the first time I fired up Skyrim for my younger son and watched him make a beeline to the nearest town and start mindlessly slaughtering everyone. But this is the first time I remember actually taking care while dashing through the streets of an open world GTA-style city. In some ways, Legion is the anti-Saint’s Row. Where that franchise encouraged silliness and carnage, Watch Dogs: Legion has created reasons for the player to actually behave ethically. The game doesn’t judge or punish acts of wild terrorism, but the structure of the thing leaves you feeling bad for indulging those base desires. You are a good guy, and the game creates an expectation that you will act like it.

That non-lethal leaning carries over into the game’s interestingly diverse combat. No one is going to call you out if you get frustrated with a situation, pull out your gun, and start blazing away. But Deadsec agents prefer to move stealthily, and non-lethal (but still sometimes brutal) takedowns are the preferred method for dealing with bad guys. Reinforcing this is the message you see when focusing on one of the bodies you leave laying about. You can either see “Waiting for hospitalization” or “Killed by Agent So-and-So,” which doesn’t feel great. Worse, if you go on a killing rampage, you will then start encountering the families of those you have killed on the street. And they will be much less likely to join your techno-revolution if you have killed their wife or brother by plugging them a few times in the eyes with a nail gun.

Don’t get me wrong. Legion isn’t all shadows and seriousness. This is still Ubi-level popcorn entertainment. Regardless of the heady themes and mechanics, playing Watch Dogs: Legion is a constantly amusing experience. The writing for each character is remarkably witty and consistent. My favorite character in the game was the first one that I recruited: a construction worker with a very silly voice. Though I regularly switched her out with new characters I collected, I consistently returned to her throughout the campaign. Watching her evolution from nervous recruit to confident agent was both amusing and rewarding. I got no shortage of entertainment from guiding her through super high-tech hacking missions, only to have things go south and have to fight her way out of neon tech fortresses with her trusty wrench while screaming “Oy!” at people.

Sure, you occasionally run across characters that are using the same template, but there is enough variety that most of the characters feel startlingly original. My super-spy is a 50-ish year old woman who resembles my fourth-grade reading teacher. My weapons expert is a young, cheerful Jamaican man. I keep a smarmy banker on the team, despite my dislike for him, for the financial bonuses he provides. There is a programmatic diversity at play in Watch Dogs Legion that creates a realistic variety of characters that feel reflective of the real world. And playing with permadeath turned on left me much more careful about my characters' safety. Losing one of your favorites is a splash of cold water in the face. Like much of Legion, creating these unique characters, and the players' sense of ownership over them, is a pretty stellar achievement.

Gameplay will feel familiar to folks that played the first two titles, though some of the rough edges of those games have been smoothed off. Every mission is a series of environmental puzzles, with players hacking their way into strongholds, remotely opening doors and checkpoints to sneak from point to point, using drones and spiderbots to creep through the ducts and corridors of buildings. It is entirely possible to complete missions without every being spotted or engaging the enemy. Indeed, some of the game’s more satisfying moments come when you manage to creep in and out of an enemy camp without them even knowing you were there.

New powers give these experiences a variety they lacked in earlier games. My favorite was my construction worker’s ability to call down a cargo drone—basically a flying platform that can quickly ferry her to nearby rooftops—often bypassing a lot of tedious door opening and alarm manipulation. These character-based shortcuts are welcome, as eventually the player has seen all of the mission mechanics repeatedly, and it is only their story context that keeps the missions interesting.

The storyline is an interesting iteration on previous Watch Dogs games. As opposed to following a single character through a series of events, Legion follows the organization in general as it evolves, grows, and slowly stages an overthrow to the oppressive regime gripping London. Regardless of who you are controlling, the plot zips along nicely, with impressive dialogue from your character, implying a mountain of voice files hiding behind the scenes. Other members from your team frequently interrupt conversations, and the entire experience plays out as though these were the characters that were fully intended to be there, and not just some randos you picked up along the way. The battle against the game's evil factions never fails to engage, partially because the bad guys in Legion are so terribly awful. 

Another interesting pivot from previous games (and from Ubisoft games in general) is the gentle way that missions are unspooled and doled out to the player in a trickle. I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and have at least 30 incomplete quests in that game. But in Watch Dogs: Legion, I’ve never had more than two primary quests, and maybe six or seven quests in total. There is still plenty to do, but I haven’t ever felt overwhelmed by the game’s demands. Legion smartly shifts some of the game's side activities to the game's map instead of cluttering up the quest log with them, and the difference is immediately noticeable. I felt far less fatigued by Legion than I have felt playing other Ubi games, with side activities feeling like options instead of obligations. 

After looking extensively at both options, I chose to review Watch Dogs: Legion on Google Stadia over the PlayStation 4 version. Just the (much) shorter load times were enough to push me over the cloud, but the visuals are also much brighter, cleaner, and sharper. If this is what next-gen games are going to look like all the time, then console gamers are in for a treat (or, you know, they could just start a Stadia account). This is one fine-looking game.

But even with all of Stadia’s power and oomph behind it, Watch Dogs: Legion still sometimes falls prey to some stuttering framerates—and I experienced a couple of hard crashes. The framerate issue isn’t a deal breaker—however distracting it is, occurrences are fairly rare—and I’ve never been one to harp on such issues. But experiencing them on Stadia’s powerful platform does make me wonder what the experience must be like on current gen platforms. I’m assuming not so stellar.

But a work of this magnitude and complexity is always going to have a few hiccups. Patches will probably clear a lot of these issues up. I’m not terribly concerned with poking holes in Watch Dogs: Legion’s technical performance. I am much more interested in the way that this game is holding up a startling mirror on our society, and how alarmed I am by what I see when I look in it.

Not every game is a work of art. It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the gaming community to acknowledge a game made by a giant corporation as “art.” And of course, art is in the eye of the beholder. Despite its stellar visual beauty, Watch Dogs: Legion is not an “artsy” game, like Journey or Everything. But there are other ways to convey a message beyond floaty visual beauty, or brush stroke graphics.

Science Fiction is its own particular art style, and the best sci-fi often arrives as a bracing smack in the face. Consider Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Butler's Kindred. Does Watch Dogs: Legion deserve to be mentioned in the same paragraph with these classics? Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell. All I know is that to me, on this day, Watch Dogs: Legion feels like a screaming harbinger of warning, and the slap in the face it delivers stings so damn good.

Much of Watch Dogs: Legion feels revolutionary, from its "play as anyone" hook to its Black Mirror-esque science fiction setting. While the gameplay only iterates slightly on previous games, new wrinkles provided by character traits keep things fresh. Watch Dogs: Legion delivers a stark warning about what our future may hold, but maintains its entertainment level throughout. Legion is a witty, bracing wake-up call.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS VR2, Quest 3, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here

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