Watch Dogs: Legion Review – Power To The NPCs
Watch Dogs have been Ubisoft’s answer to a Grand Theft Auto- an open-world action game. Outside of the hacking theme and gameplay mechanics it’s either “mediocre” or “can be okay at times, I guess”.
So when Watch Dogs: Legion was announced with a major change to its gameplay, I’m intrigued. You can play as anyone- recruit any NPC in the game to be a playable character. It’s an interesting idea that expands from the series’ hacking and privacy invasion mechanics.
But is it enough to shake it up from being as formulaic as most Ubisoft game? Not really, but this could be the foundation for greater things to come. And if you like NPC manipulation, it’s a… hacking… good time.
Ubisoft as a whole have vast experience with crafting open-worlds and you can see it in Watch Dogs: Legion. Ubisoft Toronto, which leads the development of Legion, has London recreated in virtual form in great detail.
From dingy alleys with trash littered around to the exquisite architecture of Big Ben, to someone who only sees the capital of the UK only in media form, it holds up. It’s no 1:1 recreation, but a lot of the major landmarks are here.
I also love how dreadful the weather is with its constant rain, which is a good excuse to put a lot of puddles on the streets to get that ray-tracing reflections kick in.
It’s unfortunate that the actual body of water looks half-arsed. Having it coloured all murky is one thing, but water splashes look extremely lacking- no wonder the game barely used any of its rivers.
The London we see in Legion is a near-future one where technology has advanced a bit more than we have today. Holograms are used as big billboards to show where the Underground tube stations, as well as advertisement for the latest clothing line. Drones hover in air traffic in parallel with the streets below. AI are driving most of the cars on traffic. Electric vehicles have gotten popular.
A private military has taken over law enforcement, and police brutality is very much a common occurrence. Yeah, not that fun.
It’s a realised world, a twisted, futuristic one, but still well-realised.
But for game set in the near future- say 10-20 years from today, the soundtrack is surprisingly mainstream from 10-20 years ago. Plenty of British artists are featured, but I didn’t expect to be jamming to Gorillaz’s Feel Good Inc., Go by Chemical Brothers and Light Up The Sky by The Prodigy. Great songs- so is the rest of the licensed soundtrack list all-around that may be a bit dated for its setting, but thematically fitting.
Unfortunately, you can’t make your own playlist of songs and have them play even while on-foot this time. The usual commute to the next objective isn’t the length of an episode for the podcast radio station, so I never bothered to listen to that. Playlists and equippable earbuds are tied to the protagonist’s smartphone feature in Watch Dogs 2- and a dedicated smartphone feature and a dedicated protagonist is gone for Legion.
Watch Dogs: Legion takes place in a near-future London where electric cars roam the streets where drones also fly above them more regularly than we see today. The game begins with London’s DeadSec crew stopping a bombing, but mostly failed.
Now the city is employing a private company, Albion, for its law enforcement and is under high-tech oppressive rule. You play as the new DeadSec London crew, reborn months after the incident, and are now investigating who’s behind the attacks- and stop the military cops while you at it.
In the broader strokes, Legion still feels like your typical open-world game. A large map to roam about. Restricted areas (outposts) that you will frequent to as mission locations. Collectables of the familiar variety scattered all over- from audio and text logs to tech points for character upgrades. If you’ve played an open-world game before, like always, you’ve played this game already.
Play As Any NPC
What sets Watch Dogs: Legion apart is the “play as anyone” feature. As part of the new resistance, DeadSec has to bring in new recruits. And it’s your job to find one out there roaming the London streets.
After the tutorial, you will be given a random pool of characters to pick who to start with. And from there, you can choose to bring in more recruits to your fold or not. These are all regular NPCs, but can be made playable should they be sympathetic to your cause- or you make them so by helping them or their close associates out.
Watch Dogs as a series has always lets you pry in the life of NPCs. You can hack to see a what’s essentially a flavour text. With Legion, NPCs are further fleshed out. Not only you can see more flavour texts, they also operate on a schedule. You can absolutely stalk an NPC as they go out of their home, go to work, meet families and friends, and maybe encounter their other natural interaction with other NPCs. This even extends to your enemies- cops, the Albion soldiers and gang members of Clan Kelley are all normal NPCs too outside of their work, with friends, family and enemies.
Each NPC also has different perks and traits. Some may have a personal vehicle they can summon. Some can give you clothing discounts, or lets you earn more money in the long run. Others may have unique guns that other DeadSec operatives can’t have. And a few are just better hackers.
Not all of them are positives. You can find senior citizens that have low mobility so they can’t sprint, crouch and take cover. Some may gamble your money away or buy random clothes. Some might even have the possibility to permanently die, or even just spontaneously die on-the-spot.
Potential For Emergent Storylines
If you love the idea of manipulating characters characterised by stats on a spreadsheet like Football Manager of Crusader Kings, Watch Dogs: Legion’s NPCs have the same appeal.
Here’s my personal story with Legion’s NPCs. I had a long-running relationship with the first Albion contractor I saw on the streets, harassing a pedestrian whilst holding a light machine gun. I put him in as a potential recruit (machine guns are cool). But also attacked him via hacking (threatening and harassing pedestrians while holding a gun, no less a machine gun, is not cool).
As a consequence to that, he hates DeadSec and is now unrecruitable. I kept on stalking him nonetheless, thinking there’s a way to win him over again (you can’t if they hate DeadSec, but you can if they just dislike them). So instead, I recruited his personal trainer. And now he’s has a permanent tag to remind me of this relationship each time I encounter him.
He regularly appears in many of the restricted areas I trespassed, each time knocking him out. Until the one fateful gunfight that turned into a massacre. I knocked him out with a punch in the knackers, hoping at least he’s the only one to get out of it alive. But then I shot his ally dead nearby, while he has a grenade loaded. It exploded.
That Albion contractor I kept tracked lasted until near the end of the game. And that DeadSec crew whose is his personal trainer was rightfully pissed we killed her trainee.
This NPC system can morph into a full nemesis system if Ubisoft wants too. You can take down adversaries (NPCs that took out a DeadSec member) and get rewarded. And as long as they are incapacitated non-lethally, chances are they will spawn back.
The play as anyone feature rules.
What About The Rest Of The Game
Driving physics have been improved somewhat for Legion, but it still feels a bit off. Some speedier cars have too much oversteer (too twitchy) and handbrake slides curve at too big of an angle to be useful in these tight London streets. There is an autodrive function where you let the AI drive you to your designation. But that’s either too slow (since you’re obeying traffic laws) or it too can unknowingly hit pedestrians.
Shooting has been less emphasised. In response to Watch Dogs 2, Watch Dogs: Legion really encourages you to play non-lethally. The standard DeadSec weapons you can unlock and give to any operative are all non-lethal (thank god). With a strict two-gun limit on each playable character and no option to buy non-lethal guns (you need to find an NPC with one to get it), trying to kill someone is harder. So no more dissonance of having your charming, nice, hackers also being cold-blooded murderers. At least it’s harder to make that happen.
As a response, melee has been expanded. Every character can punch, dodge and guard break. More often than not, fights will start with melee before it will escalate into a gunfight. It’s not the most in-depth of melee combat, but it sufficiently works. Different NPCs have different animations too. Old people will likely slap enemies really hard, while trained spies will give a good high kick to the chin.
Hacking as a tool remains the same in Watch Dogs: Legion. But there are more hacking puzzles and set-pieces in the game the utilise the many version of drones and the new spiderbot gadget. It’s decent. Not too hard, and not overly used during the main missions. It’s a fun, competent distraction to the usual sneaking, driving and fighting.
One main issue I have with Watch Dogs: Legion is how dreadfully stupid the AI can be. Pedestrians will overreact when you drive even just when you are half throttle while still be perfectly on the road. They also comically dodge cars too often with a long-ass animation, and more often than not, go to the direction of where you are going. Hit-and-run will often happen.
Same is for the AI enemies attacking you. When in gunfights, they don’t feel as competent enough in taking you down, and will hide behind cover for way too long.
It’s also a missed opportunity to have your DeadSec crew to operate in a team. I wish we could actually assemble a team of NPCs supporting you in missions. And let you switch characters on-the-spot ala Driver: San Francisco. Most likely the AI programming to make this happen is just not worth considering how quality of AI in the game right now.
You’re looking at around 20 hours of playtime for the main mission in Watch Dogs: Legion. And it’s surprisingly much better than expected.
The main story missions are structured well. The main questline will sometimes branch in two paths before converging back to one main thread. That’s nice to have- a bit more freedom. There are also side quests, but the good ones are unlocked a bit too late for my liking.
In terms of mission design, there’s maybe too many that still relies on “go clear this outpost however you like”. It’s totally fine to have them. And I like that there’s so many restricted areas around London (say, 30 or more) and each are designed uniquely. Think of the restricted areas as mini-Hitman levels, with various objectives that can pop up, guard patrols to recognise, and multiple entry and exit points. But it can get boring once you figured out an optimal way of clearing them.
The worst of the missions is unfortunately the recruitment missions to get NPCs join DeadSec. If you intend to recruit a max team, those missions repeat themselves too often that it breaks the immersion that you are helping that specific NPC. No, you are off to a random mission decides to throw at you. If you fail that, but convince the NPC to try another, you get another random mission. It doesn’t help that each recruitment mission tries to give you background detail of the NPC you’re helping- but it doesn’t really tie it to that NPC systemically.
Here’s a specific example: I tried to recruit a grandma, a retired police officer, twice. The first mission, she was described as having a gambling problem. I somehow failed that mission. And after another errand done to convince her to give another mission, now she needs to help her friend get a supply of drugs.
Those descriptions are pre-baked missions from a pool, as I’ve helped drive vans and ambulances full of drug stashes way too many times to too many potential DeadSec members. That’s no good. You’d better off stalking them and helping them out through emergent gameplay than going through the motions of the same missions over and over.
But at least due to the nature of having multiple playable NPCs, your toolkit is deliberately limited. You’re no one-man show that can equally be stealthy, deadly in all forms and combat, and able to hack and cause havoc in equal measure. Depending on what your mood or what you think is suitable, you can switch out who you play as and tackle missions differently. See what kind of chaos you can create. You can’t instigate gang wars, unfortunately, London only has one criminal gang in operation.
And if you like me, you’d probably spend too much time looking for what unique NPC you can recruit into DeadSec. The Londoners are pretty diverse, ethnically-wise. Though some may argue they can portray even more kinds of individuals that walk the streets. That would be nice to see.
A Warning Of The Possible Near-Future
The good news is the main story’s good. Maybe even be the best of the series (I lost interest on what the past games have to say and didn’t bother finishing them).
The original Watch Dogs is too drab and Watch Dogs 2 might be a tad too hunky-dory despite you being able to be an absolute killing machine. I feel Watch Dogs: Legion hit it’s story tone just nice. Enough doom-and-gloom to make you feel weary of how technology can be manipulated nefarious means. But enough moments outside the main plot to have stupid fun.
The villains you meet are overly evil that you just cannot see their side, sure, but the developers have sufficiently portrayed their evilness. Enough for me to justify going lethal in all encounters mid-way through the game.
And if you’re planning for a non-lethal run where you absolute not kill anyone (but incapacitate them with non-lethal shock rounds, tasers, and a charging head-butt), you absolutely can. It’s a problem from past games that they have finally solved. You don’t need to play the past games to appreciate the story. And even Watch Dogs veterans might be surprised at some story elements added to Legion. When did everyone have to wear legally mandatory surveillance AirPods? The game barely explained the Optik proper- everyone just assume you know.
There is online co-op, but that won’t appear until later this December. There is also mini-games like parcel delivery, darts and keepy-ups, but they are not worth your time.
I never liked the Watch Dogs series until this year, where I actually gave Watch Dogs 2 a shot. I find it hilariously fun to mess with NPCs and also instigate gang wars and massive shootout with the cops while I just dance in the background of the chaos.
But the fun of it lasted around 20 hours and I have no reason to play through the game until finish.
Which is not what happened with Watch Dogs: Legion. I find the “play as anyone” gimmick to be fun all the way through. It works. It addresses my complaints of having to play another overpowered hero in another open-world game. Restrictions can lead to other forms of fun.
Of my 38 hours of playtime, I probably spent about 20 just messing profiling potential DeadSec recruits and see the variety of NPCs that call this version of London home. And then pick a very unoptimised character to clear an outpost. Trying to hack a server in a restricted area as a grandma that can’t crouch or take cover is oddly exhilarating.
But I do miss the quality of life features from Watch Dogs 2 that was tied to its protagonist. In particular, I can’t have the radio play everywhere by putting on earphones (I blame the mandatory Optik AirPods that everyone has to equip in this game).
And I can see some folks may not be as fond as me with the NPCs being the main stars. If you are not sold with that one gimmick, this is an easy pass.
But the worst offender on my enjoyment of Watch Dogs: Legion is the Day-1 experience on PC. On launch, performance was sub-optimal and its new cross-save function with the rebranded Ubisoft Connect app doesn’t even work, costing me (along many others) hours of lost progress.
If you haven’t bought it, maybe wait for a bit. Because as always, being the first in line is the worse option when it comes to gaming.
Also, there’s optional microtransactions. No. Just no. I hate it.
Watch Dogs: Legion takes a bold move with its one gimmick, and for some the play as anyone feature is good enough to carry the whole experience for hours on end.
However, outside of that one feature, a lot of Legion does is something you’ve seen in other open-world games before. It’s only a revolutionary step by Ubisoft standards. At launch, it’s also a technical mess.
Watch Dogs needs a major refresh to keep its sandbox hacking antics fun and engaging- and Legion is the right step. The “play as anyone” system can be the start of an even more complex NPC system.
Watch Dogs now has the potential to become the ultimate open-world sandbox game, one that really allows you to hack and manipulate the systems to your advantage, or for the lols. Ubisoft could further continue this path. Or rather, Ubisoft should.
Review based on PC version. Review copy purchased by the reviewer