Albion controls London in the near-future, Nigel Cass puts jack-booted thugs on street corners, and DedSec has to rise from the ashes in Watch_Dogs: Legion. Is the game worth it, or is it just another time waster? Read on and find out!
This review is based on a retail version of the game, code given to us by Ubisoft. So big thanks to them!
The near-future setting of Watch_Dogs: Legion, the third game in the hacker-fantasy franchise starts with a bang. Literally, and that's all I'm going to say about the story of the game in terms of the actual plot beats. I don't like talking about story at all if I can help it, but I feel that I need to address some aspect of it for the review since this is a bit of a different style for the franchise.
WDL attempts to tell a linear story in a non-linear way, breaking down the core story into self-contained arcs which feed into the overall narrative and serve to glue the whole thing together.
This approach is interesting for the series, and the much darker tone the whole thing takes brings to mind Watch_Dogs itself and the world of Aiden Pearce. When it works, it works, but when the 'Play Anyone' mechanic delivers you a suitably skilled hitman or spy with the personality of a wise-cracking stand-up comedian and the charm of a Doberman hopped up on PCP it skews off mark and brings the overall experience down a notch.
Just like Marcus' wise-cracking gang of happy hackers in 2.
This is not a story for happy hackers, this is a dark tale of gangs, corruption, corporate wheeling-dealing and human experimentation wrapped up in a London that's completely under a totalitarian regime. This isn't a story for happy hackers, this is the fall and rise of DedSec in a spectacular fashion told in the first tutorial of the game.
Albion are a very real reflection of just how dangerous it could be to hand over policing, to a private security firm who are run by people who believe that might makes right. Add into this the mysterious hacker group known as Zero Day and you have several threads to pull on as you battle to take London back from gangs and jack-booted armed fascists.
But how does this Watch_Dogs differ from the ones that came before it?
Is it worth getting?
Is it better than 1 and 2?
These are gamer questions, and there's no simple answer. Truth be told, storytelling is a complex art and creating stories for games is even more so. It's a lot like, one man's meat is another man's poison - what you might really hate, someone might love, and so on.
The question I'm going to try and answer is basically: is there enough game here to warrant your time? I'm going to take a roundabout way to answer it too, because it's not just a yes or no either - so sit back, buckle up and see why I actually like Watch_Dogs: Legion.
Play as Anyone
This is an interesting mechanic and one which has been the subject of speculation since it was announced, but let me tell you right now, it works for the most part and it's really cool. You are at the mercy of the RNG gods though - because these characters are created using the procedural generation systems built for the game. Simply put, the game's rules create a workable PPC - Player Playable Character with likes, dislikes, wants, needs, and a whole backstory which actually does flow into the game's world and design. Especially the living world, which I'll cover a bit later on.
They have connections, purpose, a life, and a meaning to this sandbox of a city. They are not just random-person A or B. These people have a schedule, friends, family, and do their own thing in the city.
John Robertson is not just a guy who stands on the street corner. John is a guy who once saved a person from a Kelley Gang assault. He likes to drink socially at a local pub with friends, has a fondness for playing the guitar and used to perform in a band. He was born in Croydon, and his girlfriend is an Albion recruiter - and I don't mean the Football team. (Some of this info was revealed via the Deep Profiler tech upgrade - get it ASAP)
John also just happens to have a silenced MP5 and a cool voice. Oh, but he's not overly fond of DedSec because he heard they poisoned a boroughs water supply. OK, so I have a little bit of work to do.
I can't recruit John, because he doesn't like us. I've only got a smattering of people so far, the person I picked after the tutorial and a random hobo I picked up because for some reason he had a shotgun and played the harmonica. I was able to stop him being harassed by a Clan Kelley ganger and he offered to join DedSec...
Hobo with a shotgun, hell yes!
Note: If you play without Permadeath then your operatives will be arrested for a short time, or hospitalised. If you play with it on, then if they get killed, they're gone for good. Some people have reported a bug where when you try and remove the operative from the list, it removes one of your other operatives and the dead person remains there.
Thus, the first glimpse of Legion's living world gameplay is revealed, like an onion, there are many layers and like an onion some of the voices do make your eyes water. But if you can forgive them, there's an absolutely huge amount of fun to be had just playing as any kind of character you find in the world. Now to get John I chose the hobo, because, shotgun and Clan Kelley aren't my favourite gang at all...
Non-lethal? Hobo doesn't believe in that.
First of all, I had Hobo collect some tech points, this involved hunting around the map for the tech point marker and either solving some environmental puzzle or getting to the point in a restricted zone. Once I had enough, I unlocked the Deep Profiler.
It's part of the tech menu, and I'll go into that later too.
Back to John. Let's see, John's best buddy is about to be deported. I can use that, so off I go to sort that little problem out. A quick sneak into the right place with a carefully timed spiderbot approach and John's friend is out of trouble.
John wants to talk.
It turns out that John's girlfriend owes Clan Kelley big. An interesting opportunity, a randomly generated mission...
Hobo to the rescue. The mission has me sneak into a Clan Kelley zone, and deal with the ganger. Hobo is fond of direct violent assaults, but also likes to even the odds. This is a job for Derek Crawley and his mighty shotgun!
Gate's locked and there is a dude guarding the door out front. IDEA... uniformed access could make this more interesting. So, Derek approaches this guy, profiles him, adds him to my list of recruits and we get some Deep Profiling going on.
Clan Kelley guy is useful. He has his own car, a nice decent hacking cooldown and uniformed access to Clan Kelley locations. He also has a blackmailer. A quick investigation later, blackmailer dealt with, guy joins DedSec.
So now I switch to Martin Sweeny and use his uniformed access to get into the HQ. A quick snoop around and I find the boss I need to take down. Sneaking carefully to ensure guards don't detect me (they have a much-reduced awareness as long as you don't do suspicious actions) I was able to deal with the boss and take him out silently.
That done, I sneak out, and no one is any the wiser.
John joins DedSec.
This is just an example of the way I did things, it could have been a full-frontal murder-hobo attack, or a sneaky hack-fest where the spiderbot brutally electro-shocked the boss inside his own compound after I'd lobbed it over the wall.
It's a playground and the solutions are numerous. If you can think of it, it can probably be done as long as you have the tech and right character. Fortunately, if you don't have a spiderbot on you, you can adjust your tech outside of a restricted area at any time. Or use camera hacking to find a spiderbot summoner and do it that way.
Your hacker scan reveals things in the area, such as cameras. You can see it; you can quickly hack to it and now you have eyes on. From here you can spy on the people, steal their access keys, open and close vents and doors and remotely trigger proximity traps of the lethal and non-lethal kind.
When I say it's a hacker playground, I mean it.
There are several boroughs in London and they all have set goals to bring them under the people's control, breaking Albion's lock on the city and allowing you to recruit faster and easier. Also, each one liberated unlocks a specialist operative that means you'll see more of them in world and you'll get a + version of the one you unlock.
Operatives such as the Spy and Hitman are the ones you want to go for, especially the Hitman because their gun-kata takedown and lethal arsenal is a perfect opportunity to return to the Aiden Pearce glory-kills and get some John Wick action going on.
To do this you can do the activities that are outlined, then you'll trigger a takeover mission and these are often set-pieces, interesting locations, and allow you to rely on a mix of your characters skills and brainpower to solve.
Once done, you get the borough and the new operative.
As I previously mentioned, this DedSec is not the same as the one in Watch_Dogs or even 2. This is a pared-down operation, one that fights for survival and can have up to 40 of your recruits in it with 5 pending possible recruits on the scan list. You can retire members at any time, except for the prestige operatives (hopefully Ubisoft allows us to do this or makes them not count in the overall number of recruits) and they'll go back into the world to do what they used to do. You can pull them back in at any time as long as you don't kill them, or make them hate you.
I mean if you see one of them doing something that deserves death, I am not one to judge Mr. Professional Hitman - and you should totally shoot them in the face to prevent them sullying DedSec's already tarnished name.
DedSec operates from a hidden base and here you can change clothes, interact with members of the team and start mission arcs for side characters and main stories.
The Pillars of the Game
I like Legion's gameplay a lot. It makes me think, the arsenal is smaller, more refined and the options are varied. I like I can have a main weapon, a second one, a hack and that's it unless I'm a Spy where I can switch to a second gadget or a hack. It means that I'm looking for active characters I really want and with things I want.
Spy = Car, watch, silenced p9 and cool takedowns.
Hitman = Expanded arsenal, takedowns even when guards are aware, and a dodge roll.
I am forced to think, a lot.
Pillar 1: Hacking 'Some Hacks Not Included'
The plot and the setting of Legion means that some hacks have gone. You can't use the profiler in the same way now, it's simpler, yet more layered with the Deep Profiler upgrade. It can't set Albion on people or trigger random gang fights. That's not how this DedSec operates and considering Albion are mandated to use lethal force if you so much as sneeze without their consent during an I.D. check - putting someone on their most wanted list would be a hell of a cheat.
This DedSec uses their hacks to disrupt (shock) and distract (probably porn) their targets, allowing the operative a few scant seconds to sneak by or get a takedown in before they get noticed. They commandeer BLUME ctOS drones to spy, Parcel Fox drones to drop cargo on guard's heads, and cargo drones to Green Goblin (only slower) around London's sky line to get where they want to go and find those juicy tech upgrade points on the rooftops.
They can hack the cars to go forward, back, left, right and quick-hack them aside during police chases. They can hack drones to disable or even turn them against their allies later on, basically, all the things that Aiden wanted to do that Marcus could, without the frivolity and instant-win situation that Watch_Dogs 2 offered.
Being able to use a Counter Terrorism drone as a big distraction, to lethally remove some Albion guards is a huge game-changer later game when you unlock the upgrades in the tech menu.
It's more advanced than 1, and more limited than 2, but from a narrative and setting point of view it actually makes sense - considering.
Fans of the hacking puzzles will be happy, there's a plethora of those in various places and missions and they are often more complex and intricate than they were before.
Pillar 2: Stealth
Watch_Dogs: Legion has social stealth, a feature that has been absent from Assassin's Creed for a long time. In a very Hitman-esque fashion, certain uniformed characters can move through restricted zones with a lower detection rate and get past guards they normally wouldn't be able to. It has regular stealth too, where you can crouch-sneak and use distractions and the guard AI to sneak past into locked rooms or perform flashy silent takedowns.
Dropping into cover is a push of a button, cornering as well.
Enemies have fairly good detection, but don't always know where you are. You can elude Albion et-al by simply breaking line of sight and using the active cloak to hide for a little while. You might get the odd investigative soul who jumps up to where you are, but for the most part they're not psychic like Watch_Dogs 2.
Pillar 3: Parkour
There's a nice range of parkour here, with jumps and so on, nothing overly advanced - but enough to get the job done and allow you to take to the rooftops and get to places you normally wouldn't be able to.
Pillar 4: Driving
The driving is a lot better in this game. Motorbikes are nicely done, their handling is good, and the vehicle handling is generally a lot better than both 1 and 2 combined. Various cars have autodrive too, so if you just want to drink in the sights as you go from A to B - the AI will take you there, and remarkably well at that.
Pillar 5: Shooting
Non-lethal and lethal are options depending on who you play as. When you go into lethal mode with a Hitman, the game becomes a balletic dance of rolls and takedowns as you cut from one enemy to the next in perfect John Wick fashion. Aiden would be proud.
Cover shooting feels solid, and the aim assist is fairly generous depending on the option.
The glory kills are flashy and weapon dependant, with the Spy and the Hitman having some of the flashiest takedowns in the game. If you see Execute pop up, be ready for some cinematic movie style death.
Pillar 6: Melee
Based on your operative you'll have some melee options at your disposal. Dodging triggers a slow mo effect, you can now counter-attack. Punches are fluid, guard breaks let you get into an opponent's face and break their guard and the range of animations are solid. It's probably one of the better melee systems that the series has employed.
The Open City
Near-Future London feels alive. From the PPCs wandering the streets doing their own thing, following their day/night schedules and interacting with each other based on numerous AI patterns all driven by the game's artificial life simulation - to the vehicles that pack the streets, some driven, some self-driving and many just there for the taking so you can cruise around in style.
The city never feels dull. Each borough is distinct and the game comes alive at night even on current gen hardware like the Xbox One X.
There are activities to do. Drink in bars and pubs, useful if you're a football hooligan - your damage goes up if you've had a skinful. You can play kick-up, where you have to do tricks with a football, shop for a plethora of clothes and engage in games of darts. There's more to do as well, but I'll leave that up to you to discover.
It's a playground, but it's not one of the typical Ubisoft AC Unity markers that dot the map like leopard-spots. There's enough there to keep you going, and recruiting random operatives into DedSec is fuelled by a handful of missions and investigations that sometimes have twists and turns to keep them fresh.
It hasn't gotten dull for me yet.
It's a reactive world, you can influence it in many ways. There's a moment where I saw an Albion bully-boy harassing a woman on the street. A quick hack later and he was doubled in agony as I disrupted his Optik. The woman, someone who once assaulted a member of the press with his own camera, took no time at all in putting the boot right into his groin earning him a special wince of empathy from a passer-by who then commented, "That must have hurt."
No shit son, that must have really hurt.
The A.I. is good, it's reactive and you can use emotes off the left d-pad to engage with it beyond just the surface reactions. Dancing with an Albion recruiter, surreal, but possible.
I'd love to say we've got a next-gen console, but we're not that popular with MS to be fair. So, this is based on the current tech and version of the game. It's a hybrid game, and with the promise of Raytracing and more on the Series X it should look utterly fantastic on MS' new technology which is right around the corner. I'm getting one, so I will drop a comment on this review once I've spent some time with it.
It looks nice, everything runs smoothly on the Xbox One X and I've had no serious issues with pop-in or frame-rate with the console. Even when there was a serious gunfight going on with multiple opponents, I was able to still play and still enjoy it without a single hitch or hassle.
The aesthetics of the game are good, the animations are solid, and the various interactions with the world via the PPCs are excellent. They do their own things and can be found engaged in a lot of behaviours that serve to bring the world to life.
Music is excellent, and there's some great in-car radio.
Sound effects are good.
If you're in luck and the RNG gods don't give you a really irksome voice for the character, you'll experience a dark story with some very solid writing for the non-RNG characters. You character might react well enough, or they might crack jokes throughout and remind you of Marcus' offhand comments and smack-talk through the whole game. If you can't stand this, find a new recruit, and boot that wise-cracking muppet out.
There's plenty of PPCs in London just waiting to join up.
There's a lot of replay here, a lot to do, to see, the main story missions have been excellent and the various story arcs have been truly solid. One of them disturbed me a lot, in a good way, and that's something fiction can and should seek to do - especially dystopian fiction.
Lots of unlockable masks and costumes you can buy with in-game Eto (currency) that's earned at a fair rate.
Runs well on current gen Xbox hardware.
A good suite of Accessibility Options allowing for various players of all kinds to enjoy the game, and not just abled people either through difficulty settings.
The rest of the Pros are above if you read the review up until now.
It might crash for you. It did once or twice for me, before the last patch, and there are some odd behaviours with characters that pop out of existence sometimes.
The voice work might be a con, if you don't have room in your heart for another old lady who sounds like the last one, only says fuck a lot more.
The RNG creator might craft a character who is too flippant, thus ruining your story and creating the next Marcus.
The odd graphical anomaly might pop up in some places.
Microtransactions: Hey yes, they're back, and they're Ubisoft classic. Packs of Eto can be purchased, some time saver stuff, collectible maps, and cosmetics. Packs, bundles, and operatives can also be purchased from the store?
Do you need these to make the game more fun? Nope - so you can skip this side of the game totally and just play.
So, do I think this game is worth your investment of time? And money?
I think so. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it paves the way for more advanced AI simulation and sub-systems, provides a proper playground with London and offers the potential for an interesting 4-player cooperative experience come December.
Watch_Dogs: Legion should be commended for stepping outside of the box, and creating a whole city full of a population that you can play as. Even the bad guys, now that's something truly special and worthy of praise.
Now, if you'll excuse me, me and Derek have a shotgun with Clan Kelley's name on it.