(WATCH DOGS LEGION is out October 29 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Google Stadia, Microsoft Windows, and November 10 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S. Distributor provided review copy.)
Ubisoft is a victim of their success. Ever since they broke the bank with ASSASSIN’S CREED in 2007, the studio has needed to up the ante with every next game. That means more sidequests, more tinkering, and even bigger maps filled with collectibles. The madness reached its zenith two years ago with ASSASSIN’S CREED: ODYSSEY, which gave players a full run of ancient Greece, and upon first look, LEGION does feel like it’s somewhat scaled back. But a peek under the hood reveals that not only is the newest WATCH DOGS just as densely packed as previous titles, but it might also be the shallowest game Ubisoft has made yet made.
In the third part of the wildly erratic WATCH DOGS series, LEGION skips ahead in time and location to London in the near future, where DeadSec, the hacker organization filling the role of snarky anti-heroes, are hunted as enemies of the state. Framed for a devastating terrorist attack, which left thousands dead, DeadSec has gone underground as a new enemy organization called Albion controls the cities. This time around, the gimmick is that the new protagonist isn’t just one select individual, but everyone in London, as the name implies.
Elaborating on the hacking mechanism found in the first two games, LEGION promises that everyone in London has a unique backstory and skillset, all of which come into play as you recruit people to fight against Albion. In theory, it sounds very cool, but in practice, the overall result is surprisingly limited.
The first problem is that these backgrounds are “unique” in the sense that you rarely see repeats, though those do happen as well, but the content is about as shallow as a puddle. Characters will have a few lines about their past in a profile, but it rarely affects the plot or how they act. The most significant difference is usually the gear they have or what weapons they bring to a fight at the start. Yet even that feels superfluous, and it’s something you wouldn’t necessarily even need unless the game forced it on you.
For example, early on in the campaign, you must recruit a construction worker with access to cargo drones. These mammoths can carry people from one point to another and are superbly convenient when infiltrating hard to reach locations. The only problem is, before the intro dialog for the mission was even over, I had already hacked a drone, hopped on, and was on my way to the next destination. I didn’t need to recruit anyone, but it didn’t matter – the game needed this step done anyway.
The same goes for the upgrade points scattered around the world. They’re visible on the map as you explore the territory, making collecting them more of a chore than a quest. But even as you find them, there’s no trick involved in getting your grubby hands on one. Usually, even the hardest to reach token can is grabbable using a drone or a robot.
That’s the crux of having anything available in a game – not everything will be worthwhile. Most of the characters I recruited, either by design or just because they had cool items, I ended up forgetting and not using unless I had to. I had a favorite already, and they’re customizable enough to keep me entertained throughout the surprisingly long (though not very interesting) main story.
The same goes for the sidequests, which are plentiful. Apart from localized gangland activity to follower missions, there are packet deliveries, reconnaissance, hacking, intel items, races, fighting, football, you name it. WATCH DOGS LEGION might be the most jam packed game of the year, and it’s so overwhelming that it took me a few days to get over the options and just focus on one thing.
None of these extras are particularly bad, except the darts game, which can burn in hell. But they aren’t particularly involving. I had a blast practicing my football skills in the park, and flying the drones around beautiful London never got old. But I also didn’t find myself seeking out more things to do. Once I my characters were upgraded to a comfortable point, I stopped doing anything that wasn’t required. It’s happened with every other Ubisoft game for me; eventually, busywork just feels exactly that – work.
On a positive note, while by-the-numbers and utterly predictable, the campaign is one of the better Ubisoft stories I’ve seen to date. It’s political in an overly simplistic, almost naive, and childlike way. But at least it’s consistent and, for the most part, coherent.
The opening scene is troubling. For a split second, it implies a connection between false flag operations, mainstream media cover-ups, and the “true heroes” (read: QAnon), who see through the muck. Luckily, LEGION drops this almost as soon as it happens, and the story settles in for a much more traditional fight against fascism, one that still doesn’t quite get why all of this is important.
This is more because of the game mechanics getting in the way of the story, not the other way around. LEGION is so impressed with its reported “9 million playable characters,” it sidesteps some of the uncomfortable questions that come with the territory. For example, if everyone is going to join the cause, does that mean that everyone agrees explicitly on the methods and conclusions of DeadSec? Is that white, rich, upper-class lady really in the same boat as the young black man with a mockney accent? Anyone even looking for a hint of social commentary will be disappointed. At least in this dystopia, both parties are shot at equally.
It’s absolutely a joy to play as a geriatric John Wick who brandishes a machine gun and curses like a sailor, but boy does it take away from any potential power that the story might have. Especially when it tries to slow down to talk about how badly minorities and immigrants get treated in a capitalist dystopia.
The same goes for the plot itself, which poses questions about the necessity of surveillance and control, especially in a world that’s wildly flirting with Nazism again. But it has stunningly little to say about any of it, especially for such an intensely political game. If you don’t listen to the podcasts playing in cars, and you rarely get a chance for that, you’d be hard-pressed to think that LEGION has anything to say about modern society.
Not that any of the WATCH DOGS games have ever pondered these topics. To the series, technology is equivalent to magic, and you’re Merlin at the center of it all. Albion, the megacorporation in charge of security in Britain, is painted as an all-knowing, all-seeing fascist structure, spying on everyone’s lives in the UK. But for every “RESIST!” poster that you put up, you also ignore the fact that your entire recruitment happens by spying on every person on the street, hacking into their past and present to see if they fit the bill for a potential resistance member. It’s a bit of ludonarrative dissonance that never ceases to amaze me.
Visually, the game is both gorgeous and surprisingly ugly. London’s architecture and design is spot on, bringing the iconic city to life in a rich, densely packed way that feels like you’re in the center of it all. There’s a distinct vibe to every borough, and it’s a joy to just cruise around. But even with a reasonably high-end system (RTX3080, i7-9700k, 32gb ram), the game looks – messy? Like it’s blurry for no reason, even with all the settings turned to ultra. It runs reasonably well, rarely dropping below 60fps with ray-tracing turned to the max on 1080p, but it’s hard to call it a great looking product.
The gameplay itself veers surprisingly close to SAINTS ROW than it does to previous WATCH DOGS titles. There’s a feeling like you have even more freedom this time around to be a menace to society, often without any repercussions whatsoever. The first time I plowed into a crowd with my faux-Tesla, while blasting some classic London tunes off the radio, I was confident that this was it, and I’d have to pay for my insanity. But nothing happened, not even a police chase. Occasionally a drone would hassle me, and eventually, I managed to get the much-hyped fascist organization on my tail, but for the first time in the series, escaping feels like a breeze.
This can be helped by turning on the permadeath mode, where any one of your followers can potentially die for good during the campaign, but with, again, 9 million characters to choose from, it feels more like another gimmick. As with drones, you can just summon another one that’s nearly indistinguishable from the previous, and everything continues like before.
Did I enjoy my time with WATCH DOGS: LEGION? Yes, sporadically, and when I did, it was an absolute corker of a time. Ubisoft has hit gold with their “Play Anyone” engine, and the playground is as brilliant as they’ve ever made. The gameplay is better than before, and it is a pleasure to play a story from them that doesn’t make me reach for a bottle.
There are moments of sheer joy in LEGION, many of which make it an easy game to recommend for open-world exploration fans. But it’s once again so lengthy and densely packed, and riddled with excess that it loses sight of what makes it unique.
It’s the best WATCH DOGS came to date, and hopefully, a sign that Ubisoft has finally got its groove back.