Watch Dogs: Legion Has a Timely Premise and Gameplay That Emphasizes “Freedom of Approach”
The ambitious premise of playing as any character in Watch Dogs: Legion functioned well and overall impressed during an E3 2019 demo.
It’s quite easy to be incredulous about such a high-concept pitch, especially the one that Ubisoft gave for Watch Dogs: Legion back in E3 2019. With the main mechanic of Legion being the ability to control essentially any NPC in the game’s open-world London in mind, I thought of all of the ways I would want to potentially break it. Such a large and ambitious game invites one to find a chink in the armor.
If there are any, it was tough to spot them in the demo I played at E3. Of course, a brief sitdown demo is nothing like a several hours long play session, but I was astounded by how much depth there was in Ubisoft Toronto’s project. In the end, it’s difficult to call the pitch for Legion a gimmick, because it feels as if though it is engrained in every single system in the game. I’m always reluctant to get into a new open-world game and invest all of my time in it—but surprisingly with Watch Dogs: Legion, I found myself experiencing the freedom that other games of its genre tout yet fall short of.
The Watch Dogs series has never shied away from having provocative and timely imagery and themes, and Watch Dogs: Legion appears to continue the tradition of apparently avoiding political statements while still going “hmm, really makes you think, huh?” Regardless of their intent, Ubisoft’s game has a lot for players to chew on, and their closed-doors presentation to games media started right off the bat detailing their vision of a post-Brexit London.
That’s “speculative fiction,” as they call it, a phrase and concept that haunts me ever since I asked a question about Tom Clancy and politics in an interview regarding The Division 2 many months ago. With Watch Dogs: Legion, in particular, Ubisoft made a point that immigration is a hot topic in the game, as it is in real life, for anyone paying attention to the news as of late, as is the use and rise of cryptocurrency.
The pound is dropping off, and now the United Kingdom is a host for a number of profiteers and authoritarian operatives. No jobs are safe. As such, you can imagine that this game’s story and world-building is most based on economic anxiety. But perhaps this is something that the player could take advantage of—with so much unrest amongst the people, perhaps it’s a prime opportunity to recruit characters into the fold of hacker group DedSec.
All of the characters in Legion are touted as having “persistent lives” from a number of simulated traits (I kept expecting to hear a technical term like “procedurally generated,” but Ubisoft stuck with the word “simulated”). These characters can all be recruited, but as advertised in the big E3 2019 reveal, permadeath is something to be considered. But Ubisoft didn’t make it sound like players should be concerned with preserving their characters—we’re meant to push them to their limits.
There are three distinct classes or categories for these characters: Enforcer, Infiltrator, and Hacker. All are a bit self-explanatory. Enforcers are combat-focused, with special weapons such as stickies. Infiltrators utilize stealth, hacking people’s AR implants to appear cloaked to them. Finally, Hackers are just that—they’re described as a hybrid between the other two, with hacking abilities and the use of drones.
This presentation ended with some of the finer details in Legion, one that probably answered a question many had after the unveiling of the “play as any NPC” pitch. We were shown a mission cutscene, presented four times via split-screen, but each version having a different character. I never quite got a specific answer on how many variations were written and developed with so many characters to take into account, other than “a lot.” We were then told that Watch Dogs: Legion will have “5 storylines” with over 60 missions, and a 4-player online co-op mode that Ubisoft would go into detail at a later date.
Besides the buzz phrase of “speculative fiction,” the other such phrase that Ubisoft wanted to stick was “freedom of approach.” Freedom isn’t an alien concept to open-world games, but some games have fared better with the concept than others. Ubisoft focused on giving players choices, whether it’d be within a single encounter (perhaps approaching it non-lethally thanks to the game’s new melee system, for example), or at a larger scale, such as from what front to approach a mission from.
Before that, my hands-on demo presented me with a different kind of freedom when I started inside a bar, surrounded by NPCs, all potentially ripe to be a DedSec recruit. I walked around the bar, scanning people as you would in other Watch Dogs games, but with some extra traits and information to observe. It might be something like a businessman with fast hacking abilities, or another gentleman with superior firearms aiming, but it all goes down to their opinion of DedSec, which is quantifiable with a meter. The lower that meter is, the harder it would be to recruit them. A useful feature was the contacts list: upon scanning any person, you can add them to your contacts as a way of saving them in case you’d like to try recruiting them later on.
There were more curious folks in that bar, such as a woman who, despite having skills, apparently had never been vaccinated, and could die at any time. Another man was actually a bit of a celebrity, and as such had a trait that he would be more recognizable in public. Who people actually are besides some bullet point traits actually matters—remember the elderly woman from the E3 trailer who was able to look inconspicuous. Impressively, different parts of London will have different types of inhabitants that reflect that area of the city. Imagine a local drunk in a shadier part of the town, one who has amazing melee combat abilities, but only if he’s inebriated.
Unfortunately, stupid old me got some buttons confused and accidentally pulled out my gun instead of scanning another person, causing a scene where every inhabitant ran out of the bar, including that poor bartender. Hilariously, one of the first people I saw outside of the bar was a living statue performer. I asked my demo guide if I could recruit him, and the answer was a resounding yes, with a caveat—like that unfortunate anti-vaxxer, he too can die randomly at any time.
In the interest of time, my demo guide used an E3 demo cheat to fill up that one bartender’s meter to be fully loyal for DedSec. A cutscene initiated where my player character spoke to him, but to win him over, I had to conduct a mission first: infiltrate a police station to rid of blackmail material against him. Not an unusual mission for an open-world game, but it helped that idea of “freedom of approach” click in my head.
I drove to that police station, and I asked my guide where I was supposed to enter from; she essentially said that it was up to me. I chose a point with a locked door that led to some sort of loading bay, one that was heavily guarded. Not the most ideal position, but one that let me test the flexibility of the mission flow. After doing some reconnaissance by hacking into the cameras, I essentially cheesed my way through the rest of the mission, using a spider drone to incapacitate the guards, sneak into the police station, and make off with the blackmail material without a drop of blood.
After that, the bartender was mine. Not a particularly special character, but one we chose just to emphasize that yes, you can play as literally anyone. I was treated to that cutscene that we saw earlier in the presentation, except with my bartender, who was still wearing an apron and dressed for work. I eventually ran out of time in the demo to actually conduct the next mission, which involved me eliminating some targets with the help of more offensive drones, but not before I found a clothing vendor to put my bartender in the most garish outfit I could put together.
While it’s difficult for me to get excited over new, expansive open-world games when I’ve played so many in the past few years alone, the concept of Watch Dogs: Legion is one that I believe in. Of course, I remain hesitant over the game’s ability to make good use of its political themes in its story, but the ideas the game has alone already make it feel fresh and worth trying. And still, perhaps with a sense of glee, I’ll try my darndest to break the game upon its release.
Watch Dogs: Legion will launch for PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Google Stadia on March 6, 2020.
(Correction (7/26/19): Development is handled by Ubisoft Toronto, not Ubisoft Montreal like the article stated originally.)