Watch Dogs: Legion Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Google Stadia, Sony PlayStation 4, Sony PlayStation 5, Microsoft Xbox One, Microsoft Xbox Series X and PC
Watch Dogs: Legion begins by taking us to the precipice and then falling in. The events of the opening mission trigger a series of events that turns the Watch Dogs universe vision of London into a dystopian police state.
The local DedSec cell has been dismantled, a deadly terrorist called Zero Day is running amok, a privatised police force has taken residence in the city, technology such as drones and AI replacing workers and causing a spike in unemployment, mass deportations go on around you, a criminal empire exploiting the increased hostility against immigrants, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Plus, protective face masks are an option in the game but no one bothers to wear them. Watch Dogs: Legion is like a nightmarish, yet far too logical conclusion to 2020 Britain.
While the story is undeniably satirical of contemporary British politics, not all satires have to be GTA level piss takes. Watch Dogs: Legion exaggerates for effect but does not downplay what is happening, there is palpable anger at the direction things are heading within the characters and the game world itself. Legion has a sense of humour but not about this. Of course, this is Ubisoft, who have made headlines on their refusal to take a political stance even when their games are riddled with politics, so there is a limit on how far this goes. The revolutionary characters that populate your personalised DedSec seem more focused on restoring the status quo when the status quo is what created an environment where this sort of thing could happen. They are not so much trying to crash the system, more balance it out again.
This is the sort of dissonance you expect from a AAA game about revolution, a major publisher is not likely to advocate for a complete restructuring of society. It is far from a game-breaking issue, the dramatic beats of the story are strong enough to make it a compelling ride, you just need to accept that the revolutionary politics are more of an aesthetic than an ethos.
The story stakes may be distressingly close to the bone and the characters may be missing the mark on any credible political goals but it all still works where many half-baked stories of resistance fighters and anarchists fail. It does not rely entirely on the resistance thread to work, some great sci-fi elements expand the Watch Dogsuniverse in exciting ways, especially in one particular creepy side quest.
Much like Watch Dogs 2, Legion also has a mischievous rebellious spirit to its characters. It is fun and it is lively despite the often dark undertones of the story. It feels like a combination of the first two games, their strengths (1’s dramatic story and 2’s sense of fun) accentuating each other rather than undermining everything around it. Watch Dogs 2 was a great game to play but while its sense of fun was a massive upgrade from the original, it meant the main story was often quite weightless. That’s not an issue here, Watch Dogs: Legion is an engaging story that does not take itself too seriously even if the temptation is there.
Also like Watch Dogs 2, Legion is just a great game to play. Everything that worked about its predecessor works here (and if you missed out on Watch Dogs 2 because you didn’t care for the original, this is a mistake worth remedying), with a few quality enhancements to things like melee combat. Gun combat remains sturdy, with gun takedowns for close combat encounters being a nice John Wick esque flourish during tense encounters.
The driving works well considering London’s road map often looks like someone spilt spaghetti everywhere. Handling impractical turns and weaving through one-way systems is surprisingly responsive and, given this is a Watch Dogs game, you always have the option to hack the cars ahead and move them aside to clear a path. The visual markers that help you navigate the streets are effective without being intrusive, and auto-drive mode (available in any electric car you find) can allow you to travel between points at a leisurely pace while you focus on things like scanning passers-by for potential recruits. The in-game radio is pretty fantastic and often you will find a track that makes you want to take your time getting to a destination, artists like The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim populate the soundtrack beside a host of great classical music, and there is even a chance you will catch Three Lions on the radio. That certainly alters the tempo of a car chase.
Watch Dogs: Legion also offers accessibility options so you can alter the visual markers for colour blind players and the number of available subtitles available can go from simple dialogue to ambient sound, so hard-of-hearing players will always be aware when a drone is buzzing overhead.
Hacking works just as well as in previous games, not a lot has changed here, especially compared to Watch Dogs 2, and before long you will be utilising this skill during tense car chases and shoot outs as every bit the reflex as your steering or aiming.
The real unique selling point of Watch Dogs: Legion is its new recruitment system. In this game any NPC you meet beyond the obvious main storyline antagonists can be a playable character. The people you pass on the street, the opponents in a bare-knuckle boxing club, even the enemy guards can be turned to the cause. Prospects can be brought in by completing recruitment missions, these usually involve obtaining information from adversaries or locked down locations. Some prospects may not like DedSec, they may have bought into the fake news or maybe they had a bad experience with one of your operatives on the streets (such as accidentally nudging them with your car, oops). These stubborn gits require more work to win over. Liberating boroughs through a series of side missions can help sway public opinion but the tougher prospects will require ‘Deep Profiles’ that are a series of side jobs you can complete to improve your standing, failing these job will only make your work harder.
Certain operatives have unique advantages such as bonus gear or special access, some have very unique disadvantages such as chronic gambling, which can risk you losing money, and flatulence that can give away your location in stealth missions. An advantage to having a diverse set of skills in your roster comes in how you can mix and match your approach to missions; I was on a mission and suddenly hit a point where accessing an Albion HQ would require a lot of stealth. My character had the tech to help with stealth but it would have been difficult, slow work so I switched to an operative who is a former police officer. His uniform could get me access to the HQ without any hassle, as long as I kept a comfortable distance from the guards. You can switch between operatives at any point, playing the missions how you see fit. Permadeath is also an option for you if you want to bring some of that XCOM edge to the Watch Dogs experience, if you play regular mode then they are just hospitalised or incarcerated for a set time. These times can be mitigated if your teammates have unique bonuses, such as healthcare workers speeding up recovery times or magistrates reducing jail time, adding another layer of strategy to your team-building.
Characters feel unique with a solid variety of performances and personalities that they bring to cut scenes. When you play permadeath mode you are more likely to find recycled assets but a regular play of the game would vastly limit this, once you find a strong team. Characters can be further customised with unique tech and outfits.
The characters all feel like they fit into this world, this distinctly Watch Dogs spin on London, with the high tech modifications that proliferated Chicago and San Francisco in the previous games even extending to holographic statues. It all looks familiar but worryingly different.
The open-world play itself feels more streamlined than your usual Ubisoft game, the map isn’t littered with things to do, the game is largely centred on the recruitment mechanic so the majority of your in-game activities will be story-based missions or objectives to gain new supporters rather than random tasks. There are still tasks to do, taking out VIP targets or disrupting propaganda broadcasts, for example, and they could be seen as similar to things that weighed down recent entries in the Far Cry and Ghost Recon series but they are more spread apart and the tasks are more uniquely geared towards this gameplay style. Watch Dogs: Legion never feels like it is disrupting its narrative flow, it feels organic to the world and your story. This feels like Ubisoft remembering how to make an open-world game, which bodes well for the future of Assassin’s Creed in particular.
My main complaint around how it handles open-world play is in an over-reliance of certain areas, I found myself infiltrating the same base to complete unrelated side objectives several times. The classics of the genre (mainly from Rockstar, let’s be fair) know to make use of every part of the map because every inch of the map is designed to within an inch of its life, whereas Watch Dogs: Legion is fenced into the restrictions offered by a real-world location. There simply aren’t enough suitable spots for enemy strongholds in London, I guess.
Another notable issue with Watch Dogs: Legion, perhaps due to the complexity of the world and its detail, comes in the form of load times. I played this on a standard PS4 and loading times when entering a new scene or fast travelling to a new location can be very long. Disruptively long. It can seriously hamper the momentum of the game when you are pushing through the story and a load screen hits you, dragging things to a standstill.
And, finally, a much smaller but still significant criticism is the existence of microtransactions. It is nothing to be alarmed about but it is worth noting. The game’s store currently only holds some gaudy cosmetic bundles, a placeholder spot for the Season Pass, and three operatives. These operatives are not remotely essential to the game, they do not possess any abilities you cannot find in the wild, but it is nonetheless unfortunate that certain characters are being price-locked. Additionally, you can buy bonus packs of the game's currency so you can get more in-game cosmetics while travelling around London. At the time of writing the WD Credits part of the sore is not activated so I could not check the pricing.
None of the microtransactions mentioned are essential to progress through the game. Nothing about Watch Dogs: Legion is level-gated to necessitate pay-to-win or endless grinding to improve your characters, I managed to flow through the main campaign without anything encumbering me. You can make all the progress you need simply by playing the game but this is why the existence of microtransactions feels so out of place, there is no point to them.
These criticisms are relatively mild and do not get in the way of Watch Dogs: Legion being a brilliant experience. The story is gripping and the game brings exciting new mechanics to an already mechanically sound series to give us one of the most original and entertaining open-world titles of this era.