It’s rare that a big-budget gaming sequel attempts to push the envelope. Usually, once triple-A franchises find a successful formula, deviating is a major financial and creative risk. Despite this, Watch Dogs: Legion bravely seeks to offer players a fresh experience — even if its attempted innovations don’t completely pay off.
The third entry in Ubisoft’s hacker-themed Watch Dogs franchise, Legion departs from its predecessors in a few important ways. The first, most apparent change is seen in its approach to structure: Legion significantly updates the otherwise tired open-world formula by stripping away the notion of a central character who provides the story’s dramatic thrust. Unlike the first two games, Legion uses a “play as anyone” mechanic that allows players to approach any passing nonplayer character, or NPC, and recruit them to the cause of DedSec, the protagonist hacker group, thereby turning them into a playable character.
This change has far-reaching implications: Each mission is set up so that it can be approached differently by characters whose specific attributes give them an edge. If players recruit police officers or rival gang members, for example, they can stealthily infiltrate areas restricted to those who have authorized access. Alternatively, players can enlist a John Wick-esque professional hitman, who takes less damage and can execute stylish attacks that make gun battles more manageable.
Legion also innovates in its approach to setting. While the other Watch Dogs games played out in contemporary American cities that were just beginning to adopt a citywide surveillance system known as ctOS, Legion smartly pushes its story deeper into the realm of speculative fiction by instead choosing a semifuturistic date some 10 years from now.
Legion’s London is far better suited to the hacker fantasy than Watch Dogs’ 2013 Chicago or Watch Dogs 2’s 2016 San Francisco is, but it still suffers from much of the same repetitive design that makes the series’ world traversal unengaging. Driving in Legion feels no more polished than it did six years ago in the first Watch Dogs, and the map is still pockmarked by hundreds of mindless side objectives that essentially involve walking up to a glowing object and pressing the E key.
The best aspects of Legion are related to the recruitment and maintenance of a robust DedSec roster — finding rare characters with unique abilities is fun, and the community-minded gameplay complements Legion’s narrative themes, which revolve around London rising against its oppressors.
Within a few hours of gameplay, however, the technical seams become blatantly apparent. Each recruitment mission is essentially a cheap randomized encounter that mixes up the variables but retains the same simplistic loop: Players walk up to NPCs, who instantly recognize them as members of a supposedly anonymous hacker group, immediately blurting out, “Hey, you’re DedSec, right? I need help.”
From there, players are assigned one of four or five possible missions (e.g., rescue a hostage, hack a target, steal a vehicle), the successful completion of which will earn the NPC’s loyalty. While Legion’s goal is to make each randomly generated character feel like a real person with a deep backstory, the result is that most NPCs are revealed to be shallow clones.
The story also suffers from its defocused main character. Though Legion takes players on some interesting, dark detours reminiscent of the technological fables of “Black Mirror,” the overall plot remains disconnected and only sporadically interesting. There is a ticking clock element to the gameplay, however — tension mainly arises out of the fact that Legion is so poorly optimized that it may completely crash at any moment. Players fight through low frame rates, game-breaking glitches and significant progress losses, racing against time to be able to beat Legion as the game buckles under its own load.
In an industry that often rewards developers for repackaging the same exact game with a “2” slapped on the end, Watch Dogs: Legion gets points for thinking outside the box. Unfortunately, the execution of these potentially innovative ideas leaves much to be desired. The final product, though punctuated by moments of engaging plot and satisfying gameplay, mostly frustrates players, who by the end of its messy, drawn-out campaign want nothing more than to be done with it.
This review is based on the PC version of Watch Dogs: Legion.
Neil Haeems covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].