There’s a fine line between “gimmick” and “mechanic” when it comes to gameplay. Sometimes, they can be the same thing, but in my mind, a gameplay mechanic fundamentally changes the way you perceive and approach situations in a game, while a gimmick is a flashy marketing bullet point on the back of the proverbial box.
I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that more ambitiously blurs the already fine line between “gimmick” and “mechanic” than Watch Dogs: Legion. “You can play as anyone” seems almost too good to be true, and yet here it is, in what is arguably Ubisoft’s most aspirational game since the original Assassin’s Creed. But the way in which playing as anyone impacts your approach to Legion’s gameplay elements is more esoteric than practical, and even then there’s a caveat.
Set in near-future London, Watch Dogs: Legion sees hacktivist group DedSec dealing with the fallout of citywide bombings from a terrorist entity known only as Zero-Day, which frames DedSec for the attack. Following a raid by the private security group Albion, DedSec London is almost entirely wiped out, save for a sole member, Sabine Brandt, and the group’s AI assistant, Bagley. DedSec must then recruit new members to the cause and investigate Zero-Day and its ties to Albion, the Clan Kelley gang, the revolutionary tech company Broca Tech, and the intelligence agency SIRS, in order to uncover the truth.
As a way into Legion’s “play as anyone” gimmick-mechanic, this story setup does what it needs to do: It empties DedSec’s roster and lets players slot in the characters they choose to recruit. But as far as creating a compelling narrative, making DedSec itself the protagonist creates a smoldering crater where character should be.
The only consistent voice throughout the game’s relatively short main narrative is Bagley, the Broca-built AI that’s been reprogrammed to help DedSec coordinate its infiltration of London’s various powerful institutions. For a series that’s always posited humanity’s greatest tragedy is the irresponsible ways in which it utilizes technology, slotting in an admittedly charming but otherwise single-minded AI as the voice of the “protagonist” feels disingenuous, despite a late game revelation that’s meant to give Bagley a sense of humanity. The fact that not a single member of DedSec who dies at the beginning of the game exists as anything other than cannon fodder for the purposes of the plot doesn’t help either. What if the writers had brought back Marcus Holloway as a liaison from the San Francisco chapter, only to kill him off in the first half-hour of the game? Yes, it would have been bold, and potentially ruined future DLC plans, and killed off the series’ most likable character next to Wrench, but it would have given players—especially fans of the series—some real motivation.
In fact, for a story that tackles relevant subject matter such as police brutality, capitalist-driven technofascism, and the very concept of human consciousness, Legion’s plot is unsurprisingly (given its publisher’s history) full of half-measures and tired tropes. It presents abuses of power as sole products of individual avarice, ego, and extremist ideology, giving a pass to the institutions that allow these threats to surface in the first place. In recasting the police with a privately owned security firm and foisting hero status on the one good cop who’s standing up to corruption, Legion willfully ignores the fact that mass surveillance in a supposedly democratic state is a real, government-mandated institution in the very city it claims as its setting. And by making the villains hyperreal caricatures of criminality, militarism, and conspiracy, Legion becomes yet another Ubisoft game that leans on clichés while exploiting real societal ills for the sake of worldbuilding.
Legion’s main message, after all that, seems to be that we all need to work together if we want to solve these problems, and the game’s recruitment mechanic does a lot of the heavy lifting to get that point across. Metaphorically, eschewing a single protagonist in favor of a collective group of hacktivists rejects the hero myth in favor of something much more democratic. In practice, though, this metaphor rings a bit hollow, as the characters you recruit to your DedSec team might have all the superficial signs of individuality, but they lack any real sense of history or personality aside from how they feel about DedSec at any given moment. Considering the massive scope of the game, and all the work that already went into programming such an intricate web of NPCs and their relationship to DedSec, it’s probably unfair to hold that against the developer, which has presented something wholly unique to the open-world action genre. But then it’s also a bit ridiculous to think that you can make a profound statement about collective action when the individuals who make up that collective are only as individual as their superficial cosmetics and skill specs allow them to be.
But the question is, “Is being able to recruit any NPC to your team and play as them a fun experience that adds something to the game?” The answer: Yes, of course it is.
When it comes to the main meat of Legion’s gameplay, which is the hacktion, the recruitment mechanic creates more of a limitation than an expansion on the previous game. Instead of playing as a character that can do everything, you’re playing as many characters that can do some things, maybe even one thing. It’s like Marcus’ abilities from Watch Dogs 2 were divided equally amongst his benefactors.
That might sound like a bad thing, but in practice it means that you’re constantly scanning the crowd to see if someone has an ability that you want on your team of Operatives. What that also means is that Legion actively encourages you to walk around its beautifully realized and diverse version of London and take in the sights while people-watching. The ability for most cars to drive themselves to your destination while you sit back and watch the world also speaks to Legion’s attitude towards how it wants players to interact with their surroundings. This isn’t really a game that wants you to rush through it, because the main storyline isn’t that long. It’s all about interacting with the systems that it’s established at your own pace.
Recruiting an NPC is simple enough—maybe a little simpler than people are expecting. If they like DedSec or feel neutral towards DedSec, which is indicated when you scan them, you can simply walk up to them and strike up a conversation. They’ll tell you a problem they have and you go and solve that problem in the form of one of several different mission types. That could be rescuing a friend imprisoned by Albion, stealing back a car from Clan Kelley, or hacking a hospital so that their loved one’s medical issues get priority. (That last one feels oddly out of step with DedSec’s mission, considering that means skipping over someone else who needs medical care, but we’ll ignore that for now.) Complete the mission, and that recruit is now a member of DedSec.
If they don’t like you, it’ll take an extra step. First, you’ll need to Deep Scan them with an ability that you unlock, which lays out their schedule for the day. At the top of the schedule, you’ll see a problem they have. This is usually a smaller version of the recruitment missions. Solve that problem, and you’ll need to do another recruitment mission. It’s a little disappointing that figuring out how to get them to like you is simply another matter of going to a point on the map and doing something, instead of having to sleuth out their problem for yourself, but it also makes it simple to recruit someone valuable like an Albion guard or a Clan Kelley gang member.
The most interesting aspect of this system is how your actions create reverberations throughout the web-like connections between the NPCs in the game. Maybe you never even interacted with someone before, but they heard that you saved their friend from a kidnapping, which makes them like you and thus easier to recruit. Or maybe you killed their sister, so they hate you with such a passion that they kidnap one of your operatives, who you then rescue. Maybe you kill them on this rescue mission, leaving another loved one to grieve in your wake.
The other aspect of Legion that felt refreshing, thanks to this recruitment tool, is permadeath. Yes, you can turn off permadeath at any point, but I highly suggest playing with it on. Simply put, permadeath impacts every decision that you make and the way that it feels to move around Legion’s open world.
In a more practical sense, it makes you play more carefully, especially when using an Operative that you like. While Watch Dogs 2 encouraged players to use non-lethal means, my Marcus was a stone-cold killer because there weren’t any real consequences to not murdering enemies. Legion makes it so that enemies will engage you in hand-to-hand combat first, unless you already have your gun out, non-lethal or not. Straight-on gunfights can turn sour really quickly, which could result in permanently losing a character with stats that you like, so in that way, playing safe and using stealth and hacking to quietly knock out enemies is generally the best course of action.
But then there are those weird esoteric qualities to playing in permadeath. I have a pretty nasty fear of heights in real life, but it’s not something I’ve generally felt when playing a game. However, standing on the edge of a tall building, knowing one bad movement could kill off my character, gave me that familiar rush of fear-based adrenaline. That probably doesn’t sound like a positive experience, but in actuality it made the entirety of London feel more real, more tactical, and the consequences of actions like jaywalking or flying down the wrong side of the road feel more like their real-life counterparts.
It also made me reconsider my relationship to the rest of the NPCs. Knowing that when my character died they died for good gave the lives of the other NPCs more weight, too. Sure, it’s a surface-level version of empathy, and games are no strangers to encouraging empathy through their storytelling tools, but I’m talking about NPCs here, the ants under the magnifying glass. I really tried my best to not hurt them, not just because it would damage DedSec’s reputation, at least in the eyes of that particular NPC, but also because I didn’t want to hurt them. Believe me when I say that this is unusual for me.
Still, there are moments when the illusion breaks. Because the NPCs follow a schedule, that means that you can run into one of your own Operatives, walking around in the world. One time, I was getting into a fight with an Albion patrol and one of my Operatives walked by. Instead of jumping into the fight and helping out, they scurried and ran like a normal NPC. Considering that this Operative had, mere hours ago, choked-out several armed Albion guards in a high-security facility without even breaking a sweat, I found it strange that they would react this way, not to mention when the situation involved one of their teammates. Other moments, like finding one of my Operatives’ acquaintances tied up multiple times by Albion, created a sense of the Matrix glitching out.
A Note on Watch Dogs: Legion‘s Technical Issues
Speaking of glitching out, I have to mention that I did experience a few technical issues during my time with Watch Dogs: Legion. One particularly pernicious bug that occurred multiple times during a particular cutscene would completely crash my Xbox One X, sending it into an “overheated” state that made it impossible to progress past that point. When I switched over to my standard Xbox One, the cutscene stuttered and dropped frames, but it didn’t crash my system. I was then able to continue playing on the One X. Fortunately, Ubisoft is already aware and working on a patch that is set to go live on October 30th, so the issue will hopefully be fixed by the time you reach those moments. Since I was able to eventually get past this part, it didn’t affect my overall impressions of the game, but it is an issue that could have completely ruined the experience otherwise.
Is Legion the lifelike simulation of modern society that the idea of “playing as anyone” seems to indicate? Not really. All of this stuff still boils down to video game tropes of killing and rescuing. Unless someone is tagged as an elderly person, there’s no discernable difference between playing as different NPCs, other than the abilities that you get. There are different voice lines in cutscenes, depending on which Operative you’re using at a time, but they’re all generally some baseline of badass or sarcastic.
Yes, playing as anyone is a gimmick, but it’s also an incredible foundation for the direction that I personally think games like this need to take. We’ve started to see hints of real interactivity, real memory, in open-world AI over the last couple of years. Red Dead Redemption 2’s townsfolk felt more lifelike and emergent than anything Rockstar had previously created, and that certainly added to the sense of immersion. But open-world games still tend to boast about how big and beautiful their maps are, when the future is more likely the shrinking of the exterior in favor of the expansion of the interior. Now if only Ubisoft’s attitude towards storytelling could catch up with its own technology.
Watch Dogs: Legion pushes through Ubisoft’s generally noncommittal attitude towards storytelling and exploiting current events to create something that feels like a genuine shift, or at least the prototype of that shift. It might be a sloppy game in many regards, but Legion offers a novel way to experience an open world, with its interconnected NPCs and the introduction of permadeath to the genre.
M - Mature
|Watch Dogs: Legion is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Product was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Michael Goroff has written and edited for EGM since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @gogogoroff.