I was extremely excited for Watch Dogs Legion. Not because of the game itself, mind you – the franchise’s second game and its silly take completely ruined my future expectations – but because it was set in my city. As a Londoner, I couldn’t wait for the chance to walk around virtual versions of the places that I see every single day – but unfortunately just like its gameplay quality, Watch Dogs Legion’ recreation of London is all over the place.
The third game in the franchise is set in the United Kingdom’s capital city, years after a fake terrorist attack made the Prime Minister cede all control to a private military contractor called Albion. This new dystopian government disbanded Parliament and now rules over the city with an iron fist, watching everything and everyone with cameras and drones in the sky.
That is, in theory. In practice, the everwatchful evil government seems unable to spot you as you speed down an avenue in Central London with a stolen car, running over everyone in the street with impunity. They rarely pull their automatic rifles on you as you beat down dozens of their soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, and their security seems surprisingly lax as you just casually stroll into highly-secure buildings and proceed to attack every civilian and guard inside with a police baton, nary an alert sounding. For an evil dystopian authoritarian government, Albion is surprisingly harmless.
Playing as a member of Deadsec – a hacker criminal group framed by Albion as the perpetrators of the terrorist attack committed by Albion themselves – you must rebuild the team and “liberate” boroughs of London by turning them defiant through one or two very small, minor acts of vandalism. Paint a couple of walls, rescue two people, and boom – the whole borough now rebels against the hundreds of military private contractors with guns and you gain a new special agent like a hitman or an MI6 spy for your team.
If that sounds a bit too straightforward, that’s because it is. The core gameplay of Watch Dogs Legion involves a series of missions strewn about the open-world map of London, with activities ranging from rescuing prisoners and taking out targets to racing against time and recovering sensitive data or objects. The game is quite strong on navigation and infiltrating security facilities, so most objectives require you to do some urban platforming and sneak into a guarded area in order to find someone, something, or both.
While those activities are in general fun and mildly enjoyable, they are also surprisingly shallow. When the game starts, you will be sneaking into police checkpoints with a non-lethal gun and a couple of gadgets and arming “traps” – power boxes and the like – with your magic mobile phone. 35 hours later, you will still be doing the exact same things, except you will have a couple more gadgets and weapons in your inventory.
Part of that issue is the surprisingly uninspired upgrade system. For a big game whose unique selling point is “play any of the 6 million NPCs in London”, the actual amount of world interaction feels like a step back from most similar games out there. You only get four weapons to choose from: a pistol, an SMG, a shotgun, and a grenade launcher – all bright yellow and non-lethal (there are more classic guns like M9s and MP5s, but those are randomly equipped in random NPCs and exclusive to them). You got a handful of gadgets like stun mines and variations of the same spider-bot, and a couple of in-combat hacks that allow you to stun an opponent or jam their gun with your mobile phone, but you would think a game literally built around the concept of using hacks as a weapon would be more creative than “do one of two things”.
In fact, that mobile phone dilemma is a perfect representation of Watch Dogs Legion as a whole – it is a game that wants to pretend to be deep, but it is deeply divided over its own identity and fails to actually get anywhere. Where Watch Dogs 1 presented hacks in a grounded manner, using the idea that all city’s services were connected to a ctOS system – therefore letting you change traffic lights or cause blackouts by tapping into that mainframe – Legion instead goes the “magic” route. There is no explanation as for why your mobile phone can jam normal ballistic firearms, or how an augmented reality cloak turns you invisible in real life; in fact, the mobile itself is not even important anymore. Aiden Pierce would take the phone out of his pocket and hold it, swiping the screen as he read people’s profiles or triggered events throughout the city. Legion’s characters simply pull the phone out of thin air, tap the screen for a split-second, and hide it away. Even the profiler – an amazing bit of in-game trivia that let you read people’s lives – is gone, replaced with a super trimmed down “this is what they are doing right now” report and a “deep profiler” that gives you people’s agenda only when you tag them as potential recruits. It’s all very gamey, and not at all immersive or creative.
Still, Legion can be fun. For the first few hours or so, as you are going around the city exploring and learning the game mechanics, it can keep you entertained. However, as the hours pile on and you realise the depth isn’t forthcoming but just isn’t there, the experience starts to lose its luster. Even the USP of “playing as anyone” ends up being a bit flat, thanks to the sheer disconnect it causes between the world events and how silly it is as a concept.
Recruiting an NPC in Watch Dogs – there are no “main” scripted characters – involves finding them in the street and doing a mission. People who like you require a small errand – go there and steal this information, for example – while people that don’t like you (e.g. Albion guards) need to be convinced. Luckily, everyone can be apparently swayed to your ranks with enough favours. Despite how simplistic the whole concept is, the sheer believability of it is absurd – recruitment efforts literally start with your operative approaching a random stranger in the street and asking them for help murdering the government, and they often agree to do it in exchange for a super meaningless thing like “find out why my friend was fired from their last job”. It’s bad enough that anyone suddenly turns into a sharpshooter hacking machine – the prospect of people casually joining a purposed terrorist group and agreeing to beat the crap out of police officers over a meaningless favour sounds remarkably far-fetched.
Even worse is the fact you can’t approach people who don’t like you – the game arbitrarily stops you from talking to anyone not willing to be “recruited”, meaning you can never fail to recruit someone as you can only press the talk button prompt if they’re ready to consider joining Dedsec. Throughout my whole time with Legion, the one thing in my mind was how meaningful the game could be – instead of every single NPC becoming a cookie-cutter operative, you could have base staff, engineers, hackers, activists, and a whole rear echelon recruits whose job would be to provide upgrades and make Dedsec’s structure better in addition to the field operatives, but instead we get a deeply mediocre, average mechanic which hundred of playable people fail to replace the presence of even a single real, written character.
The truth is I really wanted to like Watch Dogs Legion, but the game seems poised to be less than it could be at every single point. London’s recreation changes from some buildings being remarkably accurate to the absolute butchering of most of the city – including the complete removal of Oxford Circus and other landmarks, and the enclosement of big avenues near Regent’s Park with houses in a way that box up the city like an Inception dream, where the world clearly “ends”. As a Londoner, I could identify one single landmark area that was done accurately – the County Hall – alongside very good recreations of Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, and the Palace of Westminster. Everything else, including Bank, St Paul’s Cathedral,the Tower and Millenium bridges, and the most shabby recreations of Piccadilly Circus and Angel I’ve ever seen, only provide a passing resemblance to the real places and would stand out as wrong even to tourists who have only been here once. I would understand that sort of disregard in a game like GTA, where Los Angeles is “Los Santos”, but for a game whose marketing focused so much on being a recreation of London, the end result is quite bad. It’s better than Syndicate’s warm palette London, at least, but that bar is so low that clearing it still means you’re scratching the devil’s back.
Performance was surprisingly a bad point in the game, as Ubisoft games tend to be well optimized. The game was unplayable on 4K and 2K, and even 1080p hit its fair share of stutters and freezes – a shocking result on a rig that regularly runs 4K games for review with nary a hiccup. Even though we received review code far later than other outlets and received patches during our playthrough of the game, the updates were unable to fix most issues and performance remains a considerable problem.
Still, something must be said for the effort put behind the multiple NPCs that you can recruit. A vast amount of dialogue was clearly recorded, with different accents and actors providing different takes on the capital’s denizens. Weirdly, even though nearly 40% of London’s population is famously known to be born outside of the UK, the game’s overwhelming characters are British – google luck finding Italian, Frenchmen, Polish, Brazilian, or any other citizens from any of the many countries making up the city. The game tries to wave it away as Albion deporting people for looking foreign, but that would mean turning London into a ghost town and makes as much sense as the rest of the plot.
Still, the little character bios you get when you recruit a character are interesting. You get to see their salary, personal life details, and amusing or weird facts about themselves, such as being a furry, googling weird things, or running a marathon with a broken ankle. I particularly like how different characters have different fighting styles, with athletes and spies having amazing animations during melee attacks.
But in the end, the good things do not outnumber the bad – or worse, the mediocres. Watch Dogs Legion still comes off as less than the sum of its parts, mainly because those parts are surprisingly shallow and undeveloped if you do not rush the game to completion. I really wanted to like the game and I would love to spend more time in its fake and wildly inaccurate representation of my own city, but the uninspiring gameplay and poor performance make that a very hard proposition. The truth is it’s even hard to recommend it to anyone but the most diehard fans of the series – Watch Dogs Legion is at times a fun game, but it can’t in all honesty be called a good one.
WATCH DOGS: LEGION VERDICT
A surprisingly inaccurate recreation of London ties into simplistic gameplay and terrible performance to create a deeply flawed and shallow game.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Exploring the open-world and using a flying drone to hover over the city (“flying” would be too strong a word, since you can’t move faster than a tortoise and the flight ceiling is incredibly restrictive)
Melee fights have mostly incredible animations
It's great to see London in a game, even if it is so wrong in so many places it kills me a bit inside
The idea of recruiting anyone is novel and vaguely interesting
City is lively and full of places to infiltrate
Melee fights are extremely sluggish and repetitive
Aside from a few buildings, most landmarks in London are either wrong or absent
Recruitment NPCs is ridiculously simplistic, generic, and absurd
Story and plot are quite bad
Watch Dogs as a franchise lost its way after the first game, and it still hasn't found it back
About Marcello Perricone
Passionate, handsome, and just a tiny bit cocky, our resident Time Lord loves history, science, and all things that fall from the sky.