"This is my hero. There are many like it, but this one is mine." That's how I feel about Ruben Flagg, my de facto protagonist in Watch Dogs: Legion. I didn't choose him; he was one of the operatives granted to me after the game's introduction. But Ruben made an impact on me. I don't know if that's because of his look: yellow dreadlocks and undercut marked off by a huge skull tattoo on his face, with a jacket that screams "future". Maybe it was his background as a board game designer who spends his time on the darkweb, and whose first noted associate is his dealer. He wasn't even a very good character overall, given that he only had a single perk.
Regardless, Ruben became the face of DedSec in my Watch Dogs: Legion. You might not run into anyone like him in your game, but that's part of the magic of Watch Dogs: Legion. The game is about spinning up an entire city of unique characters to play with. The issue is the missions end up being more rote and repetitive than those colorful, vibrant characters.
Saturday Morning Evil
Watch Dogs: Legion is the latest entry in Ubisoft's series of open world action games rooted in hacking, surveillance, and stealth. Like the rest of the series, Watch Dogs: Legion is rooted in the near-future; close enough to be recognizable as a current, real-world metropolis, but far enough away that network technology is irreversibly tied with infrastructure. The person who controls the network, in other words, controls the city. Instead of Chicago or San Francisco, Legion moves the series to London, already one of the biggest surveillance states in the Western world.
The anarchistic hacker collective DedSec returns, but this time, you don't play as a single protagonist. Instead, Watch Dogs Legion wants to hammer home the feeling of a collective, allowing you to recruit anyone in the city to your cause. Your collective is up against a group called Zero Day, who pins a series of terrorist bombings in London on DedSec, leading to a greater institution of "law and order". Private security firm Albion takes over the city, installing security checkpoints and cracking down on the local populace. It's here that Watch Dogs: Legion reveals itself as probably Ubisoft's most politically-explicit titles to date, touching on police brutality, incarceration, anti-immigration sentiment, and other hot-button issues.
Given the state of the world in 2020, much of what appears in Watch Dogs Legion is timely. The thing is, Albion sidesteps real-world groups and organizations, and is instead presented as a comically-evil organization that gives Ubisoft a bit of a shield for storytelling purposes. They're so evil that ultimately Legion says nothing about any of those topics, outside of "thing bad". So if you're looking for deeper commentary on reality, this isn't necessarily a part of the game's main campaign.
If you take the time to listen to incidental conversations or protests, you'll get a look at the studios deeper thoughts on some of these ideas. Legion has things to say, but it's on the side, not in the main story that plays out more like a darker version of G.I. Joe. You do get to punch faux law enforcement and harassers to your heart's content, so there's simple catharsis to be found here.
You Can Truly Play As Anyone
The real showcase of Watch Dogs Legion is the system that allows you to "Play As Anyone". Similar to Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System, it spins up impressive combinations of physical looks, voices, personalities, clothing, and perks. Legion populates the fictional London with all of these characters, who go about their lives until you intersect with them, whether that intersection is beneficial or harmful.
While you're walking the streets of say, Camden, you can ping people to get a glimpse into their lives. The person you just passed is a mathematician who gambles all of their hard-earned cash and is doomed to die a spontaneous death. Another man is an interior designer who lost his life's work in a lab fire. (How?) Perhaps you'll cross paths with a groundskeeper who's rumored to be a master burglar.
While all of this seems skin deep early on, eventually you'll unlock the Deep Profiler, which is honestly game-changing enough that it should be a timed unlock and not an optional one. With this tool, you can see the full scope of what's available in Legion, allowing you to dive into the daily activities of each potential recruit. When I decided I wanted to recruit musician Gadisa Getachew, because I wanted an operative whose only perk was "Trumpet", I was able to see that he was going to perform at a nightclub, before getting a drink at his local bar bar and then… uhhh, going to rehab. When activist Yong Lai stops protesting, he goes to therapy with his brother. Sophia Langlois, a digital privacy advocate, usually spends an hour each night playing video games with her wife. The profile is a glimpse into the fake lives of these citizens.
They aren't just words either. You can stalk—for lack of a better word—any one of these recruits, and they'll largely follow the profile. The connections are really what matters though: each character has friends and family, and as your actions affect those lives, they ripple outward to their network. Dianne Hightower, a mortician I wanted to recruit because of her "Doomed" trait, hated DedSec because at some point one of my operatives hit her with a car. Oops. Another operative joined the team because I happened to be walking by his sister getting arrested and decided to taser the arresting officer, giving her time to get away. You can ignore a lot of this, but the more you engage with it, the more impressive what Ubisoft has built here becomes.
The Play Repeats
The reason you need all this data on is because you're attempting to recruit people for specific purposes. Certain backgrounds have access to certain perks, like doctors being able to speed up the recovery time of injured operatives, or a hacker being able to steal encryption keys from any range. Even beyond that, Legion introduces the idea of Access Control: certain areas are off-limits except for those of certain professions. If there's a mission on a construction site, your musician will be attacked on sight, while a construction worker can walk around just fine if they keep a low profile. Or there's just a skill gap: when I decided to tackle the Bare Knuckle Boxing League, I recruited referee Jennifer Lam, who had two physical perks that made her take less damage.
It's worth your time to recruit a character from a few backgrounds, including doctors, construction workers, barristers, and even Albion employees. The latter, in fact, are some of the most useful characters, and it's probably worth your time to recruit at least one. Exploiting access control can make certain missions easier, though it's balanced by the fact that you can't walk too close to enemies or they'll find you out and you can't take cover.
All of this helps to set Watch Dogs: Legion apart from its predecessors, though not as much as you might think. In fact, if you strip out the concept of access control, Legion plays the same as Watch Dogs and Watch Dogs 2. Ubisoft's resources were spent on crafting the "Play As Anyone" system while leaving the rest mostly unchanged. Otherwise, this is still the same system of hacking and cover stealth, and it's one that's starting to feel a bit stale.
You'll come across the same missions over and over again. Go here, hack a server, take down a target, or steal something. I got used to the formula in a recent replay of Watch Dogs 2, and nothing has changed here. The game does take on some more interesting concepts in the story missions, but I would've liked more of them spread across the whole game. The actions available to the player haven't changed overall, and I think the hacking concept could use some further expansion at this point.
Worse, there's a depressing lack of change in the game overall. As you complete certain tasks in the boroughs around London, you increased the defiance of the populace. Once it's at the maximum, you'll undertake a mission to free them. But once the people are free, the boroughs... look pretty much the same. The difference between a free and occupied borough is so minimal, and there really should be more to it.
There's also a lack of limitation. I heartily recommend choosing permadeath, because each of your operatives become far more important when they're able to die on a mission. (Or alternatively die in a car fire. Who knew a car would explode like that if you ran into a wall?) There's no actual limit on the actual number of people you can recruit, so I ended up just recruiting whoever caught my attention. A limit of 8-10 recruits would've made each one a firm member of the team. As it stands, I had 5-6 characters I really, really cared about and a host of meat shields I used for a single perk or job.
I previously mentioned access control, a system similar to the disguises in IO Interactive's Hitman series. In those games, when Agent 47 changes disguises, he leaves the previous one behind. If you need to become a cook to access a certain area and you're dressed as a cop, you need to find a cook's outfit. And when you change outfits, the cop uniform will be inaccessible; you have to sneak back to where you left the disguise or find a new one. That adds a good deal of interesting options to your infiltration of a region, and I don't necessarily feel that in Watch Dogs Legion.
Legion is also a strangely lonely experience. While you have an army at your back, they rarely interact except for the occasional team meeting. Legion could've done more missions where you have to switch between a number of operatives to succeed, which would've gone a long way to selling this version of DedSec as a team.
Watch Dogs: Legion isn't a step back for the franchise. If anything, I want to see what the team does with this framework in a future title, the same way I wanted someone—anyone!—to replicate the Nemesis System in another game. The problem is that Play As Anyone is a step forward for the tech, but not necessarily the gameplay, and the latter is what needs to evolve a bit.
If you're willing to engage with the myriad of generated people the game throws at you, Watch Dogs: Legion is an intriguing experience, and there are legitimately amazing moments where the interactions make the characters feel real. The realization that a character no longer indulges in their daily meal with a best friend, because that friend is gone as a result of your reckless actions is a damned gut punch. You can almost feel the hole left behind in the survivor's life. It's a truly intriguing bit of tech, and Watch Dogs Legion could've benefited greatly from a deeper open world to go alongside it. While the collective action of Legion is damned fun, that action isn't in the service of more change. And change is what the series needs in its third entry.
The new "Play As Anyone" system is as impressive as it sounds on paper, creating a host of intriguing characters if you choose to dive into their backgrounds. Crafting your own version of DedSec is a ton of fun, especially early on. The problem is the gameplay of Watch Dogs Legion is mostly the same as its predecessors and the missions are quite repetitive overall. It's not a step back for the series, but the hacking and stealth core of the series does need an overhaul.