What a difference eight months can make in game development. Back in October of last year, Ubisoft announced that it was delaying Watch Dogs: Legion to an undisclosed date in 2020. The original release date had Legion releasing in March, right at the beginning of our current endless void where time has no meaning. Now, the next Watch Dogs is coming on Oct. 29 for a dizzying array of platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X, and Google Stadia.
I previewed Watch Dogs: Legion three months ago, during what would normally have been E3. So returning to the game now, I didn't expect to see much in the way of change. Surprisingly, Ubisoft has tweaked and improved Legion ahead of launch. It's not a new game entirely, but even from the beginning of my demo I noticed changes.
For example, recruitment options have grown. In Watch Dogs: Legion, every generated character pulls from a pool of perks, having somewhere between zero and three available to them. (Yeah, some folks just fail the digital lottery.) There are new options like "Famous," which sees that person get noticed in public and is probably not conductive to stealth; "Glass Cannon," where a person both take and deal more damage; and "Flatulent," where your chosen member will… sometimes fart and alert enemies to their presence. Some of the combinations don't make any sense—how does a transient have a silenced MP5?—but making up stories to square those circles is part of the fun.
This is apparently the final suite of perks available to the character generation, according to Watch Dogs Legion creative director Clint Hocking. "Yeah, that'll be the final mix. I mean it doesn't mean you've seen everything, for sure," he tells me. He's a little more coy about the team adding more perks to the system post-launch, calling it "an ongoing conversation" and noting that Ubisoft will have "more details about post-launch and live coming up in a couple weeks."
The initial version of Watch Dogs: Legion shown to the public had perks that could be unlocked, making for RPG-style progression per character. Hocking says that system was cut because it saw players focusing on just a few characters, rather than playing the field.
"When we were gearing up to ship last year, we were playtesting the game, getting lots of feedback, closing the game down, and coming to understand what were the best parts of our game," says Hocking. "When we took a hard look at it and had that extra year, we felt that the commitment and the investment in leveling up individual characters was creating a pull-away effect, where characters that you spent a long time playing would cause you to play fewer and fewer characters, right? What we wanted was for players to engage with lots of characters and all of the diversity of the game. So we took most of the perks—not all of them—we either incorporated them into gadgets or we turned them into new traits. So almost all of that content is still there, along with new content that was added to balance things out."
I spent a lot of my demo just going through people's profiles. I found Veronica Gamage, who makes her living as a Living Statue, and can actually pose as a statue to hide from pursuit. There was also Michael Taylor, a Shopaholic who randomly buys clothes on a whim… using the team's money. There's a wide variety of excellence and nonsense out there.
I ultimately settled on a malcontent called Fred Shaw for my main character this playthrough. Shaw is a curator—of what?—who corresponds with incarcerated serial killers by mail. He definitely looks the part too, to the point that I didn't buy him new duds. The red cap, the beard, the backpack; it's all firmly his energy. Shaw came complete with two fantastic perks: Gambling Addict and Doomed. The first causes him to randomly gamble my money, either losing or gaining cash at random intervals. The second causes spontaneous death. Yeah, I couldn't resist seeing if Shaw would kick the bucket during my demo. Sadly, he did not. He did gamble away a good chunk of my money, though.
The borough liberation system, which sees you freeing a section of London from Albion, has also been tweaked slightly. Completing a borough now rewards you with unique versions of certain operative classes like Spy or Hitman, each with an extra perk and full set designed to synergize well. If you have permadeath on, Hocking confirms that you can lose them, but they aren't the only character of that class available to you.
"So if you find a Beekeeper in the world, they'll always have their gun, their suit, their bees, but if you get the beekeeper from borough liberation, they'll have an additional property. Now, that doesn't mean you can't also find a beekeeper in the world with an additional property; it's just the one you get from borough liberation is curated to have an extra property that synergizes with their ability. All of those characters are part of the open world and you can find them all by exploring," says Hocking.
For a game that says it's staying apolitical, I spend a lot of time helping citizens during violent arrests. One mission had me rescuing an undocumented immigrant in the midst of a harsh crackdown. And the citizens of London are more than willing to scrap with occupying Albion security forces in this build of the game. I saved one lady by distracting the Albion guard with static, only for her to promptly deliver a clean neckbreaker to him, despite "wrestler" not being in her job description. I stopped one arrest, and literally five citizens just beat the shit out of the Albion cop until he was down, including what seemed to be a mild-mannered secretary.
I ultimately recruited an Albion contractor in preparation for a story mission. The mission involved sneaking onto a blast site for information about the bombing attacks that pushed London into Albion police state. With an Albion guy on my side, I was able to simply walk onto the site. It actually made the mission kind of easy, something I questioned Hocking about.
"So access gameplay is a certain kind of approach. It's the same as remote gameplay, using drones, cameras, and spiderbots to not enter the location. Access is just another way of engaging with the location," explains Hocking. "In my opinion, it doesn't make it easier: you move more slowly, you can't crouch, you have to manage your cooldowns if you want to get past guards who get too close. You can still be detected, right? It's just another kind of stealth, another way of approaching a location."
"I find access gameplay to be very useful early in the game when you don't have a lot of abilities unlocked because you can go into pretty dangerous locations," he adds. "Definitely, I think once you've unlocked new gear and equipment, access gameplay is still an option for you, but you have so many more tools and approaches that you can use that it just becomes another one of them."
Watch Dogs: Legion is coming to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, and this build showed off the addition of ray tracing, which is coming to those platforms and PC. Hocking says Ubisoft is looking to use the best of each platform. "One thing that really comes to mind is the Haptic Feedback on the PS5, which I think is really cool," says Hocking. But there won't be huge differences in terms of overall play or crowd density.
"It's always our goal when we're making a current gen/next-gen crossover to make sure that we're really protecting the core player experience," he tells me. "We're not going to quadruple the number of vehicles because we can, and then find out that driving is clunky and it's not fun to drive because you're always in a traffic jam, right? We're always trying to balance the play experience. So there will be minor differences between the platforms, but I think really the focus is going to just be on making sure that the games look as great as they possibly can on the next generation of hardware along with supporting select features that we can."
Closing out my time with the demo, I noted that Ubisoft is bringing Watch Dogs protagonist Aiden Pearce back in post-launch content. When Ubisoft announced that Aiden was returning, the internet rose up, asking why Watch Dogs 2's Marcus Holloway wasn't chosen for a return trip. I also asked if Marcus would be returning in future content. (Note: Ubisoft announced that Watch Dogs 2's Wrench would also be coming to the game, as would a character tied to Assassin's Creed.)
"I think both characters, in fact many characters across Watch Dogs, including other characters from Watch Dogs 1 and 2 are actually quite popular. I think that we're definitely looking at all of the options for giving fans new ways to appreciate 'play as anyone' and Aiden is an exciting place to start and we'll see where it goes from there," Hocking said cryptically.
Watch Dogs: Legion is right around the corner, coming to everything under the sun minus the Nintendo Switch. You can pick it up on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia on October 29, 2020, or on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X when those consoles launch. And hopefully, I'll be able to find someone as awesome as Fred Shaw again, to spit in the face of destiny once more.