Every now and then, video games commit a bit of self-sabotage by promising too much and underdelivering.
Watch Dogs: Legion could've easily fallen prey to such a fate. Developer Ubisoft Toronto didn't just promise a third installment in an uber-popular series, and it didn't just promise another open-world game.
It promised everything gamers have come to expect with open worlds, plus an innovative new "play as anyone" system meant to be taken quite literally. The idea, on paper, was recruiting and hopping between any encounterable NPCs in the open world, each with their own backstory, abilities and quite a bit more.
And as hinted, Watch Dogs: Legion doesn't come up short, instead cooking up something that feels quite a bit next-gen before the next-gen consoles even launch.
Graphics and Gameplay
Watch Dogs: Legion is a graphical powerhouse befitting of an offering that squeezes the absolute most out of current-generation systems at the end of their lifecycles.
The graphical fidelity and amount of detail packed into every block of this fictional London offering is almost as alarmingly immersive as it is impressive. Things look realistic, of course, but more staggering is the sheer amount of NPCs on the screen.
Simply put, this is one of the most detailed, impressive and immersive worlds we've seen in gaming to date. It feels densely populated at all hours of the day, and in addition to a wide variety of (not often repeating) vehicles on the roads and sailboats out in bodies of water, there are constant drones zipping overhead either surveying the population, delivering packages or something else.
It isn't uncommon to just walk down the street in the hustle and bustle without seeing a repeated vehicle, drones overhead and the authoritative figures of the narrative harassing the populace. Some side areas have stunning, unique graffiti art with papers blowing down the alleyway; more traditional buildings have a lived-in feel, if not a seedy underside with hints of abuse that play into the story.
While there aren't a massive number of building interiors to actually dive into, where there are packs just as much in detail. NPCs have their own conversations, backgrounds aren't lacking in attention and something like televisions are incredibly vivid in presenting clear broadcasts.
This all wouldn't be so impressive if it didn't just look so good. The night-day cycle and seemingly random weather patterns influence the feel of places players might retread a few times, with little things like puddles of water over cobblestones bordering on distracting.
Legion is packing a lot of those simply amazing open-world details we seem to take for granted now, like the radio show the character was listening to still able to be heard, albeit muffled, when the player hops out of the car and starts walking away.
Characters may look goofy stylistically at times (mercenaries taking over the country to reprogram the populace's style sense would be an understandable story beat), but they're packing a realism factor, especially facially, that most games wish to achieve. The trade-off seems to be spotty-to-poor lip-synching, but it's hard to complain about.
More problematic are the voices themselves. Presumably, there had to be some compromises while trying to fully voice an entire city where any NPC can technically serve as the main protagonists. But it's downright hilarious to sometimes get a bigger NPC with a squeaky voice, and players might find themselves cutting out parts of their group simply because of some of the voices.
Of course, Legion could be the prettiest game on the planet (it's up there) and it wouldn't matter if the gameplay wasn't fun.
Like the above where a compromise seemed to happen with iffy voice acting in favor of other things, it feels like a trade-off was made here.
The meat of Legion's gameplay is hacking areas, setting traps and approaching well-designed levels however a player sees fit. And it's a blast to dissect how to attack a certain area and with what member of the team.
Want to play as a construction worker who can ride atop his or her hauling drone and infiltrate the base from above? Done. Want to feel like James Bond as a spy character with a silencer and go the stealth route? Done. How about a bare-knuckle boxer? A painter with a paint bomb? An unemployed investor with no abilities whatsoever? Done, done and done.
But it seems Legion is about trade-offs, and the big one here is gunplay, which is...not great. It doesn't feel like there is a ton of punch behind the firearms, and while aiming is easy enough, enemies who don't appear to have any protection can take more shots than expected to fall. And it isn't uncommon, when discovered, to take on a ton of enemies at once while absorbing a ton of shots, too.
Funnily enough, if a player doesn't want to go the lethal-rounds route, getting discovered but not equipping a weapon seems to mean enemy NPCs won't take out their weapons either. Speaking of punching, melee combat isn't much better as far as impact. There are some different button prompts to know in order to break blocks and throw counters, but it's a lite version of melee combat compared to plenty of other games.
Truthfully, a lot of times it doesn't feel like there is a good enough reason to experiment with different classes of characters (hacker, enforcer and infiltrator) and types of gadgets. Players are bound to find their favorite NPCs and abilities and stick with them.
Oftentimes, the gameplay loop boils down to infiltrating a red spot on the world map and clicking L1 to hack some stuff and set some traps while zipping around trying not to get caught. Stealth feels like the best route in most cases, though going guns-blazing is just as viable.
When it comes to open-world gameplay, this is indeed another open-world game. That undersells just how impressive the city itself is and how densely populated it seems. But gameplay-wise, players can run around punching random people, earn this game's version of wanted stars, hijack any number of vehicles and all the expected stuff players have come to expect from big open-world games. There are even a few fun side games within the game, like boxing and some minor sports that make for good distractions.
There are a few fun wrinkles. While it's disappointing to see hacking traffic lights and such isn't apparently possible, hacking a bad guys car from afar and controlling it from a phone and just wreaking havoc in destructible environments as NPCs realistically react is downright hilarity.
Controlling aerial drones is simple enough too. And controlling something like a spider-bot can be tedious, but the smart puzzles associated with gaining access to places makes it worth the time.
Indeed, this is very much an open world where players might forget about the story path in a hurry. Legion oozes attention to detail, and it's fun to see the currently controlled character slip on a mask as soon as he or she starts to get up to no good. There's so much to explore and dynamic things happening out in the wild that even the gameplay shortcomings are passable.
Story and More
Legion's story starts players with a Bond-type character infiltrating a building in an effort to stump some baddies and instead bombs erupt across London, jump-starting the narrative.
Players are a part of DedSec, a resistance group of just regular people and hackers intent on taking back the city from an authoritative military presence that happens to be paired with some sort of hacker group of its own.
There are problems with the hacking-based narrative. The quips and jokes hit more cringe than savvy most of the time, and were it not for the over-reliance on explicit language and the general themes of an authoritative regime harassing citizens on every city block, one would think it was almost aimed at children.
Maybe leaning into the humor and silliness was a way to avoid the bleakness of it all, because the story goes to some very dark and nasty places pretty quickly. And that's a good thing, but the story beats seem to clash with the groan-worthy humor at times.
Oddly enough, the gameplay can harm the narrative at times too. There's no one solo protagonist, and while that's better than a silent protagonist-type for the millionth time, it requires the secondary characters to be amazing. There's not one who really sticks out as such.
Because of the "play as anyone" gameplay loop, there's a certain amount of sense of disbelief players need to have as their current avatar pops up in cutscenes talking about events they never actually experienced.
The game does try to work around some of these issues. For those paying attention, relatives to recruits in DedSec get involved in on-screen happenings at times. If a player switches operatives, the one who just got released back out into the city will help out if the player gets in a fight or something in close vicinity.
But the story itself is merely background noise to the real feat here: the Census System.
It sounded too good to be true. Each NPC sporting a unique background, set of abilities, weapons and belief systems that do or don't align with DedSec's values was a yeah right sort of promise.
But there it is—walk down a street, scan an NPC and the game lists out their name, profession, weapons, abilities, additional habits that might influence stats or impacts on money and quite a bit more.
Actually recruiting those characters though can often be downright hilarious, and not always in a great way. One of the player characters kept calling everyone he approached about recruitment a lunatic. Repetitive dialogue aside, it was funny to think under this supposed constant surveillance that everyone a player approaches is just like, "Oh yeah, you're that super-secret resistance group!" and happens to have something they need help with.
Maybe that's nitpicking, but the combo of the recruitment process being funny and a little odd hurt it a bit at times. That's massaged by the fact the actual missions to secure them as members of the team serve as fun side-quest fodder.
Still, the allure of playing as pretty much any encounterable NPC (and boy, are there many) is pretty awesome and one of those things we can say without exaggeration hasn't really happened in gaming before.
There's a lot of room to get lost doing this, too, and some interesting in-depth possibilities. There's a new world of depth here never seen before in an open-world game like this.
If a mission asks the player to infiltrate a construction zone, for example, it could be as easy as recruiting one of the on-site workers, eventually taking control of them and waltzing on in without pushback. There are fun wrinkles to certain NPC types, too. An officer will reduce the time players spend in jail. Some nurse-types seem to offer quicker hospital stays.
Not only are there different classes of NPCs, their actual profiles players can pull up influence their abilities. That old man a player recruited can't sprint, folks, but he sure is smart. A personal favorite is the old lady who does extra melee damage when drunk—but her hiccups alert enemies!
Examples are seemingly endless. And it's all contained in this never-before-seen ecosystem. Pulling up an NPC's profile on the fly gives insight into what they're doing at the moment and how long they'll be doing it. A downed enemy NPC might say "injured by player's character" at the bottom. Players can track NPCs and see what they'll be doing and when throughout a day (including which hospitals they'll be staying at to nurse their wounds, etc.).
It at least gives the impression of a very lived-in world with meaningful choices. On one mission, for example, a random NPC in a room full of seemingly neutral people ran up and clocked the player character to the floor. After knocking out this fellow and scanning him, it revealed that the player's current character had killed the guy's cousin in a prior world encounter.
Make no mistake—it's hard to tell when we injured that guy's cousin. Was it a person we accidentally ran over while getting chased? Did we mow that guy's cousin over while controlling an armored car with our phone just to mess with the authoritarians? Was he a guard who happened to detect us and caught the broad side of a construction worker's wrench to his skull? Hard to say, but it sure is fun to think every little NPC encountered is impacted by player action—they have an identity and connections, and they don't just despawn.
Again, calling it all impressive just doesn't seem to do it justice. There is surely some magic being worked behind the scenes and maybe some of it is scripted, but as long as it gives off the appearance of all being organic, it's unlike anything we've seen in the past.
Without this popular simulation running in the background, Legion might get pretty repetitive—fast, too. But its implementation is so fresh and fun to toy with that the hours fly by, and it's forgivable if the players let the story itself go forgotten.
And all of this doesn't even touch on permadeath mode. It's exactly what it sounds like, with a catch—players who accrue a big roster of cohorts probably aren't going to lose the game outright via all of the characters dying.
No, permadeath in this game is handled incredibly well via the way it permanently severs off connections to would-be recruits. It's entirely possible, for example, to spend an hour-plus trying to recruit the relative of a desired recruit (like say, a police officer), only for that mission to go wrong and the police officer to be permanently unobtainable, if not openly hostile.
Written another way, it's permadeath done the right way. For a game that feels pretty easy when it comes to combat and the struggle-filled A.I. at times, it adds some serious tension to even normally boring missions. Who to pick and why, plus how to approach each mission, suddenly has quite a bit of weight. Should a character meet an untimely demise, it cuts off an entire realm of cascading consequences.
Call permadeath the proverbial cherry on top for the whole experience, and it's highly recommended to start the game with it enabled.
Speedrunning open-world games always makes for interesting viewing material because of the sheer randomness that can happen in such an environment.
This series isn't any different, with the top 10 for the second installment (released in 2016) still seeing plenty of action and new best times in recent months.
Legion figures to have a similar shelf life from a speedrunning standpoint because plowing through an any-percent run of the story will just classify as fun—for player and viewer considering the number of different ways each level can get attacked.
As of launch, one of the best ways to put together fast runs is by trimming the fat, of course. There isn't a big reason to go wild on recruiting a big team or messing around with a lot of stealth when combat is so simplistic. Gunning through levels and understanding the how and why of puzzles is a must.
One interesting idea for early runs is to assume a hacker's persona (preferably with a silenced weapon), because that at least cuts down the hacking cooldowns. That means more disruptions and distractions to use alongside the typical weaponry.
Running strategies will blossom in the coming years, as attacking certain bases from above, for example, will become better known. But for now, prioritizing combat when necessary while manipulating opposing A.I. is the surest way to get strong times.
Watch Dogs: Legion is a special release because it feels like the next-gen arrived early.
It checks all the open-world game boxes in mostly splendid fashion, especially as it's the most lived-in feeling of immersion for the genre to date. But the real star of the show is the innovative new systems that work in the background to make each NPC encountered in the world actually matter.
The mind wanders to what might come next for these sorts of systems in video games, as it feels like the beginning of a major progression for the medium as a whole. For now, Legion has thrown the blueprint out for all to enjoy, and while the game has its faults, it wouldn't be surprising to see a whole sub-genre spinoff of sorts emerge online as players start to chronicle some of the journeys possible with NPCs.
Viewed as a whole, Legion is a bold step forward that manages to meet lofty expectations it set for itself with surprising depth in key areas, highlighted by the city itself and its complicated, diverse inhabitants, making it an obvious Game of the Year contender.