Ubisoft’s open-world techno-thriller Watch Dogs: Legion pitches an extremely bold concept: Recruit anyone you see wandering the battered streets of London to help you fight back against oppression and take down a terrorist group known as Zero Day. And the third installment of my favorite Ubisoft franchise certainly delivers what it claims on the label. If I want to recruit that famous fashion illustrator who has over two million followers on social media, then I can do so with relative ease. It’s a pretty amazing system, and it’s fun to create an arsenal of oddballs who each bring something different to the table. Unfortunately, while the system creates a world of endless possibilities, Watch Dogs: Legion ends up sacrificing some of its heart and soul in the process. That sense of emptiness, I’m afraid, is palpable.
Let’s get one important thing out of the way first: Yes, this is yet another sprawling Ubisoft open world, which means you’ll always have something to do or junk to collect. And yes, it also means that you’ll see a ton of systems and mechanics from other Ubisoft open experiences, to the point that you can easily match the system with the corresponding franchise. That said, the game’s dystopian version of London is rich with detail and teeming with life; you can spend hours just stalking random strangers and determining whether you want them to join your squad of edgelords. And the roguelite-esque random generation means you’ll always have a new, semi-unique character right around the corner – often literally It’s fun to just stroll about while you take in the eerily timely sights and sounds.
So, it’s really a shame about the story.
Right away, not having a fully realized protagonist works against Watch Dogs: Legion. Watch Dogs 2 remains my all-time favorite Ubisoft experience by far, and a lot of that has to do with the endearing characters (Marcus Holloway in particular) and how relatable they felt despite their outlandish, larger-than-life personas. With the exception of one or two side characters, Legion doesn’t give you anyone you can really sink your teeth into; these are just randomly generated NPCs with different traits, abilities, and weapons – and nothing more. You can check out their bios to learn more about their personalities, which can help you develop a bit of an emotional attachment.
For example, I used one woman in my squad (who looked like a bookworm but kicked ass like Scott Adkins) whenever possible, and I felt genuinely upset when she’d get injured and I couldn’t use her for an hour. That said, I never felt emotionally invested in her story. She was just a chess piece on a very big chessboard, albeit a chess piece that could easily drop dudes twice her size with a spin kick.
This essentially leaves you with DedSec as the story’s hero. Except, of course, this is DedSec, a comically stereotypical gathering of hacktivists and anarchists that always feels like it belongs in a straight-to-video Hackers sequel or cheesy cyberpunk fanfic. It’s all very corny and melodramatic, and that’s tolerable when you have a good character to ground the goofiness. Unfortunately, all you have are the aforementioned NPCs, who seem way too eager to join forces with a motley crew of do-gooders who tend to dress like club-goers who were born too late to appear in The Matrix. Watching your collection of heroes during cut scenes is often a source of unintentional comedy; whenever my stage magician felt the need to wax intellectual about digital anarchy, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Then again, maybe I should have taken the recruitment process more seriously. I guess that says more about me than anything else.
Having the ability to recruit whoever you want at any time will feel overwhelming at first. Using your trusty smartphone, you can peep each individual to see what they offer the team as a whole. Some London residents will have basic traits, such as the ability to take less melee damage, while others will come packaged with some strange quirks, like randomly purchasing pieces of clothing when you’re not using them. One poor paramedic came equipped with the “Doomed” trait, which meant the guy could literally drop dead at any moment. Having a diverse, robust squad gives you a number of different strategies to use when you’re up against a particularly tough mission. If you need to do extensive hacking, pull in your expert hacker who also has the ability to electrocute anyone who gets in her way. If you want to make a name for yourself in the bloody and brutal bare-knuckle boxing scene, send your best street brawler to handle the task. Or, alternatively, you can send in your elderly doctor and pray that he doesn’t end up in the hospital during the first round.
If all this seems vaguely familiar, then you may have played or read about Streets of Rogue, an excellent indie roguelite released in 2017 that has found success on both PC and consoles. The setup in Legion is very similar, minus Streets of Rogue’s penchant for ridiculous humor and unchecked outlandishness. I love selecting different characters and using their specific skills and traits to solve puzzles and complete missions in unique ways and Watch Dogs: Legion definitely tries to deliver a very similar experience. Sadly, Ubisoft can’t match the inventiveness of Streets of Rogue, even with tons of resources and money at their disposal.
Of course, I’m not saying that they completely ripped off Streets of Rogue, but the similarities are definitely noteworthy and worth comparing. And had Watch Dogs: Legion put a bit more personality into its setting and story, then perhaps they could have used the recruitment system in a way that made the game a bit more lively.
Unfortunately, that’s the problem with Legion in a nutshell: It’s just not that much fun to play for extended periods of time. All of the Ubisoft pieces are here, from the giant map full of collectibles and activities to the ridiculous over-the-top story, but they never really fit together. It almost feels like Ghost Recon: Breakpoint in that regard – the developers have ticked all the boxes, but they didn’t bother to make them fit together in a very cohesive manner. Sure, you can occasionally stop your shenanigans to kick around a soccer ball, but why would you want to do it? Want to get drunk and play darts? Sure thing, but again, why bother?
While games like Yakuza make the side quests and activities feel like part of a living, breathing world, Watch Dogs: Legion tosses them in because, well, it’s expected at this point. Again, nothing is inherently awful about these distractions, but they’re not implemented in ways that make them feel organic. I did the soccer ball challenge once or twice and never returned – and I doubt that’s going to change if and when Legion pulls me back in.
A major issue that plagues Watch Dogs: Legion from start to finish is its tone. While the overall package has the sheen of a braindead, big-budget techno-thriller, the game’s dialogue often feels stilted and unintentionally ridiculous. What’s more, some of the NPCs you can recruit add an unfortunate layer of comedy to the missions; trying to complete a quest as an older hacker who literally shuffles down the street and attacks his opponents with an open-handed slap seems very silly against the backdrop of immigrant deportation and violence against citizens at the hands of an oppressive government – especially given the climate in many parts of the real world right now.
Had Ubisoft opted to keep the tone of Watch Dogs 2, none of the game’s sillier moments would seem so jarring. Legion definitely has more in common with the original Watch Dogs, and these comedic moments – whether intentional or unintentional – don’t mesh well with the darker, more sinister aspects of the narrative. As it stands, it seems like a missed opportunity to say something important.
But who are we kidding, right? Watch Dogs: Legion doesn’t want to say something profound or meaningful – the game simply wants you to scale rooftops in search of masks for your random gaggle of NPCs and then hack ATMs for a small splash of cash. Aftweard, they ask you to wear these crazy masks you’ve collected when you’re doing something serious, like discovering what the villains are really doing with that giant incinerator that everyone thought was shut down. In-between the serious stuff, you can use ambulances to run down protestors or command a mechanical spider-bot to electrocute someone’s suspecting face. It’s a big, ridiculous, open-world Ubisoft game – and that’s perfectly fine.
The game itself is fine, but it pales in comparison to the second entry. Despite its “revolutionary” recruitment system and the plethora of things to do, Legion feels like an enormous step backward for the series. I walked away from this experience feeling disappointed and let down, but a few enjoyable minutes in Streets of Rogue quickly turned things around.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided to us by Ubisoft.
Although the recruitment system provides a few hours of entertainment, Watch Dogs: Legion feels like a series of systems masquerading as an open-world adventure game. Compared to the first two entries, Legion is a massive step backward, both in terms of story and execution. This is paint-by-numbers Ubisoft on autopilot.