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Watch Dogs Legion: My biggest disappointment of 2020

One of my favorite articles I’ve written was about Rage 2 and how the two studios you would want in charge of shooting mechanics (ID software) and open world design (Avalanche Studios) being brought together, led to each studio’s vision of what the game should be to cancel each other out; WD Legion is even more tragic, because the same dichotomy is present but within the 1st party studios of Ubisoft. Where Rage 2 had ID’s “push forward” mechanics and added character abilities, but were simply the least effective way to progress due to Avalanche placing a lot of importance to the car, which had plentiful ammo and kept a safe distance between player and enemies. But I enjoyed Rage 2 because both studios made their games fun and their inherent qualities allowed me to have a good time; WD Legion feels like a game designed for the challenge of it and never stepping up to go beyond that into being fun. It is as if someone challenged Clint Hocking (lead designer of Legion and famously of Far Cry 2) to come up with a way to make every character in a vast open-world playable, and he (and the entire team at Ubisoft Toronto) did just that; then they bolted that creation on top of a bog-standard, Ubisoft open-world game and never really bothered to see how well they mixed together. I, like most enthusiasts, was excited to see how Legion’s ambitions came to fruition and now I am going to spent a ridiculous amount of time to break down how they let to one of the most inventive systems in a game that is extremely interesting to dissect, but is remarkably frustrating to experience, which ultimately leads me to discourage people from buying the game.

Before the disappointing aspects, I would like to discuss the positive points first. Watch Dogs, as a franchise, has always had a tone problem and Legion is the best one of the three; where the first one was too self-serious and “gritty” and the second one was too goofy and referential, Legion hits a pretty okay balance (in-game, the story is a completely different subject). Watch Dogs 1 had a grumpy, unlikeable protagonist; Watch Dogs 2 had a likeable and silly protagonist who could shoot a bunch of people and most players found that too dissonant; Legion allows you to play as a hacker and use stealth (that both fit the character and their abilities), as a hitman to have the lethal, ethics-free fun, and as a chess grandmaster who reviews beers for a living and has an AK-47 for all your goofying around. Other than that, there was a pretty great sequence of missions that was about Skye Larsen that showcased some great writing and mission designs, which could have been the entire game in a different (and better) timeline. Umm, oh the “play as anyone” systems are genuinely cool and create some fascinating potential in other, better games; the complicated and creative ways the team thought of solving issues of believability, voice, diversity, character designs, abilities, alongside randomly generating tiny bits of information about the character and how all these systems create characters can be fantastic – they also can start to repeat themselves or sound/look ridiculous, so it’s not a perfect system, but it is pretty good.

Some weirdness is inevitable and here is my favorite one.

That’s it for the good stuff; well, that’s partly true. I have many more good points, but they are always followed by a “however” and are part of exploring the failings of the game. Take, for example, the set up for the game; set in near future England, following Brexit, the DeadSec group is framed for a few terrorist attacks by a group called Zero Day and, in the aftermath, various opportunists use the chance to gain a foothold in the country and enact their own laws. Be it Nigel Farage Cass – CEO of Albion security who enforce authoritarian and dystopian levels of security – Skye Larsen – CEO of Broca Tech who created the hyper advanced Bagley AI and uses her tech to gather data and intrude on personal freedoms – Emily Child – head of SIRS, which is future MI6 – and Mary Kelly – leader of gang Clan Kelly and inflicted with the deadly virus of “over-the-top-villainitous”. This is a perfect set up for a game like Legion, because the writers can turn the focus away from the protagonist (since there isn’t one by design) and present interesting stories about the villains, how they took control of a dire situation for nefarious reasons, and how the organized rebellion of the people is willing to strip that power away. Instead, the game focuses on a rag-tag stereotype to fit all people you could play as and making that the generic protagonist who “responds” to those – unfortunately boring – stories that are structured to be villainous juxtaposing the goodness of the protagonist. As I mentioned before, there are some good story beats here, but they are an hour of the 30 I spent in Legion, and the story exists in limbo with nothing happening for a while, until everything happens altogether and it ends in a baffling/obvious twist and anti-climactic ending.

Most people though don’t come to games (especially open-world crime ones) for the story, but for the endless possibilities and shenanigans that are available; Legion’s “play as anyone” systems in an open-world setting are something that fills the imagination with possibilities. What instead happens is that, for this system to be plausible financially, all characters are given a class (socially and mechanically) and common abilities that are all that’s needed to finish missions. All characters know how to hack a camera and distract guards, all characters have access to DeadSec weapons and gadgets, all characters can hack turrets; that makes all characters disposable and not necessary. That would be fine, since if every character can contribute the same and are all disposable, it feeds into the game’s grand design philosophy: a revolution is impossible to succeed if done by one person. Which is why the game only allows you to control one person at a time and not switch between them in the middle of combat or position them strategically to come and help you; that is all reserved for the multiplayer section, single players are supposed to imagine that they are part of a group and exploit the crap out of the game’s mechanical truths. If all you need to finish missions is hacking, guns, and gadgets, then abilities that boost those features are going to be overpowered; why use melee characters in a game whose combat primarily focuses on 3rd person cover shooting mechanics? Because it is fun.

I just hope he bought it for the mustache…

If that were true, I would not be half-way done in this article and the title would be different. The reality is that the game feels like I’m controlling an unwieldy, janky, 7th generation game. Shooting feels terrible, unresponsive, and underpowered, while lethal force feels weird because you are (in theory) killing your potential pool of characters; driving feels like if I put wheels on trains and tried to drive in one of the busiest cities in the world – the cars are clearly designed to use the auto-drive functionality, which makes driver characters also worthless; melee is easily exploited through the counter system, until someone pulls out a gun and its no longer melee. The two styles that actually make sense are stealth and hacking, but even then, stealth is really half-assed since a core feature (social stealth where certain characters that have access to specific outfits can enter hostile areas unnoticed) barely works as intended; you can enter the area, but go within a 10m radius of anyone and your cover is blown immediately even if you’ve literally recruited one of the guards from that area. The only style that I found works for 90% of the time and if things go haywire, it was my own fault, is hacking (which makes sense since this is a hacking open-world game) and in that style, having a hacker or two just makes the game very lackluster; not only are their reduced cooldowns and other perks invaluable, they can use the OP gadgets (any variation of the bots, for me it was the spiderbot) for further/longer.

That doesn’t make the other characters undesirable, but it makes them redundant; I wanted to use my houseless person that can dress up as SonicFox and play the trumpet for money, but he sucks in missions and I don’t want to engage with any other systems of the game besides hacking and stealth, so instead I used my hacker lady that has no remarkable or interesting features. Even beyond usefulness, characters have these instantly repeating and incredibly tedious recruitment missions and there’s a limit to how many you can recruit/keep track of. Furthermore, the mission design is all over the place; main missions usually involve a gimmick (like climbing the clock tower of Big Ben with a bot) or infiltration missions that usually lead to gunfights. However, side missions and open-world activities are usually well-guarded places with “important” resources that can be tackled in any way; I spent a lot of time doing side quests and recruiting missions before I dealt with the story and it was the only “challenge” the game posed and that was mostly because I tried to be stealthy when the game would literally not allow it (most times it involved hacking into something, being found out through a scripted scene, and the whole area knowing exactly where I am and shoot me on side).

Let me give you an example of what this looks like, in the game. I am given a mission to infiltrate the Piccadilly Circus and it is a big building that is one large hostile area, but I notice that Albion security is one outfit I can use to not break my cover. I find a near by security guard and I start his recruitment mission, which is the typical “I found out Clan Kelly is using the NHS to sell organs, so hack them” recruitment and I head over to the hospital in question and there’s a lot of people around. I find a nurse and start recruiting her and her recruitment is the bog-standard “Albion is using magic mushrooms to brainwash people, go stop them” conspiracy, so I head to the marker and do the infiltration thing, she now joins DeadSec and I use her to get into the hospital, realize how pointless these outfits are and use the roofs to get to a spot where I can use my bot to complete the mission, go back to the guard and recruit him, get to Piccadilly and find out it’s a scripted, “fly the drone” mission. The only interesting side-effect of this whole ordeal was that the guard was funny to use (for a time), because he had the “I fart a lot” trait that made him break stealth. Despite all of that, I still recruited to the maximum number and I completed most locations, because the hacking and stealth styles are fun enough; after a while, where I had a couple of hackers and a lot of weirdos I started using those weirdos more often and that made the game even more fun, especially if they had weird traits like “this character can die at any time” or “hiccups” or unique mechanics like the beekeepers who shoot electrical bees at people and spies who are James Bond without the misogyny.

Unfortunately, even that comes with caveat and it’s a Ubisoft regular; these missions are not optional, they are worthless. Resources include tech points (which are used to unlock abilities in the skill tree, shared by everyone) that are useful until you get the 5 that matter and the rest are trivial at best, and ETO which is the more traditional open-world currency and that gets you…cosmetics; only cosmetics. I have never played an open-world game that has worthless main currency; it is a running trend in the genre to have broken economies or currency that isn’t worthwhile to pursue, but completely worthless is a new one for me. I found one outfit I wanted to buy from the shops (which are hassle to get to, because they are not identifiable in the map, they have a generic shop over them) and after 20 hours I couldn’t get it, because it was too expensive, and I didn’t even care, because the cosmetics are placed on generic, weird looking characters and they are not the protagonists or the extension of me as a player; they are, by the game’s philosophy, pawns to serve a greater good.

Okay, this has gotten out of hand and I’m going to indulge myself a bit here, so take this whole paragraph as a huge ‘in-brackets’ section and as a relief of frustration, not actual criticism; I hate insinuating or doing “arm-chair dev” statements, but this is 2000+ words so far and I need to get this out of me, so this is not a “dev lazy” or “talentless hacks” paragraph. I can’t understand why in a game about a group of people supporting and standing by each other to take back what is rightfully theirs, set in a near-future depiction of a real city, the systems fail to take advantage of regular, specialized labor on features the game already uses. Like have a car-mechanic class where for currency they upgrade cars or a gun-nut class where they can turn the non-lethal, less powerful weapons, into lethal powerful weapons. This won’t devalue the specialist classes like hitmans (they are not that valuable to begin with), it will be just another way to get to those abilities; besides, recruiting a hitman will be free and will involve playing the game, and you can lock specific weapons like snipers behind their characters.

On top of all these, I have 20+ screenshots and video clips of all the times the game bugged out or glitched out (those were the fun ones). If I had to guess, for the 30 hours playthrough, I must have had a major failing every hour; whether it was a character trying to jump off a construction drone and flying away and dying or touching the curve with a motorcycle and flying away, but not dying just getting knocked out. I had 4 crashes where the Series X just died for a couple of minutes and then restarted. During cutscenes, the speaker’s name would be replaced by random professions of characters near by (I’m assuming they were near by at least). Despite all of these issues I have with the game, I want to finish this monstrosity of an article on a positive note. I think Watch Dogs, as a franchise, has a bright future ahead of it; it had a setback and now it has to adapt and figure out how to carry forward everything good, how to fix the interesting ideas it has that need to be worked on, and how excise the flaws it created for itself. There are many positive things that I didn’t talk about all that much, because they were the least important aspects of the experience for me, like the verticality the game allows, the accessibility options, the impressive detail of the world and Ubisoft’s uncanny ability to translate real locations within condensed real worlds, the immersive sim aspects of the game that need to be worked on but are there regardless. I really wanted to like this game, but even months after finishing it, starting read back my notes and writing this article made me disappointed and frustrated as if I had just finished it; that doesn’t happen with a game that is simply bad or was problematic to begin with. It happens with something that has potential that you know is somewhere in there, but is obfuscated by all the issues surrounding it. Which is why I think of Rage 2; if that game had better synergy between the two studios that worked on it, it would have been great but it ended up being fine. If Legion had a team working on a single vision for the game, a philosophy that works for the design of the missions, the open world, and the systems, it would have been game-changing just like Shadow of Mordor was with its “Nemesis” system; as it is though, it is the most disappointing game I’ve played from 2020, and God help me, I have yet to play Cyberpunk!

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