That day at E3, Watch Dogs began as a franchise with an idea that Ubisoft could change the way we play open world games. Rather than the constant turn to brute force to solve problems why not use deceit and subterfuge. Why could we not think our way into a locked room instead of fighting to the door and using a key from a downed enemy. What if we did we even need to enter the room at all to get what we needed? The protagonist of Watch Dogs, Aiden Pierce, while capable in combat, used the connected internet enabled world against his enemies in the pursuit of resistance and truth. Watch Dogs 2 saw Marcus Holloway move even further away from open conflict as a hacker using his laptop as his weapon of choice. In both, Ubisoft clearly envisaged an open world game that did not centre on arming yourself to the teeth and storming enemy strongpoints. It is just not the DedSec way.
The reaction to both games was distinctly average. The main issue with guiding gameplay, or injecting an overbearing concept of how your game should be played by the end user, is that it is restrictive. It takes things off the table simply because other games do them too much or too well. Watchdogs and Watchdogs 2 were both accused of being linear, repetitive, or that death knell of being good for short bursts before a sense of overwhelming monotony descended. Eventually these blasts become further and further apart until you have a half played game in your pile of shame. The need is abundantly clear - the differences between most open world games seem to be era dependent. Sometimes you just want to try something different. Since the beginning open world games dined out on their ability to offer games a plethora of choice and here were two games that first promised more choice and ways to play and then simply became known for taking things away. There was room for growth in that drafted change.
Watch Dogs Legion is an attempt to put that right and find harmony and balance. It actually bears little resemblance to the first two games. Firstly the main character is not simply a phone welding malcontent but rather everyone in the city of London itself. That is the narrative change that excuses an explosion in gameplay choices. Watch Dogs Legion accommodates pretty much every gameplay style you can think of in an open world game. You can be sneaky, brutal, smart, or passive all in the same playthrough. There is the option to switch between recruited characters but it is not as fluid and instant as it might be. The little ‘what they were doing before they were called to fight’ stories that occur when you jump between them is a nice touch. Some NPCs are only available to recruit for what would seem pure comedy purposes. Ultimately the story is driven and connected by the arc that the evil doers have conspired to take over the city and Londoners, all of them, can fight back with whatever means they can.
The way they do that is meant to be as unique as they are. It is funny to think that you could play some or all of the 40 or more hours of the campaign as this NPC in front of you at the lights or you could accidentally run them over ending that possibility. While you have to choose a protagonist of sorts from the start, they are not a main character so to speak. Later, the player can recruit and play as any NPC Londoner they see or meet in the game. Each one has a unique set of skills and each can offer different gameplay opportunities. For instance you can recruit someone with access to their own vehicle, their own specific uniform and equipment, or just someone with a particular skill. Some even have access to the sort of firepower of which other more combat open world games would be proud. These characters make a significant difference to the Watch Dogs formula. These recruitment missions are not always that easy and if you decide to play with the option of permadeath for your characters, you are often risking your roster to add a new character.
The city of London is uniquely brilliant in this game. Not since The Getaway has London been presented so faithfully using the technology of its time. The streets are vibrant and full of colour, anger, and life. Landmarks and important areas are not only recognisable but faithfully reproduced. Londoners will notice an amount of squashing the territory between landmark areas (due to the technical and resource constraints of including an entire city) but even that is subtly done. But generally if you know London, you can leave Battersea and head to Westminster without a map. If you don’t know London, you have a detailed GPS based map system as with all Ubisoft games. This comes complete with their endless map markers that we have come to love, loathe, and expect. Little details in each area make all the difference to the experience. As in previous London based Ubisoft games, the River Thames is not just something to cross on a bridge, but part of the living city. The major changes to London come to the oppressive totalitarian machine with its constant drone coverage and adverts. This is an occupied city and there is no escaping that. But, as with many open world games, the level of interactivity leaves a lot to be desired. It is for the most part a pretty facade, a backdrop for the designed level parts of the city.
The best character in the game by far is not even a human character. Its name is Bagley and it is a very sassy, very stolen advanced artificial intelligence that is helping DeadSec turn the tide against its enemies. Bagley directs most if not all of your activities in the game. In a failing of storytelling, there are moments when you are not even sure why Bagley wants you to access a particular location but generally you can rest assured it thinks it is important. As you might expect from surrendering the artistic control of having designed main characters the dialogue between characters doesn’t always seem to fit. The voice acting of some of the London characters is completely over the top and exaggerated. Most of the characters just exist in a haze of the main cast of many. This is a little disappointing when you can end up spending some time looking to find a good recruit. The recruitment system works incredibly well - some missions that would be very difficult become suddenly easy if you have a recruit with the correct equipment or access. Even something as gaining access to a heavily guarded building site becomes routine if you have a construction worker to call on. If on the other hand you decide to go in all guns blazing the gameplay is also rewarding and visceral. Remotely causing chaos by controlling cars or triggering explosions will never be a bad thing.
While Watch Dogs Legion is a step in the right direction in terms of gameplay and story, you can still feel the heavy hand of artistic direction guiding you toward playing the game a certain way. Non-lethal force is rewarded with less opposition from resistance forces. Most characters do not have specific combat abilities and if they do they are one trick ponies and lack any form of cyberattack abilities. Some locations are guarded so well that an aggressive attack is all but out of the question. The addition of more gadget unlocks to at least give all characters a small chance of technical wizardry parity does help but not necessarily enough. This is fine on the whole but it is not open world gaming. If you are to change that formula to something more varied and unique it takes a lot more design and balancing than simply rewarding certain styles of gameplay and punishing others. The idea of expendable characters that actually are the living breathing status of your playthrough is quite unique and interesting. Maybe if recruiting new characters was more difficult or cerebral then losing them would be more of a pain. Not having recruits randomly signing up over the phone would be a start.
Watch Dogs Legion is the most well rounded open world shooter (as that is what it has become) that Ubisoft has ever created and it is driven by a story that you actually want to end. The lack of a binging central protagonist deflates the emotional connection but the package as a whole is well worth the price of admission.