Maciej Michalski, a gnarly body piercer who looks like Darth Maul, told me that his friend was missing, possibly kidnapped.
He looked rad, so I wanted to help. He was one of many different people in Watch Dogs: Legion's vision of London I could recruit to join DedSec, a hacking collective seeking to undermine the dystopian tyrannical forces that are controlling the city.
So, after completing one of Watch Dogs: Legion’s main story missions in the early hours of the game, I drove across London to reach an objective to investigate the kidnapping. Like most Grand Theft Auto-style games, I cut a few corners and “accidentally” hit some pedestrians. But in this game, these kinds of sidewalk shenanigans have far greater consequences.
I hit a character labeled “potential recruit” with my car. I got out, hoping it would be some random person. But Maciej Michalski was dead. He was also no longer recruitable due to permadeath mode. The whole mission was a wash.
This mess-up cements how Watch Dogs: Legion’s “Play as Anyone” promise goes far deeper than a mere gimmick. Your actions have consequences in a way that similar games have never been able to achieve.
Ubisoft mostly releases cookie-cutter open-world games that haven’t evolved much since Far Cry 3 cemented the formula back in 2012. Drive around an open world, clear outposts, and free regions on repeat. At its high points, Watch Dogs: Legion bucks that trend to become one of the most exciting open-world games of the year.
Unfortunately, those highs are offset by moments when the game becomes bogged down by the weight of its ambition. The cracks in its design start to show. Maciej Michalski made a mark on me, but that faded when I heard the same sob story from a totally different potential recruit ... and the game crashed a few minutes later.
Play as Anyone
In one of the most original open-world mechanics in years, Watch Dogs: Legion lets players recruit anyone in London to join DedSec. (Hence the “Play as Anyone” label.) This ties into the story, which follows DedSec’s attempts to rebuild following a series of bombings around London that led to the tyrannical private military contractor called Albion taking over.
Like previous Watch Dogs games, every person you encounter has a brief character description, but this latest installment goes several steps deeper by simulating robust schedules and relationships for each of them. They even get spoken lines of dialogue delivered by voice actors. This gives the core gameplay loop a refreshing sense of variety and spontaneity. You could potentially clear out an enemy base by recruiting everyone in it or just recruit one of them to sneak through among their former allies.
Every character comes with one to four special abilities, which typically boil down to a mix of special weapons, vehicles, drones, or access to certain areas of London. The scale at which Ubisoft was able to implement this is jaw-dropping. It really makes the world feel alive.
After the traumatic experience of hitting a potential recruit, I paid closer attention to watching my potential allies, their friends, and their adversaries throughout London. Turns out, the whole “Play as Anyone” pitch isn’t just smoke and mirrors.
Specialty and loadout changes add an even greater variety of approaches to any given situation. In that way, Watch Dogs: Legion is on par with games like Breath of the Wild that give players true freedom in how they approach objectives.
Watch Dogs: Legion’s multi-character setup allows it to turn the weaknesses of previous Ubisoft open-world games into strengths. The original Watch Dogs felt as deep as a puddle once you noticed that many of the side or emergent encounters, like thefts, played out exactly the same every time.
While the scenarios aren’t that different in Watch Dogs: Legion, these scenarios feel different because every character involved is a potential recruit, even the enemies. If you aren’t a fan of Ubisoft’s focus on quantity over quality when it comes to open-world design, Watch Dogs: Legion doesn’t do much to move the needle, but it doesn’t really need to.
Poor crowd control
Even so, Watch Dogs: Legion has several obvious faults, mostly on a technical level. On the surface, many characters are just not worth recruiting over others. Because the game procedurally generates up to 9 million characters, many of those wind up being duds.
For example, characters who give you a special vehicle without any additional capabilities feel useless when pretty much any vehicle around London can be hijacked with little consequence. While day-to-day schedules and bios for each character are also unique, dialogue with them can repeat entire conversations you've had word-for-word with someone else.
Conversations often feel stilted as a result, with voice actors awkwardly delivering lines that contain excessive British slang in simple exchanges that don’t warrant it. This lack of depth causes the overall story to suffer as a result. At times that's okay. At others, it feels like underdelivering on a lofty promise.
Watch Dogs games never have the deepest stories or characters. Still, Legion’s staggering lineup of playable characters mostly takes a collective passive role in the game’s broader narrative. It relies on its few non-playable characters, like DedSec leader Sabine, hacker Nowt, antagonist and Albion CEO Nigel Cass, and charming A.I. Bagley to give the story some depth and forward momentum. The results wind up feeling a bit mixed, and your recruits wind up feeling tertiary.
While characters like Bagley are consistently well-written and funny, others like Sabine and Nigel are shallow and only gain depth towards the end of their story arcs. Outside of a few moments that embrace wacky but scary sci-fi concepts — like transforming the human consciousness into artificial intelligence — none of its other story beats were that original or thrilling.
Even the game's political message feels surprisingly tame despite the context surrounding an uprising in a post-Brexit London. This isn’t a game you play for the story but rather one you play for the emergent scenarios that open up thanks to its systems and puzzle solutions.
Watch Dogs: Legion pushes current-gen hardware to its limits and suffers all the more for it.
Even after installing a day-one patch, Inverse still ran into extremely long load times, frequent texture pop-in, lots of hard crashes, and even some environmental glitches throughout our playthrough on an Xbox One S.
Online play is also missing at launch despite being right on the menu. (It releases December 3.) This game clearly needs a lot more polish, so don’t feel bad waiting until the next-generation consoles drop and that multiplayer update is out. If you want an open-world game that truly feels different from its peers, Watch Dogs: Legion does accomplish that and is still worth playing eventually.
The game’s ambition clearly came at a cost, but the Watch Dogs series has finally found its unique voice with the Play as Anyone mechanic. The series can only get better and deeper from here; something like the death of Maciej feels even more unique and heartbreaking than it already is.
Watch Dogs: Legion will be released for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia on October 29, 2020.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)