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All screenshots courtesy Ubisoft
Games

'Watch Dogs: Legion' Promises Revolution, But Mostly Delivers Distraction

You can play as anyone you want, but the game remains the same.
October 28, 2020, 11:01am

About ten hours into Watch Dogs: Legion, the third entry in Ubisoft’s technothriller take on their open world formula, a character tears into one of the game’s major antagonists, an inventor with a penchant for privacy invasion and drone warfare. This character, a remorseful former ally of the megalomaniac technologist in question, lays out the game’s core thesis pretty cleanly: “Every place we’d go into, we would have some mad plan to fix all its problems with robot police or automatic crop fertilizer or some shit. Society was a technical problem, and people were just bugs in the software, y’know? You work around them or you squash them.”

This idea—that leveraging technological solutions to solve cultural problems will always come up short—is core to Legion, though perhaps in more ways than intended. Yes, in its best moments, the game is able to skewer the powerful for leveraging technologies of surveillance, control, and violence to address socio-economic problems instead of pursuing community-driven, human-first solutions. Yet, Legion itself is being sold on the merits of its own whiz-bang technology, one that replaces (or at least supplements) a human touch with systemic, procedurally generated storytelling.

(It’s also doing that in a year when its Big Political Concerns have been front and center in our daily lives in resolutions greater than any graphics card can render, and a year in which Ubisoft’s authority as a studio that can opine on issues of equality and justice has been undercut by sexual misconduct cases, racism, and overall toxic culture which the company itself reports has made one-in-five employees feel disrespected or unsafe in the last two years. Given all of that, absolute disinterest in Legion is more than deserved, and I have no interest in making the case that anyone should look past those reservations.)

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In case you haven’t heard, here’s the pitch: In the near future, the UK has come under the control of an archconservative alliance of austerity minded politicians, anti-regulation big tech, privatized law enforcement, reactionary media corporations, and empire-nostalgic national intelligence services. Immigrants are detained en masse, the National Health Service is being dismantled, and new anti-terror laws eradicate privacy. To its credit, Legion doesn’t frame this rise in fascism as alternate universe hyperbole, instead treating this outcome as an obvious extension of the already odious character of those currently in power in the real world.

This shift from crypto-fascism to outright authoritarianism was buoyed by a series of bombings at the start of the game, which were orchestrated to frame the hacktivist collective DedSec and to justify a further push to the far right. With only a single safehouse left, DedSec (as controlled by you) needs to recruit, rebuild, and resist, taking down the pillars of this new regime and investigating who set them up and why. To do that, you’ll do much of what you did in previous Watch Dogs games: Access the personal records of anyone walking around town at the press of a button. Sneak into restricted areas in order to hack into databases. Get into ill-advised gun fights with cops and gangsters. Whip your car around corners at speeds too fast to be safe.

The twist in Legion is that, in order to emphasize the idea that fighting fascism takes collective action and not individual heroism, you don’t do any of this as a (marketing-team approved) protagonist. Instead, you’ll recruit dozens of characters from the neighborhoods of London, none of which were designed by a team of writers, artists, and programmers, but instead by the game’s complex mechanical backend (itself created by a team of writers, artists, and programmers). Goodbye Aiden Pearce and Marcus Holloway, hello (marketing-team approved) Play As Anyone system.

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Everyone in London has a face, a name, a voice, an occupation (granting them various mechanical traits, gadgets, and unique weapons), about a half dozen factoids, and an honest-to-god daily schedule that has them going to work, taking up their hobbies, and hanging out with their associates (each of whom is, themselves, rendered in the same way). While some factoids are extra-goofy, the characters you meet generally hang together well, with their abilities, personalities, and basic looks reflecting the information in their dossier. A great deal of the joy Legion has to offer comes from this system. Especially in the early game, simply seeing new traits, hearing new character voices, and learning how each new character plays is fresh and compelling.

There’s a Civilization-style one-more-turn quality to these recruitments, too. For instance: Early in the game, when a mission took me to a hospital, I realized that someone with a medical uniform would go unharassed inside. So, I found John Amadi, a paramedic who agreed to help me if I helped him stop an ongoing organ theft scheme that allowed rich people to skip ahead on the waiting list. But while I was out and about, I spotted Soliloquy Heatherly, a 72 year old magistrate and privacy-advocate who looked so much like one of my aunts that I had to stop and recruit her. (Her ability to bail out any of my arrested team members was a nice plus, too).

I hit repeated mission locations and tasks fairly early on, but this part of the game still worked so well for me that it’s hard not to fall into the trap of just writing a review that is a series of anecdotes about my favorite characters. The characters this system makes aren’t striking in the way that Watch Dogs 2 heroes were—they can’t be, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t endearing or memorable in their own way. My favorites included Everett White (a Windrush generation doctor with an easy demeanor and a cancer diagnosis), Neil Makowski (an immigrant construction worker with big himbo energy), Honor Lau (a wetwork-ready spy with a silenced pistol and a watch that jams enemy weapons), and Alton Greene (an asexual soccer hooligan and professional brick mason… who I spent hours believing was named Brick Mason).

Because I could recruit my own team according to mechanical need, aesthetic interest, and general sense of curiosity, the team I built was filled with a range of characters with voices, faces, and identities that just don’t get much screen time in action games. Other players will presumably recruit their own unique collection of agents whom they are as fond of as I am of my own crew.

And because I was playing with the permadeath option on, I felt like shit whenever I lost anyone in an imprudent gunfight, as in the video below where things break bad for Ifechi Bello, an underground boxing champ whom I’d just spent over an hour with, hopping from one clothing store to another, trying to get the perfect fit. A big budget action game definitely hasn’t made my heart drop like that at the end of a fight before. All of that taken together is just, well, whiz-bang cool.

Unfortunately, the Play As Anyone system is itself a technological Band-Aid placed on the gaping ideological wound that is the AAA Game. Yes, it allows for the crisp metaphor of swapping out a focus tested hero for a big tent collective of like-minded citizens. Limits to the system itself and other design and narrative decisions throughout Legion undercut the game’s goal of revolutionizing open world games.

Partly, that’s because Ubisoft Toronto chose a very high bar to try and leap over. It is a game about fighting not just abstract, hypothetical, sci-fi fascism, but the fascism that is growing in our own streets right now. That means there is a very thin line between abrasive verisimilitude on one side and facile pontification on the other, and depending on your tastes, Legion is likely to fall into at least one of those modes.

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It’s worth saying outright that after years of Ubisoft dodging the question about whether their games are “political” or not, Legion is unapologetic as it frames things like anti-immigration ideology, austerity economics, and imperialist nativism as cultural evils. And I’m sure that it is poised to get a lot of hate from the “SJW”-hating crowd. But when the game shifts from diagnosing these ills to showing what a cure looks like, it stumbles hard.

How does one break a neighborhood free from “oppression”? Deface a few billboards. Sabotage a weapons factory. Knock out a really bad person. Complete three tasks like these in a district and you’ll unlock a special liberation mission, which are empty-calorie fun that somehow result in city-wide fireworks and celebration claiming that the neighborhood is now “defiant,” despite the fact that nothing has changed.

The problem here is contextual. This year, we’ve seen collective action more dramatic than some targeted vandalism, yet have witnessed weaker results than the fantasy presented here. No one is marching in Legion’s streets, no one is burning down police stations, no one is establishing autonomous zones. We know that change requires extended, public confrontation with the powers that be. Sabotaging a tank factory is a staple in Far Cry games, but it’s hard to believe it would slow down police militarization. In the real world, cops would just add “need more tanks” to their 2021 budget and get vast bipartisan support.

(It’s worth noting, however briefly, that this sort of “liberation” gameplay should feel facile in Far Cry, Metal Gear Solid V, and other military games too. We should in fact, be very skeptical of anyone whose hackles raise only when this design (or, more broadly, this style of ripped-from-the-headlines theming) is applied to the anglophone world as in Legion or Far Cry 5, but don’t raise the same issues when the game takes place in some fictional country from the global south or east.)

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Legion is stronger during its set-piece filled missions and scripted cutscenes. Because the game has no pre-ordained hero, it needs to rely on a supporting ensemble to drive the action and offer commentary. Its many villains are stock character classics, most of which have been driven by personal tragedy into pathological evil, though in this case each is also buttressed by toxic ideology of a sort so familiar that, despite the theatrics, the malice on display is mostly believable. Legions supporting cast heroes are all solid too, complicated by their own often-complicit histories, and played memorably by their voice actors. (Bonus points to Pascal Langdale, who voices your sometimes funny, often corny AI-assistant Bagley, who I was sure I’d hate by the time credits rolled, but who I instead think of fondly in retrospect).

But the strength of these more traditional gameplay elements still doesn’t add up to anything as grand as the promise to revolutionize the open world action game. While I still generally like Watch Dogs’ combination of sneaking, puzzle solving, and combat, Play As Anyone doesn’t really do anything to make Legion any more than “another one of those.” How could it? It doesn’t matter if you can Play As Anyone when you’re still stuck playing the same damn game.

Let’s go back to John Amadi, the paramedic I recruited to sneak into a hospital and get some dirt on a rival faction in London. It’s true that I chose John over other options—Honor Lau’s cloak and silenced pistol, Isla Kincaid’s thick skin and grenade launcher. But other than John’s Hitman-lite disguise, this mission and all of my options for how to tackle it could’ve shown up in any previous Watch Dogs game just as it was here.

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Even though the verbs of play are distributed among different characters, Legion is still a game about covert traversal, camera hacking, drone-based puzzle platforming, and the occasional overlong gunfight. With the exception of a broadened melee system, none of these gameplay systems feel dramatically different than Watch Dogs 2. I played through Legion the same way I played through both previous Watch Dogs games, except back then, I didn’t need to button through a slow and unresponsive menu system to select my stealthiest character before executing on the plan.

Again, I do get the metaphor: One person doesn’t have the skills you need to change the world. But this fundamentally misunderstands what makes collective power so strong. Whether you’re coming together as a political party, a union, or an insurgent force like DedSec, it’s not only that organizations can pull from their members’ individual skillset, it’s that cooperation allows for all new types of action. However heavy a person’s stomp, a single person cannot bring a town to a halt. The marches for racial justice that filled streets across the world this year relied on some people to bring supplies, others to offer medical aid, some to handle legal challenges, and many more to bravely push back when the police charged in. If any of those (or the many other) had gone unfulfilled, those moments of resistance would’ve crumbled. Legion seems to have missed this lesson entirely.

Barring one climactic moment, you don’t really ever get a “jump between your characters” moment. Even in that one occasion, it isn’t about combining their skills in exciting ways. It’s just two characters off on their own, doing two distinct things. Because of this, moments of victory never feel shared among DedSec members. I might have a deep roster available to me, but Legion is never a team sport.

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It’s easy to contrast this with something like Grand Theft Auto V, a game exponentially more cynical than Legion, but which, by requiring players to switch between characters during heists, better made the case that individuals become more than just the sum of their parts when they get over themselves and work together.

There is much more to learn, though, when we turn our attention towards games that aren’t about fighting your way through hospitals. It is painful to say this, but even a game like this year’s Crusader Kings III, a game about whose divine right is biggest, better represents the idea that collective action drives history greater than individual mandate.

It’s not alone either, games like Zafehouse: Diaries, Star Traders: Frontiers, State of Decay, Oxygen Not Included, and (of course) Dwarf Fortress have been exploring procgen storytelling for years. Maybe the thing that they get most right, and which Legion somehow misses entirely, is that the characters of these worlds need to interact with each other, to work together, to bicker and fight, to exist, ontologically, on the same plane.

Legion doesn’t do this. With the exception of cutscenes and occasional radio chatter (which procedurally assign members of your crew to various speaking roles), it’s not clear that the other people in DedSec are even aware of your other recruits. I had one character, an anarchist who could recruit nearby citizens to her side with a megaphone, tell another character that she was pissed that we’d started working with Kaitlin Lau, a detective from the disempowered Metropolitan Police. She seemed to have no idea that she was talking to Frankie Garcia, himself a cop.

It is worth a special note, by the way, that because members of private security group Albion can walk into heavily guarded police stations and other cop-only zones throughout the game, they are easily the most useful and powerful characters you can recruit. There are a few ways to read that fact, but for me, it certainly undercut the feeling that this was a revolutionary insurgency. Instead, DedSec can sometimes feel like a big tent organization keen to get back to normalcy. (Never is this as clear as when, instead of replacing the propaganda on Buckingham Palace or the Imperial War Museum with your own, you simply clear Albion’s away in an act meant to identify these spaces as unifying symbols of shared national character).

Between the way the game fails to simulate these characters existing as more than just your action figures and the way it encourages you to recruit along an established sociological power curve, Play As Anyone feels less like an interactive collective and more like mechanized instrumentalization. Which is not just a small disappointment, but because of how close this comes to something I really, badly want, is sort of gutting.

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When I first agreed to write this review about a month or so ago, my hope was to write something more emotional than all of this. I have a history with the series, and the game’s staff is filled with exactly the sort of developers that I’d want to work on a project like this, including Clint Hocking (Far Cry 2) and Liz England (Scribblenauts, Sunset Overdrive), among others. But despite its ambition, pedigree, and politics, Legion failed to generate a big emotional splash for me, not even in the way that the original Watch Dogs did, with its contemptible protagonist and its fumbled potential.

Six years ago, I wrote a piece about how Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Watch Dogs simulated individuals, and how those simulations intersected with race. I was wowed by Watch Dogs’ innovations, but frustrated by the ways in which the AAA, open-world design hamstrung its ability to do anything new. At one point, I recalled how I spotted a random killing, a young black man gunned down by a wealthy white guy on an FBI watch list, and explained how I was frustrated by my inability to offer the dead man’s friends and family comfort. I wrote:

I can’t touch anyone.

This has been bugging me since I started playing Watch Dogs. When I see the man playing trumpet at the park, I can’t tip him. When I hear that someone’s father has cancer, I can’t transfer money into their account—though I can drain their already meager savings further.

And now, these crying people, I can’t hug them. Not that I should—not that Aiden Pearce should be in this space at all. But I am, and I want to hug them. I want that so much more than the ability to do harm, but it’s all I can do.

And now, six years later, Watch Dogs: Legion gets so close to what I wanted. I’m no longer the arrogant and unlikeable Aiden Pearce, prowling a racist caricature of Chicago for revenge. I’m the sort of people in the city that Pearce was too contemptuous to make contact with. I’m Everett White, a doctor who misses Bermuda. I’m Neil Makowski, a construction worker worried he’ll be deported and have to leave his boyfriend behind. I’m Sarah Fernandez, a young activist just barely making ends meet.

And that’s great, really. Even though the game doesn’t do much to prompt the player to roleplay, I feel like I get who these characters are from just the little bit that Legion offers. The way they deliver their lines, the factoids, the differences in combat animation. They’re all better than Aiden Pearce.

But fuck, man, I still can’t touch people. All I can do is make them pull triggers for me.

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That isn’t totally fair. I did find one way to touch someone else in this game. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I found a way for them to touch me.

A few hours into Legion, while playing as Everett, I took a turn too wide and slammed into a pedestrian. Because I’d been doing my best to play Everett as he seemed—committed to justice, but mild in nature—this was the first person I’d killed in this game. Her name was Charlotte Kulkarni, and because I couldn’t do anything else, I hit the button to pull up her profile and saved her to my list of characters to potentially recruit. Obviously, I couldn’t recruit her, because of how she was dead, but by saving her profile, I could keep an eye on her “known associates.” Hours passed, I forgot about it.

Then, while finishing a mission with another character, I ran into someone with a little arrow next to them. It said “Uncle of Charlotte Kulkarni.” When I added him to my list and pulled up his profile, it said that from 6 PM until 8 PM, he would be at the Southbank Atrium—Legion’s equivalent of the city’s famously brutalist National Theater. He wasn’t there to see a play, though. He’d planned to go mourn Charlotte. And so I told myself that after this mission, I would go see him as Everett.

When I showed up, he was just sitting down on a stone bench, but saw me before he could get settled, and raised back to his feet to face me, angry. The game never explained how he knew who killed his niece, or how he knew my face, but honestly, it didn’t have to: the speed with which he got up and turned on Everett shocked me out of any critical distance I could take with this moment.

“Fuckin’ cold blooded killer, you are!” he shouted, and threw his fist into my chest. I turned around to try to put distance between us, but he hit me again, this time in the back. “Human fuckin’ excrement,” he said, crossing his arms. Thinking it was over, I tried to approach again, but he pushed me back and threw another punch my way. “You’re driving me mental!”

If you hold left on the D-Pad in Legion, you pull up an emote wheel. There are a set of basic options here, like dancing or cheering, and you’ll get some basic NPC interaction when you do this, like people clapping for your performance. I quickly chose the “pacify” option, hoping to calm Trevor down. I could barely get the animation out because Trevor kept swinging. Finally, Everett managed to put his hands up, offering a few calming phrases. “This doesn’t need to get out of control. It’s cool, don’t need to worked up.” Miserable. Trevor walked back to the bench, then turned again and walked away, cursing me out as he did so. He’d planned to mourn for a couple of hours, but was driven away in minutes.

I could’ve left it there, and probably should’ve. But the menu laid it out for me like this: Do a couple of favors and he’d be part of my team. He’d come with a special pistol, and, it said, a “Good Patient” buff, which would mean he’d spend less time in the hospital if I got him hurt on my behalf. And, I assumed, it would squash the beef between he and Everett.

Well. A couple hours after beating the game (which is to say, many hours after Trevor joined my team only to warm the bench), I decided to locate him again as Everett. You can’t check a character’s full schedule once they’re part of DedSec, but you can show where they are on the map. He was in an apartment just north of Leicester Square, so I fast traveled there and waited patiently for the morning. When he walked out into the little alley adjacent, I expected a warm, or at least a neutral, welcome.

“Fuck you, yeah? Total cockhead.”

Trevor walked away, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what this game could be if only they’d leaned further in this direction. This was the one moment that it felt like my own characters interacted with each other with some semblance of memory the past or recognition of each other.

If Legion had more of this sort of team-wide drama, it might really be a revolution in design. It didn’t need to be Dwarf Fortress or The Sims, it could just be a little bit more of this. Characters with their own interests coming into contact in ways that generated energy and heat and feeling. Or even just more space to roleplay or procgen missions to do that aren’t just for recruiting characters, but instead let me play with the ones I already have in new and exciting ways. I can’t speak to the accuracy of its London, but to beat another one of my old drums, Legion does a great job of making its virtual city feel inhabited and lively, and I would love to just have more ways to interact with it.

When I think back on the first Watch Dogs, I remember a game so held back by its repulsive protagonist and its cynical caricature of Chicago that it wound up being little more than a bad copy of CBS procedural Person of Interest. When I think about Watch Dogs 2, I remember a game that (barring a few missteps) managed to be a found family tale about hackers skewering the most absurd parts of silicon valley culture.

I have no idea how I’ll remember Watch Dogs: Legion a few years from now. A game with good intentions and bad timing? An ambitious experiment with a reach that exceeded its grasp? A bold attempt to elevate a tired formula that was instead dragged back down by it. Probably a little bit of all of these. What I know that I will remember, though, are characters like Everett and Honor and Alton “Brick Mason” Green, and how much more they could’ve been, if only Legion had been allowed to be something different, something smaller and more focused.

Unfortunately, games like Legion make me increasingly convinced that the AAA space simply cannot allow for that. Legion was built according to the ever-ballooning scale of AAA games, and it suffers for it. The people who made it could never get the resources they needed to be pursue this ambitious experiment without also making it a blockbuster, 30+ hour long game. It could never wear its politics on its very fashionable sleeves, without also being tailored for style over substance. The frustrating truth is that given the context of its development and the case of its goals, Watch Dogs: Legion might be the very best it could be. But as even DedSec would tell us, revolutions don’t happen from the inside out.

Follow Austin Walker on Twitter.