By Paul Davies
Back in July, SA Gamer took our first steps into Ubisoft’s vision of a near-future dystopia and took charge of a handful of charismatic guerrilla hackers. Our report set about highlighting the many ways Ubisoft is advancing the Watch Dogs series, building upon the publisher’s longstanding open-world know-how and a knack for some uncommon narrative direction.
While first impressions are strong, considering the sum of many parts, the vital component missing has seemed that solitary reason to be excited at the prospect of so much busywork. And so, for this hands-on, we focused on core appeal.
It is easy to track the progression from ambitious Watch Dogs to its accomplished sequel. Via new protagonist Marcus against the backdrop of San Francisco, the mood was lifted considerably after Aiden and Chicago. Events surrounding Silicon Valley shadiness became more relevant to audiences, and if Marcus wasn’t likeable enough there was a droll team of street-smart DedSec technicians in support. At times it felt like parody; bordering on GTA.
Aiden was the one-man revenge mission, cold, calculated and clever. Scrapes that Sitara, Josh, Wrench and Horatio led Marcus into stretched the invasion-of-privacy theme to outlandish new levels, extolling escalating degrees of trickery at the player’s disposal.
Watch Dogs Legion is primarily a lot less linear. In fact, its foundation is entirely free-form, comprising multiple narrative threads emerging from side-missions with their own optional issues to resolve. There are countless protagonists, each bringing a particular axe to grind.
The DedSec collective and its united effort to disrupt a harmful regime is the cause shared among its diverse and ever-expanding roster of recruits – or ‘ordinary heroes’ as Ubisoft prefers to frame them, putting aside their differences to fight together. London authentic.
The UK’s capital is served as a multifaceted celebrity also, with emphasis on its landmarks.
‘Play as Anyone’ is the slogan served by Ubisoft to entice, which carries a big wow factor on the face of it. Unlike Assassin’s Creed, which cherishes iconic heroes such as Eivor the Wolf-Kissed in this year’s Viking themed foray, Watch Dogs Legion entrusts its identity to a cause.
Drawn to that are characters such as Catherine Stark, Glenda Harrigan and Mark Hasani; respectively a hacker, ‘hitman’ and janitor, all highly opinionated and entertaining. These are examples of so-called Skilled Operatives whose strong views influence our own, and whose unique range of capabilities impact player progression the most.
Stark, Harrigan and Hasani were handed to SA Gamer for the purposes of our demo which took place several hours into the main campaign. Both women had chutzpah to spare, with f-bombs flying amid their observations on the status quo. After last session’s entertaining but not so memorable avatars, we can only assume that Ubisoft really wanted to leave an impression this time with dialogue – ‘F**k that fam!’, Stark exclaimed upon spotting a trap. Her heated exchange with rogue scientist Hamish Bolaji felt authentic between renegades. Elsewhere, comments from Stark, Harrigan and Hasani came across as closer to caricatures.
With Stark and Harrigan we have clearly contrasting skill sets and load-outs in the form of their respective stun gun versus a Desert Eagle, and hacking versus Gunkata.
Your preference for potty-mouthed monologues aside, there are plain reasons why players would choose one Operative over the other. Hasani, meanwhile, owns a sweeping brush that helps him cover his tracks under pursuit. A novel idea but tough to exploit in practice.
We’re going to use Hasani as an example of where the Play as Anyone system breaks down, or at least shows signs of weakness. That said, Watch Dogs Legion retains its balance of stealth and all-out assault options from previous outings, gadgets and weapons in support.
There is compelling nuance to all this, thankfully. We talked last time about Recruits, as opposed to Skilled Operatives, who are lowly bar staff or newspaper vendors, up-and-coming MMA athletes who – we’d like to hope – are handier at brawling than Harrigan.
Nurse Veronica Ghosh carries a tranquiliser and heals up fast, for example. The newsstand kid can get you discounts at clothes stores, if customisation is your thing. It becomes even more interesting when putting the Operatives’ lives at risk, or in danger of being arrested. Should one of the team get taken down or tossed in a cell, DedSec handler Sabine points players in the direction of specialists that can improve recovery time or expedite release.
Like the majority of open-world scenarios, Watch Dogs Legion can all-too-easily side-track players to the point of losing sight of any reason for being. This seems inevitable. So, it could be wise that DedSec’s fight-the-power cause stays the only constant, while everything else – characterisation, plot detail and pacing, evolution of gameplay through time and practice – is managed to the largest extent by players.
There are fantasy-breaking loopholes to exploit, ranging from gullible AI to the core feature that allows an instant switch from tactical avatar to all-guns-blazing in case of emergency. However, there is also Permadeath mode taking an Operative out of the frame for good if not treated with care, drastically upping the ante during any form of engagement. We sure wouldn’t want to say goodbye to Stark or Harrigan in a hurry.
Above all, Watch Dogs Legion is impressing us most with its air of mystery surrounding the motives of DedSecs opponents, Zero Day, and the possibility that they are one side of the same coin. Further thoughts on handling and gameplay progression we’ll keep to ourselves for now, but we will say that smart decisions are being made based on how the open-world experience broadens out. Ubisoft’s vision of London is characterful without being too corny; it’s a destination we’d happily spend weeks exploring while unravelling some shadowy plot.
If open-world gameplay and heroics in dystopian futures are your thing, Watch Dogs Legion owns its territory with conviction.