Welcome to London. Things are downright shit right now. The government seems to be unable to work out how to handle dealing with any big issues, and children are starving because the economy is bottoming out. But enough about real life, let’s talk about the London of Watch Dogs Legion, because things are even worse off there.
Along came a hacker
Something big is happening in London. We are talking conspiracy theory level big, where bombs get snuck into several places in the city and detonated at the same time… and DEDSEC just got blamed for all of it. Sentiment for the hacker group is at an all-time low, and it is going to take several people working together to take on the might of the private military contractor that has settled in to “uphold the peace”. Get ready for what is going to feel like several episodes of Black Mirror as you try to work out who framed DEDSEC and who stood to gain from the resultant chaos.
Luckily some people still feel that DEDSEC could be the answer to brutal policing and a city that tracks your every single move and you quickly start assembling a group of ragtag resistance to go out and hack things. Doctors, construction workers, police officers – just about anyone can be recruited to the ranks, especially if you unlock the tech that lets you scan pretty much everything about them to find a way to make them sympathetic to your cause. The marketing of the game promised being able to recruit just about anyone, and while I haven’t sat and tried to push the system, I never found a person who I could scan that I couldn’t recruit. Gang flunkies and private security people need some work to get them on your side, like helping a cop nab evidence of drug deals, or making a loan shark go away. The extra work is worth it, because the perks of some of the characters are just too good to pass up on.
I remember that my one doctor was a gynaecologist that carried around shock paddles to use for takedowns and I never worked out why a gynae was that prepared for cardiac arrests, but it was fun to zap people.
A normal, run-of-the-mill person with no skills can equip two DEDSEC weapons – all non-lethal options – and a single gadget. Gadgets can be swapped out, but only if you aren’t in a restricted area. But if you recruit someone with extra perks, your options open up a lot. A security guard can use their uniform to get into some restricted areas, but be careful that no guards get close and wonder who the new person is. They might have a melee weapon too, or perhaps their gear means they take less damage in a fight. Finding the skills you want can completely change how you approach some missions. Will you use your spider drone and sneak through vents from outside the restricted area, getting what you need and disconnecting when the deed is done? Or perhaps you will walk right in, distracting nearby guards by hacking their phones as you duck out of sight. Or maybe you rush in as an anarchist or hitman, killing everyone and everything before looking for your objective underneath a pile of corpses. The choice is yours and nobody seems to care if you go in like a ghost or a rampant murderer.
The downfall of this recruitment system is how generic it can be. My first operative was pretty useless, but she had gusto. A hairdresser that got discounts on clothing, she recruited several people before she died in a mission gone wrong. Watch Dogs Legion features permadeath, which you can turn off if you want. But before she died, she recruited someone with the exact same voice as her. Actually, the first person she recruited had the same voice actress, which started making it harder to care about my little flock of hacking activists. Both security officers I recruited had a sob story about someone they knew, either family or a friend, on some medication that a gangster boss was now hiking up the price. While they both had slightly different stories to tell me, the objectives were exactly the same, and even my AI companion spouted the exact same lines. I am not sure if this was just bad luck that I somehow bumped into the exact same mission twice, or the same voice actress twice, but it does show the weakness of a system that allows almost any character to become a playable character.
After a while, I stopped remembering the names of my various recruits. I had a construction worker, a security guard, two doctors. The person I recruited that reduced jail time for the group that never went on any missions. The hitman with hiccups, meaning stealth missions had a chance to go completely sideways at any point. A few spies and bare-knuckle boxers … I remember that my one doctor was a gynaecologist that carried around shock paddles to use for takedowns and I never worked out why a gynae was that prepared for cardiac arrests, but it was fun to zap people. Sure hitman guy had a funny accent, but beyond skillsets, I didn’t care who I was using for missions.
This generic, forgettable element falls through into conversations in your safehouse and during the story. The various recruits will chirp about things from time to time, but besides a few NPC quest givers, there was nobody that I wanted to hear from. No Wrench to listen to. No Jordi Chin. Just a few people who I had recruited because they were useful or might be useful to me and as after I lost a few good recruits I really stopped caring. This wasn’t like XCOM where losing a veteran is devastating, because besides maybe doing a mission a bit easier, you can do pretty much everything with just about any recruit as you unlock enough of the tech tree and a replacement is easy enough to find on the street.
The strangest part of the recruiting process is how you unlock specialists by helping a borough rise up and become defiant. After completing a few activities, like sabotaging a vehicle depot, or photographing evidence or taking down a VIP in the area, you get a mission that will help the people notice what is happening around them. This involves an NPC giving you a job, rather than doing what your AI buddy tells you to do. Then suddenly you have a new operative in your base, completely unrelated to the quest giver or what you just did. If there was some connection it would make sense, but these people just appear out of thin air, like you opened a loot box in Middle-earth: Shadow of War and something crawled out.
While I definitely enjoyed scanning people and looking for recruits and seeing how people are connected to one another, and how they have timetables to follow and you can find their therapist, drug dealer, family members and more by looking around, the system is nowhere near as deep as Middle-earth’s Nemesis system, and I feel like some serious potential was missed there.
Watch Dogs has grown up a bit since the first game, which was all about showing you how easily you could watch people in their homes, during intimate private moments. These moments of voyeurism have been replaced with jabs at the corporate elite, how powerless the system is against criminals and how the poorer people suffer due to being made unemployed by someone using automation. Without spoiling things it gets a lot darker, but it doesn’t ever comment on what is happening. Your people have the same “What the fuck?” reaction to wholesale organ harvesting as they do to hearing there is a cover-up of automated vehicles killing pedestrians.
I wish there was some time given to examining the various elements of how technology is impacting our lives and the way it influences us and how dangerous big data is, but most of these situations are boiled down to show how creepy they are, rather than condemning what we already see happening around us right now.
While I appreciate that in some instances the game is shining a spotlight on problems that are really close to home and where our society is heading… there is very little said once the spotlight is there. Some of the NPCs will have something worth listening to say, but in general your resistance crew will just be incredulous, before taking a selfie or drinking a beer. It is pretty strange to process once you start working out what parts of the script are bespoke for NPCs, and which bits are drawn from a pool of character barks that can be applied to several situations.
Been here before
Watch Dogs: Legion had me battling with deciding if exploration was worth it or not. Sure, many open-world games might have more than one reason to enter specific locations, but sometimes I would have to go to places more than once. Like the mission to steal the medicine for those guards, which I did twice and I stole the van from the same place twice, I eventually stopped heading into restricted areas to try to collect masks and tech points until a quest sent me into that area. Sometimes I never even entered areas, because using someone who can summon a drone that you can hop onto and fly to the top of most buildings let me take a shortcut through the mission, as did overly relying on a security guard to walk into places easily or just using my spider drones to solve everything and collect all the various upgrades, lore and cosmetic items. Not changing up operatives would result in things feeling a bit stale as you used your one-trick pony again and again. While the game tries to course-correct this by having operatives die, get arrested or injured (or even kidnapped), you can end up playing most of the game as just one operative the whole time, because the things you really need to solve a mission will always be in an area, meaning you never go on a mission and leave to pick someone else who can solve the puzzles.
While I really enjoyed the AI companion you have and his toilet humour and constant jokes, I found it strange that Watch Dogs Legion had a final act really reminiscent of the first game. Similar to the point I had to go rewatch the end of the first game to make sure I wasn’t making it up. I found that really weird.
Oh, did I mention that my spy got really hurt on the final mission and the character said, in a very calm voice “Do a loud scream”? Totally added to the weight of the final moments.