Four Hours With Watch Dogs: Legion, A Game That Might Be Too Timely For Its Own Good

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Image: Ubisoft
Image: Ubisoft

Bands of protesters begging apathetic passersby to rise up. Officers detaining and brutalizing people, seemingly without cause. Fresh graffiti alluding to a dizzying array of injustices: xenophobia, the surveillance state, war. The first thing that struck me about Watch Dogs: Legion is that, despite a multi-year development cycle and a futuristic setting, its open-world city feels eerily current. Well, in a superficial way, at least.

Last week, I got to play four hours of Watch Dogs: Legion, which comes out on October 29, through a remote-play setup that publisher Ubisoft is using for what would typically have been E3 demos. The game takes place in a near-future London under the watch of a private military company called Albion, who’ve reacted to terrorist attacks with a full-on surveillance state. The streets teem with armed security officers.

The skies are, at times, nearly blotted out by drones. AIs skim data to weed out subversive elements. Your goal is to amass a covert hacker resistance to oppose this dystopian regime. In order to do this, you can, as Ubisoft has been keen to promote at every opportunity, recruit any of the thousands of people in the entire city. It’s a mind-bogglingly ambitious feature, given that each and every city dweller has their own abilities, biography, and schedule.

During my hands-on time, I was given free rein to explore virtual London and experience this feature as I pleased. I had a lot of fun, but I came away unsure how much of what I saw was smoke and mirrors or if that even mattered. I also felt conflicted as I played. Legion bills itself as a game about normal people banding together in solidarity and rising up against oppressive forces.

It is being created by Ubisoft Toronto, a studio where some current and former employees recently spoke out about toxic culture that facilitated harassment and discouraged workers from coming together and speaking up. Talented as many of the people working at Ubisoft Toronto clearly are, I do not know if a studio with that kind of baggage can do justice to this topic. Even a four-hour play session — hefty by demo standards — was not enough to assuage my concerns.

The demo began with a heavily linear tutorial in which I controlled a suit-wearing James Bond analogue named Dalton who, with the help of other members of hacker collective DedSec, infiltrated a parliamentary building to investigate a threat. Turned out, the threat was a bomb, set by a group that intended to detonate large chunks of London and then blame DedSec, the hacker collective you’re part of in this game, for the carnage. After some villainous monologuing from a hologram about performing a “hard reset” on society, the mysterious group succeeded. Also, Dalton seemingly died.

The game then flashed forward in time, showing how Albion’s rise had transformed the city, stripping away people’s rights but also cutting down on organised crime (allegedly) and propelling the UK’s top corporations to record-breaking profits through technologies originally devised to enable said surveillance state. This information was delivered through a newscast montage whose imagery frequently contradicted its message. “As Albion’s mandate is extended indefinitely by the government, life finally begins to return to normal,” said one newscaster, while imagery of a violent attack by officers played in the background.

I then found myself in the shoes of a new operative from the inexplicably resurrected DedSec, Tamba Kamara. DedSec’s AI helper, Bagley, told me that we were there, in the middle of the city, to “roll up our sleeves and get to un-fucking London.” First, we’d recruit some new operatives. He suggested two with skills uniquely well-suited to our nascent collective and marked them on my map. I probably should have tracked them down. Instead, I immediately tried to recruit a rando sitting on a bench next to me, having a smoke. He angrily told me that he did not have time and was wary of Albion. Tamba was surprised by how quickly this man, named Darren Simpson, brushed him off, but then Bagley helpfully informed me that Darren had been investigating the activities of two particular Albion officers, and in retaliation, the company had severely restricted his internet access.

So, in order to persuade Darren to join us, we decided to track down the officers’ records. This involved breaking into a heavily guarded facility that was, frankly, well above my skill level at the time. I tried hacking some cameras to get the lay of the land, but couldn’t find a way to unlock side doors without having physical access to the area I was already trying to enter. Eventually, I walked into the lobby, hacked the front gate, and just tried to stroll in like I belonged. This did not work. Guards swarmed on me, and Tamba got shot about a million times while I desperately piloted him toward the console I needed to hack. Eventually, he succumbed to the bullets and fell down, which usually means that somebody has died, but in Tamba’s case it meant he got “arrested” and would be temporarily grayed out on my “team” menu screen.

Image: Ubisoft

So then I swapped over to another operative from my dwindling stable of four, Anthony Hussain, who, according to a quick bit of text on the menu, had once “launched a DDoS attack on SIRS,” a fictional police state intelligence agency. I mostly picked him because he looked cool, like somebody who’d stepped out of cult ‘90s movie Hackers but could actually pull off the look. His skill set, especially the ability to steal keys from any range, struck me as a potential solution to many of the problems I encountered as Tamba (the doors and gates more than the bullets, mind you). This time around, I decided to seek out one of the prospective operatives I was supposed to be going after, and he provided me with a mission that involved hacking a database belonging to Britain’s National Health Service.

It was at this point that I realised Legion hadn’t done much to teach me about my ability kit. For example, I had a spider drone that I could toss out and use to access terminals and other objects I needed to have physical access to in order to hack, but the game hadn’t really explained this or suggested that it was a crucial part of my arsenal. Nonetheless, I managed to unlock a side gate into this institution, sneak past some guards, take control of a camera and use it to emit a sound to lure another guard to my character’s location, and choke him out. From there, it was a simple matter of climbing onto the roof — a weird place to keep an NHS database access point — and sneaking past two additional guards. Mission accomplished. But then I was confronted with a new question: How would I get down? On the other side of the roof, I saw a very large drone. First I hacked it to do some reconnaissance, but then it hit me: I could just climb on top of the drone and pilot myself down. That’s exactly what I did, much to the shock and confusion of a few bystanders who saw me land.

This basic, satisfying rhythm undergirded every recruitment I chose to undertake in Legion. Each building I infiltrated — all seamlessly part of the open world — felt like a miniature puzzle with ample hacking-based solutions. I also could have just run in and shot everybody I saw, but this generally carried a high risk, not to mention a decent chance of a civilian death toll, which felt out of line with the peppy personality of my scrappy Robin Hood hacker collective.

For me, recruitment became compulsive. There are few things more satisfying in games than amassing a multifaceted Swiss army knife rolodex of Chill Buds, and the actual process of running errands to recruit people feels good in Legion. I feared that missions might quickly begin to repeat themselves, but in my four hours with the game, they did not. Each mini-mission gave me something uniquely cool to do: In one, I hacked an NHS truck containing precious organs so that it sped out of a heavily guarded area and straight into the street next to me, where I then hopped in the driver’s seat and tore off into the distance. In another, I reached the top of a skyscraper by hacking a drone, flying it up to the control panel of a construction crane, hacking that from the drone, and then using it to lower a carriage countless stories down to a nearby street (I did not crush anybody… as far as I know). Then I rode to the top as though the crane was my personal service elevator, took a quick second to “digitally deface” (read: graffiti) the building, and rode back down.

Other missions didn’t go quite so smoothly. At one point, I was tasked with infiltrating a jail to free a prospective operative’s best friend. With the help of my spider bot, I made it all the way to the correct cell without making a peep. But then an officer noticed me, and I bolted to an outdoor area to regroup. Nearly every guard in the building gave chase. I clambered over a short brick wall and into an alley to hide. One by one, every single guard tried to creep over the same wall, at which point I, playing as a construction woman whose special power was a giant fucking wrench, thwacked them comatose. It was very funny at the time, but it’s also not what I would call a particularly interesting or, er, good AI response. After that, freeing the wannabe operative’s friend was cake, given that every single obstacle in my path was lying unconscious in the same alley.

I really enjoyed collecting these characters, though I will say that beyond certain abilities like remote key stealing or having outfits that allowed them to elude suspicion in off-limits areas, they felt somewhat interchangeable after I brought them into the fold. Characters exhibited their personalities largely while talking to Bagley or briefly interacting with prospective operatives in short, voiced cut-scenes. I could also get more insight into what they were about by viewing their schedules in the game’s “deep profile” tool, which told me, for instance, that one guy I was trying to recruit enjoyed watching illegal fights and had a hitman after him — and then suggested that I dispatch the hitman to make the guy more interested in joining DedSec. It’s wild to think that thousands of characters each have their own unique looks, voices, and schedules, but Ubisoft has previously said that there are over a dozen personality templates that decide how cut-scenes will play out. In other words, there are not really thousands of characters — at least, not in the traditional sense. I don’t think I want that to be the case, either. The amount of work developers would have to do to deliver that experience would be downright inhumane.

That said, the net effect of Ubisoft’s specific approach here is that, beyond their biographies and schedules, operatives feel less like fully fledged characters and more like sketches. I honestly couldn’t tell you much about any of the characters I played as beyond “That one is a little snarky” or “That one seemed weirdly chill about running somebody over with a car.” Maybe their personalities are meant to blossom more over time, but in the demo, they felt largely like variations on the same basic template. Watch Dogs 2 was bursting with personality — perhaps too much, at times. Legion, by comparison, struck me as limited.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. There’s an almost XCOM-like joy to Legion’s rhythm. The game provides outlines of characters, and you fill in the blanks with your exploits. According to developers, Legion, like XCOM, also features permadeath, though I did not experience it during my time with the game. Two of my characters wound up going down, but both got sent to jail instead of biting the big one. I do not know exactly what would have needed to happen for them to die. Still, those stakes have made for compelling player stories in other games — including creative director Clint Hocking’s own Far Cry 2 — so I’m interested to see how they’ll play out here. In addition, other details baked into the broader system intrigued me. For instance, at one point, I came across two officers harassing a young man who, according to my heads-up display, was the best friend of one of my other operatives. Unfortunately, I did not successfully rescue him — I was playing as a new operative who turned out to be extremely bad at hand-to-hand combat — so I’m not sure what would have happened if I did. That said, those kinds of little systemic details have the potential to really elevate player stories. Despite spending my demo time almost exclusively interacting with potential recruits, I feel like I only scratched the surface of the system.

Image: Ubisoft

I’m also interested to see how these sorts of dynamic player stories mesh with a setting that feels, to say the least, politically charged. For example, outside the Albion building that housed the NHS database I needed to hack, I found a crowd of protesters — the first I’d seen in the game, but far from the last. They were protesting, well, a lot of things. A big banner hanging near the crowd read “Automation causes agitation.” Two protesters held signs alluding to Albion officers’ violence, with one saying that they’re “making a killing.” Another protester held a sign that said “Streets are not beds,” perhaps referring to a homelessness crisis stemming from automation and job loss.

This is not all that dissimilar from real protests, where it’s fairly common to see signs and hear chants championing different causes. But it left me wondering what Watch Dogs: Legion is going to be about. We know it’s going to be about something. “For us, we absolutely have something to say,” creative director Clint Hocking told my boss, Stephen Totilo, during a demo at last year’s E3. “And we look at the things that are going on in the world and we try to capture those in our speculative fiction.” I really appreciate the broader strokes of what the game seems to be getting at: that anybody can join a movement and push back against injustice, that mass solidarity is the only way forward. But what I’m wondering, even after playing the game, is how bold it will be in addressing the specifics of the situation.

On the surface, Legion seems to be pretty daring, at least compared to other triple-A games. The real-world parallels are so apparent as to sometimes be on the nose. Walking down the in-game street, I saw officers handcuffing civilians who shouted that they hadn’t done anything and forcing them to kneel. In the past couple months, I have seen this exact scene play out in real life more times than I can count. It happened to me, once. I was arrested, alongside more than 200 other people in Richmond, Virginia, for doing literally nothing other than being outside during a poorly telegraphed curfew. Whether intentionally or not, Legion seems intent on capturing at least some of the small, real ways living in a police state sucks.

In the game, I saw other characters receiving beatings in broad daylight and the dark of night. In one particular case, I came across an officer in the process of arresting two women, and I hacked a drone that was shining an almost-blinding light on them and shined it on the officer instead. He became enraged, whipped out his baton, and began beating one of the women. In desperation, I crashed the drone into him so she could get away. It felt like almost an amalgam of scenes I watched unfold while at a recent real-life protest where protesters stood in front of a line of cops in an attempt to get them to release a woman they’d detained on spurious charges. At one point during that protest, a cop who’d had light shined in his eyes got so angry that he charged at the protesters and had to be restrained by other officers. At another point, somebody threw an empty water bottle, and in response, an armed and armoured officer began angrily bludgeoning a dude with his shield — not even the person who threw the empty plastic bottle, just somebody who was near him. Not long after, they brought out the tear gas and rubber bullets.

Legion’s systems recreate situations that continue to unfold across the world, but I worry that its narrative might drift off the mark. For one, there are no cops involved. They’ve been replaced by a private military corporation, a decision that, depending on your point of view, either makes a point by transforming state-sanctioned violence into what it really is or lampshades a pervasive systemic problem by chalking it up to a private company rather than a public body. I also did not come across any indication that race played a role in the proceedings.

Though officers randomly arrested, beat, and opened fire on many non-player characters during my time with the game, they were not overwhelmingly Black or brown. Granted, the game is set in London, a city that is certainly not free of racism or police violence and one which has joined in recent Black Lives Matter protests against police violence, but one that does not share America’s exact problems. Still, I do have to wonder how far Legion will go in its depiction of these issues and their underlying causes. Will it be precise and incisive, or will it dip a giant ladle into a bland stew of vaguely interrelated issues like automation, police (except they’re not the police) violence, and offscreen xenophobia? Will it engage with the issues it’s gesturing in the general direction of, or will it take the standard Ubisoft “not a political statement” route?

Later in the demo, I managed to roll Legion’s promise, slightly uncomfortable weirdness, and jankiness into a single moment. I recruited a protest leader to join my cause. When I played as her, I gained access to a megaphone ability that allowed me to rally other protesters to my side. I deployed this power outside an Albion factory I intended to sabotage, hacked the gate open, and then strolled in. This sequence owned for multiple reasons. For one, as I stealthed up to a guard to perform a silent takedown, protesters bellowed and cheered, completely defeating the purpose of my sneakery, which I found hilarious. For two, I got into a fistfight with a second guard, and after I’d softened him up, a very enthusiastic soccer mum ended up delivering the final blow with a slobber-knocker of a punch to the jaw.

However, I then walked the protesters into the factory, where guards pulled guns on them and cuffed them. On one hand, I felt bad. On the other, it was a perfect distraction. I made my way through the rest of the factory and, after K.O.-ing most of the guards, arrived back where the protesters had been cuffed. I freed one, and she ran away. However, another — a tall dude in a bad hat — immediately asked if he could join DedSec. You know, after I just used him as a distraction and got him arrested. But beggars can’t be choosers, so I recruited him. His only special skill was going to jail longer than other people any time he got arrested. Because of course it was. This was all extremely funny, and I love it when a game’s interlocking systems can create this kind of unintended but damn near orchestral comedy. However, given the sort of violence we’ve seen inflicted on protesters in the real world, getting them arrested at gunpoint as a funny distraction felt kinda off. Not unacceptable or categorically horrible or anything, but just odd.

Image: Ubisoft

After that, the game broke. I approached the console I was supposed to sabotage, but no prompt appeared, and I couldn’t hack a nearby object that might have done the trick, either. PR ended up restarting the game, at which point I infiltrated the factory again and experienced the same issue, but not before accidentally bopping a protester who was helping me fight a guard, at which point he turned on me so severely that he would not stop chasing me until I killed him with an explosion.

That pretty much sums up my time with Watch Dogs: Legion: It is a vast, ponderous machine that all at once dazzles with its ability to conjure up amusing scenes and regularly trips over its own two feet. I came away from my demo session with questions: How deep does the character system go? How much of the game’s jankiness will be fixed before release? How will this game engage with the real-world atrocities it’s replicating in its fictional setting? How will a studio that’s reportedly struggled with pervasive sexism and toxicity due to deeply flawed leadership tell this kind of story? Can it? Should it?

It feels distinctly strange to consider all these questions while, days later, continuing to experience the distinctly gamerly compulsion to play more. Earlier, I said that Legion in some ways struck me as eerily current. There are few feelings more current than endless internal conflict over the media you consume. I have a feeling that Legion is going to make a lot of people feel very conflicted.

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