Watch Dogs Legion, out today for a bunch of major video game platforms, is one of the most elaborate anecdote generators ever created. So, before we get into how the game handles its ambitious design goals, its politics, and even its Ubisoft-ness, let’s start with an anecdote that could only have happened in Legion.
About seven hours into playing the game, I decided that I wanted to infiltrate London’s Buckingham Palace. The place needed some shaking up. Like so many locations in this game’s near-future virtual London, it was under the control of a fascist government that had hired a company called Albion to control the population and hunt a hacker group known as DedSec.
I was playing the game as a 48-year-old poet-turned-revolutionary DedSec hacker named Iona McLaughlin. She was cool. She could jack cars and stealthily take down guards. Best of all, she had a 6G (!) cell phone plan that allowed her to download things faster than most people in London. A handy skill for a hacker!
I wandered by Buckingham Palace and considered having Iona sneak onto the grounds. Nah. That would be too ordinary. It would be more fun — and more in the spirit of the game — for her to recruit someone to help, maybe get someone on the inside. I had her point her hacking tool through the fence in the direction of some of the members of the Queen’s Guard — those guys with the red coats and big bearskin hats. I settled on a guard named Brendan and clicked my hacking button. I checked my Deep Profiler, too. It revealed that this guard disliked DedSec, but I wanted to recruit him anyway, because then I could get into Buckingham Palace unbothered. Right? That’s how it should work?
The Deep Profiler showed me Brendan’s daily schedule and suggested some ways to win him over. There was something about helping break up a crypto smuggling effort. Sure, I figured, let’s try to help with that. Legion generated a couple of missions to make this happen. I needed to hack someone at a certain time of day, steal a truck somewhere else, then escape an enemy gang. No problem. Over the next half hour, I did all of that and Brendan showed up, in uniform, to say he was now down with DedSec and ready to help. Voila! I could play as a Queen’s Guard.
I walked Brendan over to Buckingham Palace, passed through a gate, and discovered that Brendan’s excellent uniform wasn’t really fooling anyone. The other guards might have been slower to eye him suspiciously, but eye him suspiciously they eventually did. Soon enough, they were chasing him, and I was in the midst of the same violent scene I feared would befall Iona the poet.
I made Brendan run, got him up to the roof of Buckingham Palace, got him right near a terminal where he’d be able to do some hacking and disable a sign showcasing an Albion propaganda message. But an attack drone appeared. I tried to shoot it down with a weak pistol. This was foolish. There was nowhere to hide, and the drone was relentless.
Brendan died, and not just the way game characters do and then dust themselves off. I had set the game to permadeath. Within seconds, Brendan the Queen’s Guard was dead and gone from my game. I’d created a short story in this world, one that didn’t end well.
I later got to the top of the Palace with Iona the poet. She got the job done, then died in another mission when I screwed something else up. I’m telling the tales of Londoners here, and I’ve experienced what I’ve come to realise is prototypical Watch Dogs Legion: Find an ordinary person and make them the star of their own video game adventure — or misadventure.
Watch Dogs Legion is a Big Idea game, and its big idea is appealingly audacious and well worth playing.
I like when game designers go for big ideas. I like when they try to make a No Man’s Sky, what with its promise to transport players to endlessly fascinating machine-generated worlds. I am glad when they cook up Scribblenauts, a game that lets players conjure into virtual being any noun in the English language.
Legion’s big idea is that you can play as any of the thousands of characters who populate the game’s version of London. In the context of the plot, you’re a member of the DedSec hacker collective, which has been wrongly blamed for bombings in London by some group called Zero Day. DedSec is now hunted by Albion, the company pretty much running the city. After a brief intro mission, you start playing the game properly as a randomly generated London resident and can then use hacking tools and a bit of conversation to begin recruiting all sorts of people to expand the cast. They usually need a favour, which amounts to a mission or two, to get them to your side. Then, you can play as them. There is no scripted main character. You play as whoever you’d like from all of London’s population.
You can fill your hacker crew with construction workers and spies and doctors and much more. All these people can have attributes that make them better fighters, better hackers or just distinct in some way. There’s one lady who I’ve tagged for possible recruitment. Her special skill? She will sometimes randomly buy new clothes (sounds sexist in isolation, yes, though I haven’t seen any other gendered traits among the female characters I’ve recruited). She also has her own sports car, which could be useful.
Last night, the game alerted me that my hacking app had detected a new high-quality recruit. I drove to northern London to find them. Turns out they were a “rugged philosopher” armed with a shock rifle. Next to them was a woman was a musician named Julia Jakubsson who apparently was a beatboxer and had the ability to play music. I tagger her for recruitment. The rugged philosopher can wait.
Screenshot: Ubisoft, Fair Use
Any and all of these people can serve as your protagonist, showing up in cutscenes and talking through them. And any of them can be your character in the game’s missions.
That’s all quite marvellous and makes for fun, surprising storytelling. It’s unclear how meaningful it is, though. My Queen’s Guard had just as calamitous a time infiltrating Buckingham Palace as I feared my poet would. My poet then got through it. As I’ve learned the game’s systems, I’ve felt more of the distinction between characters. I certainly can see that an old film critic who I came across for potential recruitment would be a liability, since my hacker app says he can’t crouch or take cover. But, playing on normal difficulty, I’ve not really felt that the characters I chose made a huge difference. In fact, I’m thinking of raising the game’s difficulty to see if Legion applies more pressure on me to recruit the right kind of people for certain tasks.
I nevertheless like the system as a virtual toy. It’s plenty fun to find people to recruit. As I was taking screenshots for this article, for example, I tried talking to a random woman to see how she felt about DedSec. I discovered that she’s a bodyguard and probably a good fighter. She told me that her friend was arrested at a protest and died while in custody. She wondered if I could find out more. She had warmed to DedSec, because she saw one of my characters breaking up an illegal arrest. I think I’ll try to add her to my team.
The more I get into recruiting characters, the slower I’ll probably go through Legion. That’s ok. I’m busy, and I’ll enjoy this game more if I don’t rush it. And, look, full disclosure: this isn’t technically a review because I’ve far from finished this game. I’m about 12 hours in and still expect to discover more of the story and acquire more skills.
Twelve hours has shown me plenty, though, and I have a good feel for this game. A lot of it plays like the earlier Watch Dogs, which I’ve enjoyed. Legion offers the now-familiar franchise mix of driving, sneaking, punching, shooting, all mixed in with hacking. Hack security cameras to spy on enemies and set up traps. Hack cars to drive them off the road. Hack everyone who walks by to see what their deal is.
In terms of radical gameplay changes, one of the early scripted missions unlocks the ability to call in cargo drones, which are floating platforms that you can stand on and pilot. Think: open world game, but with a magic carpet. They’re great fun to use, and I have a feeling there are more unusual drones to unlock later on.
It’s impossible to play Watch Dogs Legion with blinders on, not that I want to plan any game that way. The real world bleeds into Legion, for thematic reasons and for Ubisoft reasons. Let’s take the latter first. Legion is the first big game release from the multi-national publisher following a pair of disasters, both self-inflicted.
After the company’s only big fall 2019 game, Ghost Recon Breakpoint, bombed, Ubisoft management delayed its next three major games, including Legion, to presumably make them better. Breakpoint borrowed so heavily from Assassin’s Creed that it barely felt like a Ghost Recon game and its developers spent the next year releasing patches to make it more like one. Many players and critics have tired of Ubisoft’s converging cross-franchise design ideas, and one hope regarding these delays has been that the resulting games would feel more distinct.
Legion achieves that, somewhat, by avoiding a lot of the character-levelling and item-collection of recent Ubisoft titles. It’s even relatively light on scripted missions, focusing on algorithmically generated challenges to supplement the main quest. The whole thing plays more as a sandbox than recent Ubisoft games and it feels like the work of creators who trust their players to make more of their own fun. In that regard, it’s a promising departure from the converged Ubisoft design path.
Legion is also the first big Ubisoft game since the exposure of sexual misconduct and other abusive behaviours across multiple Ubisoft studios, which led to the ouster of top company leaders, the quiet dismissals of abusive staffers, and a slew of apologies and investigations.
In July, our own outlet ran an extensive report about misconduct allegations against Maxime Béland, the longtime head of Legion’s main development studio, Ubisoft Toronto, including a notorious incident in which he was said to have put his hands around the throat of a female subordinate at a work party after making a sexually inappropriate remark. Core to the report was the frustration and incredulity of Ubisoft workers about HR’s persistent inaction against misconduct as well as the shock that Béland, who left the company in 2019, was brought back in early 2020 in a more senior role to help oversee the company’s games. Béland did not address the misconduct claims publicly and had not replied to multiple requests for comment. He resigned shortly before the publication of our July report.
It’s unclear how the tumult around Ubisoft’s MeToo moment impacted the creation of Legion. In an interview with the Washington Post this week, the game’s lead creators expressed horror at what happened. The situation has left anyone interested in Ubisoft or its games to wonder whether company leaders were ignorant, incompetent, or enablers of patterns of misconduct that shortened careers, ruined lives, and sent many women out of the company. In that context, it becomes harder to view the work created under Ubisoft’s watch as something separate from company’s worst practices, even if rank and file developers are not to blame. It also makes more awkward this particular Ubisoft game about the ruinous impact that powerful corporations can have on people’s lives.
Because of that, while the design of Watch Dogs Legion is less typical of Ubisoft’s recent productions, its branding and in-game economy are reminders of the corporation’s not entirely welcome style and presence. Load up Legion and you’re invited to log into Ubisoft Connect, the company’s rebranded rewards program, from where players can download a few extra outfits. One of them is a Ubisoft logo face mask for your characters, which, even in the best of times, why?
The game’s anti-corporate themes are delivered in a game that is very corporate. Here is an adventure full of street protests against the rich and powerful that also has one of those now-standard Ubisoft store menus selling premium outfits and even premium potential members of DedSec. Those extra special recruits are available for $US10 ($14) a pop.
It’s a Ubisoft game, people. The revolution will be monetized.
Watch Dogs Legion is topical, with mixed success. The game starts with a disclaimer that any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental, but come on. They work the term “fake news” into the game’s first major cutscene and happily riff on “Make [place] Great Again.”
This is a game that, in its text, is about an anxiety about fascism. It’s the depiction of a society ready for rebellion, with nearly every citizen ready to resist. Given 2020 history, they might be overestimating how many people are ready to riot, but the game’s depiction of regular people’s simmering anger at a country’s decline to authoritarianism is recognisable.
To its creators’ credit, Legion is willing to talk about realistic abuses of political power. It is filled with audio logs and talk radio stations that explore the ways fascist leaders manipulate populations: vilifying opponents as enemies, surrounding themselves with generals and ex-generals, offering supposedly easy solutions to supposedly simple problems, persuading citizens to tie their sense of value to the success of their leader, and so on.
You can even find some in-game collectibles tied to George Orwell’s 1984, because that’s how big budget video games do these things.
Legion falters more when exploring the xenophobia that enables fascist power.
This new Watch Dogs is an admirably diverse game. Its Play As Anyone system is paired with the depiction of people from a range of races and ethnicities, speaking with voices that encompass a panoply of accents. This lets players control possibly the most diverse cast of characters ever offered in a big-budget game.
But there is little, if any, wrestling with the real, ugly bigotries that come with such diversity, even though vilification tied to skin colour or religion is so integral to fascist systems. Instead, the game presents England’s authoritarian leaders as prosecuting a xenophobic campaign against all Europeans, a simplified us vs. them that ascribes enmity to a person’s point of origin and nothing more. Some of the audio logs go further. The gameplay doesn’t, even though the opportunity to code bias into Legion’s web of character interactions is right there. The developers’ decision not to do so probably makes for a more pleasant game, one bereft of a lot of the hatreds so many people experience every day. But it still creates this weird mix of a game that is filled with diversity and is interested in condemning fascism even though it shies from depicting the systemic and active bigotries that fuel such movements.
Legion also stumbles with its presentation of police. In gameplay it provides the timely and somewhat shocking opportunity to break up wrongful and abusive arrests. Walk around London and you’ll hear people pleading for the private security forces to leave them alone, and you can run up on an arresting officer and knock them out.
Listen to the game’s audio logs, though, and you’ll hear strained parsings about the relatively worse impacts of private policing vs. policing orchestrated by the state.
“Is policing ever politically neutral?” the host of one of the in-game podcasts asks her expert guest.
The expert’s answer quickly becomes a worry about the problems of a privatised police force, saying that a force employed by a company is “more likely to act in their interests rather than those of ethics and morality for the greater good,” This raises a question asked often in 2020 about the extent to which even the police force that is supposedly beholden to public authorities is acting for the greater good.
In this game, though, our expert is focused on the problems of the cops working for private companies. “It also makes you wonder about the entire justice and legal system underpinning such a police force,” he continues. “Do the courts and justice systems also share the ethics and morals of the privatised companies who employ them and therefore, you know, is kind of equal and fair ethics or justice completely gone today?” The concern feels out of place with the current discussions of policing. It isn’t a switch to private control of the police that so many of us are worried about. It’s the nature of policing itself as well as the ethics and justice in effect today in public police forces. It doesn’t seem like a police force needs to be run by a corporation to compel such questions or anxieties, and so on this topic, from what I’ve played so far, Watch Dogs Legion sounds out of touch.
Then again, the design of Legion resists seriousness, as is the case with so many other games, which makes it easier to disregard the Legion’s efforts or failings to cover serious issue.
It’s not that video games can’t mix serious themes with humour or that we shouldn’t examine how they might do such things. It’s just that it can be hard to take a video game seriously, given the tendency of a lot of works in the medium to be rendered comical by the nature of how we play them. The virtual physicality of a game like Watch Dogs Legion frequently descends into slapstick: I’m sneaking…. sneaking…. sneaking… crap! He saw me. Run from the guards! Oh shit, turn a corner, punch that guy — duck from gunfire! — try to hack that panel so that other guy goes flying… shitshitshit there’s a drone. Move!
Combine that with Legion’s hacking system, which invites you to gawk at people’s quirks and experiences — She googles hentai! He beatboxes! Oh no, she was “a victim of Albion brutality in a viral video,” and she “donates clothes to queer youth shelters,” but she runs a parkour forum and writers interactive fiction — and you’ve got the invitation to think deeply but the suggestion to not take things too seriously. That’s where so many games land, and I still yearn for more big-budget games to aim farther.
While it doesn’t hit its marks perfectly, I’m intrigued enough by Watch Dogs Legion that I’m going to play more. The game’s approach to politics is more interesting than most recent Ubisoft’s games, because at least they’re admitting politics exist. I do want to see where they take thing.
I also want to keep testing the character recruitment system. I want to find more misfits to join my crew, and I want to see what hoops I’ll have to leap to recruit people who really hate DedSec.
And, look, I want to ride that cargo drone, shallow as that sounds. I want to float through an open-world game by skimming across its skyline, as I try to find out what else is going to unlock in this game.
Watch Dogs 2 got better as it went along, and I’m eager to see where Legion takes me. If it becomes even more fascinating, I’ll write about it more.
I’m drawn to audacious games, and Watch Dogs Legion has my attention. It’s not getting everything right, but I’m eager to see how the rest of this experiment plays out.