Watch Dogs: Legion review: The reasons to skip it are legion
“While Ubisoft presents its best open world to date, the main gameplay hook falls flat.”
- Fantastic open world
- Enjoyable combat
- Fun new traversal options
- Recruitment hook doesn’t work
- Story is a tonal mess
- Too easy, even at its most difficult
- PC version crashed frequently
Ubisoft wants its core gameplay hook, the ability to recruit anyone in the open world, to be the thing that makes you play Watch Dogs: Legion. Unfortunately, the mechanic wears out its welcome quickly. The more time I spent with the game, the less impressive it became, and the system’s rough edges became clear.
The real reason you’ll stick with Watch Dogs: Legion is its incredibly vibrant London, one of the best open worlds I’ve explored in a video game. But buyer beware. The PC version of the title is littered with issues, making the console experience the preferable choice.
Well, that’s a story
Watch Dogs: Legion opens with attacks on key London landmarks that are pinned on the hacker group DeadSec. This pushes the city government to hand control over to a private military corporation called Albion. As the game unfolds, the player will uncover the mystery behind Zero Day, the actual perpetrators of the bombings, and how the villainous factions of London tie into them.
Watch Dogs has always skirted around the edges of reality with its commentary on surveillance, but Legion dives in the deep end by adding a healthy dollop of oppressive policing. The franchise’s last game, Watch Dogs 2, was released around the time of the last U.S. presidential election, an event that has constantly reshaped not only my personal politics, but the state of the world, on a near-daily basis. The year 2020, as you know, has been a lot.
I was hoping Legion would find something interesting to say, but topics that should be approached with a scalpel are instead tackled with a sledgehammer. The game has no tact and is never subtle, yet it insists on skirting around hot-button issues with the lighthearted nature that made Watch Dogs 2 popular. It doesn’t work.
As Bagley, the A.I. companion that accompanies your operatives on missions, cracks jokes, you’re forced to take pictures of organ harvested corpses found in the middle of a sports stadium that has been converted into a concentration camp. In one mission, you’re required to navigate a spider robot through a mansion, only to find refugees kept as slaves, and when one begs to be freed, they’re instead executed in front of the other captives.
Yeah. It gets dark. Yet the game never acknowledges the horrifying situations it portrays, which left me feel uneasy about the entire state of the games’ story. Legion wants to get serious, but it also wants to be silly, and it wants to feel relevant. The game fails to make these ideas solidify into a sensible story, or even theme.
The recruit anyone mechanic misses the mark
Legion lets you walk up to any London civilian and recruit them as a part of DeadSec. The idea at first feels novel, but it fails to justify its existence, and the lack of a main character becomes a problem as the game progresses.
After playing the prologue mission, which starts off with a preset operative, the game gives a choice of 15 different randomly generated characters to choose from. You are provided their name, their profession, a single sentence on their background, and what tool or ability they come with. My choice was Marcel, a repairman with a wrench that provided additional melee damage.
From the jump, you’re able to approach (almost) anyone on the street and recruit them to the cause. I say nearly anyone, because around 75% of the civilians actually had the “start recruitment” pop-up appear over their head at any given time. I’m unsure if this was a bug, or if the game will only let you recruit a certain amount of characters at once. Still, it’s enough people that I didn’t feel Ubisoft had falsely advertised the mechanic.
You can vet recruits by examining the same information shown during the first recruitment post-prologue: Name, profession, background, and ability. Depending on their feelings toward DeadSec, you will need to complete a side quest of varying difficulty in order for them to join. Once they do, you can swap between operatives at any time.
The campaign will sometimes task you with recruiting a specific operative for a mission. You’ll need a construction worker to access a worksite undetected, for example. The game will also mark the map with recruits that bring more unique skills to the table.
The majority of operatives play the same.
While swapping characters is novel at first, you’ll quickly realize it’s too shallow. London’s civilians are randomized, but variety seems limited. I often bumped into people with the same haircut or beard as the character I was playing. I even ran into a recruit that had the same face as Marcel, though with a darker skin tone. The randomized visual and vocal match-ups mean characters don’t always have a voice that makes sense.
Worse, the majority of operatives play the same. There are some exceptions. My spy character had a handful more combat animations than the rest of my crew, and the ability to spawn an Aston Martin car with rockets and cloaking. Most of the time. however, I could have swapped out any of my recruits for another, and it wouldn’t have made much difference.
My construction worker could call in a cargo drone to clamber on top of and fly around the city, but there were enough of them zipping through the sky as it is. I also let out a belly laugh when one operative — an elderly woman — executed a flying spin kick to incapacitate a heavily armored Albion guard.
As you unlock more hacking and combat upgrades for your crew, the differences between your recruits only diminishes. It’s hard to imagine the game would play differently if it had just a single protagonist.
I could have swapped out any of my recruits for another, and it wouldn’t make a difference.
However, having a main character, or several protagonists, would have served the story a lot better. We could have connected with them in a way that’s impossible with the random recruits, and a message beyond “fascism is bad” could have been gleaned from the story.
The game tries to anchor you with its side characters, including the often amusing A.I. Bagley, but they are poor substitutes for a consistent main character.
London is the real star
I’m disappointed with Legion’s story and surprisingly thin operative mechanic. Neither stands out. However, if you’re just looking to jump into an Ubisoft-style sandbox, Watch Dogs: Legion is the company’s best effort to date.
Legion’s version of London is a delight to explore, particularly for someone (like me!) who grew up in England. You can run into other operatives that you’ve recruited while exploring, and select members of the public will be highlighted if they’re somehow related to a recruit. While I’m lukewarm on the whole “recruit anyone” mechanic, I appreciated this touch.
If you’re simply looking to jump into an Ubisoft sandbox, Watch Dogs: Legion is the company’s best effort to date.
With ray tracing on, the reflections in puddles, or in the side of a double decker bus, truly brought a texture to the world that I had never before experienced in a game. It’s at times grimy, shiny, and homey, depending on what part of town you’re in.
The cargo drones that let you to fly around the city bring a new level of verticality to the game, adding new ways to enter a restricted area. It’s a welcome addition, as entering restricted areas is 90% of Watch Dogs’ gameplay. That said, using a cargo drone was sometimes like playing the game on easy mode, as the server or other objective I had to access was often located on a roof.
The game is made even more effortless by moronic enemy A.I. The city is littered with Albion drones and guards, and yet I was able to cause an awful lot of mayhem without a peep from the fuzz. And when they did catch me in the act? Ducking behind a corner or two very quickly turned their awareness meter from attack red to befuddled white, and within 30 seconds, chatter of giving up the chase would come through on the radio with little effort on my part.
Hard mode doesn’t make them any smarter, just more deadly. There’s also a permadeath mode where if an operative dies, they’re gone for good. Even with all this turned on, the game never felt challenging.
PC performance is an issue
My ability to enjoy Legion was also soured by significant performance issues on PC. I tested the game on my new LG CX OLED television. Running it at 4K on high settings with ray tracing turned on, the game ran at a desirable 60 frames per second (fps). However, it would inevitably crash, whether a few minutes into the game or a half-hour. I was told by a Ubisoft representative to make sure I had the most up-to-date GeForce drivers, and to check the spec requirements of the game.
I did indeed have the latest drivers installed, which I reinstalled for safe measure. While I didn’t have the Nvidia RTX 3080 graphics card that the settings I was trying to run it at asked for, even the most demanding of games I’ve played prior to Watch Dogs: Legion ran without issues at even higher settings and higher frame rates. Besides, the problem wasn’t a poor average frame rate. I’d enjoy a consistent 60 fps, and then the game would crash, forcing me to restart.
I eventually reduced the resolution to 1800p, which seemed to help, but this is not normal behavior for a game. Worst of all, I was running the game with its day one patch. A hotfix for consoles is dropping October 30, while a more robust second patch to squash performance issues will be coming November 9. Hopefully that will address the problem.
Watch Dogs: Legion is Ubisoft’s most ambitious entry in the series yet, and while it doesn’t disappoint like the first Watch Dogs, it feels aimless. Exploring London is a good time, but the game is never challenging, and the story makes very little sense.
Is there a better alternative?
Yes. Watch Dogs 2 is still the best the series has to offer. For those looking for a more recent game, perhaps wait for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which is being released a mere week or so after the launch Watch Dogs: Legion.
How long will it last?
Like any open world Ubisoft game, you’ll have plenty of side quests to tackle. With objectives tied to recruiting new members, this is taken another step further. The campaign will take about 20 hours if you stick to the main story, however.
Should you buy it?
No. Legion’s recruitment hook doesn’t deliver, and performance problems make this a skip for PC gamers.