There are plenty of reasons to be impressed by Watch Dogs Legion. From its innovative gameplay conceit that allows the player to recruit literally anybody as a playable character to further refinement of the hacking mechanics that have made the Ubisoft series a hit in the first place, this is far from a cookie-cutter sequel. However, the pre-release information surrounding the game has been a bit of a bummer since the development team is eschewing many of the things that made Watch Dogs 2 so much fun likes its characters and open city.
The original Watch Dogs was pretty disappointing. Aiden Pearce was a totally unlikable protagonist with muddied motivations and the core gameplay structure got repetitive rather quickly. Its San Francisco-based sequel was a massive improvement as it focused on a likable group of characters and there were more non-lethal ways to get through the game. There were still plenty of issues, both mechanically and narratively, but it was such an improvement that it seemed like Ubisoft had learned from all of the mistakes of its first effort. Legion isn’t giving off that same vibe so far.
Watch Dogs Legion‘s mechanics aren’t the cause for concern. In fact, that is still probably the most exciting thing about it. It’s the fact that it will become far more difficult to tell a meaningful story when characters aren’t specifically crafted for it. Will it make up for it with a bunch of novel interactions and some emergent gameplay? Probably to some extent, but will the 78-year-old grandmother go on a journey of self-growth and maturity after taking a break from knitting to murder dudes like Marcus in Watch Dogs 2? Probably not.
Watch Dogs Legion is missing the memorable characters that made 2 worth playing
Even though it’s cliché to say, its setting was also a great character as simply wandering around its digital recreation of the Bay Area was a blast. It was like experiencing all of the eccentricity of San Francisco without having to smell the constant stench of urine from its unclean streets. The game’s ScoutX app (which could also appear in this game for all we know) highlighted locations of interest, giving some reason to drive around. It was a great digital sightseeing trip not unlike what Ubisoft also did with Assassin’s Creed Origins‘ discovery tour mode.
Now it wasn’t just that this rendition of San Francisco was filled with notable locations and interesting sights, as London will probably similarly just as fun to explore. Watch Dogs 2 also had a chill attitude to its entire location that aided the natural discovery of its environment. There weren’t gang members or private militias chasing you around every where you went. Marcus could just hang out and enjoy the town if he wanted without any threat of violence.
That doesn’t look to be the case in Watch Dogs Legion, and if it is then there will be a serious narrative clash. This version of a post-Brexit London is practically a police state. The government has gone overboard with the ways in which it is controlling its people as there are flying drones everywhere that are out to “keep the peace” under any way possible. It doesn’t appear like an as enjoyable of a world to explore and it seems inevitable that you’ll have to sneak around more often than not to escape scrutiny rather than being able to go out on the town and enjoy what it has to offer. There are even security checkpoints along some of the roads that can call the cops to your exact location, making it harder to just cruise around.
It’s still chasing violence rather than getting away from it
Despite having a lot of options at the player’s disposal, there were sadly times in Watch Dogs 2 where using lethal weapons was an inevitability once things got too messy. This clashed narratively because Marcus Holloway did not seem like a killer, and bloodying his hands felt like betraying his core beliefs, especially early on when the gang was trying to pull off more prank-like heists and hijinks rather than taking down a major corporation. Killing someone while stealing a talking car as a publicity stunt was downright stupid and none of these actions were reflected in the story itself.
Maybe it’s because fans want to see violence and it is easier to demo a game via beating people up than sneaking around them, but the gameplay we’ve seen of Legion has featured plenty of guns and violence. Hell, even the nice-looking old granny is packing a gun and using it to off security guards. From a tone perspective, it’s much more like the angsty Pearce than the fun-having Holloway, no matter who you play as.
Players can still play non-lethally and around half of the game’s weapons will be non-lethal, which is a huge and welcome improvement over its predecessor. But doubling down on purely non-lethal abilities would have given the game a unique flavor hinted at in the last entry and it would have been more in line with the series’ hacker tone. Non-lethal play was an interesting twist from Watch Dogs 2 and Ubisoft is going further in that direction while also going further into lethal violence — a move that isn’t learning from the best way to play that San Francisco-based game.
Ultimately, it looks like Watch Dogs might not be the fun series that showed that the power of technology was more valuable than raw violence or gun power. That is fine in and of itself, and there are plenty of great stories that can be told with a more serious tone, but it’s also a disappointment when its predecessor came so close to being a great example of prioritizing tech over violence and fun, hacker culture over a grim dystopia. Watch Dogs Legion might be trying to warn players about the perils of the future and how technology can be fatal when in the wrong hands, but it’s also playing to the most primal of impulses when doing so while using physical violence itself, a trope that makes Watch Dogs less unique. The potential is there to make an even grander statement that’s being sacrificed in order to become another open-world crime game.