Watch Dogs Legion is the most promising open-world Ubisoft game in ages

Watch Dogs Legion is coming at a time when Ubisoft needs to go through a bit of a reinvention. Its brand of open-world games have been going through a little bit of a creative rut as evidenced by the two most recent Far Cry games and the bloated, but still decent, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Iteration didn’t serve these entries well and Ubisoft seems like it knows, given Watch Dogs Legion’s ambitious web of new NPC systems. And while we have yet to see the breadth of this system in action, it demonstrated that it had the potential to add some much-needed flavor to the Ubisoft Formula™.

However, that formula is still what lies at the bedrock of Watch Dogs Legion. It’s a populated open world with guns, vehicles, and people as well as activities, side missions, and most likely a sweet load of “bandit camps.” That’s probably not going to change anytime soon.

Watch Dog Legion Preview | Now-playable characters

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But Legion’s interweaving and complex NPC systems are the game’s biggest draw. It’s almost a misnomer even calling them NPCs since every character is playable and able to join your team, which you’ll need to do since there is no central main protagonist. Everyone has a unique background, personality, and voice thanks to voice modulation technology. Their stats and history are even far, far more complex than the one-sentence cosmetic flavor text that would make up everyone’s bio in the prior two games.

That bio is binding here since it influences what they do. For example, if someone is a heavy shopper, they can get discounts on stores. But, again, it goes deeper than just saving some money on some sick hat.

Every NPC has relations to others in the world. For example, the hands-on demo demonstrated this by showing two women at a bar. Reading their bios showed that they were indeed friends with each other, hence why they drinking together. This extends to where they work and what their schedules are.

This means interfering with one character can have an effect on another, which extends to the enemies you face. If you go around murdering guards as a member of Deadsec, the big resistance hacker group in all three games, you’ll create a bunch of widows and widowers. In turn, this will make these characters harder to recruit as your bloodshed will have hurt their family. The authoritarian serving guards may not be backing a righteous cause but they still have loved ones.

Death also impacts your cause too since once your fighters die, they’re gone for good. But there are two other branches that offer some safety nets. Getting arrested gets out alive, but puts your character in jail. Surrendering and getting incapacitated lands your character in the hospital. However, you can hack your incarcerated operative out of jail as well as pay the hospital to give your injured recruit better service.

These two ways to expedite the waiting process add a couple of additional wrinkles to a system that begs you to look for the seams. And you might start to see them once you know how it ticks. According to World Director Joel Burgess, the game gives these characters their full schedules once the game recognizes that you’re starting to take an interest in them. And from there, it goes from a “simple” character to someone more fully fleshed out.

“When you start paying attention to a character like with the profiler, the game will go ‘Oh shit. The player wants to know what their name is and what kind of job they have or what kind of animation set [they have],’” he said. “It will they look at the character and think that they are wearing this [type of outfit] or moving this way, so they will probably have this [certain feature]. It then gives you a little more information. And then if the player thinks that person is cool and saves them, the [social sandbox] system goes fully into effect and you get all of this information [like their job and schedule and so on].”

Watch Dog Legion Preview | A legion of unique abilities

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Demoing this kind of widespread system at E3 in a fragmented state is difficult since it benefits from all the different aspects working together in one, cohesive experience. Regardless, it was still pretty impressive. Recruiting characters is simple but grows more complex depending on how receptive they are to Deadsec, which is dictated by a meter on their profile. Once you pick out a worthy and willing candidate, you can go speak to them to get a mission to win them over. This plays out like a typical side quest that happened to be very similar to the one from the Ubisoft press conference.

The game turns into more of a standard sneaking and shooting Watch Dogs fare during these objectives but it gave a decent sampling of the array of abilities. Characters can be part of three different classes that focus on firepower, stealth, or gadgets and have rechargeable powers that correlate to each’s specialty like temporary invisibility and a playable spider drone. They all have different skill trees too but it’s not clear if unlocking one ability also unlocks it for the rest of the characters in said class.

Sneaking around and using the environment to distract or take out guards uses some new and returning tricks depending on what tech is lying around. Exploiting everything from drones to explosives can aid you in taking down your opposition or infiltrating without being seen and while there are some new aspects, it appears to be in line with the Watch Dogs way of clearing camps.

Watch Dog Legion Preview | Granny’s got a gun (or taser)

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But the increased emphasis on nonlethal play makes typical base takeovers more interesting. Burgess stated that around half of the weapons are nonlethal and while most games, including Watch Dogs 2, have little gameplay repercussions for killing, Legion ties it into its core NPC systems. Murdering guards has ripple effects for who you can and can’t recruit that stretch outside of the immediate corpses. Gameplay repercussions give a tangible, mechanical weight to your choices in combat and is a thoughtful way to give the player meaningful choices, assuming this all works as advertised. Burgess explained how he thought this choice made the game better and more expressive.

“In this game, you can play as anybody so that idea that this guy is my enemy right now but he’s maybe not beyond all redemption as a person,” stated Burgess. “He’s here for certain reasons. It’s extremely cool that you can profile the guy, take him down with a shock, and be able to investigate what brought him to this lifestyle and can I change his mind? And the nonlethal options allow you to keep that in play where you’re not forced to kill every guard you see because that is all the game lets you do to express yourself.”

Watch Dogs Legion still has a lot to show concerning its grandiose NPC recruitment tools since it almost sounds too good to be true. And then there’s the actual game on top of all of those interlocking systems that also needs to stand out and have its own reason for existing in the increasingly crowded open world genre. But the NPC system showed and played well in this tiny vertical slice to garner faith that it’ll actually turn out to be as or nearly as promising as it seems. If so, this might be one dog to watch out for.