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- Watch Dogs: Legion
Ubisoft is often criticized for how similar many of its games feel, which all came to a head when Ghost Recon: Breakpoint bombed last year. Instead of continuing down that downward trajectory, the company said it was going to focus on “differentiation factors” (from GamesIndustry.biz) and delayed a few of its titles in an effort to “ensure that [each studio’s] respective innovations are perfectly implemented.” Watch Dogs Legion is the first full Ubisoft game to come out since and, given how impressive its world is, it looks like it is well on its way to justifying that more deliberate development schedule.
Extra time, extra features
Despite that, Legion was all ready to hit its original release date on March 6, 2020. But according to Game Director Kent Hudson (read the full interview here), the third Watch Dogs game has radically improved with those seven or so extra months as the team was “supported to [make] some really big sweeping changes to the game.”
Those changes seem to touch a lot of different areas of the game. Each borough now has a special mission that takes you through one of London’s iconic landmarks. Of course, the one in Westminster takes you through Big Ben, but, in typical Watch Dogs fashion, makes you use a spider bot to traverse its inner workings. It seems like a decent addition that gives you a chance to tour around the world while also attaching lore to it.
But the delay seems to have had the biggest impact on the characters, which makes sense for a game this character driven. RPG elements have thankfully been stripped out and more attributes have been implemented. This means more types of unique people to recruit — a beekeeper and hypnotist were two such examples — and more ways to make your team your own. Certain characters can now sneak into certain areas Hitman-style as long as they have the correct uniform.
Thoughtfully pushing the game’s most unique feature seems like time well spent because much of the game’s allure is predicated on this very system. Putting more unique qualities and factors into the pot will only add to the world, especially with something as direct, varied, and useful as the uniform access mechanic. It seems to be more faithful to what the game is going for and Hudson seems to agree as he says he’s seen the game get markedly better over the past year.
“It sounds a little like marketing speak that you’d see in a press release like, ‘With the extra time we were really able to make the game that we always wanted to make.’ But that actually is true,” he said. “The difference between last October and now is striking. The playtest scores went through the roof once we made all these changes so we really got the chance to make the game we wanted to make and it did pay off.”
A whole country to recruit
It does sound a little like marketing jargon, but the game speaks for itself. The sheer variety of people on display is staggering, even over just a couple hours. There was a spy (who was wanted for espionage in North Korea) that had a silenced pistol and fancy watch that could jam enemy weapons, a hacker with with improved tech skills, a living statue with a knack for dodging the cops, and a street artist who specialized in nonlethal paint based weapons, just to name a few.
Even though they were all visually unique, their abilities were the true differentiation factors since they all had obvious strengths and weaknesses. This goes even further as people will likely want to create teams that foster their playstyle or ones that are relatively balanced. You may want to spec towards sneaky nonlethal methods, violent fisticuffs, tech-based stealth, or loud gunplay. None of these methods seemed out of the question either, which includes melee as enemies usually won’t grab their guns unless you do. The game seems to facilitate many disparate methods of play as its many fortresses and buildings are littered with different paths and variables ready for you to manipulate or use to your advantage.
Hudson even said he played almost the whole game without even equipping a single weapon; he only stopped because a new build of the game came through. That freedom continues to be impressive each time the game shows up and hopefully it can keep up that momentum during its whole playtime.
And it’s these people that make Watch Dogs Legion feel like such a noticeable step forward. Hudson spoke about how open-world games typically prioritize content, but Legion focused on people from the beginning and that is what makes the game feel less scripted and more open.
“The diversity of the world is really linked to the people of the world and since people are part of our game,” he said, “I think that adding that entire layer of the population of the world changes how you play it and who you have on your team and what you can even do when you take on the missions. It’s probably the biggest difference that makes it unlike anything that’s come before it.”
The real issues at hand
Diversity is a big part of the game and any big resistance coalition, as we are seeing in the real world today with Black Lives Matter. People from all sorts of backgrounds are coming together, which is something the game and the movement have in common.
It wasn’t planned that way as the game went from being a speculative “what if” scenario about Brexit passing before it actually passed then stumbled into a game about resistance that reached beyond Brexit. Resistance has taken over more of the recent headlines and not Brexit, according to Hudson, but Legion’s themes still translate rather easily because of their overlapping qualities.
“Even though the specifics of our fiction might not be as ripped from the headlines as they once were, the themes of our game about people putting their differences aside, everyday people bringing what they can to it and trying to come together to overthrow these oppressive elements be it the militarization of urban policing or xenophobia,” he said. “That stuff is universal. Sure, the specifics might have shifted from us a little bit but the themes and the message and what people get from it, that’s as prescient as ever.”
Watch Dogs has always had a “ripped from the headlines” feel, especially Watch Dogs 2 that hit just before election hacking was a very real thing. And given all the current Brexit-related turmoil in Britain, Legion has a chance to predict some things that could happen or comment on what’s going on. The game didn’t seem as comically silent about important issues as, say, Far Cry 5, but it did bring up refugees, nationalism, and racism and even had an in-game satirical podcasts about those serious matters. It’s a low bar to clear, but hopefully Legion doesn’t turn away from tough topics and makes a stand, which seems entirely possible or a pipe dream, depending on how many filters it has to go through.
The world and story are just two of many areas where Watch Dogs Legion holds a ton of promise. The interactive world full of unique playable characters is quite an intriguing selling point that sounds ambitious but is remarkable in action, too. Of course, it needs to hold up within the context of the entire game, however long it will be, as any glitch in the system would hamper the illusion and turn it into just another open-world game with a few more playable characters. Legion has to prove that extra development time is indeed worth it and that’s a lot to ask. But given how it’s looking less than a month before release, it’s shaping up to be a dog worth watching out for.