Watch Dogs: Legion keeps its 'play as anyone' promise, but struggles to develop meaningful characters
'A fresh take on the genre,' says CBC's resident gaming expert
Ubisoft Toronto's Watch Dogs: Legion is a fun romp through a cyberpunk, dystopian London, but the game struggles to craft meaningful characters despite its play-as-anyone premise, according to the CBC's resident gaming expert.
CBC Radio Digital senior writer Jonathan Ore reviewed the game for Day 6, telling host Brent Bambury that Legion's gameplay and overarching narrative are among its strengths, even if gamers likely won't form meaningful connections with any of the characters they play.
Here is part of their conversation:
This is the third game in the Watch Dogs franchise. What is new and exciting about Legion?
Throughout the whole series, you've played as members of an underground hacktivist group. They're called DedSec. So at the beginning of this game, DedSec has been framed for a series of terrorist bombings around like a near-future cyberpunk-ish kind of London. The group has been forced into hiding. And since then, a private military contractor called Albion has kind of taken over London. They've supplanted the police and they've kind of become this heavy-handed authoritarian force that, you know, they regularly beat up citizens throughout the city and they run a whole bunch of propaganda posters.
So in the story, you're kind of tasked with clearing DedSec's name and recruiting civilians to your cause and adding them to your team while also destabilizing Albion and the other corrupt corporate and criminal forces that have kind of oppressed the city in London.
London, parts of it anyway, can be dark even when there's not an apocalypse. What's the London of Watch Dogs: Legion like?
It's kind of like a mix of modern-day London, but also with slightly near-future things. So you got like your Buckingham Palace and your London Eye. But there's also these military checkpoints where you have to walk through or drive through this curtain of neon lights, so Albion can track you. And then there are cars that look like they come straight from a Tron movie, right next to a classic spy car from The Avengers — the British spy movie.
So it's this really interesting blend of classic imagery, plus cyberpunk near-future. And it hits this interesting mix and a balance where I don't think it's too crazy of a disconnect between the two.
Yeah, the narrative and the visuals sound pretty good. But what's it like to to actually sit down and play Watch Dogs: Legion? What's the gameplay like?
The gameplay itself is structured much like Grand Theft Auto or the Assassin's Creed games.
You're set in this giant open-world sandbox, in this case London. You can go anywhere you want. The bread and butter missions are typically hacking, so you'll go to an enemy territory, whether it's a warehouse taken over by a local gang or a tech giant's corporate headquarters, you hack in their databases, try and get information.
The cool part is that Ubisoft Toronto has pitched this as "You can play as anyone," and for the most part, they pull it off really well. In most games, you can see civilians going around doing their daily tasks and you might hear some chatter, but they don't really do anything — they're not important to the game.
In this game, you can recruit any member of London's populace and they can add their specialty to your team. And then that adds a huge amount of variety to what you can do. If you wanted to infiltrate enemy territory and hack their database or their central computer, you can do it in a lot of ways. You can use a drone expert that can deploy a tiny spider robot that sneaks through the ventilation ducts and avoids detection. You can recruit a construction worker and then they can use their construction uniform to just walk through undetected into most construction sites because you look like anybody else working there.
It sounds like there's a lot of game here. Is there anything that you think could be improved?
It can be very compelling just to collect everybody who you can, like a card game. But by its very nature, it leads to some drawbacks. They've got dozens of people who worked on the game recording their lines for all these characters. And those are also kind of shuffled about to any number of different constructions of characters.
They're all randomly generated when you see them. There's a lot of diverse groups of voice types, genders, ethnic backgrounds, but since basically everyone is replaceable in any situation, you don't really get to delve into their characters from a scripted narrative perspective. It's kind of more like a Dungeons and Dragons game, where you use the character types and a few lines of background as inspiration, and then you kind of build your stories based on what you do with them in the game. And depending on what you do with them, you might become very attached to them.
You talked a little bit about the thematic nature of the overarching narrative here, and it has really complex themes. There's privacy invasions, there's commentary on the militarization of police. Would you say that Ubisoft handles these themes pretty well or is it ham-fisted?
Ubisoft Toronto did pitch Watch Dogs: Legion as kind of a serious look at a lot of contemporist, serious issues. You know, it takes place in a post-Brexit London. There's a surveillance state, but honestly, it's really just window dressing. The game itself is very fun. But in the end, all of these things that we're talking about are just motivations to go to another building and hack stuff and maybe beat some people up.
Let's leave the game aside for a moment, because over the past year or so, Ubisoft has come under fire for allegations of workplace harassment, sexual harassment. Does that cast a shadow over the release of Watch Dogs: Legion?
It is worth mentioning that as this game comes out, it comes at a time when Ubisoft and the games industry as a whole is undergoing a bit of a reckoning around workplace abuse and sexual harassment. Ubisoft Toronto has actually been in the spotlight more than most studios in the last year. In particular, there was a letter signed by about a hundred developers who work there — employees, either present or past — speaking out about incidents that range from superiors making inappropriate comments to sexual harassment.
There are some big names in the company that have since resigned or been fired, including Ubisoft Canada's president, as well as a high-level creative director at Ubisoft Toronto. So it raises that question of whether one separates the art from the artists. There are certainly a lot of people who worked very hard on the game and are still proud of the product and proud of the work. But regardless of what score I or someone else might give the game, I think it's important to recognize what's been going on behind the scenes — at least what we're made aware of.
Final question. Watch Dogs: Legion, should I play it?
I would say so, yeah. Particularly if you're a fan of Grand Theft Auto or the Assassin's Creed games made by Ubisoft, you should definitely give it a go. The play-as-anyone idea — it has some drawbacks. But I think [the game is] a really fresh take on the genre and I had a lot of fun playing around with it.