The first thing I noticed about Watch Dogs Legion was that I was driving on the wrong side of the road.
The second thing I noticed is that it’s not too much different from the first two entries, but that’s hardly a problem when Watch Dogs is my favorite of Ubisoft’s big budget open world franchises. The games are so distinct personality-wise from Ubisoft’s other fare, especially the po-faced Tom Clancy games. And there’s just something about saving the world with nothing but some weapons and a cell phone that’s just really engrossing. As for Watch Dogs Legion, it looks like it’s going to be yet another fun, tech-filled romp, provided you’re okay with a few hiccups along the way.
At least, that’s the impression I got when Ubisoft invited Heavy to remotely demo a pre-release build of the game for three and a half hours. You might want to wait for our full thoughts when we publish our review, but for now here’s our impressions from what we could play.
In Watch Dogs Legion, a private military organization known as Albion has placed the city of London in a constant state of hi-tech surveillance after the city was bombed. The bombings were blamed on DedSec, a worldwide hacker collective, and its members were hunted down. Now the city is gripped by authoritative organizations, not to mention organized crime. It’s up to DedSec to rebuild themselves and take back London.
The key feature of Watch Dogs Legion is the ability to recruit anybody you see in the world, and the marketing wasn’t lying. You really can find anybody in the world and recruit them to your cause: street artists, homeless people, movie stars, and even Albion forces. Some people are harder to recruit than others, though. With some recruits, it’s as easy as rescuing them from being harassed by an Albeon goon. Most recruits will join your cause if you complete a mission for them, some of which can be as long as the story missions. Others will have a negative opinion on DedSec before you meet them, so you’ll have to complete an additional mission after going though their history in the deep profiler before you get a chance to complete their recruitment mission. More professional operatives such as former spies can join your team after you’ve liberated a portion of the map, that is, completed certain missions to free a part of London from the influence of Albion.
The harder it is to recruit someone, the more skills they’ll have and the better those skills will be. They might even have exclusive weapons. Some skills are useful outside of hacking or combat; some give you discounts when shopping for clothing or can release operatives from jail sooner. Some skills are even negative, such as movie stars being noticed more often by people or operatives with hiccups that can alert guards. So whomever you choose to take into missions, you’re going to get some fun stories to swap with your friends. You can check what skills a person has when you profile them with your phone, and you can even save potential recruits for later if you don’t have the time to talk with them. Operatives also function as extra lives after failing a mission, as you’ll have to switch to a new one if the other gets arrested or critically injured. You can even take down the enemy that put the operative out of commission for some bonus cash.
However, while there’s a wide diversity of characters in terms of race, gender, body types and personality, the roles they fit into gameplay-wise aren’t all that unique when you get down to it. Sure there are different weapons and skills, but not only is it clear that some characters are just going to be better and more fun to use than others, but you either get a character that’s really good at stealth and hacking or a character that’s really good at fighting and/or gunplay. I prefer stealth to going in guns blazing because Watch Dogs Legion, like many other Ubisoft games, makes it significantly more uncomfortable for you if you just charge into battle. So effectively half of the characters I find aren’t going to be as useful to me.
What I found most impressive was the integration of the operatives in the story. It appears that characters have unique reactions to the story events. Some of your other recruits can even chime in from time to time with their own unique reactions. It must have taken a lot of programming and voice acting work to pull this off, and I have to commend the team for it. I think it’s really smart of Ubisoft to offer journalists the opportunity to play the game early, because then the journalists might see differences between their playthrough for the preview and their playthrough for the review.
However, the feature is still mostly an illusion and I fear that the cracks might slip through at times, as some of the reactions seem a little too broad for their own good. I had one character discuss how they beat a gangster’s head in with a book, and another responded with a cheerful and peppy “making a difference feels great!” I’ll have to play more, but it’s possible that Ubisoft cut some corners to pull off this feature.
You can once again use your hacking abilities to take control of certain equipment to get around a level. You can hack a normally nonthreatening news drone that’s flying around and use it to flash lights and disorient guards. I tried to use a huge Cargo Drone to crush a guard, but it didn’t quite work. However, the resulting firefight between the guard and the drone gave me ample time to take down the guard. You can also hack vehicles to make them stop or go. While I was evading Albion’s forces, I made a boat stop in its tracks to try and hop on, only for me to accidentally make it go forward before I had a good foothold on it. Oops.
The Spiderbot is especially fun to use. A slightly retooled version of the remote-controlled car from Watch Dogs 2, the Spiderbot gadget is great for infiltrating buildings thanks to its low profile and surprising amount of maneuverability. You can also toss the Spiderbot like a grenade to get it to normally inaccessible areas. It can even perform takedowns. The Spiderbot is so good that you might even find spawn points for them in mission areas so you can use one even if your operative isn’t equipped with one. You can also make use of drones to hover over the world and tag enemies, with some drones even coming equipped with weapons.
Gunplay is just about the same as it’s always been, though I do appreciate that nonlethal weapons are more effective than in previous Watch Dogs games for people that prefer to fight oppression with as little murder as possible. For the demo I was able to access a pistol, an uzi, a shotgun and an anti-drone grenade launcher that I could equip to any of my operatives, and despite the fact they are nonlethal each of those weapons appear to be just as usable as the more conventional firearms. You can also get a dart gun that can put people to sleep with one hit if you recruit certain operatives.
Your hacks can be used during firefights, but you’re gonna have to be quicker on your feet to make the most of them in the moment. If an operative has a drone equipped, they can set the drone to attack enemies on their behalf. You can also dispatch goons with fisticuffs, complete with dodging and counterattacking. It’s a bit messy and takes some getting used to, but I guess that’s the nature of bare-knuckle brawls.
The levels themselves are really well designed, with ample opportunities for creative ways to get around. You have to be spatially aware and get to know your hacks in order to acquire all the hidden Tech Points and cash stowed away in levels. Some missions even have dedicated platforming sections for a Spiderbot to navigate. One especially memorable side mission has you crawling around the insides of Big Ben, a moment made all the better by humming “Out of Time” from Castlevania to yourself (or the “Slide” theme from Super Mario 64 if you prefer).
For one area, I was trying and failing to get past a turret to free a potential recruit’s friend, but then I tried going through the exposed back of the building. Then both me and the friend entered an armored truck and I was able to escape as the turret tried in vain to shoot us down.
Evading cops is much easier in Watch Dogs Legion than previous entries, turning the situation into a fun challenge when before it was an inconvenience. It’s not necessarily because the AI is dumber, but because there are more opportunities to hide. I was able to evade cops by entering a mall and then climbing up the stairs and down again on the other side.
Progression is a big different than in Watch Dogs 2. Instead of getting experience points from missions and other tasks and leveling up, with each level granting a number of skill points you can spend on skills in a skill tree, Watch Dogs Legion has players collect Tech Points throughout the world and by completing certain story missions. You can then spend those points on a list of gadgets, weapons and abilities. You could spend points on the Electro-Fist and make its power hits arc electricity to a nearby targets, for instance. You can even unlock brand new abilities with them such as the ability to temporarily shut down turrets. So far it’s not as streamlined as previous entries but it gets the job done and does allow you to tailor your play style to your preferences.
For players that can’t get enough of cosmetics in games, you’re in luck. Live Producer Lathieeshe Thillainathan told Heavy that there are a few thousands outfits you can get in the game. You can customize your outerwear, innerwear, legwear, shoes, handwear, bags, hats, glasses, and masks. Some items can be bought from shops dotted around London or obtained by completing different challenges. Recruited operatives will also bring their own clothing. Oh, and wearing clothing items isn’t restricted by your character’s gender. Thillainathan said that 99 percent of all the cosmetics the team made for the game are found in the base game, though he did say that the cosmetic items available only via microtransactions in the in-game store “push the creative boundaries a bit more than what you would see in the open world.”
Speaking of microtransactions, in past Ubisoft games like Assassin’s Creed Origins or Odyssey had microtransactions for items like XP and currency boosters that let you progress through the story faster. Thillainathan said that the only gameplay-affecting microtransaction for Watch Dogs Legion is for the VIP Pass which lets you earn the in-game currency ETO at a faster rate. ETO is only used for buying clothing from the stores in the open world; it’s not used for buying/upgrading gadgets (That’s for Tech Points) or progressing through the story. Thillainathan said that you “can’t earn gameplay through microtransactions” and that there are no plans or anything in development to add microtransactions like that to the game. He said that the VIP pass is for players who want to get clothing quicker or really want to empty all of the stores and get every clothing option in the game.
So while you can still get all of the non-premium clothing options in the game without spending money on the VIP pass, it still remains to be seen how much faster and more convenient the VIP pass is than the base experience.
There’s also going to be a bunch of free content released for the game in the future, according to a trailer showed early from Ubisoft. On December 3rd, they’ll release the online mode which lets you explore the entirety of London in four player co-op and even take on new missions tailored to four player co-op play. They’ll also have the PvP mode Spiderbot Arena where players fight with Spiderbots in deathmatch-style shootouts as well as the return of the Invasion mode where players will try to hack you during you playthrough of the game and so you’ll have to find them. Future updates will also include new characters, abilities, mission content and new game plus.
The Season Pass will include story content with Aiden Pearce from the first Watch Dogs and Wrench from Watch Dogs 2 working together in their own missions. The Season Pass will also give you access to Mina, a test subject in a research facility who can possess people with her mind, and Darcy, a member of the Assassin’s Brotherhood from Assassin’s Creed.
Oh, and not only can you get free next gen upgrades for the game (i.e. if you have the game on PS4 you can play it on PS5 or if you have the game on Xbox One you can play it on Xbox Series X), but your save game and all premium content will transfer, said Thillainathan. He also said that they’ll support cross-progression with PC and Google Stadia, if you still care about Stadia. Then starting with the online update on December 3, cross-progression will be universal so you’ll be able to continue your save game no matter what platform you play the game on.
While some minor things about Watch Dogs Legion left me wanting more, I wanted more of the game to play after I finished the demo. It was just so fun to play. Don’t expect a dramatically upgraded experience to Watch Dogs, but do expect to have a good time if you’re a fan of the series.