Watch Dogs Legion Gold Edition copy provided by Ubisoft
Review based on PC version
I’ll be honest with any of you reading this: I didn’t finish Watch Dogs Legion. I would say that I’ve put in about 15-20 hours into the game but Ubisoft Connect (it looks like that’s what Ubisoft calls Uplay now) won’t tell me how long I’ve been playing the game. Feel free to discredit what I have to say based on that, but in my defense Ubisoft games are no longer designed with the intention that they’ll ever be finished. But to understand why I’ve decided to stop playing and go ahead with writing my review, let me tell you of the gameplay session I had before I quit.
I take my operative whom I got after liberating a borough and who has the exact same voice and recruitment quote as two others I recruited after liberating boroughs and send him to help a high ranking Albion solider I want to recruit to my team. No, I don’t know any of their names. The soldier has a friend who got treatment from a Clan Kelley doctor and got addicted to drugs, and they have to pay a steep price to get more. So you agree to give them the drugs. Notably, this is the same story for one of the first people I recruited. That doctor gets around, the scum.
Anyway, I am instructed to grab the van full of drugs from Lambeth Towers. This is the third mission where I had to steal something from Lambeth Towers. After deactivating the turrets in the area, I nab the van and, since my operative is a Getaway Driver, I use a hack that automatically makes cars swerve out of the way as I drive. After checking the in-game map and seeing that I would have to drive halfway across the lovingly rendered London instead of fast travelling, I sigh in frustration and turn around only to realize that I was driving into the wreckage I created from my hacking. The van explodes. My operative got critically injured and I failed the mission. I would have to recruit the Albion soldier all over again. That’s when I decided now was the time to end my playthrough of Watch Dogs Legion.
That moment has come to define my time with Watch Dogs Legion. For all the ambition talked up in the marketing, the game isn’t nearly as clever or innovative as Ubisoft thinks it is. For all the good moments that you can have with the game, it’s bogged down by too much padding and frustration.
After a city-wide bombing, the government gives a private security firm known as Albion full control to police the city of London, effectively turning it into their own police state. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the chaos after the bombing, a gang known as Clan Kelley secure their grip on the underbelly of the city. It’s up to DedSec to prove that they’re not responsible for the bombing and save the city from the iron grip of Albion and Clan Kelley.
Watch Dogs has always been the most openly political and liberal of Ubisoft’s franchises, especially for a company that famously denies that its games are political. Watch Dogs Legion touches on how technology can be used to subjugate and exploit immigrants, how surveillance can undermine privacy and freedom, how capitalism incentivizes businesses to not care about the people it serves, police brutality and even modern slavery. However, it doesn’t linger or fully explore any of the dozens of points it brings up. And honestly the game is so filled with padding that it makes it hard to remember any of its messages.
I’m especially disappointed that Ubisoft doesn’t seem willing to entertain the idea that all of the awful stuff it displays in the game is the result of anything systemic. It’s the UK government that allowed Albion to take full control of London, but that fact is dropped as soon as it’s brought up. The way Albion’s leader Nigel Cass wants full control of London, even going so far as to use immigrants and DedSec as a scapegoat for the bombings even though he might be partially responsible, is explained not as a megalomaniacal desire for power or wealth as the CEO of a private military company but as a result of mental illness. It’s revealed that Cass developed deep paranoia and anxiety after suffering trauma when he witnessed the murder of his father, and that’s what’s causing him to want control of London. Not only does this demonize people with mental illness, but it’s just a very lazy way to try to add depth to a villain while ignoring the root causes of oppression in the real world.
The politics of Watch Dogs Legion are just posturing; it’s Ubisoft trying to look cooler and smarter than all the other game publishers out there, despite the fact that they’re not much better.
I talked to one potential recruit who said she got really sick after working in Albion’s warehouse and filed a complaint, but HR just called her hysterical since there was no “sufficient evidence” to support her story.
I find that conversation in the game rather rich when Ubisoft’s human resources department allegedly ignored complaints from staff ranging from sexism to sexual assault and that management at HR had a general distrust of victims according to a report from Jason Schreier of Bloomberg. Not only that, but after employees complained about the abusive behavior and sexual misconduct of other employees, Ubisoft allegedly promoted those abusers.
In my honest opinion, I don’t think Ubisoft is qualified to make hot takes about oppressive governments or corporations when they themselves could be the villain of a Watch Dogs game.
Watch Dogs Legion’s defining feature is the ability to recruit any of the NPCs you find walking on the street and in enemy bases. You can profile them to see what skills they have, talk to them, complete a side mission, and recruit them. Each operative has their own skillset; some can disguise themselves as enemy guards, some come with their own weapons, some grant the team a discount on clothing stores, and many more. There’s a person for pretty much any playstyle you want, and it certainly helps add variety to the missions.
The problem with this is that the recruitment missions are always way longer than they need to by, sometimes being as long as some story missions. And since all the missions are randomly generated, you’re going to be repeating a lot of the same mission types and even going back to the same locations. This pads out the game way too much and makes it hard to appreciate the standout moments like climbing through a clock tower as a SpiderBot, invading a secret cottage underneath the house of a billionaire tech CEO or infiltrating Albion’s headquarters in the Tower of London. If you want a big team, you’re going to have to either rely on the much easier method of helping people when they’re being arrested by Albion troops or just spend a lot of time recruiting people.
The random generation of civilians means that you never get attached to your crew. It’s fun to buy clothes for them and dress them up, but they barely have their own personalities or, worse, share personalities and voices. I barely remember the names of any of my operatives. Choosing characters via their skills dehumanizes them by reducing them to just that skillset.
You simply can’t find any compelling characters like Wrench from Watch Dogs 2 or even Aiden Pierce from Watch Dogs, and Ubisoft knowns this because they’re selling those exact same characters as part of the game’s season pass.
Speaking of which, Ubisoft offers microtransactions for by far the coolest costumes in the game and more in-game currency to buy outfits for your characters. It’s very clever of Ubisoft to offer reviewers the Gold Edition of the game because it includes a VIP Pass that gives you 30% more ETO (the in-game currency) for 30 days. That way the reviewers don’t realize how slow getting the currency would be otherwise and mention it in their reviews. I’m on to you, Ubisoft.
Watch Dogs Legion was disappointing in many ways, but I still had fun while it lasted. Even as I was getting tired of the game, I still felt compelled to play it.
There are some genuinely fun moments with the verticality of the map and all of the different ways you can approach missions. I really enjoyed scouting areas and deciding what would be the best approach for the mission, even if the right answer was almost always flying through with a cargo drone. I love constantly unlocking clothes and playing dress up with all of my little operatives. I love feeling awesome as I sneak through an area and gather incriminating evidence while going completely undetected, especially if I do it while hiding in plain sight.
Both the skill floor and ceiling are low, delivering an instant dose of gratification no matter how bad of a job you’re doing. Case in point, so long as you don’t bring your gun out, you can take out opponents who spot you with melee combat without alerting guards. Even swarms of guards will insist on fisticuffs if you don’t have your weapon out, making the game much easier. Even if you want to get into shootouts, the lethal guns are very effective at helping you win them.
The ease at which you liberate London and the constant things to do and collect adds to a core gameplay loop that’s addictive. Playing Watch Dogs Legion really shows you the difference between a game designed to be compelling and a game designed to be habit-forming.
Despite the fact that I had a lot of fun with Watch Dogs Legion, the overall experience is too frustrating, mechanical and formulaic to keep playing any longer. I know the devs worked really hard to put this game together, but the game is too unfocused and sterile for it to live up to the hype its marketing cultivated.
I recommend playing one of the many indie games that actually explore and discuss politics instead of Watch Dogs Legion, or at least buying Watch Dogs Legion used or at a discount.
Watch Dogs Legion, like most of Ubisoft’s big budget games, is disposable – a value-sized bag of chips. The gameplay experience is pleasurable and addicting by nature, making you want to play even if you don’t feel like it. And when you get sick of it, you just throw it away.