Releasing four years on from the last entry in Ubisoft’s open-world tech-themed series, Watch Dogs: Legion sets itself up to be an improvement upon what was already seen as a step in the right direction for the franchise with Watch Dogs 2. With the initial reveal back in 2019 focussing on two key elements that would define what Legion would become—those being the new setting of London and the impressive concept that allows the player to control any NPC they desired, effectively creating their team of hacktivists—looked promising. Yet once again, Ubisoft fails to stop Watch Dogs: Legion from falling into the familiar pitfalls that the developer has sadly become infamous for.
Following the London sub-division of DedSec (the hacker group from previous entries in the series), Watch Dogs: Legion quickly kicks the action off with an opening scene that details a terror attack within the House of Parliament. While DedSec successfully defuses some explosives, a series of bombs are detonated across London as the result of a mysterious terrorist group known as Zero-Day, who manage to conveniently place the blame on DedSec, forcing the group into secrecy. As a result of this, a privatised military group known as Albion begins to make deals with the British government, eventually reaching a point of total dictatorship from the company and their leader Nigel Cass, pushing London to its knees and allowing various criminal groups to capitalise on the new restrictions placed on the public. Cut to several months later as DedSec begins to reform after a period of darkness and the player is tasked with building a team of rebels to bring down Albion, as well as the city’s multiple criminal groups, and restore their reputation.
It is a story that, while being serviceable, feels incredibly rushed and uninspired, resulting in a roughly twelve-hour narrative that offers zero surprises for anyone who has experienced a form of media that finds itself sharing any similarities with Legion’s dystopian, technically-advanced setting. The main story is divided into five sub-sections, with each focusing on the four criminal enterprises that have risen to power within London, leading towards the ultimate goal of taking down Albion and Zero-Day. This format is certainly unusual in terms of open-world games, yet it feels dated for a 2020 release; it is hard not to notice how antiquated the ordeal is, feeling not too far away from a story you would find in Saints Row.
Legion banks heavily on the concept of being able to control any and every NPC, with each potential recruit appearing to have distinct abilities, personalities, and approaches to the missions the player will complete. In theory, no player will have the same experience throughout their playthrough. These recruits are able to appear throughout the entirety of the story, cutscenes included, and most of the recruits you encounter have unique personas. However, the game offers very little enticement for a player to ever dive deep into this ambitious mechanic, with many of the controllable characters ultimately playing the same way. You may enter a mission that, due to a briefing from your team, sounds to be best performed via a stealth approach, only to reach a point in which waves of enemies both human and robotic begin to swarm the player. So, if you opted to take a stealth-based character such as the 007-inspired Spy character who carries a silenced pistol, you will find yourself in a situation where your only option is death; if you’re playing the game with the optional perma-death mode enabled, you will lose that character forever.
On paper, this has the potential to create a tense and engaging gameplay loop, keeping the players on their toes with how a mission should be approached and encouraging the recruitment mechanic to be explored. Yet, in an odd move, the perma-death mode cannot be turned on after a playthrough has begun; so if you find yourself several hours in looking for an extra level of challenge, then you have no choice but to reset the entire playthrough. With that said, despite encountering missions towards the end of the story that resulted in some of my more stealth-based operatives biting the dust (or in the case of the normal mode, being placed in jail for some time), it is quickly apparent that outside of appearance and weaponry, everyone plays the same. Sure, one character may have a silenced pistol and be more capable of quiet infiltration, but even when using someone who is geared towards heavy weaponry and a guns-blazing playstyle, you can still sneak past enemies without any struggles thanks to every character sharing the same basic move-set and silent takedown techniques.
What makes things even easier is the spider-bot gadget, a remote-controlled robot that can perform almost every single action the player can, allowing you to take down enemies while the player is a vast distance away from the danger themselves. Sure, you might be inclined to opt for another gadget to mitigate this issue, yet almost every single mission encourages you to follow the same basic formula: use the spider-bot to hack a server, download some data, leave the area, repeat.
One of the more redeeming qualities found in Legion is through the refreshing setting of London, as opposed to the same tired cities Ubisoft has returned to over the years. When first given the reigns to drive around the city at will, it is hard not to get lost in visiting famous and familiar locations, with much of the city being faithfully recreated while giving the architecture a somewhat futuristic aesthetic. For anyone familiar with the city layout, it is certainly a fun time sink to walk down the sprawling streets and cross the many famous bridges to find some of the more iconic London landmarks. Like most of Watch Dogs: Legion, however, this exploration is hindered by another poor gameplay element that brings it down: the driving.
Driving in Legion is certainly not terrible, but it is certainly not an enjoyable mechanic. Feeling less like GTAV and more like the slippery weightlessness of GTAIV, making your way from point to point in London quickly begins to feel redundant and un-engaging. Driving past landmarks only takes you so far before you begin to engage with the thankfully speedy fast-travel option, taking the player to any London Underground station they have passed.
Perhaps it would be more enjoyable to drive around the graphically-impressive game world if the performance of Watch Dogs: Legion was not an absolute catastrophe. While looking great, with London at times appearing quite stunning, the game is hindered with poor optimization. No matter how many settings were tinkered with, the sound was at no point a consistent experience. Regardless of what was going on in-game, the audio would often cut out for seconds at a time, removing any immersion that one might feel when playing.
Crashes are abundant too, with the game often struggling to perform the simplest of tasks. Never has quitting to a main menu been such a flip of the coin in the ways of crashing and losing data. In one instance, when returning to the game after recruiting a member for the team that involved a three-step mission, the game reset my progress back to before the mission had ended, giving me the objective of recruiting the member in question once again—yet here I was controlling that character. Upon following the markers and finishing the mission for the second time, the game became so confused that it completely locked up. These issues are at most a mild annoyance, never truly resulting in any game-breaking experiences, but the sheer frequency that they have in the game is inexcusable.
Watch Dogs: Legion is a promising step for the franchise in so many ways, continuing to push further away from the over-the-top seriousness that was present in the famously dull original title. While Ubisoft has certainly aimed for some interesting mechanics to provide the player with exciting prospects and new ways to tackle the gameplay, mission variants are almost non-existent, offering the same tired format that is a plague on the open-world genre. Combine this with the uninspired narrative and downright terrible performance, and you are left with a game that, while at times offering some fun chances for freedom in gameplay, does nothing to justify a full-price purchase.