A Politically-Charged Apolitical Game
2020 has been a pretty bad year for everyone but when it comes to corporations, no other studio has come under the firing line quite like Ubisoft. With 25% of its entire work-force experiencing or witnessing misconduct, the studio has managed to save face slightly with a slew of long-awaited titles.
Still, as we settle down and enjoy these upcoming games, it’s always worth remembering the price these men and women paid for our entertainment. And as Ubisoft themselves point out – their games aren’t political.
This is a particularly ironic statement given Watch Dogs: Legion may well be the most politically charged game the French studio have released. And that’s actually a great thing… until it loses sight of that and devolves back into a more formulaic strut, too afraid to follow through with the ideas it actually presents early on.
There’s a message in here somewhere about the dangers of technology and how governments use fear to control people but it’s lost in the noise of mediocrity that plagues much of this open world title.
The real hook here though comes from playing and recruiting anyone in the world, which is surprisingly fun and just about enough look past some of the gameplay gripes. Unfortunately it’s difficult to ignore the jankiness, bugs and overall repetitiveness plaguing this title that makes Legion pale compared to other open world games out there.
Set in a volatile near-future dystopia, London is on a knife-edge of tension. That tension is essentially carved up into five equal slices, with different crime bosses wrestling for power in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. With the Houses of Parliament bombed by a mysterious force known as “Zero-Day”, the fault lies squarely on our familiar hacker-group DedSec.
With London gripped by a state of panic and fear, Nigel Cass, the CEO of private military company Albion, is brought in by the Government to restore order. Not only that, his armed guards vow to take down DedSec and keep them firmly in the shadows so they can’t do any damage again.
With your first playable character killed after an excellent prologue mission, you begin your journey by choosing one character from a list of about 15 and thus the story of reclaiming London begins.
The narrative is split into various chapters, revolving around you taking down each of these crime bosses one by one before culminating in a nice reveal over exactly who Zero Day is. The main campaign will probably take you between 12-18 hours depending on how quickly you blitz through, but expect plenty of time on top of that for post-campaign side missions and activities dotted around London.
For anyone who’s played a Ubisoft title before, most of the busywork and activities through the game will be instantly familiar. The different Boroughs of London need to be turned “defiant”, which sees you completing certain tasks in those areas ranging from taking photographs, sabotaging equipment or hacking different computers dotted around.
Once these are done, that Borough opens up a final mission that see you controlling different drones and engaging in some make-shift platforming – something I certainly didn’t expect to find in this game but arguably one of the bigger highlights.
Meanwhile, you’ve got your usual slew of mini-games, with drinking and darts at every pub, football QTE button presses and a whole slew of collectables. These range from tech points (used to upgrade your abilities and equipment), to money drops and even relics from the “old world.”
Thankfully the trophy/achievement list doesn’t require you to collect absolutely everything so completionists can breathe a sigh of relief at that one! In fact the trophies themselves are incredibly fun and most revolve around the one big hook of the entire game – recruiting operators for DedSec.
This is easily the one big highlight of the game, allowing you to scan and recruit anyone on the streets. Just like games of old, using your phone with a press of L1 over pedestrians reveals their secrets and personality traits. Now though, you also see their occupation which translates to certain perks that can be used with that character should you choose to recruit them.
If you do decide to pursue that man or woman, a simple fetch, kill or delivery mission ensues which – upon completion – allows you to actually use that person. All of the characters are fully voice-acted although a lot of them do have some pretty cringe-worthy lines. There’s a litany of curses, low-brow humour and exaggerated accents that feel very caricature.
However, there’s no denying that a few of the people you recruit are incredibly useful. Albion guards can blend into heavily fortified areas, construction workers come equipped with cargo drones, allowing you to easily zip over the roof of buildings, while drone experts can unleash of slew of different goodies to avoid detection.
The level of customization here is pretty good, although most characters share the same set of guns (a pistol and an electric zapper) and similar animations for melee. To be fair though, the one exception comes from the takedown sequences which have actually been modified slightly for most of the different characters.
Despite being able to recruit what’s essentially a small mob to your ranks, the truth is you’ll probably juggle two or three operators unless one of them dies or is arrested. Instead of receiving a Game Over screen (unless you turn on perma-death mode of course), the game introduces a neat little mechanic whereby that person is unable to be used for 1 hour of in-game time.
You can speed this up by recruiting a barrister or a paramedic to your ranks, which feeds into the surprisingly balanced idea of seemingly mundane occupations actually being pretty useful to use.
For all the good points, Watch Dogs: Legion is not without its problems. The basic mission structure does become tedious and grindy by the end, revolving around the same slew of infiltration mini-games (turning wires around) and computer hacks in fortified areas. Most of these then end with a need to defend an isolated spot from guards but more often than not you can actually evade them and hide without firing many bullets.
This feeds back into the AI in the game which is woeful, to say the least. Even briefly putting this up to the hardest difficulty brought with it some problems including guards stuck to walls, standing motionless without firing and even calling off an attack after their buddy just got a headshot moments prior.
These AI issues aren’t just with the enemies either. The litany of bugs I’ve experienced during the 25+ hours with the game are too many to mention. I’ve fallen through cars, had missions fail on me for no reason, had graphical pop-in and – the best one of all – watched incredulously as AI-driven cars and parked bikes have suddenly gone haywire and driven in circles on the spot.
There was even one occasion where a car was propped up on its bonnet and suddenly flew across the world. I know open world games are notoriously difficult to program and get right, especially with the sheer number of variables included, but given what we’ve seen before from this sort of game – even from Ubisoft mind you! – the bugs are just too frequent to ignore.
Watch Dogs: Legion tries to flirt the line between being political and apolitical. The result is a game that could have really benefited from a consistent message about the dangers of Government intervention and controlling the masses through the use of fear.
Instead, the game devolves back into the usual tropes of this genre, with London carved up into five bosses to take out in order to save London.
With a litany of bugs, jankiness and repetitive mission structure, the excellent hook of recruiting and using anyone in the world for your missions is lost under the weight of mediocrity. It’s such a shame because there’s a great game in here somewhere; a rogue DedSec operative desperate for a voice but reduced to the shadows.
That’s before mentioning the monetization which is still here, lurking on the constantly revolving door of microtransactions which – for now anyway – remain cosmetic. With the upcoming multiplayer component coming next year, it remains to be seen how egregious this becomes.
For now though, it’ll cost around £6 for a single outfit so the prices are very steep. It’s also made worse by the intentionally flashy and vibrant choices, with many of the basic cosmetics you pick up through the game muted and feeling dull by comparison. Don’t be fooled – this is a ploy to make you spend money on these outfits and has been designed intentionally so.
In a bid for Ubisoft to try and remain politically neutral, the game loses any sharpness it could have had with a more urgent and focused message. Instead, what we get is a watered down open-world experience that feels like just another NPC in a sea of open-world players.
All of our videogame reviews are also featured on OpenCritic