Game Review #2: WATCH_DOGS LEGION – Next Gen or Last Gen?

Picture by https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske

What happened these past four years? Trump became president and will be out of office again, the Brasilian rainforests and Australia were burning and climate change became more and more obvious. Then, there were some humanitarian catastrophes and a global pandemic. The events in Ubisoft’s latest installment of the WATCH_DOGS series are similarly turbulent and the game describes some really dark and dystopic scenarios for the future.

In a near future, there is a terror attack in London, during which several public spaces are bombed and lots of civilists are killed. The organisation Zero Day, which is behind this attack, blames it on DedSec, the hacktivists known from the first two games and accordingly, they are brandmarked as terrorists while London is occupied by a security concern called Albion that doesn’t shy away from repression.

In this scenario, it is up to the players to fight back against the oppressive surveilance state and start a rebellion. For this purpose, you can recruit every character except for the antagonists, no matter if it’s the friendly spy from the neighbourhood, a hooligan or a beekeeper. In this review, you are going to see whether or not this daring premise works.

Dystopic Futures

To me, the atmosphere and premise have always been one of the greatest strengths of WATCH_DOGS. In a world, in which we are increasingly connected and in which there are more and more platforms for crime and repression, lots of dystopias like 1984 do not seem too far-fetched anymore. WATCH_DOGS makes use of this an presents scary scenarios in a modern setting. While the world is still functional and life still relatively normal, in the world of the series, there is lots of dark schemes in the underground and behind the closed doors of great concerns or of public institutions.

This cinematic trailer illustrates the series’ shift in atmosphere https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCn94pkcGwabIjQkB0knLWFw

The Identity Crisis is Over

While the first game focused on a rather dull revenge story, you could summarise the second game’s plot as ‘Hipsters fight evil hipster with a man bun and troll Sillicon Valley’. These bizarrely different approaches to really serious subjects could feel out of place to some extent. Especially, since part two was packaged in bright colours, the darker moments stuck out more and felt all the more disturbing but because of this ambivalence, the story of that game felt a little dry towards the end.

In WATCH_DOGS LEGION, this identity crisis comes to an end. It tells a dark story with some funny accents (literally because it is set in England) and feels more consistent than the overly serious story of part one and the almost ridiculous story of part two.

Horror Scenarios in a Credible World

Already at the beginning, the tone is much darker than in the first two games, as you try to save the Houses of Parliament from their impending detonation. This however fails and several public places are blown up and the playable characters and lots of civilians die in the process. London is burning. The tone is vastly different from WATCH_DOGS II and it feels like your actions have consequences but more on that later.

This game does not shy away from topics like the treatment of refugees or organ trade and goes a step further than its predecessors. In a stadium, far from the eyes of the public, refugees are held captive and used for research of computer chips that turn them into slaves. Especially if you consider the events in the camp of Moria and alleged forced sterilisations in the ICE-centres in the US, these ideas are disturbing.

WATCH_DOGS LEGION can be incredibly dark and confronts us with the reality we live in; similar things are already happening in the real world and we have to question how we treat fellow humans and how we use technology.

Immersive Setting and Gameplay

London in WATCH_DOGS LEGION (I took this screenshot on my PS4, hence the quality)

Also in its setting and gameplay, LEGION goes beyond the first two installments of the series. Like Chicago, London is a dark, atmospheric city with typically British weather. However, it is also a really diverse place and in comparison with Chicago and San Fransisco, the digital representation of London provides a perfect balance of atmosphere and diversity. While Chicago was atmospheric, grey and dull and San Fransisco vibrant, yet a little too bright and playful, London is both, atmospheric and rich in colour. Thus, it feels more vibrant and alive, which is also due to the lively society.

A Living Society

As in Assassin’s Creed Origins, characters have time schedules and leave their houses at certain times. Additionally, they have families and contacts. If you hurt someone’s loved ones, they are going to dislike DedSec and it is going to be more difficult to recruit them. This in combination with the possibility of meeting the playable NPCs again and this having an impact on the recruiting system makes WATCH_DOGS LEGION feel much more dynamic and alive.

In earlier games, it was already interesting to access the data of random people in the streets but in this one, this mechanic is put on an entirely new level and it affects the gameplay. When I punched a cop in the game, I met him again and he disliked me. After accidentally hitting an old man with a car, I felt guilty when I met him again. Because of these small details, it feels like everything you do has consequences and accordingly, the world seems more lively.

The Main Selling-Point: The Recruiting System

In this game, you can recruit everyone except for the main antagonists, hence every character in the world is a potential recruit and you are given countless possibilities to tackle this game.

There are different archetypes with diverse strengths and tools that can fit some missions better than others. For instance, it can be easier to infiltrate a construction site if you use a construction worker who can blend in with their environment.

The Character Choice System where you can switch characters and equip them. Here we have a street artist.

Anarchists are perfect for the players who want to tackle issues (or opponents) head first, as they can beat up opponents or use smoke bombs to distract them, while professional killers play like the protagonists of the first two games. Who wants to be stealthy and unseen, might want to keep their eyes open for drone experts who can scout the environment with their drones and thus access environmental hacks more easily than others. These are only a few archetypes and there are many more, like hypnotists or beekeepers with even more diverse move sets. This should give you an impression of how countless the possibilities in this game are.

To unlock such characters, you have to do missions, which are going to vary in their difficulty depending on how proficient your potential recruit is. If you want to recruit someone from Albion, one of the antagonistic forces in this game, you have to do more than if you just want to recruit some random person in the street. In that case, you study their daily schedule first and look for opportunities to unlock a mission. To do so you need to unlock the deep profiler first, which you can get by investing tech points.

Tech-Upgrades and Levelling

You receive the aforementioned tech points after missions or by collecting them in the environment. However, they’re mostly set in restricted areas and you often have to salve small riddles to get them.

There are various upgrades to unlock with these points and to become a better hacker. They involve non-lethal weapons like the stun gun from WATCH_DOGS II, a shotgun, automatic pistols and grenade launchers to counteract drones. Apart from that, you can use tech points to buy and improve different spider bots, which adds another level of depth to the gameplay. Spiderbots are the equivalent to the jumper in part two and they can receive various upgrades to make them more efficient in stealth.

The Tech System in WATCH_DOGS LEGION is an open skill tree

The same applies to drones. There are news drones that only serve as scouting devices. Then there are the more offensive Riot Drones and even Counter Terror Drones that are armed with automatic guns. You can hack learn how to hack them buy using tech points.

The tech system is not really a skill tree but it uses some elements similar to that. You always get to chose what you want to upgrade but some tools and weapons have different upgrade levels, which are similar to a skill tree. It is fun to improve your skills and the mixture of them and the recruiting system provide various possibilities to tackling the diverse challenges in this game. LEGION has some great replayability.

Present Day Assassin‘s Creed

WATCH_DOGS has always been some kind of present day AC in a modern setting. This is in part due to the Ubisoft formula and the stealth-heavy gameplay, however, this is enriched by some new facettes in this game.

The obligatory towers that you have to climb in order to unveil the map are not a thing in this game. You do liberation missions to free the different ends instead. These missions stick out, as they are different from others and some of them have some great designs. In one of them, you climb the tower of Big Ben with a spider bot, in another, you have to find a way through a pitch black abandoned power plant with a drone that is equipped with a flood light. This feels much more fresh than comparable tasks in previous Ubisoft titles and on top of that, you can unlock strong characters through these missions. Thus, it makes sense to play these missions, which does not necessarily apply to climbing countless of towers in AC games.

A District Liberation in London

The parkour from part two is no longer around but you have many more ways to approach missions instead. Effectively, most of the missions are sandboxes that you can tackle in any way you choose as long as you achieve the goals. It does not really matter if you go in guns blazing or scout the area with a drone or a spiderbot and sneak in after. This is up to your preference.

Unlike in WATCH_DOGS 2 , you have to do things yourself more often and you cannot just use drones or bots exclusively. Additionally, your opponents can shut down your tech more easily and there are enemy drones patrolling most bases, which also increases the difficulty. You are no longer an unseen ghost who just does everything by remote control but these tools complement your stealth rather than replacing it. This feels more balanced than in part two and still offers a rewarding stealth experience.

(Near) Death Experiences

Finally, I want to talk about the perma death system, which you can switch on or off at the beginning of the game. Both options are worth a try, as they give you a nice experience.

If you activate perma deaths, the difficulty increases a little, as it is easy to lose good characters quite quickly. Additionally, you are going to have to replace them. All things considered, the difficulty is lower than in the previous games and it feels a little like this mode was added to counteract that.

If you don’t use the character who is best suited for a mission, things can get tricky. Apart from that, the fact that your characters can die at any time, increases the thrill, as this is not a thing in most games. This paired with the recruiting system makes for an interesting experience but it is a little bit easier than its precursors.

During my first playthrough, I disabled perma deaths because I knew that you can die quite quickly in WATCH_DOGS games and I could not be bothered to risk the deaths of any cool characters at any times. It was a pleasant experience and I got to like my cast of characters, as I progressed through the story with them. My agents couldn’t die but they were taken into custody, taken to the hospital or kidnapped from time to time, so failures still had some consequences.

This makes things more dynamic but it becomes somewhat redundant at a certain point. Once you have recruited people with police contacts or doctors, you barely have to wait until a character can be played again, so the consequences in this mode are not nearly as high as in perma death mode. However, if your perfect fit for a mission goes down, that mission can become tricky, nonetheless, as you have to improvise.

WATCH_DOGS LEGION isn’t particularly difficult but is feels more well-balanced than its precursors and offers a more interesting experience, regardless of perma death.

Pro and Con

Pro:

  • daring and well-executed premise
  • reversal of WATCH_DOGS II: more consistent story, dark tone, accents of humour
  • high replayability due to the different possibilities, characters and perma death mode
  • even on standard PS 4: great graphics with correct reflections and nice lighting effects
  • perma death mode: adds intensity
  • interesting side missions and good mission design for the biggest part

Con:

  • due to premise: no character devoplment
  • themes are interesting but could have been in more depth
  • gameplay experience rather than a story experience; nothing for fans of Horizon: Zero Dawn or The Last Of Us

Evaluation and Closing Thoughts

WATCH_DOGS LEGION is an ambitious project and in my opinion, it works. Series has always offered interesting sandboxes and political themes but likewise, it was more of a gameplay experience. This also goes for LEGION. It sets the series on a new level and adds more depth to every facet of the gameplay and its setting, however the story is nothing out of this world. Then again, it doesn’t have to.

I was well entertained by the game and really grew to like my characters because of their lively synchronisation and diverse interactions, despite them showing no development throughout the game, which was due to the game’s premise. It was always clear to me that the premise could make for a great game but that it would be tricky regarding the story but in all other respects, it is a perfect sequel to me and I am curious to see how the series is going to continue in its evolution.

LEGION is not perfect but it is really ambitious and uses most of its potential, hence I give it a 9/10. Whether or not you’re going to enjoy it, depends on your expectations though. If you don’t expect an exceptional story, since this is hard to do with a premise like this, you might have some great times with this game. However, if you are a fan of cineastic games with a great story, this game probably isn’t for you. I think that it’s a worthy send-off for the old generation of consoles and I’m most likely going to revisit it on PS 5 some time.

All in all thumbs up. Picture by Mizter_X94 on Pixabay

Thanks for reading.

-sovlpvnk

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Published by sovlpvnk

On this blog, I talk about the alternative music scene and its ethics as well as LGBTQIAP+ -related topics. I mostly write about asexuality, political issues and their representation in media. Expect content in English and German every two weeks. Find more content on music on my instagram: @sovlpvnkblog

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