Watch Dogs Legion hands-on: millions of playable characters

NPCs were a huge part of the first two Watch Dogs games; their colorful histories and biographical snippets would pop up once you scanned anybody in the overall game world, mostly for comedic effect. But in Watch Dogs Legion, Ubisoft is taking that potential and expanding it into a core part of the game — or at the least, it’s attempting to.

The idea is straightforward: all those NPCs, with almost all their strengths and weaknesses, are now actually actual playable characters which can be recruited as an ingredient of your hacktivist army. Need to sneak right into a building site? Recruit a construction worker who can sneak in undetected. And with procedurally generated characters, Ubisoft says that the number of potential recruits ranges in the millions.

Unfortunately, for all your hype, after playing three hours of Legion, it doesn’t do enough to differentiate its myriad characters from one another. One of my recruits, an elderly spy, handles exactly the same as a spry young hitman for hire or a football hooligan. The main differences are the several perks that all character includes and their default gadget.

There are obvious archetypes: construction industry workers all have a nail gun, a wrench, and a cargo drone, while spies come with a silenced pistol and a James Bond-style car, which can be summoned to their location and has missiles and an invisibility function.

Ubisoft also absolutely pushes players toward recruiting particular NPCs. Most of the random characters travelling feature minor perks (shopping discount loyalty cards were particularly common), no benefits at all, or even purely detrimental traits (like being out of shape or even a heavy drinker, which offer tangible in-game downsides). Other characters — which Legion will outright point players toward by sporadically highlighting them in the overall game world — are plainly “main” characters with distinct perks and useful abilities like unique weaponry, improved hacking skills, or advantages in combat and stealth.

With the limited demo time I had, I couldn’t see how far Ubisoft goes into making characters distinct — particularly when it comes to things such as voice actors, given that whichever recruit you’re playing as will also come in fully voiced cutscenes. However, even in my relatively small amount of time with the overall game, I had already began to see elements repeat. Multiple potential recruits had palette swapped missions to get them to join my team, and also the limits of Ubisoft’s character generator were apparent, with a few of my potential characters looking oddly similar to one another.

Even with those differences, the smoothness system is pretty restricted in everything you can actually do with it. You can’t swap betwixt your recruits on the fly. While Watch Dogs: Legion’s pitch brings to mind the capacity to switch freely between a sneakier hacker to get into a building before calling in your combat specialist to fight off your enemies and then swap over to your getaway driver with perks for dodging traffic, the stark reality is much more tame. You can select and switch between characters whenever you’d like, but doing this reloads the overall game (and resets your mission to the final checkpoint). “Die” in a mission, along with your character will either be detained or hospitalized, switching you to yet another character and setting a real-world timer of about 20 to 30 minutes before you can utilize them again. (Legion does offer an optional permadeath mode that in theory ups the stakes, but I didn’t get yourself a chance to give it a try.)

The whole thing feels much less ambitious and fleshed out compared to the original vision of the game Ubisoft showed off at E3 2019. The initial rendition had different character classes (enforcers, hackers, and infiltrators) who excelled at different tasks and a progression system with character levels that would unlock new abilities over time — deeper elements that have since been cut from the last version.

Watch Dogs Legion character select screen from the E3 2019 demo (left) and the 2020 version of the game (right)

That false distinction bleeds over into other aspects of gameplay, too. The game makes a spot of giving players use of a wide range of lethal and non-lethal weaponry, but in actual combat, the overall game neither penalized nor even had enemies strongly answer whether I chose to mow down their comrades or stun them with a taser. Which weapons a character has is a key distinguishing feature, but they all feel pretty similar to use within practice.

Putting aside the unique character system, the others of the gameplay continues to build on the Grand Theft Auto-style foundation of the series. Much of your time in Legion is spent driving around London, hijacking cars as you see fit, and attempting to avoid an excessive amount of police attention. (As in previous games in the genre, there’s an escalating police meter for when you’re violating the law.) Given that Legion is just a new Watch Dogs game, there’s of course the excess hacking layer on top, which works much like the systems in the very first two titles, allowing you to remotely move cars out of your way, trigger traffic barriers, and crash drones.

Like any good sandbox game, Watch Dogs: Legion is packed with tools and toys to mess around with — there’s plenty of fun to be had in only driving around London, scanning NPCs to locate interesting recruits or fun bits of information, and hacking every thing in sight. It also means that the game will encourage players to use those tools in more measured, stealthy approaches during missions. Running in guns blazing will likely allow you to get killed, as well as just being far less fun.

On the story side of things, Legion also continues the lighter tone of the previous game — players work with hacker collective DedSec, which has been blamed for a massive bombing of London that was actually perpetrated with a different underground hacking group, called Zero Day. In the aftermath, London is taken over with a privatized military police group called Albion, against which players will battle to retake get a handle on of the town for individuals. (Albion very unsubtly has its logo plastered throughout the city, including landmarks like Tower Bridge. It also offers a main base at the Tower of London it self, because it’s that kind of game.) In typical Ubisoft fashion, none of that is meant to be political, of course.

Again, there’s a lot more of Watch Dogs: Legion than my initial demo surely got to explore. But based on what I’ve seen so far, the innovative NPC system is more flash than substance on top of what otherwise feels like a fairly standard sequel for the open-world franchise.

Watch Dogs: Legion will be out later this season for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia. PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions of the overall game are also anticipated to be released this holidays.

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