The Dark Souls of Podcasts
I’m someone who’s always enjoyed the Ubisoft collectathon open world games. From Assassin’s Creed to Far Cry, I’ve found something relaxing in their method of storytelling and exploration. It’s never really changed up much, and it’s always been a safe place I could return to when I just wanted to spend an hour or two without thinking too much while still having fun. I’ve been playing this stuff for years and they’ve refined the formula and responded to criticisms well; the new form of Assassin’s Creed being a good change to what they’ve built even if they’ve bloated the games. And then along came Watch_Dogs, a game with a cool conceit and a godawful protagonist. They fixed that problem with Watch_Dogs 2, and then ignored it altogether with the newest release, Watch_Dogs: Legion.
Watch Dogs: Legion ditches the comfy confines of San Francisco for a dystopian London with good old DedSec getting framed for a series of massive bombings by a mysterious hacker group known as Zero-Day. You’re introduced to a couple of characters before they are almost immediately killed off, and you’re left to pick a character from a random list of procedurally generated nobodies to start the game. It’s a cool idea at its core, not having a protagonist and having characters that have their own strengths and weaknesses based on their generated elements. A character who Goo- I mean Nudles a lot of images of guns is going to come with a big gun, someone who researches IBS might have a farting problem which makes them less stealthy. It’s a fun idea that would work so much better if it didn’t have such an incredibly mediocre story to tell.
The sparse 10-15 hour runtime tells a story of the rebuilding of DedSec into an underground resistance movement fighting back against Albion, the PMC that’s taken over London, and the Clan Kelley Gang that’s taken over parts of the city and is stereotypically evil. There is no nuance whatsoever in the story they tell. It’s you building a resistance of randos to stand up to corporate fascism (and one street gang) and mashing them all into the story which means none of them have any personality outside of the voice that they have and a few facts you can see when you look at their profile. Cutscenes take random members of your crew and have them read the same dialogue, even if it doesn’t fit the character they seem to have been given. It’s strange, and in the end all it’s incredibly predictable twists can’t save it from its lack of any central characters outside of Bagley, the team’s AI. It’s wild to me that the only real character in this whole thing is an AI that’s incredibly charming and sassy and has far more depth than any of the games’s human characters.
I’m someone who loves games like State of Decay where the systems are what tell the story for me. So a game with permadeath that lets me recruit anyone and all I get is a voice and a few facts about them is incredibly enticing to me. Once the main story was out of the way, I was able to tell my own, and it was a much better time while still suffering from the issues of the way it implements its systems. I would like it so much more if your team actually reacted to what other members did which really breaks my engagement. One of the most egregious examples of the game not reacting right is when I used one of my agents to gun down the cousin of another in cold blood. Just shot her cousin right in the face in broad daylight. Then, I went to the menu and switched to the character whose cousin I had just killed, and the two characters tagged out with a friendly greeting, despite the fact that there was a big red mark on her stat sheet that said the first agent murdered her cousin. The simulation works on the main world, but as soon as the team is involved, it breaks, because we have to have them all be the best of friends. Later on, the character that did the killing died and I switched back to the girl whose cousin was murdered, and they were upset their friend died. It’s sad, because I’ve loved my time letting the game tell it’s own stories, but little things like this leave me feeling really deflated.
Both the set good guys and antagonists are all such caricatures that I felt nothing. The story set allied NPCs are a cop and other hackers who float into the game to push the story forward and really offer nothing to the overall feel of the game. Whereas our companions in Watch_Dogs 2 felt like friends who had a life together; the crew in this game feels like a bunch of people standing around doing and saying nothing. Sometimes you can talk to people and they’ll give the same dialogue with a different accent, and it all adds up to something that feels incredibly fake and lifeless. Which is odd, because the streets are filled with people going about their daily lives and reacting to things in interesting ways. If you highlight someone and it says they are on their way to play darts, you can follow them all the way to the bar and get a round of darts in with them. People have their daily routines and there are definitely some interesting interactions to be seen and characters to recruit. This is the one area of the game that still has any interest to me.
The random generation also leads to way too many strange things. Looking at what they have to offer sometimes drives me up the wall. A character looks interesting? They are just as likely to be a far right Neo-Nazi who actively worked in human trafficking as they are to be a leftist anarchist with a penchant for pyromania. It’s so weird that those are even an option. Why would DedSec, an inherently leftist organization, ever recruit someone that was literally running a slave auction. Why is this a thing? I look at my team and am entertained by the conspiracy theorist stage magician with her sparkly suit and top hat standing next to the punk rocker with her mohawk and spiked leather jacket, and laugh. And then I look at the cop who really looks up to Margaret Thatcher and I want to scream.
It’s not just the story that’s a mess though; the gameplay is also really lacking. There are little sidequests and collectibles strewn about London, podcasts to listen to, documents to read, and upgrade points to find through solving decent puzzles that pale in comparison to the ones in 2. This means if you want to do 100% of the content on offer, it might take you an extra 10-20 hours. That includes sidequests, tech points, a fully decked out roster of random women outside of one dude I had to recruit because I had to seduce a straight woman for a quest. The game, even on hard, was far too easy, especially if you recruit someone from Albion or a Clan Kelley gang member who can just walk right through areas with barely any problems. I only lost 3 members through my entire playthrough, and all of those were because I just started doing goofy things to make it more interesting. It’s weird to say that I wish there were more random collectibles and side quests in an Ubisoft open world game, but yeah, I wish there were a lot more side quests that had interesting content. They are always there, every recruit sends you on a mission to do something, but they are all the same. Go to a building, hack a server, maybe a shootout. It’s boring and repetitive and it never really feels right. I could listen to the podcasts, but you either have those come on in one of the many boring to drive vehicles, or you have to stay in the menu to listen.
The way the game controls seems to lack what I liked about 2. Whether I’m floating through the sky on a construction drone or driving through the streets, it never really feels good. It never feels like things react. Cars will sometimes move over for an ambulance with its lights flashing, but most of the time they won’t. Guns snap onto their targets and never feel consistent. Some guns feel good, usually the special ones like the nail gun or tranq dart, but most feel the same and it’s just as easy to take the default non-lethal pistol as it is to take out a giant revolver through a mission. It’s the same with your hack targeting. I’ll want to distract an enemy, but instead activate a trap 40 feet behind them. It’s frustrating and led to more than a few moments of annoyance. It never made the game hard, it just made it annoying.
There is a lot of promise in Watch_Dogs: Legion that could be brought out with a long period of support and updates, but as it stands now it’s a big step down from Watch_Dogs 2. When the best part of your game is that they don’t dedicate time to talking about the iconic cap-wearing Aiden Pierce you might have a problem. My biggest hope for the game’s future is more content that makes the city feel alive, like animals. Despite having 3 veterinarians on my team, there isn’t a single dog for me to pet. Sadly, as a fan of these kinds of games, I doubt this is something I will come back to until the team has had a lot more time to build it to a point where the game’s promise fully comes out.