Watch Dogs Legion could, and probably should, be so much better than this. Following two entries that introduced and refined the open-world hacking concept across the PlayStation 4 generation, Ubisoft has stagnated in an effort to heavily promote a new feature it hasn't managed to capitalise on. The result is an experience that feels overtly familiar and dull despite the seemingly innovative mechanic at the forefront of the French publisher's marketing campaign. Watch Dogs Legion lets you play as everyone, then gives you very little reason to do so.
There's simply no beating around the bush: the ability to assume the role of every single NPC making up post-Brexit London is a colossal disappointment. It works in the ways it needs to — highlighting potential recruits for DedSec with a quick glance at the sort of skills they could bring to the table — but there's hardly ever a compelling enough reason to actually deviate from the character you've already sort of fallen into playing as.
Let's double back and give this some context though. Near future London has been transformed into a dystopian surveillance state after a series of terrorist attacks brought the English capital to its knees. DedSec, the hacking collective from both Watch Dogs and Watch Dogs 2, is framed for one such attack, turning public opinion against them and forcing its members to operate in secret. You play as these tarnished characters. In fact, you could play as them all.
The defining mechanic of Watch Dogs Legion allows you to change the protagonist of this story by recruiting another person off the street and then doing it over and over again. Everyone has a problem in their lives and you're on hand to solve it. This is done by analysing the public, measuring up what perks you'd like them to come with, then completing a basic loyalty mission to add them to your ranks. In theory, the idea is to build up an army of DedSec members each with their own unique abilities to make completing the 15-hour campaign that little bit easier.
Except Watch Dogs Legion never, ever provides an engaging enough reason to do so. The talents these characters come with are largely uninteresting, with most based on minor boosts to basic stats or quirky traits that have little to no impact on how you actually play the game. Why would we switch to an Operative who comes with the possibility of dying randomly? They work as goofy one-liners when you're out exploring the open-world, but in practical terms, the character is useless.
And that's a notion that runs through the heart of far too many of London's occupants. Every single character plays exactly the same, utilising the same selection of weapons and poor stealth mechanics no matter how unfit for combat they are. It gets to the point where even those Operatives who are uniquely equipped with something useful fall by the wayside. A construction worker can spawn a Cargo Drone at will, but they're in such abundance that you never need to think about where to source one. An internet celebrity can call for a motorcycle whenever he pleases, but we don't need to tell you about the traffic in London to know that vehicles are very, very easy to come by.
As such, it all ends up feeling like one huge let-down. Watch Dogs Legion fails to provide a meaningful reason for actively switching between characters on the fly and always being on the lookout for new recruits. Anything one Operative can do, another could do just as well. When a game that so desperately wants you to constantly change your protagonist and playstyle can be comfortably beaten without engaging with the mechanic at all, there's something up. The "play as anyone" concept will continue to be one with potential then because Ubisoft hasn't realised it.
What that leaves us with then is the same gameplay loop that has fuelled the two previous instalments in the franchise. And, well, it's getting far too stale. Most missions are dull affairs, consisting of sneaking into enemy territory to steal information and files through hacking — much of what you already did to enter the base and then leave it. Seriously, our L1 button has never seen so much action.
Competent controls and shooting mechanics make combat serviceable (the same can't be said for driving), providing some enjoyable moments in the thick of the action. Don't get us wrong, the campaign does have a smattering of high points that will keep you pushing through its more monotonous moments, they're just nothing you haven’t already seen before. Case in point are the hacking puzzles and Spiderbot minigames — a mainstay of Watch Dogs 2 but also pretty fun in this follow-up.
One complete contrast to the story of Marcus Holloway, however, is the dreadful narrative of Watch Dogs Legion. We've already touched on the initial set-up because that's just about all the title has going for it as the fear the plot would suffer as a result of the "play as anyone" concept becomes a reality. Ubisoft's commitment to remaining apolitical means it has to try and dance around themes so politically fuelled that it's impossible not to hold some sort of opinion, and it just doesn't work. The narrative comes off so phoney as a result — just say what you think Ubisoft and own it instead of skirting the conversation.
And don't get us started on the dialogue and accents. The fixed characters who have an actual identity get a pass, but the conversations your Operatives hold with each other and the supporting cast are absolutely atrocious. An awful script means you’ll be laughing at dialogue a lot, lot more than you will with it. From ludicrous opening statements a protagonist can make to try and recruit someone to Dedsec through to generally poor writing, some of the lines really are the worst of the worst. Then the lip-sync is just as bad, making a mockery of any potential the script could have had in the first place.
At least London looks pretty good whilst you're spouting nonsense. A good bit of virtual tourism can be done in the open-world as the classic landmarks of the capital city are faithfully restored in digital form. Just ignore all the bright, definitely-not-political neon they've been decorated with. To be fair, Ubisoft has done a great job of putting together a realistic recreation of London, complete with eight different boroughs that make for a fairly vast space to explore. You'll come across neat, little streets that you didn't think you'd recognise from real-life trips taken before a global pandemic and small touches that only a seasoned Londoner could pick up on. It's a cool novelty that never really wears off.
One more thing we couldn't quite get over is how much time was spent waiting to actually play Watch Dogs Legion. Lengthy load times are required to access the open world on PS4 and the same goes for fast travel and switching between characters. The game has clearly been designed with the PlayStation 5 in mind as it pushes the current-gen console to its limit with multiple hard crashes back to the system's home screen when things become too much. Throw some consistent lighting glitches into the mix and the title cannot be considered top of the line in its current state.
Considering the potential Watch Dogs Legion was packing prior to launch, the final release can only be chalked up as an anticlimax. Its "play as anyone" concept doesn't lend itself well to the sort of experience Ubisoft has crafted with seriously lacklustre character options and a narrative that went down the drain as a result. While longtime fans may find its recycled gameplay loop just enough of a reason to keep playing, those enamoured with the possibility of playing as anyone and everyone will wish they never bothered. Watch Dogs Legion is the dullest of the lot.