Last year, Watch Dogs: Legion emerged from Ubisoft’s coffers with an ambitious pitch for the open-world genre: play as any character in the game. Security guards, grandmas, and even members of rival factions can be “recruited” to become a playable character (with some being trickier to convince than others). It’s certainly a first for a GTA-like: why run people over with your car when you can sign them up to your cause?
But is this twist enough to boost the Watch Dogs series to a compelling romp, years after its “GTA with hacking” conceit was already wearing thin? After a delay from its original 2019 launch window, players across the world will find out October 29 on PC (UPlay, Epic Games Store), Stadia, Xbox One, and PS4. (The game will also launch on next-gen consoles “upon their launch,” Ubisoft reps have told Ars.) In the meantime, I got to play a preview build for nearly four hours last week to find out for myself. And while the play-as-anyone conceit really works as advertised and is impressive as a feat of engineering, its execution within a video game is currently hard to recommend.
Taking the “N” out of NPC
This version of Watch Dogs is set in a near-future version of London (with most of its historic landmarks intact) on the eve of a terrorist attack. A spate of explosions goes off across the city, and the evil mastermind behind it frames a vaguely anti-government, anti-corporation group called Dedsec. A privatized, automation-minded security firm wrests control of London’s police forces, then ramps up body-scanning checkpoints and security drones. Dedsec’s ranks are arrested and otherwise detained, but their message—of, uh, fighting the power, but not in any specific or controversial way—lives on, carried in part by an AI entity.
Though Ubisoft didn’t show us the game’s intro, the intro appears to revolve around a single converted Londoner starting a grassroots Dedsec revival. One citizen takes up the mantle, then does someone a favor (in WD:L‘s case, a series of open-world video game missions) to convince someone to join the group. Do that again and again to enlist more strangers.
In my demo, Ubisoft was clearly proud of this core play-as-anyone functionality, as I was told to recruit whoever I wanted. Like in Watch Dogs 2, players can use a supercharged smartphone to scan anybody walking past, revealing deeply personal information. Now in WGL, you’re expected to leverage this information for the sake of Dedsec recruitment. If the person is already sympathetic to the cause, then it’s a matter of asking them what favor they might need done, at which point you take on a chain of two to three missions.
More stubborn Londoners will have a red “thumbs-down” icon on their scanned profiles, which means you’ll need to study their entire itinerary (yes, your phone can reveal all of their calendar data). Find a moment in their schedule that looks sensitive, like dealing with a debt collector, then show up at the listed time and location to help them out (usually with brute force). This will unlock a similar “please do me a favor” chain of two to three missions.
Ubisoft compels you to recruit strangers by locking specific perks and abilities to different NPCs, instead of offering a robust skill-tree system. Some characters can wield certain weapons. Others have location-specific disguises that let them blend in and temporarily stealth-walk through areas (like a construction worker for the game’s seedy construction sites). And others have specific abilities, like generating new drones on the fly, having faster stealth-kill moves, or going temporarily invisible. Each can have up to two weapons and up to two active abilities, along with a few passive perks.
Before you choose to recruit anyone, their specific abilities appear in their background scan, so you can choose whom you bother to help and/or enlist. Once you have a roster, you can freely swap from one Dedsec member to the next—in fact, new ones warp exactly wherever your current player already is, as if your HQ has a working transporter from Star Trek.
Disposable lives, imperative exploding vans
In related news, WD:L doesn’t sport any sort of quicksave system, and neither does it have “lives.” If your current character dies, they’ll either be “arrested” or “injured”—meaning, they’re in video game timeout. An in-game timer begins ticking until they can come back to the action (about 10 minutes). Once they’re back, they’re good as new: no penalty, no hospital bill, no posted bail.
This allows players to cheat their way out of certain challenges. One example: nearly all of the missions I played during my preview test ended with some form of “escape the enemy-filled zone,” which you can do either via combat or stealth. One time, I died by foolishly rushing into a mess of enemies. I expected the game to rewind upon my death and make me try again, but instead, I became one of my other comrades, who warped into the zone to replace my “injured” character. That new comrade happened to spawn into the zone’s exterior, away from the baddies. “Mission complete,” the game told me. Ubisoft reps said that worked as intended. Really? Hmm.
However, some deaths will cancel an entire chain of missions in progress, particularly the multipart missions you must undertake to conscript new Dedsec-heads. Twice during my session, I got to the final portion of a mission, only to fail; in my case, both failures were thanks to vans exploding for seemingly no reason. This was unfinished software, of course, and I was assured that spontaneously combusting vans aren’t slated to launch in the final game.
Learning what is (and isn’t) precious
The thing is, glitches happen in open-world games. Failing a single mission because of some wacky glitch is an unfortunate price of the genre. But failing a 20-minute chain of missions (driving, battling, driving, battling, driving, and battling) because of one mess-up is a lot harder to swallow. In these moments, the game tells you your new prospective Dedsec member has changed their mind. Move on. Find another NPC. But in one mission’s case, I couldn’t move on without getting that specific NPC to join Dedsec, and I imagine other WD:L missions revolve around similar “enlist a certain person to move forward” premises.
Pushing forward to reenlist that specific NPC brought up a new 20-minute chain of missions, and this is when I grew concerned that the way WD:L generates missions could prove redundant fast. Because these recruitment missions are attached to generic characters, they’re all randomly generated from within the game world. You’ll find yourself repeatedly hacking into hospitals by crawling around similar-looking outdoor pavilions, or hacking into construction sites that look the same. And once you’re inside one of them, the level design and mechanics have to work for any character, so you’re not expected to leverage any of the recruited characters’ unique abilities. Just generically rush or stealth to an objective. If the full game doesn’t do a better job guiding players to using unique abilities, WD:L is in serious trouble.
Back to the vans, though. To clarify, I didn’t fail those missions because my character died. I failed them because a van blew up. The same can happen when you’re expected to recover other cargo or specific hostages. Certain things in WD:L are precious… but not the members of your action-stealth collective.
Pithy philosophy, mild open-world tweaks
That’s my biggest beef with the game at this point in its prerelease state. You can control any character you want, but that means they’re each full of generic, copy-and-pasteable dialogue, since the gameplay makes clear that they’re all replaceable, swappable, and disposable. (I even saw specific long chunks of dialogue repeat a couple of times during my session, spoken by different voice actors.) Most of what they talk about is either a generic, philosophical rebuke of the connected future, condemning the sci-fi trope of unfeeling corporations, or a punk-rock eff-you to the system, man, with almost as many pithy, sarcastic comments as there are swear words.
Could a thrilling, character-driven story emerge in the game’s final retail version? WD:L includes hints to some kind of plot akin to a ’90s cyber-espionage thriller, though I only saw that stuff in the form of talking heads connecting a mystery’s dots as I drove from location to location. But mostly, the game’s talking heads boss you around, and the characters you control are mostly made up of cookie-cutter dialogue.
I sure hope there’s more to the package, because what I experienced rings hollow in light of a renewed modern-day dialogue about militarized police. Basically, if you’re wondering what an apolitical video game looks like, this is it: toothless, cheesy, and so reliant on old tropes that it makes no point of its own.
Beyond the plot and NPC-recruiting, I noticed plenty of other open-world tropes and twists that ranged from awesome to ho-hum. The worst was combat, which lets players either wield auto-aiming guns or engage in fisticuffs. The former is as uninspiring as anything you’ve seen in a third-person GTA-like, especially since WD:L‘s guns have little audio-visual impact and don’t feel as compellingly high-tech as the rest of the game’s universe. The latter is some of the worst open-world melee I’ve ever played, complete with a “grapple to disrupt foes’ blocks” mechanics that suffers from a serious lack of tells. An enemy would show a “block” animation with its hands, yet when I tried to grapple, which the game insists will work, grappling often didn’t. Should Ubisoft fix this issue, however, the melee system is at best boring compared to the likes of Batman Arkham.
In great news, cars feel pretty wonderful to drive in this version of futuristic London, in part because so many of them are electric. WD:L‘s fleet of cars enjoys a lot of instant-torque blastoff, and Ubisoft has nailed this sensation in a way I’ve never experienced in an open-world adventure. That means, yes, this is better than any Crackdown game’s take on the electric car. Should you prefer the chunky, drifty power of the UK’s best classic automobiles, you’ll find lookalikes for brands like Jaguar, and they feel lean and mean. Boats are also yours for the taking this time around, and while they’re a bit unwieldy to control, they err on the side of arcade-friendly steering and are thus a treat to pilot across London’s ponds.
When you’re not hacking into strangers’ phones, you’ll otherwise remotely trigger doors, bombs, drones, and security cameras—much like the prior games. New to this game is a “cargo” drone that you can jump on and ride like a massive hoverboard. WD:L isn’t designed to let you shoot guns while hover-zipping, which bums me out, but I still had a good time going through the motions of 1) overriding a cargo drone inside of an enemy encampment, 2) carefully piloting it away from its keepers without raising their suspicion, and 3) riding it back to their location while saying aloud to myself, “Surprise, [curse word]s!”
Check your expectations, and you’ll probably have fun
The city of London itself is easily the game’s highlight at this point, as Ubisoft didn’t put artificial barriers on the game’s map. Though not rendered at a 1:1 scale, WD:L translates a significant amount of London’s core into a playable map, and I particularly relished driving through its tight corridors—its unique alleyways, palatial roundabouts, and criss-crossing, weirdly angled blocks. Those pair well with the city’s giant bridges, open waters, and famous landmarks. This is as good as London has ever been in a video game (sorry, Getaway apologists).
My gameplay was streamed from a high-end Ubisoft PC, and the results ran at 1080p resolution, close to 60fps, with tons of detail settings cranked up. The preview build of WD:L is bullish on world density, and I could view plenty of cars, pedestrians, buildings, and stuff in the horizon at any given moment. The combination of detail and unique animations don’t look like it would buckle a current-gen CPU the way Assassin’s Creed: Unity did, mind you, and neither does it look built specifically for next-gen consoles—especially with simplistic lighting models (they look impressive at higher car-driving speeds but unrealistic upon closer examination).
Ultimately, we’re looking at a current-gen, open-world tech pipeline for WD:L, not next-gen, especially with so many of its buildings lacking doors. Meaning, you’ve mostly seen this kind of game before, NPC-switching or not. And if swapping from one generic, vaguely revolutionary person to the next while blazing through a rehash of older Watch Dogs missions sounds good to you, WD:L at least has the cars, gadgets, and handsome London playground for you to do it in. We’ll learn whether all of that coalesces into something more meaningful when the game launches October 29.