Watch Dogs Legion is exactly what I want in my open-world games, and I know this because State of Decay was exactly what I wanted in my open-world games. I don’t need someone writing a story about a character doing character things, because good writing in open-world games is rare and meaningful writing is almost non-existent. So load me up with a team of dynamically generated characters and let me let them make my own story. This is what Watch Dogs: Legion intends.
Sadly, it’s not what Watch Dogs: Legion actually does.
A friend of mine mocks cosmetic options in games as “playing dress up dolly.” Which is funny for how it’s spot-on. Why am I messing around with the color of my character’s vambraces when it has no gameplay impact? What do I care about his hair style? Why would I ever set an eye color or choose a tattoo or pick underwear? I actually picked my character’s underwear in Saints Row IV. I considered my options and I chose one. That’s an actual thing I spent time doing in a game. And, sure, it’s worthy of being mocked. But to me it’s an indication that a game has succeeded at doing what any good story, videogame or otherwise, should do: make me care about a character.
There are two ways to make me care about a character, and the best case scenario is that a game manages both ways. The first way is to write a character well. Arthur in Red Dead Redemption, Kassandra in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and pretty much everyone in Agents of Mayhem come to mind. The second way is to make a really good game in which I’m connected to the game through the character. I see through his eyes, I manage the world with his hands, I endure its challenges with his body. Guild Wars 2, for instance. Or any effective MMO. The characters are blank slates across which gameplay is written. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about my necromancer’s storyline in Guild Wars 2, but I’ve actually determined the color of the trim on her tunic because I spend enough time looking at her that I’d rather it be fuchsia than violet. CaRPGs are another example. A car certainly isn’t a well written character, but in a good caRPG — The Crew, for instance — I care about what color it is, whether it has racing stripes, and what the license plate says. Dress up dolly, but with model cars. The necromancer and the car are my consistently visible conduit into these games. I therefore care about them.
State of Decay is another example of characters being conduits into a game. I cared about the characters in the same way I cared about my necromancer in Guild Wars 2 and my Dodge Viper in The Crew. But there was no support for playing dress up dolly. The cosmetic options didn’t emerge until State of Decay 2, and especially the post-release support for State of Decay 2. Now you’ll find costume bits scattered around the world, waiting to be found, won, or unlocked. Developer Undead Labs knows you’ve gotten attached to those characters, so they know they can afford to patch in a ton of dress up dolly. And I will indulge in dressing up these dollies, because the gameplay has made me care about the characters.
It helps that a fundamental part of zombie mythology is a disparate group of people coming together, bringing their unique strengths and weaknesses. State of Decay is all about the group dynamics. It’s all about wrangling this disparity, embracing the differences. It’s all about how one character is good with guns, and another knows gardening, and yet another can sing to provide a morale boost. From here, it’s not a far leap to caring about what they’re wearing. If State of Decay let me, I would pick my characters’ underwear.
And this is what’s initially exciting about Watch Dogs: Legion. It has the same premise. A disparate group of people coming together, bringing their strengths and weaknesses. Like State of Decay, they’ll have different abilities. Like State of Decay, they can have weaknesses. Like State of Decay, they can die permanently (although Ubisoft, as terrified as ever of any design decisions that might frustrate a player, makes this optional). As I might expect from the previous Watch Dogs, the writing here isn’t going to get me attached to the characters. But because they’re my conduit into the world, I might come to care about these characters, maybe even enough to play dress up dolly.
The first but not insurmountable problem is that Watch Dogs: Legion isn’t a very good game. The world is shallow and not even that wide. It’s mostly a rote stealth game between hacking puzzles. You sneak from hacking puzzle to hacking puzzle, and if you fail at stealth, it might erupt briefly into shooting or punching. But this simply isn’t a robust enough gameplay loop to support much character differentiation. Sneak, hack puzzle, sneak, hack puzzle, sneak, hack puzzle, shoot/punch as necessary. Rinse and repeat, ad nauseum. It’s a tight and tedious loop, and Watch Dogs: Legion shows no sign of breaking out of it. Not for driving, not for loot, not for storytelling, not for collectibles, not for base upgrades, not for exploration, and especially not for character progression.
The scarcity of gameplay verbs, and the inordinate weight placed on stealth, means characters will have only a handful of abilities that matter. Drive around London and sift through all the pedestrians you pass, any one of which can be recruited. They’re all so much chaff. Filler. Abilities you don’t need, partly because any character can do any mission, so everyone is a master of stealth, hacking, and punching. The abilities you do need are commonplace. In fact, they’re often conspicuously placed right next to where you need them. What do you care if a character has his own spider drone? Nearly every hacking puzzle that requires a spider drone has a spider drone dispenser conveniently located right next to where the puzzle starts. The very level design minimizes the different characters.
But the one thing that ultimately kills Watch Dogs: Legion, and the one thing that could have slightly saved it, is character progression. There is none. These supposedly disparate characters don’t have the necessary ingredient for effective stories and gameplay: they must change. Character development is a compelling narrative. Whether it’s a character arc in a story, or character progression in a videogame. Arthur comes to terms with his mortality, Kassandra finds her family, my survivor in State of Decay 2 learns a new finishing move with her katana. But the characters in Watch Dogs: Legion are static and therefore inert. They will never learn a new skill. They will never get a new inventory item. They will never level up. They will never upgrade. They will never change. They will never learn or adapt or become more valuable or different. I will never be the least bit invested in any of them because I will never invest in any of them.
It’s utterly risible that the economy of Watch Dogs: Legion is based on playing dress up dolly. The money that incentivizes many of the gameplay systems is a sink for cosmetics. Yet I couldn’t care less what any one of these character models looks like. Ubisoft doesn’t even care. They hitch random voice actors to randomly rolled appearances as if it doesn’t matter. As if casting voice actors isn’t an important skill. I realize different people have different voices, so who’s to say what these randomly rolled characters would sound like? But I also appreciate that when someone creates a character in a videogame, there’s an entire industry based on how that character will sound. Watch Dogs: Legion shrugs it off entirely. The company that hired Melissanthi Mahut as the voice of Kassandra in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is also the company that randomly hitches accents, actors, and character models to each other for uncaringly countless iterations of the same pieces of dialogue. And I’m supposed to care enough about how they look to buy them clothes? I have so many unspent Watchdogbux in my Watch Dogs: Legion bank account.
I can imagine what Watch Dogs: Legion might have been like if it did have individual character progression, like State of Decay. If it had asked me to invest time and attention in individual characters. If it had given me an outlet to invest. If they had leveled up or improved or changed in any way. Or even if it had given me some incentive to play as one character instead of another. In State of Decay, characters tire out as you use them. They get hurt and need time to heal. So you play a different character for a while. In Children of Morta, an indie action RPG, characters accumulate corruption as you play them. You have to give them time to recover. You’re basically punished if you keep using the same character. Another action RPG called Hades cleverly flips this to a positive reinforcement by giving you a resource bonus if you use a different weapon (the weapons in Hades are the equivalent of character classes). But character swapping in Watch Dogs: Legion is mostly pointless. Almost anyone can do anything. The only exception is the occasional scripted gun battle, when you better hope you picked someone with heavy firepower, or that you’ve at least unlocked the heavier guns.
(All the progression in Watch Dogs: Legion is global, decoupled entirely from the actual characters. You unlock stuff, most of which you’ll never need, and it’s equally available to everyone. Again, characters don’t matter. Anyone gets the grenade launcher. Anyone can hack a combat drone. Anyone can perform Sam Fisher stealth kills and then apply a Romulan cloaking device to the corpse. You just have to unlock these options globally.)
The lack of character progression ultimately kills Watch Dogs: Legion, because it’s the game’s last chance to make me care about the characters. The gameplay loop is simple and repetitive, but I suppose it would have been effective enough if I’d cared about my team, if the game design had supported my willingness to invest in character progression, even in a shallow game world. Ubisoft games are gorgeous, and they can get away with simple and repetitive (hello, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla!). But if I can’t have depth, and if I can’t have variety, I at least need advancement, and the global unlocks won’t cut it. One of the main reasons I care about the characters in State of Decay is that I’ve literally invested in them. I’ve spent time making them better. When they die, it hurts because I’ve lost an investment. But when I lose a character in Watch Dogs: Legion — so far, my losses have been mostly interface or glitch related — it doesn’t matter. Maybe the character had some ability I might want. The various disguises are helpful stealth aids, and the summonable flying drone makes it easy to collect stuff from roofs. But they’re trivially easy to replace. I have to do some busywork quest to get another character with that skill. Or not. It doesn’t matter enough to actually do it. And when I realize things don’t matter and I’m furthermore never going to care, it’s a pretty short trip to the uninstall option.
Watch Dogs: Legion
A group of disparate people with unique strengths and weaknesses come together to try to save London from a high-tech dystopia. Unfortunately, I couldn't care less about any of them.