Review: Watch Dogs: Legion – Good Timing?

I picked up Watch Dogs: Legion on something of a whim, if I’m to be honest. I played the first one but passed on the second. What piqued my interest and put me over the edge was the fact that there is no “chosen one” central character and that you recruit your resistance against the forces that have overtaken near-future London from the general populace.

I probably spent as much time recruiting characters to DedSec as I did actually playing through the story. Certainly, I devoted much more time to recruitment than I did to side missions–about halfway through the game I decided I just wasn’t interested enough to spend that much time playing.

The situation in London is bleak at the beginning of the game; a terrorist group calling itself Zero-Day (or maybe lead by someone calling themself Zero-Day, this wasn’t quite clear to me) uses a spate of synchronized bombings across London to allow the city to largely turn over authority to a private military company, ironically named Albion. At least it’s leader isn’t named “Arthur.”

This puts London in a condition that represents some of my worst fears for the direction the U.S. is headed. I should mention that my father lived outside of London for about two years while I was in high school, so I spent a good deal of time in the city and, being too young to drive in the States, I learned to navigate the Tube long before I learned how to navigate Houston’s congested highways. So, in my mind, there’s a personal link between London and my own experience that perhaps made its familiar places (I always knew I’d gotten myself lost in the West End when I found myself walking between the adult-themed shops of Soho) feel like a strong link to my present concerns.

If you’d like it laid out for you, here are some of the aspects of the collapse of London’s (the country as a whole is rarely mentioned) democracy in the game: Albion patrols the streets in armored personnel carriers, armed with the kit expected of a warfighter, not a peace officer (blurred as that line is in the U.S. right now). Normal people are stopped and harassed as the already-prevalent camera system and the personal data captured by our smart devices turn London into a surveillance state. The vestiges of British democracy–the Home Office, the Parliament, etc., still exist, but only to provide cover for the authoritarian leanings of those really pulling the strings (the game explains that Parliament has been suspended and that the Queen–no indication of which Queen that is, mind you–has not been seen for some time since the bombings). Albion is disappearing its detractors left and right, the news stories that come up in your feed are often manipulated propaganda rather than reporting with integrity, and the current administration has formed unofficial alliances with the city’s largest criminal organization to facilitate its ends.

This is the situation in which your resistance hacker collective is formed. In today’s day and age–not just in the U.S. but in Europe and Britain as well, where the specter of conservatism dangerously flirting with fascism and/or populism raises its frightening head as well–there is a definite catharsis to be had for players needing to sublimate the angst they feel at the current political climate into imaginary action. I count myself among those players.

That’s why the recruitment missions feel so powerful–the need to bring in allies of similar mindset, who confirm and justify your beliefs that there’s something wrong with the current situation that calls for action, even of the direct and aggressive variety–is something many of us feel right now, whether or not that’s a reasonable mindset.

There are plenty of reviews talking about how cool it is to search out the various abilities (or weapons) different characters have as you build your team; I’ll acknowledge that aspect of the system but not dwell on it.

I will mention that the game has an option for permadeath for your operatives, and I can’t imagine playing the game without this option. The consequences, the drama of recruitment and selection of a particular character, make the whole system of having no single protagonist worth it; if you can’t lose the characters you recruit, that system loses much of its narrative weight. I lost about a half-dozen characters in my playthrough, most of them being “specialist” operatives with better skills and equipment than the average recruit: I lost an anarchist (one of the best character “classes” if you’re focusing on less-lethal tactics), a spy (my particular favorite character), a professional hitman (I thought that an amateur hitman was just a murderer, but, lo and behold, I did later recruit an “amateur hitman”), a deputy director of the Met, and a few others. Their losses–especially in otherwise successful story missions–were keenly felt, and that was the point, wasn’t it?

Otherwise, the gameplay was nothing unexpected for a GTA/Assassin’s Creed/Watch Dogs/Etc.-style of game. Less free-running and more hacking, but otherwise in line with expectations. Admittedly, I played the game on “normal” difficulty which, despite my losses, seemed easier than I should have selected for optimal enjoyment. If you liked the previous Watch Dog games, you’ll like the way this one plays.

Ultimately, the game’s narrative was less satisfying than I’d initially expected. I called the nature of Zero-Day a mile away, and the plot points of the missions hit a little too hard on the tropes and cliches of the genre: the THEMIS idea essentially rehashed Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, the Skye Larson plot played out the typical mad scientist trope (while sidestepping all of the actually-interesting philosophical and practical issues of mind-uploading by making her a monster), and Mary Kelley played an unnuanced criminal mastermind the likes of which have starred in many a poor detective story. The most emotional point of the story’s ending is immediately undone after the credits roll. Part of me liked that, but it was a cheap happiness to be sure.

Fortunately, the nature of the game itself, rather than the plot, brought some nuance with it. As with Watch Dogs 2 (so I’m told), the game pushes you toward a less-lethal approach to combat. You can only unlock less-lethal weapons for your characters (some recruits come with lethal weapons, but that’s the only way to get them) and even the “takedown” animations that show a neck being broken or the hitman garroting a victim to death are revealed to be less lethal attacks in the game’s treatment of them.

As a brief digression, I found the distribution of lethal weapons on recruitable characters–especially in London–to be ridiculous. It’s at least plausible that the Spy has a silenced pistol, or that the Professional Hitman comes with a pistol and assault rifle, but that’s not the half of it.

One of the first people I passed in the game was a “Tourist” with an M249 light machine gun. I chalked it up to satire of Americans, but then I also added to my potential recruits list a Chef with the same weapon. And then a University Researcher with a silenced pistol. As it turned out the number of people casually packing in dystopian London–heavy weapons no less–mystified.

But that aside, the game’s push toward less-lethal weapons made me continually ask myself about the morality of using lethal weapons in the fight. And this is particularly where I’d wished I’d set the difficulty to a higher level. As it stood, there where many missions where I could send in a Professional Hitman and run-and-gun my way through Albion personnel, stopping shooting to hack only when necessary. I wished that the difficulty had been higher so that the hero fantasy of blasting one’s way through faceless neo-fascist bad guys without a care in the world might have been less accessible, along with all of its accompanying problems. But, ignoring the moral question within the game, I continued to ponder the point at which armed resistance becomes an acceptable approach–it is never a “good” approach. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think violence can ever truly overcome evil–only delay it–and that thought reverberated for me as I confronted my programmed “enemies.”

It was certainly the fact that the setting of the game resonated with current fears and concerns about the future of the U.S. that led me to all of these thoughts, and it was morality and politics that traveled through my brain while playing the game far more than any consideration of privacy or technology issues. Even now, as I write this review, I’m continually refreshing the AP’s report on 2020 election results, full of some hope for the presidential results but mostly dread at the stark divide in my nation, the number of people who seem to value their own economic prosperity (manufactured as that may be) over ideas of democracy, justice, equality, or any of the other things I see as the ideals that justify the messiness and difficulty of our political system.

I’d better quit while I’m ahead. Or at least before I’m too far behind. I’ll conclude with this: I enjoyed playing through Watch Dogs: Legion, but it was far from an amazing experience. More important, I came away from this game wondering (in all sense of the word) how the cyberpunk stories and games of my youth seemed to be more prophetic year after year. As much as I enjoy playing games like Shadowrun, or Deus Ex, or Watch Dogs, that’s not a direction I would consciously chose. Which, in turn, made me a little embarrassed to play this game after all, feeling like I was turning my angst to video games rather than getting “out there” and doing something that might help incite meaningful change in the world. Do I feel like that’s even possible, or have I turned to a game like this because I’m beginning to feel powerless? Or is the coincidence of this game’s release with the 2020 election simply a serendipitous synchronicity of memes and fears as to put me in existential angst?

I don’t think any of that was what Watch Dogs’ creators intended it to be. But for me, that was my Watch Dogs: Legion: a self-inflicted reverie about my place in and responsibilities to the world. As I look back at this article, weird as it turned out to be, I think it reflects the course of my experience with the game–a journey from light-hearted escapism into contemplating much tougher questions and concepts. Was that worth my sixty bucks? Maybe.

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