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.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part III: Distinctions as Fate’s Aspects

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Distinctions in Cortex Prime already function in a similar manner to Fate’s Aspects. Both have the capacity to help a character: in Cortex Prime, an applicable Distinction that provides some advantage to a character is added to the player’s dice pool; in Fate the player may spend a Fate Point to “invoke” an Aspect and add +2 to a roll’s result. Likewise, both can provide a hinderance as well: a player in Cortex can use a Distinction to add a d4 to the opposing dice pool and gain a Plot Point; a player can compel an Aspect in Fate to have some inconvenient event occur to the character (or have the character make some decision that makes sense for the character but results in misfortune) to gain a Fate Point.

While I love the idea of Aspects in Fate, the use of the Fate Point Economy to drive them–the necessity of spending a Fate Point to invoke an Aspect in particular–has always irked me a bit. I must acknowledge that this is a personal issue and not really a design flaw of the Fate System. The Fate Point Economy provides some very desireable benefits: it gives some mechanical balance to the game, means that (as in conventional narrative) a character’s traits don’t always come into play, and, most important, it forces players to resort to compels to use their Aspects beneficially at later points. This last factor both helps the gamemaster in a narrative game by giving cues and assistance in driving the story forward with complications that are sensible and meaningful to the players and adds interesting, spontaneous and unexpected knots to the conflict that simply could not have been planned. It is this last factor, which meshes well with the Powered By the Apocalypse mantra that the GM should “play to see what the characters do” (or perhaps it’s “play to see what happens to the characters;” I don’t recall perfectly offhand), that I very much want to capture in my Cortex Prime Shadowrun ruleset.

By design, the Cortex Prime system sidesteps my complaints about Aspects and the Fate Point Economy–Cortex Prime’s Plot Points are used differently and are not required to invoke Distinctions under normal circumstances but still provide incentive for players to complicate the story by reference to their character’s Traits.

With a very simple modification, we can make Distinctions even more like Fate’s Aspects and underline a grittier tone for the game (perfect for cyberpunk, but probably at home in just about any setting I’d be wont to run a game in).

That modification is this: Instead of a d4, when a Distinction (which I’m going to go ahead and just call “Aspects” in the CP Shadowrun ruleset) is used to gain a Plot Point, that Distinction/Aspect adds its full die do the opposing pool. So, if I have the Aspect Street Samurai d10, it will sure give me that extra oomph to take down mooks like a hot knife through butter, but it also gives me an opportunity to make my supposed adherence to Bushido matter in the game.

I think that this practice also fits well with gritty fantasy (whether or not combined with cyberpunk a la Shadowrun). In fact, it reminds me greatly of heroes of Celtic myth–there’s always a weakness, always some downside that accompanies greatness. Players will (and should) think twice about whether they really want to have that Street Samurai d10 Aspect. Yep, it’ll help you be a combat monster, but is the cost ultimately worth it? This kind of mechanically-supported and inherent game balance goes a long way for me.

You’ll see more about how Aspects will be assigned (and change) when we get to conversations about character generation and growth. For now, though, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this relatively minor but far-reaching modification to the Cortex System.

Review: Pawn

Pawn by Aimée Carter

Audible Narration by Lameece Issaq

We find ourselves at some time in the near future, after the fall of the United States led to the rise of the Hart family as the dictators over an America subject to economic collapse and resource shortages. As a result, all citizens take a test on the day that they turn seventeen. The results of the test determines their number—one through six, with sevens being reserved for the Hart family—which thus determine their futures. Fours occupy the middle class, with fives and sixes serving as the administrators of the government and management of production. Threes serve as skilled or semi-skilled labor in maintenance jobs and other services needed to keep the country operating. Twos live in poverty, working those jobs too dangerous or taxing to give to anyone of a higher number. The ones—well, let’s just say that no one wants to be a one. The availability of goods and services is restricted by a citizen’s number, and those who break the law or attempt to buck the system are sent “elsewhere.”

Into this situation comes “extra” (second child) seventeen-year-old Kitty Doe. She has just taken her test and had her result, a three, tattooed and scarified on the back of her neck as with all other citizens. She has orders to travel from Washington, D.C. to Denver, where she will serve in sewer maintenance for her entire life. She struggles to find a way to ignore her fate, hoping to hold out for at least a month so that her boyfriend Benji can take his test and they can figure out a way to stay together (it being expected that Benji will be a six).

By a strange twist of events, Kitty finds herself inducted into the circle of the Hart family, where she becomes a pawn in the interfamilial strife of the family’s members. As a result, she discovers that little of what government tells the citizenry to ensure their docility is true. She has a choice: fight for the people or go along with her puppetmasters to ensure her own safety—and the safety of those she loves.

Pawn is a young-adult (read: teenager) novel. As you’ve probably surmised, it bears a striking resemblance to The Hunger Games—post-apocalyptic America ruled by a dictatorship, a female protagonist with a feline-sounding name being forced to choose whether to become part of the system or struggle to end it and, of course, questions of romance and love with several potential suitors. I believe that this also coincides with much of the Divergent series, but I know too little about those works to be sure.

I would say that Pawn is slightly more adult in tone than The Hunger Games, as early in the story Kitty seeks to sell her virginity to the highest bidder at a brothel in a plan to make ends meet until she and Benji can find a more-permanent solution to her “three.”

I found Pawn to be an enjoyable read (or listen, as the case may be). Kitty and the members of the Hart family are well-developed, with complex and sometimes conflicting motivations sometimes driving them to do the unexpected. Over time, as Kitty discovers them, we learn the history and secrets of the Harts, seeing just how deep the deception, manipulation, and spite goes. The close proximity of the themes and general thrust of the plot to The Hunger Games series ultimately does not detract from the novel, as plenty of unexpected plot twists and a focus on character interactions gives Pawn a different place within the subgenre of (perhaps Feminist?) Teen Dystopian Drama that both works occupy.

The politics of the nation and the far-reaching consequences of the actions taken by Kitty and the Harts remain largely on the outskirts of the story, almost a MacGuffin to drive the more important familial politics upon which the story turns. By keeping things focused on the personal conflicts, the story manages to largely brush aside its lack of development of a believable setting.

My only other significant criticism is that Kitty’s male “love interests” (it should be mentioned that the romantic subplot of this novel provides an undercurrent rather than a central force) remain less developed than the other characters. Lennox Creed, who plays an essential role within the plot, never really gave me enough to understand him or believe his motivations. Benji proved even worse for me—Carter writes him such that he is uninteresting and of little consequence to the story except as someone who Kitty desperately wants to protect. The fact that Issaq voices him as an oafish dullard doesn’t help.

The characters of Lennox and Benji are forgivable if they are meant to serve as a critique of the writing of female characters by male authors in similar tropes of fiction (i.e., the need to save the girlfriend, who appears to be entirely helpless to take care of herself). I can’t be sure, however, that such a pointed critique was intended and that they are not simply sloppily written.

Pawn remains at least moderately interesting throughout its twists-and-turns, though I will not be spending any time on the rest of the series. For a teen audience, I think that this is a solid book that bridges the gap between the “classic” literature that most of us studied in high-school and the ultimately more interesting works of fiction we read in high school on our own time (instead of what we were supposed to be reading for class) or found in our adulthood.

Review: Under the Amoral Bridge

By Gary A. Ballard

Audible Narration by Joe Hempel

A cyberpunk backdrop of 2020’s Los Angeles sets the stage for Under the Amoral Bridge. This novella follows the exploits and misadventures of one Artemis Bridge, a former hacker-cum-fixer linking seekers with hard-to-find or not-so-legal goods and services, all the while trying to stay above any ethical quandary about his profession by never touching the goods or services directly. When a piece of information that could determine the results of the first election in Los Angeles since corporation Chronosoft purchased the right to govern the city, Bridge knows that he’s unwillingly been inserted into a game of life and death.

Bridge reminds me vaguely of Lenny Nero in the film Strange Days (one of my favorites and one of few arguably mainstream films in the cyberpunk genre). While Nero’s character gives you a man of some conviction struggling to survive an increasingly corrupt world—with a likeable personality to boot—Bridge simply is. He’s not sardonically witty enough to amuse the reader with his cynicism, too self-interested to hold our interest as an exemplum of the “man against the world” theme, and too petty for us to pay him much respect. After meeting him in the world of this novella, I find him an ultimately-forgettable example of the all-too-common lowlife hustler that appears in cyberpunk.

Had Under the Amoral Bridge been written and published in the 80’s, I would probably find it more difficult to be so hard on the story. But, the book first appeared in 2009. Coming so late to a genre so well-explored in print, film, anime, roleplaying games and video games, a modern cyberpunk book needs to bring something new to the table. I’m not saying that no one can write good cyberpunk anymore (Richard K. Morgan wrote Altered Carbon, a masterpiece of both cyberpunk and noir, in 2003), but we’re well past the point of using a plot arc known by wrote with a cardboard façade of corporate control, ubiquitous technology, topped with a healthy dose of paranoia, slapping it all together and throwing it out like it’s something special.

Looking at Amazon, the book enjoys pretty positive reviews, so I ought to defend my general lack of enthusiasm for the work. I discussed the flatness of the protagonist above, but it’s the rigid and predictable nature of the plot that really gave me fits.

Cyberpunk descends in many ways from noir: the gritty feel, the moral ambiguity, the selfish motivations of the bad guys, the protagonist who we cannot expect to succeed. This doesn’t mean that every cyberpunk story must be a mystery, although many are—again Altered Carbon comes to mind, as does Snowcrash. The best writing within a genre uses the conventions of the genre, but not rigidly, and not always expectedly.

Instead, Under the Amoral Bridge follows convention too closely, making everything feel caricatured. As I stated above, the cyberpunk background of the story feels too canned and too well-trod, coming across like an original Star Trek set piece that will topple if pushed too hard. To be fair, there are a few places where convention is toyed with: the role of the “femme fatale” (if this story really has one) is a relatively unattractive woman who only truly steps into the role when masked behind her net avatar—there’s interesting stuff about identity that could have been explored here, but the opportunity is lost. Then there’s Artemis’ bodyguard, affectionately referred to as Aristotle. He’s a large black man with a penchant for philosophizing and as much brains as brawns, both of which seem to be considerable. I can’t help but think of him being played by Ving Rhames as the story plays through my mind. Aristotle is by far my favorite character in the novella (perhaps the only one I actually liked), and his relationship with Artemis has enough nuance to break away from being a half-hearted twist on convention (as most of the other minor tweaks throughout the novella come across).

Ultimately, the story plays by the numbers, remains relatively predictable to the end, and contains plot “twists” that the characters themselves should have been able to see coming. This culminates in shameless exposition by the bad guy at the end to make sure that the reader gets what’s happened—even though it’s already painfully clear to everyone except Bridge himself.

The work leaves a bit to be desired stylistically as well. In particular, I found myself often distracted by the use of the passive voice where just a smidge of effort could have crafted a stronger sentence. That said, the craft of writing proves exceedingly difficult, and a less-skilled wordsmith can be forgiven if she tells a powerful and satisfying story. The author skilled in technique but without solid storytelling skills is not so lucky. I see a potential in Ballard to rise to the occasion, and it is quite possible that his later works prove that he has improved his technique and storytelling, but I have only read this small part of his corpus.

In full disclosure, I found that the narration of this book on Audible lacked as well, and that might have contributed to my rather harsh assessment of it. The narrator mispronounced a few words, and his accents and voices for characters failed to bring them to life, only adding to their cardboard cut-out feel.

Overall, this is not a bad book. But neither is it extraordinary in any way. With a world so full of amazing works of fiction (and more created every day) and lives so bereft of time in which to enjoy them, I have to recommend picking up something else before Under the Amoral Bridge, unless you want to continue in the Bridge Cycle (currently a four book series) in hopes that Ballard constructs something more grandiose upon this rather plain foundation.