Who organises the protests?
In the London imagined by Watch Dogs: Legion, there are protests everywhere. NPCs hold signs with slogans like “Remove The Mercs / Restore The MET” or “Rents Not Tents,” yelling angry yet suspiciously apolitical cries like “Pig Pricks, Small Dicks!” And everytime I came across one, I would think: who organises them?
We are told continually that this is a London under the total control of Albion, a private military corporation in the business of assassinating journalists and abducting dissidents, with a proprietary algorithm powering a digital surveillance network crushing of resistance before it emerges. An enemy so fearsome that no one but Dedsec is willing to resist. And yet, on every corner, there are protests against them, and these mercs don’t seem to care.
Legion conceives of protest entirely as texture and background noise. They aren’t carefully coordinated demonstrations of collective power, or even loosely coordinated alliances of politically disparate groups brought together by common interest, they are abstract representations of the city’s collective id. They’re never imbued with any sense of purpose, or of community. They simply are.
This would be a problem in any game that wants to earnestly grapple with the ethics and methods by which a police state should be resisted, but Watch Dogs: Legion is not any game. Its central metaphor is that you can play as anyone, that we are all smaller parts of a whole, and that only through our power as a collective can we make real change. In a game with such lofty ambitions, the protests become a kiss of death on every street corner.
It falls short of every one of its ambitions. It neither succeeds at being a politically cogent, ripped-from-the-headlines thriller, nor as a bold new design experiment for open world games. It isn’t a disaster either, a game where you marvel at the gulf between ambition and reality, and find your own joy sifting through the wreckage. Perhaps most damningly of all, Watch Dogs: Legion is simply a Ubisoft open world game.
As a Ubisoft open world game? It’s fine. For a few hours. I am not one to deny the limbic appeal of driving around the map, completing a minor objective, and moving to the next one. The moment to moment stealth play is initially satisfying, a series of stealth puzzles that boil down to using your gadgets, your character’s unique abilities, and timing your movements in the right order to navigate spaces undetected. But over time the rigidity of this design sets in.
With its mix of gadgets and costumes, the game dreams of being a streamlined mix between Metal Gear Solid V and Hitman, but it cribs the simple and predictable actions without emergent or unpredictable consequences, and leaves little room for expressive play. Legion gives you the freedom to complete your missions however you desire, but in practice this means when faced with a locked door, you have the choice to hack into a camera and unlock it, or send in a spider-drone through the vent and unlock it. The choice is an illusion; you will do both dozens of times at dozens of enemy bases. You will always get through the door.
At this point you might start to notice that I haven’t said anything about the game’s touted Play-As-Anyone feature, the back-of-box unique selling point of the game. And that’s because it amounts to little—despite the immense amount of work it clearly took, as you watch a proc-gen 21 year old with a pitch shifted old man’s cockney voice try to act like he belongs in a normal story cutscene. But while the game’s cinematic pretensions are hamstrung by this choice, the biggest disappointment is how little it impacts the play of the game. Your Dedsec roster is a lives system with loadout classes attached. A drone expert can summon a drone and sneak through surveilled areas better. A hitman has access to better weapons and can hold out longer in a firefight. And so on. When you die, you lose your operative temporarily or permanently (if permadeath is on), and have to switch to a new character. And while this does undeniably add some tension to the proceedings, to play Watch Dogs: Legion is to gaze upon a limitless well of untapped possibility.
Can you do missions with multiple operatives? No. Can I intentionally send operatives on suicide missions, because the sacrifice furthers Dedsecs goals? No. Do characters have affinity towards some missions over others, based on their background and their views? Absolutely not. Instead, the most dynamism the system achieves is the occasional kidnapped operative, and when you hack their data to rescue your operative (this game would never dare to override player agency and kill one) a red note appears on their profile to say they’re the father of Joshua Shaw, who was presumably a name the computer assigned to one of the guards killed thoughtlessly in a prior mission. There’s no way to know for sure. Everyone shoots the same, and everyone dies the same. The system provides such a hollow illusion of diversity and consequence that it begs the question, why include it in the first place?
Yet while Legion’s systemic ambitions are a tragedy of wasted potential, the same cannot be said for its thematic ones. The sprawling mission design and lack of a focal main character certainly neuter the story’s potential, but the foundations are also rotten. I can’t stop asking: who organises these protests?
Who puts on a raincoat and holds up a sign, staring down tear gas, truncheons and bullets to advocate for the return of the Metropolitan Police? To combat homelessness with more landlords? To blame the robots for automating jobs, and not the bosses? It’s perverse. The game is aesthetically aping movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter in a desperate attempt for topical credibility, but it fills their mouths with slogans from the Rally to Restore Sanity.
Dedsec does not stand for anything. That is not to say they are apolitical, but that they are an entirely reactionary organisation. As your proc-gen protagonist actually says out loud, they are Watch Dogs. The enemies they oppose are evil, but their evil is safe and obvious. Aberrant. We can probably all agree it’s good to oppose a tech company who has teamed up with the British Mafia to implant microchips in people’s brains and auction them as human slaves.
Legion wants to tell a story of ordinary Londoners rising up together to fight an existential threat to their great city. But its London is so disconnected from reality, and that threat so cartoonishly unmoored from the actual oppression faced by its residents that Legion skips over disappointing and becomes actively insulting. London is a city where an entire tower block burned to the ground and despite obvious negligence on multiple fronts still no one has been prosecuted. A city where increases in cost of living have been exponential, in a country where over 17,000 people have died while waiting for disability benefits, where hatred of trans people is so deeply normalised the BBC recently banned its staff from taking a side on the “trans issue,” where racist nationalism has become the dominant politics of our age. This year, Boris Johnson responded to COVID-19 with a number of secretive private contracts which have achieved nothing but the siphoning of public funds into private pockets and a death toll of tens of thousands and rising. Unlike in Legion, there were no secret experimental AIs or fleets of drones killing people for pre-crime. They couldn’t even develop one app before giving up and licensing Google’s instead. But still the austerity, the corruption and the death continues. The violence is not dispensed by supervillians who hijack and pervert the system, it is inherent within it. The only character in Legion to make that point is one of its most prominent bad guys.
Watch Dogs: Legion isn’t willing to engage with the complex realities of the game design it wants to explore, the politics it wants to comment on, or the city it wants to portray. It sells a London where you shoot rockets from a drone into the London Eye and then unlock the “Lambeth Defiant” rewards. A London where you can recruit and control everyone on the street, but can’t reach out and touch them, or talk, or interact in any way that isn’t knocking them out or shooting them in the head. A London where the city fades to background noise as you drive from waypoint to waypoint, and then stealth, and fight, and shoot, because there’s nothing else to do.
Watch Dogs: Legion was developed by Ubisoft Toronto and published by Ubisoft. Our review is based on the Xbox One version. It is also available for PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and S, PlayStation 4, Stadia and Luna.
Jackson Tyler is an nb critic and podcaster at Abnormal Mapping. They’re always tweeting at @headfallsoff.