When I first heard that Watch Dogs Legion was setting aside a main character and instead allowing you to play as literally any NPC in the world, I grew concerned that the game would be eaten by its own gimmick. It sounds neat in theory, but how does one maintain a cohesive narrative in a game where the whole world is the lead? Can it even create an emotional connection between the player and the avatar they choose to play as? That answer is a resounding yes, as I got some hands on time with Watch Dogs Legion to learn a little bit more what exactly its all about.
First, this isn’t a game where you can just wander up to anyone willy-nilly and become them. Mario’s Cappy didn’t invade Watch Dogs. There’s an investment behind the characters you select. You can research them, find out their special traits, and choose to recruit them. Making this choice begins a mission to do something that will endear them to DeadSec, the hacker organization set on taking down a militaristic government regime (totally not political though. Nope). In my case, I chose a kind bloke in a bar and was tasked with removing some information from an air-gapped hard drive to bring him into the fold.
From a gameplay perspective, things feel largely similar to past Watch Dogs games, with a few upgrades here and there to account for the range of new characters and people you play as. They had me in the role of an older woman, which made for some hilarious antics as I broke into the facility to wipe out the hard drive. Fortunately she was a hacker, which meant she was a tough old bird with her own spiderbot that I smartly set to defend the door while I took care of the hard drive. Once the bodies were strewn about, data destroyed, and the mission complete, I was able to recruit the fine gentleman I had “met” in the bar to be part of the cause. I had to keep in mind that none of this was a story mission. This intense sequence of events was little more than what I needed to do to recruit a single citizen of London to my cause.
A New Kind of Character Customization – Watch Dogs Legion E3 2019 Preview
That investment makes selecting a character, or even building up your team of characters, something deeper than just playing a bunch of random characters at random. Add permadeath into the mix, and Watch Dogs Legion starts to channel that XCOM vibe of investing in your perfect squad, but knowing that sending your best to the frontlines could mean risking losing them forever. With 15 levels of growth for each character, there’s a surprising amount of depth that goes into the NPCs (now-playable characters?) and the world.
What’s more, each individual character is unique in looks, voice, abilities, and they’ve got their own connections to the world. That vast network is always going on just beneath the surface of Watch Dogs Legion, and it’s the natural evolution of the “hack people’s lives” theme that Watch Dogs has always embraced. Now you are quite literally hacking people’s lives to the point where you can eventually play as them. Character customization becomes less about creating your own characters and more about finding the characters in the world that speak to you.
Once you’ve built up your team (which you can recruit more people to at any time during the game), there are more than 60 missions in the main storyline spread across five different narrative arcs that each embody a specific theme. The story cutscenes will play out slightly differently for each character, which helps Legion not feel like it’s just plopping your random NPC into whatever story scene is playing out. While we didn’t have an opportunity to do any A/B testing to compare the story scenes, the ones that I saw with the entirely random NPC I had picked to recruit felt natural with that character there.
While they weren’t able to talk much about it quite yet, Watch Dogs Legion will have an online experience with four-player co-op, and you can bring your unique team and characters into that experience.
Ubisoft managed to cure the healthy skepticism I had for Watch Dogs Legion, which initially struck me as nothing more than a gimmick that lacked depth. Instead they showed me a game filled with a surprising amount of depth, player freedom, and choice and consequence. It’s an ambitious design, not just for the series, but for games in general, combining a few ideas while inventing a few new ones all its own. My brief gameplay demonstration was all too short, and if Legion managed to convince me off of that, I can’t imagine the depths that the full game will go to in order to engage me.