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A screenshot from Watch Dogs: Legion’s intro mission, featuring a Zero Day hologram Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft

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I’m glad Watch Dogs: Legion got delayed

Time to invent the game’s smartest system

The first time I played Watch Dogs: Legion, I was amazed that its wildly ambitious promise to play as anyone actually worked. But success during a three-hour demo is one thing. Making this conceit practical or useful for dozens of hours is another.

In the weeks after I wrote about playing Watch Dogs: Legion for the first time, I kept wondering about the downside: a tyranny of choice. If everyone in the world is a potential ally, how do I choose? How could any of them feel worthy? Why pick the homeless man over the cop or the cab driver?

I got some of the answers when I first played. It’s better to enter a construction zone as a construction worker. It makes sense.

I got a more complete answer the second time I played Watch Dogs: Legion. It’s called the intel system, and it gently guided me away from thinking of everyone as a possibility and toward more useful parameters.

An hour or so into my play session, the intel system threw me a lifeline. I was playing my second mission and felt just comfortable enough be cocky. Instead of finishing the fistfight I was about to win, I decided to add non-lethal weapons to the mix. That convinced several nearby enemies to pull out their sidearms, too. The stupidity of this tactic congealed as the screen faded to gray, informing me that my DedSec operative, Gary Dasgupta, was critically injured. In practical terms, I couldn’t play as him anymore.

I swapped to another DedSec operative, the pink-haired podcaster and hacker Karla Morales whose bio says she’d once been “banned from a casino after hacking [a] slot machine.” No sooner did she appear on the streets of near-future dystopian London than Bagley, the JARVIS-like AI voice in my characters’ heads, offered some advice.

Gary was headed to the hospital, Bagley explained. Why not recruit a paramedic? That’ll make his convalescence shorter. Now I had a choice. Should I try and complete the mission with Kara, or should I use Kara to free Gary?

Watch Dogs Legion Skye House Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft

There is no wrong answer, but there is an advantage to having Bagley pose the question. I wouldn’t have thought about picking a paramedic had the game not told me about them and what they can do at the moment when I could use one. Watch Dogs: Legion used in-game events to teach me about the game, and I smiled. Maybe “play as anyone” didn’t have to be so intimidating after all.

I asked Watch Dogs: Legion Creative Director Clint Hocking about assembling a meaningful team of DedSec operatives, and he was quick to talk about the intel system, which was a direct result of the game’s delay.

“This is one of the things we focused on over the last year with the extra time we’ve been given,” Hocking told Polygon. “Really taking what we learned from the game over the previous few years of development and really being able to take a hard look where the value proposition to the player was coming from and how to really present characters to the player better.”

Some of that involved streamlining what was already in the game — removing extraneous information, packaging and presenting relevant information about characters’ abilities and traits better. But the big breakthrough, from the perspective of someone who’s played the game, is the intel system.

“It’s looking at who you have on your team and also looking at different game states that you might have entered, and then recommending people to you based on features that you need or haven’t used, or based on needs that you have,” Hocking said.

“So if someone gets arrested, the game will push you a barrister or a lawyer. If someone gets injured, you’ll get pushed a paramedic or a nurse or something like that. But also intel will push you characters who have cool new abilities or weapons or things like that, depending on what you’ve already got on your team. You’ll also see people on the street, like a getaway driver if you don’t have one or a beekeeper if you don’t have one. It’s really like better advertising of a lot of what was already there, plus amplifying some really cool features that we just found ways to improve.”

Watch Dogs: Legion Recruitment Talker Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft

My favorite open-world games are ones that make for good playgrounds. I like it when the main missions, the side quests, and the overall narratives feel secondary in hindsight, and when I mostly remember the moments that I created for myself. I’m often more interested in the tangents than the objectives. If I see something shiny, I’m happy to chase after it. The narrative stuff can wait.

If the intel system works as well as it seems to — if it gently nudges me into relevant tangents for 10 minutes at a time — then I can see myself getting lost in Watch Dogs: Legion, tracking down, recruiting, swapping whenever I feel like it. Whether I’ll ever pull myself back to the narrative is another question entirely.

If Watch Dogs: Legion was released in March as originally planned, one of its smartest features — the intel system — wouldn’t exist. I suspect that the game would have been worse off without something to mitigate the stress of managing an open-world city in which everyone can become a playable character. Because who wants everyone?