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Watch Dogs: Legion’s cast of randos makes a surprisingly winning team

Play it with permadeath stakes, on hard difficulty

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Watch Dogs: Legion’s elevator pitch to the player gave me pause. Play as anyone, say the marketers, touting your ability to recruit literally anyone you meet on the street to your cyber-hacktivist cause. That’s great, but absent pre-written player characters, developing in and changed by a narrative, would that mean I’d care about no one?

Then Blake McCleary, my 58-year-old industrial designer, chugged a couple of eisbocks in a pub in Southwark, threw a round of darts, and went off to his next assignment for DedSec. McCleary was assigned to rescue Lydia Anderson, a stage magician whose talent is using hypnosis to turn a foe friendly. Anderson is also a gambling addict with bad debts, which led to her kidnapping.

McCleary easily slipped inside the gangster hideout where Anderson was being held. The core gameplay loop of Watch Dogs: Legion — sneak around, get the drop on the goons, stroll out triumphantly — is enjoyable enough that I was happy to do another rescue in the same location where I’d done the last. This time I charged up an electro-fist, a one-hit KO, to obliterate the lone goon guarding Anderson. Unfortunately, she was killed in the blast. Then, her distraught friends kidnapped him, and I had to bring in Emeka Garba, a 23-year-old Tom Haverford-ish reality TV fameball, to save McCleary. This time, Garba parked the electro-fist for a more discreet cloaking device.

That delightful subplot, down to the characters’ names and biographical details, was all emergent within the game, responsive to my choices and mistakes, and it gave McCleary and Garba a little more depth in my eyes. A bit of a relationship, even, such that when I later lost Garba on a core story mission, I sent McCleary to finish the job as a tribute.

There you have all the ingredients that make Watch Dogs: Legion, somewhat to my surprise, a winning and worthwhile sequel, the third entry in yet another Ubisoft open-world stealth adventure series. I’d worried that Legion’s be-anyone approach might turn its characters into the game’s loot — valued only for the skill or perk they bring to the team, and robbing us of anyone worth caring about. You might be left with that feeling if you play without the game’s permadeath option, which has to be activated at the start of a campaign (it can be later turned off, but not reactivated). I recommend users turn the permadeath option on. It feels like the “right way” to play.

Screenshot of the team screen in Watch Dogs Legion showing an operative named Emeka Garba, weaing a blue blazer and navy vest over white pants.
Emeka didn’t have the best perks, and being noticed all the time was kind of annoying. But he had great style and came through when it mattered.
Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft via Polygon

I’m glad I restarted Watch Dogs: Legion’s campaign very early in my playthrough, after finding the guards’ and thugs’ oblivious AI triflingly easy to exploit at standard difficulty. Only permadeath and hard difficulty forced me to plan out and solve each level as a puzzle — which should be the enjoyment of a game built around hacking, after all — rather than blunder through an impromptu shooting gallery out of impatience or a bad decision. Experienced gamers, or anyone familiar with how Ubisoft handles the stealth business, should play on these settings.

I didn’t find any nasty difficulty spikes waiting for me as the story advanced through the Ubisoft formula of taking down a series of bad actors and discovering how they’re linked, before the big reveal and concluding showdown. Watch Dogs: Legion’s story may be templatized, but it benefits considerably from a richly illustrated, believably near-future London, and plot lines that are unafraid to tackle troubling subjects or put a subtle opinion on them.

A DedSec operative with animal print pants and a red and blue courier bag scans a bystander, discovering he’s a soccer hooligan.
When Ubisoft Toronto says you can recruit anyone off the street to your cause, they mean it.
Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft via Polygon

In Watch Dogs: Legion, a pretextual terrorist attack has given a private military corporation full control of London — with the authority even to suspend Parliament. DedSec, the antihero hacking team, is framed for the blasts and nearly wiped out. The player begins the game by reconstituting the London chapter, and uncovering the truth connecting London’s mercenary rulers with the city’s disturbingly exploitable technology and the techno-oligarchs behind it.

In my adventures, I confronted an organ-harvesting operation fronted by gangsters; undocumented immigrants herded into squalid conditions and exploited as forced laborers; and a police force, co-opted by military influence, brutalizing its public. To Watch Dogs: Legion’s credit, it neither shies away from themes that echo real-life events and current anxieties, nor depicts their morality with a heavy hand. The game has a show-don’t-tell tone in presenting London under an authoritarian regime and the attitudes that got it there.

I never got the sense that DedSec was always in the right, more than it was just the group doing the most things that were right, where no one else would. Even then, I recruited to my team a doctor (Tharindu Cabral) who had lost his license after a case in which one of his patients got addicted to painkillers. The scripted mission that put the medic on my team involved stealing an ambulance full of narcotics, which would be given to this patient. I’m not sure that unstructured self-medication, even to wean someone off a dependency, is a clinically appropriate response. Whatever the case, it was clear from the banter between my character and Bagley, the AI helping DedSec, that our new teammate was not to be welcomed with open arms.

a dedsec operative scans a bystander, discovering he is a medic
DedSec’s supporting cast aren’t all saints. It was clear that this guy deserved to lose his medical license.
Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft via Polygon

Watch Dogs: Legion got me to play with this medic, and as a lot of people I never would have created in an ordinary character builder or avatar customizer. And thanks to permadeath, they were worth careful play, because losing one delivered the kind of angst I’d only felt when a trusty operative was killed in XCOM. Diana Dutta was my first skilled hacker, taking over as my primary operative from my starter character, Timothy Abbasi, who had a punk haircut and black leather jacket that made him look more like a cyber-anarchist. Dutta looked like she’d just left a cube-farm workplace where she didn’t fit in and, from the way she always played with her phone, like she couldn’t be bothered to have an interesting conversation.

But boy, did she have a toolkit. She could skim passkeys from unlimited range — enormously helpful in a game where I was frequently hopping from hijacked security camera to camera, trying to find the one close enough (if there even was one) to steal the key to the door. Diana could also patch into someone’s Optik (the in-world personal device everyone carries) and send a jolt of electricity through them, a great attack and an even longer-lasting diversion than the standard distraction tool.

Those skills paired with something as versatile as the spider-bot made Diana unbeatable to the point that I got careless. The spider-bot is a piece of equipment whose entry-level model can sneak around a building, take down foes from behind, and carry out hacks. In the first third of the game, I wondered why I should choose another piece of equipment, or even another agent.

Then I got Diana killed on a mission where she could have just sneaked inside the door under a cloaking device. Instead, I’d given her the spider-bot, and when she was surprised by a sentry, I thought she could shoot her way out of trouble. It was a painful lesson. You can’t build up a character like Diana; her perks and unique traits are all luck-of-the-draw. The equipment and some of the hacks I acquired are available to all characters, but it’s impossible to specifically hunt for a skill like Diana’s unlimited key-stealing.

team recruiting screen showing a candidate in a blazer, tie, and smoked glasses
I’m not sure what kind of stories run in an ‘evidenced-based MMA blog,’ but permanent death is nothing to worry about if you play carefully.
Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft via Polygon.

Later on, when I picked up a drone specialist, Heidi Bull, I played very, very carefully, mindful of what had happened with Diana. Heidi has the skill that lets her turn any drone against its handlers. For the team as a whole, you get that capability on a drone-by-drone basis, and as the last rank of a fully upgraded perk. Heidi was so dependable, and such an homage to Diana, it was appropriate that she was the operative in the larger story’s pivotal moments.

As helpful as the skills are, I never got the sense that there were certain levels or encounters that could only be solved with one of them. Ubisoft Toronto generously balances the game to the point where your starting, one-perk character could — with enough of the upgraded skills and weapons available to everyone — take on every assignment. While this encourages a lot of experimentation and exploration, the two lower difficulties are so forgiving that certain skills can become overpowered. The spider-bot is a great example; on easy and standard difficulty, I could sneak up on anyone and take them down with a nasty facehugger attack; only on levels where my hacker had to physically interact with a device did she leave the remote control interface. Harder difficulties don’t really make the guards search more diligently, but they notice their immediate area a lot more.

Similarly, the more I played Watch Dogs: Legion, the more I noticed, appreciated, and immersed myself in my surroundings. London looks great, but its sense of place is supported by more than just visuals. I saw a bystander jape at a transient person outside a Tube stop, and later found him getting shoved around by a security guard. Ordinarily, I’d help such a person out (with the game’s disappointingly easy melee system, as prone to counterattack abuse as Assassin’s Creed used to be). But this time I had more important things to do.

And Watch Dogs: Legion gives you just enough without dragging it into the most dreaded swamp of open-world games: repetition. A lot of this is helped by the fact that you can do the same tasks with different operatives (acquiring the tech points to upgrade a skill set, for example). But the most necessary tasks — liberating the boroughs, recruiting highly skilled operatives, and doing the capstone missions for both — have enough narrative involvement to keep them from being boring. And the rote parts (collecting lore text and audio) are purely optional.

Mostly, I am impressed at how Ubisoft Toronto got me to care about people more than skills, even in a game set up to prioritize the latter. Like a card trick, I’m left with the sense that the developers coaxed me to pick the person the game needed to complete this particular chapter of the story, while making it seem like it was my call all the way. For interactive entertainment, that’s outstanding storytelling, and it supports gameplay that has rewarded my own risk-taking and creativity with the urge to play it all again, with an entirely new cast.

Watch Dogs: Legion launches released Oct. 29 on Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. Versions for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and Series S will follow later. The game was reviewed on Xbox One using a download code provided by Ubisoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.