There is no main character in the new Watch Dogs, no “guy on the box” in this adventure set in post-Brexit London, the game’s creative director, Clint Hocking, said during a behind-closed-doors demonstration of the bold game this past Sunday.
Instead of featuring a main character, Watch Dogs Legion enables players to recruit and control any of the thousands of characters who populate its world. Players can amass a team of up to 20 playable hacker operatives, each with their own perks, drawbacks, and potentially one of over a dozen types of personalities. They’re starring in a big-budget Ubisoft game that, Hocking asserts, has a message.
The game, which is slated for March 6, 2020, is being shown to the press and public for the first time at E3 in Los Angeles this week. I saw it a couple of days ago, played it briefly, and talked about it with Hocking. Legion is as conceptually bold as you might expect from a Ubisoft development team led by the creative director behind 2008’s transgressive Far Cry 2. Finally, we’ve got a game in which we can recruit an old lady and play her as an assassin or turn an enemy soldier into an ally or really just grab anyone and make them the star of the game.
During a presentation of the game Sunday, Hocking said Watch Dogs Legion is meant to be true to the Watch Dogs series—third-person open-world games about combat, climbing, and hacking—but also be more than that. He promised “a game that would also challenge players’ expectations and surprise them with mind-blowing innovation that changes the way they think about people in the world and in the simulation.” He added that the near-future London-based game would give players “a real powerful fantasy that’s resonant with things going on in the world today and would make them think about the world that we live in.”
Here’s the setup of the game, which assumes that Great Britain left the European Union in March 29 of this year, as originally planned: “In our near future, London is facing her downfall,” Hocking said. “It’s a time of massive social crisis. The accelerating rise of automation and AI are leaving millions of people unemployed. It’s not just blue-collar workers losing their jobs to robots and factories. AI in our world is now better than any human at filing a tax return, writing a legal brief, or diagnosing an illness. The white collar is being wiped out as well, and the economy is being devastated. Millions are unemployed, the economy is collapsing, the government is losing power. Cryptocurrencies have overtaken the pound. Organized crime is taking over the city. People are being taken from their homes, pressed into deportation centers, people who speak up sometimes get investigated, maybe disappeared.”
Amidst this backdrop, players recruit and control members of the hacker collective DedSec, who seek justice for ordinary people by fighting the various enemy factions trying to rise to power in London. In a playable demo, I took control of a character who herself was ostensibly plucked into prominence by the player, and then I used her to scan people in a bar, looking for a suitable recruit.
Using an in-game profiling tool that displays biographical details about a person when you look at them and tap a button, I pondered the potential of one Lisa Tennyson. The game showed me that she was a 28-year-old animator who, if controlled, would offer 25% more felony recovery speed for DedSec. Or there was professional babysitter Sid Wells, who was “about to head to Parliament Square Gardens to protest” and would offer 50% more Non-Lethal Damage but also 40% Longer Arrest Times.
I spotted a woman named Patricia Rathbone and didn’t think much of her bio, but then I tried her boyfriend, Caleb Smith, who got “superhuman strength in panic” and would offer 60% more damage at low health, offset by 20% less health overall. He’d do, I decided, and I saved Smith’s profile to a dossier of characters the player tracks in the game. Once I did that, I saw more info about him: He was suspicious of DedSec, liked to collect vintage comics, was in London on an expired work visa, had “searched for: ‘masgouf london,’” which would be a reference to Iraqi cuisine. I was given the option to try to recruit him and accepted a mission to do so .
Legion’s London is a dystopia of tech and surveillance run amuck. Its skies are filled with drones, its city filled with cameras. Smith was being blackmailed by an enemy intelligence group called Albion who had also taken over Scotland Yard. I left the bar and stole a driverless car, then drove it—on the left side of the road (took me a minute)—to Scotland Yard. I stood my character outside, hacked a nearby landing pad to summon a drone, and used it survey the exterior of the building. As in earlier Watch Dogs games, I was able to take control of security cameras, hop from one to the next, hack enemy guards to download digital keys, and also trigger distractions. I could do all of this while my character stood outside. I was also able to toss a spider-bot into action and have it crawl into Scotland Yard to create a diversion. Eventually, I made my character run inside, sneak past guards, delete the blackmail info, and get back outside. Once I did, Smith was recruited, and I was able to take control of him to further one of the game’s main missions.
Players can recruit up to 20 characters for their hacker crew. Each is classified as one of three types—combat-focused enforcers, stealthy infiltrators, and hackers—and each has their own skill tree. They will exhibit one of over a dozen personalities, explained developer Kent Hudson, who hung out with me while I played the game. The personalities dictate the flavor of the dialogue in the game’s cutscenes and vary in style, depending on if a given recruited character is funny, gruff, or something else. These recruits are the ostensible main characters of the game, meaning players are likely to have very different rosters. There is no “guy on the box who is the star of everyone’s game and stars in all the cutscenes,” Hocking said before I played. “The characters that you choose to recruit from the world and make your characters—they are the stars of your cutscenes.”
A lot of the moment-to-moment action in the Legion demo was familiar to the franchise. I could sneak, and I could fight. I could use parkour to climb over walls, and I could hack cars to make them drive off the road. Hudson showed me a stealth character’s camouflage mode, which makes them harder for enemies to spot. He also told me of better skills some characters might be able to obtain, including one that an ally might offer that could disable nearby drones and make them drop from the sky. (Hocking noted that half of the weapons in the game are non-lethal.)
At one point while Hudson and I were controlling Smith, using a special rush attack to pounce on guards, we became outnumbered. Smith didn’t immediately die. Characters face the risk of permadeath, but players can surrender and let them be jailed. If jailed, Hudson explained, the character would be inaccessible for a period of time, though players could hack the enemy’s systems to get them an early release. Players could also try to find a lawyer in the game world, he said, and the lawyer might have the ability to automatically prevent a character from being jailed.
Hocking and Hudson said that every character in Legion’s London operates on their own schedule, walking through a routine of activities that players can observe or interfere with. This is an idea that’s been around at least since the Fable games and as recently as another Ubisoft game, Assassin’s Creed Origins, but hasn’t tended to add much to the player experience. After all, who wants to stop running a game’s missions just to follow some non-player civilians? The latter is only interesting if the characters are up to interesting things. Are they intriguing in this one? Maybe. Hocking told me that the simulation for the game’s civilians is so elaborate that a player could kill a non-player character’s spouse and that that NPC would start visiting the cemetery to mourn and then would eventually date again.
Mechanically, what Watch Dogs Legion offers looks like a good mix of the series’ hacking and fighting and platform-jumping mixed intriguingly with a city full of recruitable people.
Thematically, it’s also risky, as it seems to lean into its political themes a little more than the average big-budget game. It’s not quite Brexit: The Game, but it is clearly Economic Anxiety: The Game, including some of the anti-immigrant sentiment often hiding behind those sentiments. Hocking described Brexit as an event that’s in the game’s past, fading in people’s memory. “The way I’ve said it before is it’s kind of like the butterfly ballots and George Bush or whatever,” he said, referring to the controversial U.S. election in the year 2000. “For people in our game world, Brexit is ancient history. It’s so far in the past that it’s about the problems in the world that are bigger than Brexit. Brexit is not the cause of the problems in our game. The causes of Brexit are the cause of the problems in our game. The world is going ‘boom’ and we’re here to bring it back together.”
Hocking is aware that some of his Ubisoft colleagues are not interested in saying that their games have a message. “For us, we absolutely have something to say,” Hocking said. “And we look at the things that are going on in the world and we try to capture those in our speculative fiction.”
And what do they have to say? “Our game is about people putting aside their differences and coming together against the forces that would divide us,” Hocking explained. “I think the world is getting more and more divided, and this is a message of hope and a celebration of the courage and determination of Londoners who stood up to the Great Fire, the Black Plague, and the Blitz.” It’s not quite a radical thing to say, but it’s hard to judge the execution without experiencing the game’s full setting and story.
A game that lets players inhabit anyone in London has at least the potential to model things like differing political viewpoints, different belief systems or, as 2016’s Mafia III explored, how it feels to be someone who, say, faces discrimination because of race. The simulation only runs so deep. He said that every character in the game has a nationality, age, and citizenship, though that info will not always be explicitly stated in their bio.
“We haven’t authored explicit differences except in the systemic sense,” Hocking said, when I asked if the game factors in the color of your character’s skin to how people around them react. There is, he noted, a lot in the game about immigration. There is a deportation center that was set up to transfer people out of Britain to the EU but fell into disrepair and became a slum. “We model the simulation of the population, so that people in a certain neighborhood or people who, for example, are generated in the pre-processing center will be scheduled to have their lives in the pre-processing center. They won’t be British citizens. They’ll be foreign citizens. That’s why they’re there. We do simulate that in the broader context.”
As with any game preview, a lot of this is wait-and-see. Legion’s freedom to recruit any character demoed well in the corner of the map available in the game’s London, but only a multi-hour session with it can reveal if the replacement of a main character with procedural recruits is a net positive. Without playing much of the game’s five threaded storylines, it’s also hard to tell how skillfully the developers will tell London’s story. Hocking’s pedigree, despite his decade-long gap from shipping a game, earns him some benefit of the doubt.
In the E3 demo, there was a tantalizing hint at how novel Legion’s systems can be. As Hudson wandered the city as Caleb Smith, he spotted a loan shark named Lionel Horne who sported this odd biographical detail: “has disease named after them.” Even more interesting were his special traits. Recruiting him would give allow players to control a guy who does 100% more damage. Great, right? There was just the issue of his other major trait: “may die randomly.” How’s that as a potential member of a game’s cast? A guy who might keel over at any moment. I’d add him to the team.