I’m one of those people. You know, someone who thinks that weapon durability in The Legend Of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a good idea–I won’t be offended if you close your browser window right now. But the stress of having your best sword break in the middle of an important fight and having to frantically improvise is one of the things that makes BotW (and other games that employ similar mechanics) so great. The cool stuff that can happen when you’re on the back foot and forced to get crafty with the limitations placed on you by a well-designed system is an experience that makes video games feel special. Watch Dogs: Legion has elements of this, but only if you choose to engage with them. You should. Because after several hours playing Legion, I found that the game is at its best when it makes you contend with your character’s weaknesses.
If you’ve heard just one thing about Watch Dogs: Legion so far, it’s probably got something to do with playing as an elderly woman who is amusingly good at shooting people and performing lethal takedowns. In fact, you can play as anyone in the game, recruiting random NPCs off the street to be your protagonists. Everyone you pick up will come with their own set of unique skills that will surely help contribute to the efforts of resistance collective DedSec–punching harder, hacking faster, getting access to unique vehicles and weapons. But, in the case of certain people like the elderly, some of these traits can be detrimental–they can’t sprint or take cover, which means it’s going to be hard closing the distance to perform those amusing takedowns or escape certain death when you inevitably fail trying.
20 Minutes of Surprisingly Serious Gameplay – Watch Dogs: Legion
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In his hands-on time with this second preview, fellow GameSpot editor Michael Higham discovered that the story is a lot more intense than we thought it was going to be (see the above video to get the gist of what we mean). But on my part, I spent a lot more time diving into the play-as-anyone mechanic, trying to see how much variety was out there. And upon discovering numerous characters with negative traits, and initially wondering why they existed at all, I fell into a rabbit hole trying to put together the most flawed team possible to see how it changed the game.
Here’s the thing: Whoever you recruit in Legion–whether it be a punk hacker, a professional hitman, a nurse, or a livestreamer–they are also going to have the same basic skill set. They’ll be able to hack, be stealthy, use guns, drive vehicles, and fist-fight like most other characters. Each individual might have unique abilities that give them a bit of an advantage in a particular department, which enhances a certain playstyle you might have an affinity for, but that doesn’t stop you from doing the same thing with another character. For example, I love stealth and hand-to-hand combat, but even though being a gymnast might make my footsteps quieter, and being an MMA fighter might give my attacks more damage, I can still sneak and punch my way through Legion’s army of fascist antagonists just as well as a supermarket clerk or a pharmacist (seriously, don’t mess with essential workers).
The only exception to this, of course, is grandma. Elderly characters who have the “Low Mobility” trait can’t sprint, take cover, or dodge in hand-to-hand combat, which makes melee combat and stealth a significantly less viable option for those characters. No cover means that close- and mid-range gunfights are more dangerous too. Suppose you happen to recruit an elderly protagonist just for laughs. In that case, you’ll genuinely have to conform to a completely different way of playing the game if you want to use those characters at all–long-range gunplay and a focus on remote hacking techniques are probably your best bet.
I think this rules, and it makes the moment-to-moment of Legion a lot more engaging. There’s a tension that comes from knowing that you have to use your character in an optimal mode of operation as much as possible because you run the risk of getting yourself into a situation that you have no way of escaping–whether it be by accident or by a disastrous chain of events. For example, my grandma character accidentally ran down a citizen and got into an intense car chase, which ended in a crash and a Heat-style gunfight that she wasn’t able to easily sprint and parkour away from like the all-rounder characters might be able to do. It’s these kinds of moments that make the game memorable, the kinds of tales you want to tell other players.
As a concession, most of the characters I’ve seen with bad traits have a complementary positive trait that enhances what they can do well. One of my other low mobility characters could instantly summon a ridiculously-high-performance sports car to get around or make a quick getaway. Elsewhere in my ragtag group of misfits: A gastroenterologist with medical perks who farted constantly, forcing me to ‘go loud’ in every encounter; a glass cannon assassin who both dealt and received more damage; an interpreter who had exceptionally long cooldowns for hacking techniques but packed an excellent assault rifle for some reason.
When your characters’ health falls to zero, they’ll become incapacitated and unusable for a set period. However, among my recruits were a couple of all-star characters with great perk loadouts, both of whom came with a catch. One of them had a negative trait that said he might die permanently when killed. Another had a trait that said she would die spontaneously–as in, at random.
If you’re familiar with the work of Watch Dogs: Legions’ creative director, Clint Hocking, you might be unsurprised to hear about these ruinous twists to the game. After all, the last title he shipped was Far Cry 2 (all the way back in 2008!), which featured weapon degradation, gun jamming, and your character getting spontaneous and debilitating bouts of malaria. They were highly divisive mechanics to be sure, and the Far Cry series has played it a lot safer ever since. But Far Cry 2 still has a vocal cult following because of this fascinating (and in my eyes, excellent) approach.
Watch Dogs: Legion presents these X factors as an option–playing this dangerously isn’t for everyone, and you can easily avoid characters with negative traits altogether when recruiting people for your DedSec crew. But I’m really glad to see that Legion has these elements woven into its core mechanics and more than a hint of Far Cry 2 DNA in its blood. Having the risk of your best character dying can make for very tense and exciting games–ask anyone who plays XCOM on Ironman mode. And being forced to completely change your playstyle to work with the limitations of your character does a lot to make Legion’s infinite number of potential protagonists actually feel tangibly different. These compromised heroes make the population of Legion’s London a lot more interesting, at least in the first few hours. Hopefully that’s something that will continue throughout the whole experience, because god knows I’m a sucker for punishment.
Watch Dogs: Legion releases on October 29 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC. It will also be available November 10 for Xbox Series X/S, and November 12 for PlayStation 5. The game features free next-gen upgrades.