When I first started playing Watch Dogs: Legion, the game gave me the opportunity to pick who I wanted to help to rebuild DedSec, this universe’s inexplicably large and suspiciously benevolent hacker collective. Naturally, I selected a wet noodle of a human being named Gavin or Steve, who’s defining characteristics were that he had failed his motorcycle license test, and that he spoke like he was always five seconds away from a well-actually. He really sucked; like, as a person, he was a lousy example. This set the tone for everything that came after in that particular adventure, given that he was doing the recruitment. I found a middle-aged man with irritable bowel syndrome, a street hypnotist who couldn’t stop flirting with everyone, an esports champion. These were not the best and brightest London had to offer, but it was the best Steve (or Dave, or Mike) could do on short notice.
All of this was very funny and ridiculous, but the problem is that Legion isn’t trying to be funny. It’s not a comedy, and the story is arguably the furthest from comedy you could imagine, what with all the fascism, murder, corporate overreach, fascism and government corruption. So there’s a bit of a disconnect between what the game does, and what it is; what tools the player has at their disposal does not fit with what they are asked to immerse themselves in.
What’s worse is that the emergent comedy of Watch Dogs Legion is—despite being very secondary—what the game is best at. It is genuinely and unexpectedly hilarious that the game’s procedural algorithms decided to give Dave his own personal motorcycle, but also make it canon that he failed his license test, as if he so disagreed with the test result that he went and bought a fancy racing bike out of spite. It’s very funny to watch a man in a purple dinner jacket take time out from saving London from the oppressive jackboot of fascism to earn a few extra crypto-dollars playing his trumpet on a street corner. In comparison, it is aggressively uninteresting to break into a gang base to steal files for some reason, again. There is nothing at all exciting about making sure the bad guys can’t do that horrible thing they want to do with technology, or guns, or whatever else. Legion’s systems are bristling with the potential for comedy and emergent gameplay, but its story and world are less interesting than a Netflix Original Film.
They also clash, badly. Despite the well-meaning intention by the narrative to create an evolving cast of ordinary people who rise up to save the city from evil, the goofy characters are often at complete odds with the story being told. Marceline the construction worker who likes gambling should not be thrust into the centre of a human trafficking conspiracy, where organs are being cut out of the corpses of immigrants. She’s going to lose her goddamn mind. She’ll have nightmares forever, and be unable to relate to her friends and family due to the darkness she witnessed and the lives she took. You can’t just focus on how fun it is to have a remote-controlled spider robot and electric knuckles when a scientist is threatening to upload humanity into the cloud, or the government is putting people in prison camps. Legion jumps the shark twenty times an hour, flipping madly between deadly serious fate-of-the-world business and the frankly nonsense people who are supposed to fix it.
Despite the narrative intentions, Watch Dogs Legion wants to be an ensemble comedy; and it would be better for the change. Exceedingly boring main characters like The Woman Who Gives You Missions, The Deeply Annoying Computer Voice, Angry Fascist Man and Powerful Hard Lady Who Runs a Gang want your attention, but never really do anything to demand or deserve it. Every story mission feels like an interruption, and they’re all painfully rote open-world busywork.
Imagine what this game might look like as a real comedy, for a moment. Currently you can do all sorts of tiny, silly things to disrupt the fascist society around you. Distract police officers* who are interrogating innocent citizens and watch the citizen beat the hell out of them; use hacking powers to control army vehicles and cause havoc; steal from authoritarian jerks and then make them look stupid chasing after a housewife in a pig mask. These should be the core of the experience, rather than side activities. When you have systems as potentially interesting as Legion, the narrative should be about those systems. As it is, the story feels like a corpse at the centre of this dynamic world.
I’m not saying you can only tell a happy, fun tale filled with rainbows and robot butterflies, the meal just needs to match the ingredients. Part of the reason a guy whose farts alert the enemies to his position is such good comedy is the contrast between the seriousness of the situation and the ridiculousness of the outcome. But wow, it does not have to be so unrelentingly edgy and dark. If the Ubisoft writers need some assistance, kid’s animated shows are practiced experts when it comes to pairing light, fun times with serious topics. An episode of Justice League Unlimited or She-Ra is undeniably skewed toward a young audience, but they also manage to balance the talking horses with references to war crimes—without ever resorting to literally showing a surgeon about to cut out someone’s heart.
It’s frustrating, because Legion is very clearly a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be, hamstrung by what it thinks the market wants. The narrative is about the evils of absolute power, but it creates a third-party villain and mostly absolves the real government of responsibility. Unchecked technology is supposed to be a villain, but your partner is a perfect AI who gives you infinite access to autonomous robots. For every serious moment there are a hundred ragdolls flying comically from bikes or characters wearing hot pants and skull masks. Ubisoft wants to tell a story about fascism that mirrors the current rise of similar movements in various countries, but it also wanted to advertise that story by showing everyone how hilarious it would be to see an old lady do a stealth takedown. Discussing anything about Legion feels complicated and difficult precisely because it cannot pick a damn lane; every part of it is messy, it’s difficult to see what the purpose of one idea could be without catching a dozen other ideas in your peripheral vision.
All of these problems could have been solved by making it a proper comedy. Giving it a real focus. Lightening up the tone would have given the game more freedom to tackle more serious issues without the cognitive dissonance that infests the experience now. It would have strengthened the concept of a group of ragtag nobodies attempting to overthrow the government, because they genuinely would have come across like underdog weirdos instead of superheroes with the equivalent financial backing of a hundred James Bonds. Being less beholden to the false idea of realism and more free to build a world that suited a tone—any tone—would have given the universe a direction, context, the space to use subtext instead of painfully blatant text all the time. And it would have been truly funny, instead of a very boring, ordinary story punctuated by farts.
*Yes, I’m going to refer to the Albion troops as “police” even though Ubisoft is too cowardly to have the police be the bad guys.