Then along comes a game like Watch Dogs: Legion, which aims to blow up that dichotomy with a simple question: what if practically every non-player character could become a protagonist?
The results of Ubisoft's ambitious attempt are a little sloppy at points, and it doesn't fix the open-world genre's problems with repetitive quests. Still, Watch Dogs: Legion earns points for weaving together a coherent open-world game where no one is the protagonist and everyone is the protagonist at the same time.
Legion takes players to a version of London that has been utterly transformed in the well-established techno-dystopian near-future of the Watch Dogs universe. Things start off with a literal bang when a terrorist hacker collective known as Zero Day sets off a series of massive explosions around the city. Dedsec, the "good guy" hackers from previous Watch Dogs titles, gets framed for the attacks, leading the city to grant sweeping police state powers to mercenary mega-firm Albion in the name of "security."
Dedsec's membership is quickly decimated by deportations and killings under this new regime. As one of the last remaining members, it's up to the player to recruit new members to Dedsec and fight back against Zero Day, Albion, and other tangential criminal and government groups in their orbit.
That recruitment process, as presented in Legion, requires the player to suspend more than a little bit of disbelief. You can go up to literally any random person in the game, push a button, and start a completely unprompted conversation about potentially violent overthrow of the system.
Almost without fail, that person will be instantly on board with joining Dedsec's shadowy, distributed hacker collective. Only, could you help them out with a quick problem (read: side quest) first? Forget about the hard sell, in the London of Watch Dog: Legion, everyone seems just inches away from joining the resistance in exchange for a simple favor.
You also have to accept that the random assemblage of average citizens you recruit are ready to immediately become the master spies, hackers, and counter-mercenaries needed to take down this entrenched fascist system. Sure, there are some potential recruits whose backstories provide them access to special skills or high-octane firepoweruniformed officers, for instance, can walk around sensitive areas without being instantly noticed as out of place.
But even the most out-of-shape, underskilled schmoe on the street still has to have the basic ability to perform the stealthy infiltrations and complex hacks that form the basis of the game. Once again, you just have to suspend your disbelief more than a little bit to buy into the game's core concept.
Once you can accept that premise, though, this conceit creates a veritable explosion in the diversity of character choices in the game. My Dedsec cell looks like a true melting pot of London society in terms of race, gender, and even class. Forming a team where a college professor and chess champion can fight for the same goals as a cockney-speaking construction worker (who takes out enemies with a giant lug wrench) feels refreshingly cosmopolitan, especially as one character gets immediately called in to help when the other fails.
These characters aren't just interchangeable ciphers, either. Each one has their own personality that comes through in the fully voiced lines they deliver during the game's many cut-scenes and mid-mission conversations. While the overall story plays out the same no matter who you're controlling, individual conversations can play out very differently depending on what character happens to be the current protagonist.
Unfortunately, the seams for this system do show through in many places. In conversational cut scenes, your character's model often falls into an uncanny valley of standing awkwardly and making semi-random facial expressions in response to their partner (oddly timed changes in camera angle don't help in these situations).
The intonations behind your character's lines often feel just a bit off, too, like they were cut and pasted from a set of generic responses rather than from an actor responding to a specific story beat. That's a shame, because the few named characters that can't be controlled by the player generally give pretty good and nuanced performancesthe foul-mouthed, joke-cracking AI assistant Bagley is a particular standout.
Still, it's a wonder that this system of interchangeable player characters works at all. Despite the warts, building your own ragtag group of resistance fighters from across society makes a strong statement about the power of collective action that would be hard to get across in another medium.
The plot of Watch Dogs: Legion plays out like a grab bag of tech-dystopian tropes drawing vague inspiration from today's tech headlines. Name an issue that a technology ethicist has written about, and it's probably represented in one of the lightly intertwined storylines here. Ubiquitous surveillance! Digital blackmail! Digitized brains! Unaccountable, autonomous drone murders! AIs taking all the jobs! Weaponization of the news media!
Most of these subjects require a light touch, and there are a few instances where it's used (most notably in some of the insurrectionist podcasts found hidden throughout the map). But Legion's plotting much more often falls on the blunt side of the seesaw.
Characters are constantly going off on expository rants about just how bad things are in a society where your every action is monitored by paramilitary groups without any effective oversight. "Fuck... this is a dystopian nightmare, right?" one character in my game said, putting perhaps too fine a point on it.
Occasionally, the game tries to make vague gestures toward moral ambiguity, attempting to give the antagonists some believable backstory or motivation for their overtly authoritarian impulses. In the end, though, they always devolve into scenery-chewing villains, making cartoonishly evil pronouncements and baldly power-hungry actions. Any feints toward the ethical quandaries of balancing security and convenience with privacy and independence are pushed aside for the moral clarity of the "honorable" freedom-loving hackers of Dedsec against a set of unsympathetic antagonists.
If you can get past the blunt plot motivations, though, there's some fun to be had in Watch Dogs: Legion's open world. This is a beautiful and detailed miniature recreation of London, thriving with life and full of interesting architecture to explore. One of the game's greatest joys is simply hijacking an (incredibly easy-to-steal) car and using the in-game GPS to drive to the next point of interest, taking in impromptu protests or creative government propaganda while listening to an excellent soundtrack ranging from classical music to modern British rap.
While the map quickly fills up with missions in true Ubisoft fashion, most boil down to the same thing: sneak into a secure facility, use your hacking abilities to avoid detection and/or take out the guards, then get to point X on your mini-map and use some magical hacking abilities to steal the next plot point.
These infiltration missions are hurt by some painfully bad AI. Enemy soldiers march dutifully back and forth in extremely simple patterns, often staring at random walls and waiting for you to sneak up and take them out. Other times they'll spot you and give chase for about five steps before giving up the search shortly after you duck behind a pillar (where you recover from gunshot wounds extremely quickly, robbing these scenes of much of their tension).
Armed guards will often inexplicably engage in some (extremely basic) hand-to-hand combat rather than pulling out a gun and shooting at you. Also inexplicably, they always seem too busy with this ersatz boxing match to call for backup or even yell for nearby help. And then there are the too-frequent situations where enemies just glitch out, getting stuck in structures or hovering inexplicably in mid-air without warning (Ubisoft says it has "a patch planned for November 9 that looks to fix a number of issues that some may have encountered").
As in previous Watch Dogs games, your phone still feels like an overly powerful magic wand. With the tap of a button, it lets you distract or disable guards, set up explosive traps from afar, or just surveil the room ahead through CCTV cameras. Once you've gathered enough "tech points" to hijack an anti-terrorism drone and use it against your opponents, you start to feel a little bad for the opposition.
Don't get me wrong, it's often fun to feel like a techno-wizard who can single-handedly take out a well-guarded facility with a few carefully crafted hacks. I particularly enjoyed sneaking up on enemies with a vent-crawling spider-bot, or descending on them hilariously from above in a hacked cargo drone. And there are enough mini-games and collectible fetch-quests to keep a determined player busy for quite a while.
Overall, though, the game starts to wear out its welcome well before you run out of things to do. There's only so many times you can sneak into yet another secure facility, take out the same stupid guards, and engage in the same basic hacking minigames before it begins to get a little tiresome. And despite the game's best attempts to dress up the missions with a variety of tech buzzwords and character motivations, the overly blunt story isn't really enough to drive the action after a while.
In the end, the London of Watch Dogs: Legion feels a mile wide but only a few feet deep. What promises to be endless variety in character choice and hack-driven gameplay options quickly boils down to the repetition of the same-old gameplay and plot tropes.
The Verdict: Try it.