In fiction, compelling, well-written characters can often excuse an otherwise lackluster plot, but the opposite is seldom true. Shocking double crosses, unexpected cliffhangers, and over-the-top action set pieces mean borderline nothing if your characters are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. In short, your audience needs a reason to care about what is transpiring, and it’s difficult to care if your protagonist is a boring wet blanket. So when Ubisoft announced that the latest game in the Watch Dogs franchise plans to allow players to control any character in the game, I was both intrigued and concerned.
For those who might have missed it, the Ubisoft 2019 E3 press conference was a jam-packed affair. The “Assassin’s Creed Symphony Orchestra” (deep sigh) took to the stage to perform a medley of some of the best Assassin’s Creed songs that no one actually remembers, the marching band panda made an appearance during the annual Just Dance pop song mash-up, and Jon Bernthal’s dog showed up to tell us all about the newest Ghost Recon game. Despite this hectic schedule, however, the company did manage to squeeze in just enough time to treat audiences to an extended first look at Watch Dogs: Legion. Set to release in March, 2020 with no underscore in sight, this third installment seemingly strives to shake things up dramatically for the open world hacking series.
In Watch Dogs: Legion, you can play as anyone and everyone. From badass, leather jacket-clad melee combat specialists to arguably even more badass elderly women, players are free to recruit whomever they choose in-game to “JOIN THE RESISTANCE” (which definitely isn’t a political thing). As it’s been told, every Londoner has their own unique schedule, and that schedule can even be manipulated and exploited by the player. Furthermore, slight variations on character models and a voice modulator capable of detecting when it should go into effect keep things from getting too… samey, meaning even players who choose to amass a small army of covert grannies shouldn’t be met with exact 1:1 copies. The game even boasts a permadeath system to boot, ensuring that players will have to track down new potential DeadSec recruits as others fall victim in the name of computer hackery. All told, Watch Dogs: Legion is shaping up to be an open world game devoid of NPC’s. Technologically, it’s all incredibly ambitious and has me looking forward to seeing it all in action. Narratively, though, it’s a bit… concerning.
In a game where you can play as anyone and everyone, how interesting can any one specific character truly be? On this exact website, I once wrote a piece about procedurally generated levels in games. In summation, procedurally generated levels obviously have their place in the gaming sphere, but I personally prefer well-crafted, deliberately-designed environments because the latter allows for far greater detail. Equating this to characterization, I’m inclined to believe that the characters you recruit in Watch Dogs: Legion will be loose archetypes at best, with little quirks thrown in here or there. In short, that badass, leather jacket-clad melee combat specialist will be just that: “badass.” Maybe she also likes cats or something, despite being allergic to them. I mean, let’s be honest, the Watch Dogs games have never been shy about including little character tidbits here and there as you surveyed civilians out in the open world, so why not build your ambitious approach to playable characters around that idea? And again, it is ambitious. That said, a character who “is looking for anal cream” works far better as a fun goof once than as a protagonist.
Originally released back in October of last year, Red Dead Redemption 2 was a much more… divisive game than many expected it to be. Complaints about the game’s overindulgent pacing and repetitive gameplay were at the forefront of many arguments. Inevitably, I myself began to grow impatient with the game, despite loving its predecessor. Nevertheless, I kept trucking on until I finally saw credits. Mind you, I did this not because I was craving an additional 45 hours of moderately interesting shootouts, nor because I just love riding on the back of a horse for 8 minutes before I can even start said shootout, but because I genuinely grew attached to protagonist Arthur Morgan and the rest of the Dutch van der Linde gang and wanted to see what the game’s story ultimately held for them. Despite borderline losing all interest in actually playing Red Dead Redemption 2, the rich characters and deep storytelling kept me going. So in a game where deeper characters are seemingly absent, and in a world where so many other open world games are coming out all the time, I find myself worried that I’ll ultimately drop Watch Dogs: Legion, should playing it start to become a chore.
Storytelling already often takes a backseat in many modern open world games that aren’t specifically looking to be grand, 100+ hour RPG’s, and it’s no secret that plenty of open world games nowadays feel like glorified checklists at best. When these “checklists” ultimately take their toll on me, though, and when the actual story is perhaps less enthralling than I would like, I can still find solace in a good cast of characters. Heck, Assassin’s Creed games have borderline been made or broken by their protagonist in the past, evidenced by three Ezio-led entries. Sure, I might still be doing the same thing where I climb towers to reveal nearby points of interest in Assassin’s Creed: Origins, but Bayek seems like a cool dude who I’d love to get a drink with. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like grabbing a drink with a stealthy covert granny, I just don’t think there’d be anything to talk about.