E3 2019: Watch Dogs Legion's 'recruit anyone' gameplay required immense technology investment

Playing as any character in the world is an ambitious approach to storytelling that works well in practice based on an E3 2019 hands-on demo.

When the product listing for Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs Legion leaked via a retail page, it seemed too far-fetched. Not only did the “post-Brexit London” bit hint at a distinctly political slant (something Ubisoft has wanted nothing to do with), but the blurb promised that we could play as anyone. Surely that couldn’t be right. How do you tell a story, when there’s no core protagonist? What steps do you take to ensure that each person you can control isn’t just a carbon copy with a different skin? Does this create a situation where game tech supersedes game experience?

After about 30 minutes of hands-on, I can safely say that the technology does work, and it is compelling from a gameplay perspective. Ubisoft dropped me into the open world and allowed me to choose anyone in the entire playable area to tinker with.

I chose a woman who had, according to the game’s “profiler,” starred in three separate celebrity sex tapes. Players will have to win over recruitment targets by increasing their disposition towards DedSec, which has evolved from hacking cabal to full-fledged anti-fascist resistance group.

Reputation can be earned by directly helping someone via loyalty missions or engaging in support missions that aid someone with whom they are close. You can kill two birds with one stone by helping a recruitment target’s romantic partner or sibling or parent (who, in turn, can be recruited, if you so desire).

Source: Ubisoft
Source: Ubisoft

For the purposes of time, lead game designer Wesley Pincombe boosted my target’s reputation to max, opening up the recruitment mission. She had been captured on film assaulting someone, putting her under villainous private military company Albion’s thumb. My job was to sneak into New Scotland Yard and delete the footage.

Operatives can fit into one of three classes: hacker, infiltrator, and enforcer. My chosen DedSec operative for the mission was a hacker. Using a Spiderbot (that class’ unique skill), I was able to quietly poke around and get the lay of the land. More than 50% of the weapons in Watch Dogs Legion are nonlethal, and enemies won’t pull a gun unless you do first (or take out a significant number of police and PMC forces).

I was able to subdue enemies, steal an access code, erase the data from the server and get out. This allowed me to recruit my target, and assign her a class. I opted to make her an infiltrator, enabling her to cloak herself and any knocked out or dead bodies she left in her wake. Every London citizen in Watch Dogs Legion has a mandatory augmented reality device installed, so the cloak doesn’t actually make you or the bodies invisible. It just jams everyone else’s AR unit.

You’ll want to recruit a number of operatives in each class, as the skill trees allow players to further customize. Additionally, each person is unique with a set of boosts and flaws that help set them apart from every other Londoner.

The gameplay is fluid and the profiling and recruitment system seems like it will have legs over the game’s five storylines and sixty-plus missions. But a short demo doesn’t give a feel for how those narrative arcs will progress.

Creative director Clint Hocking promises that players will build connections with their unique DedSec agents. The way he discussed this with GameDaily is reminiscent of how XCOM players build out and become attached to their soldiers.

Source: Ubisoft
Source: Ubisoft

“We very much think of our story as being an ensemble,” Hocking said. “Just because there's no main character doesn't mean there aren't a bunch of characters you're really invested in. In this game you powerfully invest in your characters. You pick them yourself. You look into their lives. You help them with their problems. You do their origin mission, which is personal to them. You recruit them into your team, and then you have the mechanical investment, like progression. We do have five main storylines. They do progress just like in any one of our other games' main quest lines.”

There’s a permadeath option in Watch Dogs Legion that raises the stakes, though how this will actually be used by players isn’t quite clear yet. If your health bar empties, you’ll be down-but-not-out. At that point, you can either surrender (and get arrested) or get back up. If you choose to stand up, you’ll get a little bit of health back. If you lose that, your agent is gone for good.

Hocking says that players might choose to get back up if the objective is close enough that they think they can make it. He also suggests that this creates more dramatic moments. If operatives are arrested, they will be released after a long period of time. You can also bust them out. If they’re free but injured, they’ll be unavailable for a bit.

“Sometimes, even in my own build, I've got my three infiltrators that I like with different builds,” Hocking explained. “Then I've got this other infiltrator that I brought onto the team and he's my backup guy. One of my guy's arrested. Another is wounded. So I'll take backup guy. Maybe things won't go so well for backup guy. Sometimes you get into a hairy situation and you go down and the objective is right there, and you might decide to chance it. Sometimes that leads to the most exciting moments.”

In the stage demo at the Ubisoft E3 press conference, we saw the permadeath option in effect. The impact of that rippled out through the demo, with the final scene referencing the character’s death. That mission is in the game, but the stage demo version was augmented in a way that doesn’t quite represent what will be in the final game.

“In the stage demo, we had to add some more narrative coherence just because people hadn't seen this before and they don't know what's going on or that you can recruit people from the open world,” Hocking told GameDaily. “We had to put a bit more structure in there than is necessarily in a mission in the real game just so that people could understand what was happening. The player doesn't have the model of the game to understand it. That mission in the real game has another beat. We took that beat out to keep it short. There's more to it than that, but that mission is in the game. More than that, it can have any character in it and happen in different places in the world, so it's quite robust.”

Watch Dogs Legion is a narratively ambitious game that required Ubisoft to once again allow its teams to build out new, bespoke tools. The game is built on the Disrupt engine created for the original Watch Dogs and used again in Watch Dogs 2. (Ubisoft has other engines in play, like The Division’s Snowdrop and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s AnvilNext.)

In addition, Hocking’s team had to create a new set of tools to handle Watch Dogs Legion’s play-as-anyone hook.

“Any time with innovation, there's not just a lot of core technology that's being built, but also a lot of tools that go with it,” Hocking explained. “The core of the game and how characters are generated is called Census. That's the engine that generates the people and makes them coherent and consistent, but then there are a lot of tools for level designers, tools for animators, tools for narrative designers to get their content in there. It's a ton of tech development and a ton of tools development in support of that to be able to get this thing to come together.”

At first look, Watch Dogs Legion is an ambitious project that was satisfying to play in short-form at E3. Hocking and his team have a monumental challenge ahead in creating a compelling story that complements the gameplay innovation. Ubisoft’s London sandbox is a lot of fun to visit. We won’t know until we have an extended experience with the game whether it’ll be a place we want to live.

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Michael Futter is the author of The GameDev Business Handbook, a guide for creating and sustaining an independent video game studio, and The GameDev Budgeting Handbook. He is also the former news editor of Game Informer and has written about business and legal issues and video game industry trends for eight years.

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