Watch Dogs Legion Online Hands-On Preview: London Hosts the Hacking Olympics
It's the current trend of games planning to offer both a deep single-player campaign and a robust online suite of modes to give players only the former at launch. The idea is to get the game out the door, take in feedback, and work on making the eventual online launch even better.
Robust worlds like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption have been revealed with such staggered schedules, and though 343 says it's not true, a rumor once suggested Halo Infinite would launch without multiplayer at first too.
The move has so far seemed to be a smart one. Players tend to forgive delays more easily than buggy launches, especially if the results are fun and exciting. For that reason, Watch Dogs: Legion Online will likely be forgiven for arriving five months after the solo story mode. Time will tell whether the game mode can be the hacker timesink Ubisoft has envisioned, but the source code proves intriguing.
Right away, it's evident Watch Dogs: Legion Online takes many cues from Grand Theft Auto Online. Like GTAO during its launch in 2013, Legion Online (or henceforth WDLO)'s range of things to do is wide enough but merely feels like the foundation for something grander in the months and years ahead.
Players can choose from activities such as instant co-op missions that matchmake them into lobbies with up to three others for one-off jobs and special assignments. They can also jump into the Spiderbot Arena or, in the suite's centerpiece, take on lengthy, multi-part (and often grueling) Tactical Ops.
Of course, sometimes the best part of all of this is just running around the sandbox of dystopian London, causing cars to veer off the road into Albion checkpoints. Admittedly, my team of four games journalists bookended our hours-long session just this way and had a blast in the process.
In the in-between, we were given a tour of the game's more structured attractions. While the co-op missions were fun, they didn't shatter my expectations heading into the event. Each mission felt almost procedurally generated. Go to this spot, hack/steal/kill a number of machines/cars/bad guys, and exfiltrate alive. It's a rote formula, though like our freeform open-world antics, the missions do benefit from the universal truth that nearly everything is better in co-op.
Conversely, Spiderbot Arena feels like it will be WDLO's most overlooked mode, and for good reason. It's fun in short bursts and controls really well, but in my experience, Legion has too many spiderbot sequences already, so I wasn't looking for any more chances to take control of the arachnid automatons.
If you're trying to command players' attention en masse, you'll need to do better than some familiar co-op missions and an arena shooter afterthought. It's a high bar in such a crowded field, where every multiplayer game is crafted to capture dozens of your gaming hours every week.
Delightfully, Tactical Ops mode clears that high bar. If the full game is so clearly inspired by GTA Online, Tactical Ops mode can be considered the game's "heists." These multi-part, potentially hours-long co-op missions creatively use the game's systems in ways that are unique to the online mode, meaning even players who loved the story but might be uninspired to play with others should give it a try.
Often Tac Ops missions split your party, two and two. This is interesting because as you break into pairs, you'll still all be sharing the same voice channel working on separate objectives but needing to coordinate, and maybe even synchronize, with your immediate partner as well as the whole group. It's the ultimate teamwork mode, and for that reason playing with friends looks to be a blast and one of the things I'm most looking forward to doing when the mode launches in a few weeks.
Having said that, nothing makes fast friends as well as life-or-death co-op missions, and as our hands-on time with Tac Ops came close to the end of our day of play, my teammates and I quickly developed a workable, enjoyable camaraderie that enabled Tac Ops to go over not just successfully, but often hilariously.
At one point, we sought desperate refuge in a pub while killer super-drones patrolled just outside the windows we dared not peek out of, like a reimagined Shaun of the Dead where robots took over instead of zombies.
Some of Watch Dogs: Legion's most fascinating elements have been imported into Legion Online, such as the play-as-anyone directive. Like in the campaign, you can recruit whomever you'd like, and every anti-hero hacker brings their own skills, personality, and tools for the job. But unlike in the story mode, these recruitments cost you Tech Points, which were previously only used for upgrades like better guns and new gadgets.
This means you'll have to choose between upgrades for your characters and new characters entirely. More impressive recruits mean a higher price but don't worry, they aren't on sale as far as I saw. Permadeath is still in play too, though since it's co-op, you'll now have a revive window to be saved, or maybe do the saving yourself. This makes your team cohesion all the more vital, as allies running off on their own may only have themselves to blame when their star Operative is down and out for good.
Each mission of Tactical Ops takes anywhere from 20-60 minutes, and there were five parts in the Tac Ops mission I got to play.
We ended up dying several times on the final boss, which was both a rewarding challenge but also a bit of a questionable chore as it was a near rehash of the solo story's endgame. This is just one of many planned Tactical Ops missions, however, and I get the sense they will come more commonly than the GTAO heists.
The conundrum of live-service games today is that each one of them is built to be your live-service game. No one has time to fully invest in maybe more than two or three at the absolute most, so each one needs to prove it can sustain your interest in the long haul. Watch Dogs Legion Online looks to launch with a gamut of modes and attractions to try and capture the hearts of ample hackers.
Daily, weekly, and event challenges, a cosmetic rewards train a la the ubiquitous "Battle Pass," and enough blips on your map to ensure you're always catching up with what's available today collectively means WDLO is built to commandeer your free time.
Some of what will determine the success of that mission wasn't visible during my time but will be shortly after launch; things like how fast players can level up the Season Pass, how much XP players get for missions big and small, and what kind of rewards players can expect for just goofing around will all determine whether Legion builds a legion of online fans or London is left a ghost town.
The prospect of revisiting Ded Sec's London with friends and co-op partners is itself alluring, though to really keep players for the foreseeable future, Ubisoft will need to supplement Tactical Ops with more engaging content.
In 2021, every game with a big budget offers impressive quantities, but they don't all give players the quality experience worth hundreds of hours. Tactical Ops does, and its open-world is an even better sandbox with friends along for the ride, but some of the other parts of Watch Dogs: Legion Online don't capture the imagination as well, at least not yet. But that's the beauty of a live-service game. In time, the entire city can be the hacker's paradise everyone — players and creators — wants it to be.
Watch Dogs Legion Online launches across all its available platforms on March 9 as a free update for all players who already own the game. If you've yet to jump into Watch Dogs: Legion, consider checking out our review.