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Feature Article

E3 2019: The Tech Behind Watch Dogs Legion's Playable NPCs Is Pretty Incredible

Build an army to fight techno-fascists and other terrible people.

At the heart of Watch Dogs is the techno-surveillance state framework, extrapolated just slightly from a real world where the majority of us have internet-capable devices (and their cameras) surrounding us at all times, vacuuming up data about us we might not even know we're providing. The protagonists of Watch Dogs are always fighting that surveillance by using it against the conniving people who created and wield it. But in all entries of the game so far, you also have the ability to spy on people just like your enemies.

In Watch Dogs and Watch Dogs 2, that power was more of a funny way to enrich the game world than practically useful--the various people scattered throughout their cities felt a little more real if you could use your Profiler device to look at their bank histories or find out something embarrassing about them. In the newly announced Watch Dogs Legion, though, all that information you can see about random people is essential to how you play the game.

Ubisoft let journalists play about 45 minutes of the third Watch Dogs title at E3 2019, mostly showing off Legion's signature mechanic: you can recruit and play as any non-player character in the game, including enemies. There's no set protagonist or hero Watch Dogs Legion; instead, the people you find and convince to join your hacktavist group, DedSec, become the main characters.

All that spying you did on random people in other Watch Dogs games actually matters in Watch Dogs Legion--it's key to the recruitment system. Every person you find in the game has a set of traits and background information about them, as well as a job and a schedule they follow as they move around the city. When you snoop into their lives, you'll learn personality traits and abilities that might make them useful operatives, as well as what problems their facing and struggles they're dealing with. You can then help characters deal with their problems in order to gain their loyalty.

Your goal in helping out the NPCs you want to recruit is to sway their opinion of DedSec. The hacker group and its actions often get a bad rap, so some people consider you a terrorist threat, while others are more amiable to DedSec's ideas. Using your Profiler on people lets you learn how they feel about DedSec while also showing you what's going on in their lives, such as whether they're dealing gambling debts or have a relative in jail. If you can help fix those troubles, you can raise their opinion of you and your organization (and if you do things they don't like, they'll remember that, too). Get your recruits' opinion of DedSec high enough and you'll access a more involved origin mission, where you can do something that finally convinces the person to join your team.

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In our preview, we picked Jeremy, a guy at a bar with a pretty low opinion of DedSec, but a brawler's instincts. His intrinsic traits meant he did twice the damage in melee combat as normal characters, taking advantage of Legion's new melee combat system that can help you keep the shooting to a minimum while trying to use stealth. After raising his opinion of DedSec a bit, we discovered that this guy was helping police plant false evidence because they were blackmailing him; if we could destroy the evidence the police had against him, he'd be free to join up. That meant sneaking into the New Scotland Yard police station to reach a server and wipe the evidence.

Characters in Watch Dogs Legion come in three types: Enforcer, a combat-heavy class; Infiltrator, one that's better at stealth and melee fighting and can briefly turn invisible; and Hacker, which has more abilities to manipulate the various drones in London and which can dispatch a tiny spider bot to do the dirty work. Paula, the character available in the preview when I started, was a Hacker, so I dispatched her remote-controlled spider bot to slip into the police station undetected. After sneaking past a few cops using the usual Watch Dogs abilities of activating devices to make noise and cause distractions, the bot managed to download a key Paula could use to access the server.

All NPCs are effective player characters in the game, capable of using guns and hand-to-hand combat--apparently when you join DedSec, you get a crash course of special ops training. But your recruiting is based on the fact that some NPCs are more effective than others, particularly in certain roles. Paula was a useful Hacker thanks to her perks, but she was also an elderly woman, which meant she moved more slowly than other characters. Infiltrating the police station was a bit harrowing because it took Paula longer to get around, but before long, we escaped with the evidence.

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Building Your Own Cast Of Characters

That added Jeremy to our growing roster of operatives; you can recruit up to 20 in the game. Adding him to the team gave us the chance to pick a character class for him, and since he was skilled at wailing on people, we made him a stealth-focused Infiltrator. Legion's melee system is specifically built to give you combat capabilities that won't necessarily alert an entire building to your presence if you're found while sneaking around, and it's fairly robust, with dodges, combos, takedowns, and finishing moves at your disposal. Jeremy's perks made the class a good fit.

When you're not playing as the rest of your characters, they roam the world going about their lives, so you'll see them when you pull up your map of London. You can also switch between them freely, dropping control of one person (like Paula) and picking up control of the other person (like Jeremy) wherever they are.

Switching to Jeremy, we pushed forward on the demo's story mission, which concerned a rogue spy in what remained of the British government consolidating power to apparently do bad things with it. The story cutscene for the mission was what really drove home how impressive Watch Dogs Legion's approach really is. Since I was playing as Jeremy in the story mission, he was the one who appeared in the cutscene of a meeting with a DedSec informant, complete with his own voice lines. There wasn't some leader character or other protagonist who appeared suddenly to drive the story forward.

London is facing her downfall.

The main character of Watch Dogs Legion is whoever you want it to be, as the developers explained at the preview, and the game has the fidelity in its NPC system to make it feel like picking a character isn't just changing the appearance of a generic protagonist. Durings his presentation on Legion, director Clint Hocking showed the same cutscene with four different NPCs to highlight the fact that each one sported different animations and some slightly different lines. Effectively, every character you pick up in the game is, indeed, a character. And while it's impossible that Ubisoft has populated Legion with thousands of distinct people, each with their own animations and voice actors, the studio wouldn't say how many character templates there actually were--but in our playtime, all the characters we ran across were pretty distinct.

It really feels like the principles of Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system, which endeavored to procedurally generate personalities to make enemies more interesting, applied to player characters. At least in a brief preview, they all came off as pretty distinct, with their own traits, abilities, and voices. And since you can recruit everyone, you can also lose anyone, too. Lead narrative designer Kait Tremblay explained during the demo that characters can be captured by authorities or critically wounded during combat. Wounds can require hospital stays, taking a character out of commission for a set period of time.

Characters can also die permanently, Tremblay said, although it sounds as though this will generally only happen as a risk-reward proposition. If you're fighting and a character loses all their health, they'd normally go down for the count, resulting in hospitalization (or maybe capture) and the usual mission failure. Instead of restarting a whole mission with another character, though, you could choose to rally through the pain and keep fighting--but if your character loses all their health at that point, they're gone for good.

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A Story About Creating A Resistance

As Hocking said during the presentation, with Brexit looming in the real world, it's tough to predict what the future holds in London; in the fictional future Ubisoft is extrapolating, though, "London is facing her downfall." Lead producer Sean Crooks told GameSpot that Legion is about the idea of building a resistance to the authoritarian powers that have taken hold in the city, like Albion, a private military company the British government has hired to keep the peace in the city, but which has gone far in abusin that power. The focus of the story is on the group, more than a single person.

"I think ultimately it plays very well with what we want to do as a story," Crooks said. "The game has five storylines. Each of those storylines tackles a variety of topics, from AI and automation and their effect on society to oppression from a private military controlling the city, and obviously playing a resistance with that team is caught up in that. It's crucial. It's very important and critical to the story and the team."

One big question that remains is how well Legion will be able to tell those stories with a cast of characters literally plucked from anywhere. The big improvement of Watch Dogs 2 over its predecessor was the story it told and the development of the cast of characters it used to tell it. Legion seemingly sacrifices those gains for its NPC system. There are little touches, though, that help make characters seem more fleshed-out and real, like the distinct voices and animations for NPCs, and the fact that recruited characters you're not playing will chime in over the radio to comment on current missions. It seems like Legion relies on players to fill in character gaps through role-playing more than Watch Dogs 2 did, but the systems at play help keep Legion from feeling like you're switching through a catalogue of random, lifeless action figures.

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Our short snapshot of Legion showed more ways the game makes use of your characters to make the whole game more lifelike. In a later story mission, the spy DedSec was hunting lured us into a trap, setting off a bomb and framing DedSec for the carnage. As a result, Dana, another of our characters, was suddenly attacked and hunted by police. Jeremy and Paula chimed in over the radio as combat kicked off with Watch Dogs' usual cover shooter approach, further selling the idea that DedSec was a growing team of people who really did interact with each other. Another notification added a practical gameplay element to the situation; another of our DedSec crew had a character perk that reduced the number of police units chasing us. As Dana fled the scene, that perk activated automatically, implying that, while you're controlling a specific character on a story mission, the rest of your team are still out in the world trying to help you out.

From a technology and gameplay perspective, Watch Dogs Legion was very impressive--developers wouldn't reveal too much about the systems running under the hood of the game, but it's clear what it takes to generate NPCs and their routines and backstories, and to make them feel like bespoke characters, is extensive. That set of systems alone looks like it'll push the series forward in some significant ways. If Ubisoft can stick the landing of using those systems to tell its techno-dystopia story well, all while achieving the goal of making it relevant to our real world, Legion will certainly be a game to watch when it launches on March 6, 2020.

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philhornshaw

Phil Hornshaw

GameSpot editor in Los Angeles, and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory. Hoped the latter would help me get Han Solo hair, but so far, unsuccessful.
Watch Dogs: Legion

Watch Dogs: Legion

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