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Watch Dogs: Legion interview — Recruiting the right crew in Ubisoft’s hacking game

I’ve played Watch Dogs: Legion for multiple previews, and it has been hard for me to get past that the game has no main character.  Sure, Nigel Cass (the leader of law enforcement faction Albion) is the central villain. But as the player, you can take control of anyone that you recruit in the city of London as your playable character for the DedSec hacking group.

The message of the game is compelling, as it means that any ordinary person can rise up and make a difference when society falls apart and the forces of fascism rise to bring order to the chaos. The capability to recruit anyone off the street gives you some incredible freedom to take risks as you infiltrate and hack your way inside of Albion and its allies.

After all, if your character gets killed (and permanently dies) in a mission, you can always find a replacement. But it also takes away some of the emotional attachment that you can feel for a protagonist. In this game, that protagonist can be anyone you want. And by popular demand, as if responding to some dismay about this approach, Ubisoft said it was bringing back the main character of the original Watch Dogs, Aiden Pearce, in the downloadable content (DLC) for Watch Dogs: Legion.

I talked about this and other impressions I had from playing a new build in an interview with Sean Crooks, lead producer at Ubisoft on Watch Dogs: Legion. (See our latest preview story here).

The game arrives on the PC, Xbox One, Stadia, and PlayStation 4 on October 29. It arrives on PS5 digitally on November 12, and November 10 on Xbox Series X.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Sean Crooks is lead producer of Watch Dogs: Legion.

GamesBeat: I wanted to catch up on the main character question. I know Aiden Pearce is going to be in the DLC. It’s hard for me to tell whether there’s a continuous thread to the story or if you really do play with more random characters throughout the whole thing. Can you talk about that?

Sean Crooks: There’s a strong continuous narrative that runs through the entire game. At the beginning of the game, you’re introduced to a character, an AR character called Zero Day, there on the roofs of Parliament. They set up a bunch of bombs around London. That’s designed to set up DedSec as being an evil group. DedSec at that point is hunted down by a character called Nigel Cass, who is the owner of a private military corporation. His job is to run around London and wipe out the remaining elements of DedSec. That’s where the story begins.

Sabine, who is one of the characters from DedSec, escapes, and her job is to try to reboot DedSec. That’s where you come in, as the first operative. Then your job is to rebuild the core of DedSec, but also the primary goal here is to look for who is Zero Day, why they set DedSec up, and also look at how Nigel Cass and other villains you discover, how they’re all involved in this grander plot to oppress and take over London. That’s the narrative theme.

Throughout this experience, you’re regularly meeting back with Sabine, and also your crazy AI assistant Bagley, who’s full of British sarcasm and brings a real lightening tone to the game. You work with these characters to solve the question of who is Zero Day, why did they do what they did, and how are the villains involved in all of this.

Above: Aiden Pearce was the star of the first Watch Dogs game.

GamesBeat: What’s interesting, then, is that you have a main character villain who’s almost always there, and you have your two sidekicks, but — it’s a contrast to the previous two games, where you had either Marcus or Aiden. This time it could be anybody playing the character who’s dealing with Sabine or Bagley or going after Albion. Does that sum it up? Or can there be a single person who is the main character?

Crooks: We started with Watch Dogs, where you had a single protagonist who had a larger goal to solve. It was more of a personal underground goal. Then you had Watch Dogs 2, with a greater cast of characters that had the grander goal of taking down corrupt corporations. At the end of Watch Dogs 2 you even play as each of the characters, each of the DedSec members. We’ve kept scaling up the challenge that the group wants to deal with, and scaled up the team accordingly.

When we looked at working on a grander scale, a whole city, and looked at the theme of — throughout history we’ve seen groups of people banding together and rising up to take down oppression and right wrongs. Why don’t we continue that theme and push it harder? That’s where we ended up with the idea that the player is anyone, and the ability to recruit anyone you see. You can make them your own personal DedSec.

Also, each of those characters has their own personality. As you recruit people in the world, they have individual personas and different voice actors. They act out scenes differently. Some are very passive and shy. Some are more funny and some are more aggressive. You start to build an attachment and likeness to different characters you recruit, and they bring about an experience where you decide who you want to play with because you like those people. We have permadeath in the game as an optional choice, but I prefer not to play with that, because I really get attached to my characters.

I like to build a certain set of team members, and if I find someone who’s super colorful–the other day I found a weapon-wielding grandma with the hiccups, which was hilarious. You grow attached to them. Their personalities, their little nuances, the abilities they have, just the full package. You can grow attached to them and build a DedSec that you want, completing the game with your own heroes.

GamesBeat: You brought Aiden back by popular demand. Was that always in the plan, or did you respond to the fans who wanted a character that they already knew back in the game?

Crooks: We bounced around a lot of different ideas for who we could bring back, including some characters who maybe weren’t touched upon as strongly in the series. But there were a lot of fan comments about wanting to play as Aiden, especially after our E3 reveal. We took that into account. Personally, the team has a lot of respect for that character. He has a lot of ways to go. I loved some of the early imaginings we saw of him, how we came out and revealed the older-looking Aiden, who’s clearly been through a lot. He looks like a great character. It’s something we want to bring back to the fans. We respect that character and we wanted to support that.

It all kind of aligned. He’s an exciting character. He brings something, the legacy of the franchise. A lot of fans wanted to play as him again, and at that point, we couldn’t say no.

Above: Aiden Pearce did more damage with his phone than his gun.

GamesBeat: If you get the ability to tap anybody, are you helping the game player by pushing any particular characters at them that they need to use for upcoming missions? Or is it truly random, the people you run into?

Crooks: There’s a whole bunch of layers to that. There are one or two missions in the game that, narratively, call for a character of a particular sort. It’s just one or two. Otherwise, for the most part, the player is left to choose who they want. The cool thing about the game is the more the player explores, the cooler the characters they can find.

Also, the more the player looks at London as a real world and imagines where people might be, that also rings true in terms of the world logic. If you go to a hospital, you’ll find doctors and paramedics. If you go to a building site, you’ll find construction workers and the like. There are many layers to how people can find and discover new characters and the new gameplay abilities they have.

We also have a system that supports the player. We wanted to make sure that the players who maybe weren’t engaging so much in that system — we can suggest and find and push toward them interesting characters that might be nearby. Every once in a while we might spot a player near the character that’s interesting. It can be something as simple as a character having four properties, which is quite a lot to have on just one character. We spot that, and occasionally we’ll push that to the player. They’ll see a mark on the map saying that Bagley has found someone interesting to engage with.

It’s optional. You can check them out, and you might profile them and say, “No, I don’t need those abilities, that’s not how I play.” But you might love those abilities and want to recruit that character right away.

GamesBeat: Is there a way for you to know that you’ve found a truly rare character? Somebody who has a very special ability, or just the thing you need?

Crooks: A lot of the more exotic characters, we attach them to something called Borough Uprising, which is the idea that each borough of London has resistance activities that you can do. Those activities free that borough from the oppression of Albion. It changes the major landmarks and makes everyone in that borough easier to recruit. As a reward from that, we’ll throw a more interesting or exotic character. As you complete and liberate the boroughs, you can find exotic characters. Also, there are combinations of characters and interesting stacks of abilities that are hidden around in the world. Maybe you won’t get those through the Borough Uprising. The idea is, we encourage the player to explore so they can find the most interesting characters.

One thing I love about the game is that when I play, I find things that surprise me all the time, things I didn’t realize they were combined. It can create some super cool and interesting characters. I mentioned the gun-toting grandma with the hiccups. Trying to complete a mission with that character — if anything, it’s a great thing to stream and have friends watch while you play. Those characters are massively rewarding to find and play.

Above: Construction workers can infiltrate job sites in Watch Dogs: Legion.

GamesBeat: If I need to get into a construction site, then, it’s probably a good idea to go to that site and start looking around for construction workers to recruit.

Crooks: We have the concept of uniformed access. Basically, anyone who looks like they should have permission to enter a location, based on what they’re wearing and their job, whether it be a medical professional or a police officer or an Albion guard or a construction worker, they can enter those locations if you recruit them. They won’t draw as much attention. They’ll be able to get through a little easier. There’s dedicated gameplay around that idea — if a character is wearing a uniform that makes sense for that place, they’re able to access it. Keeping your eyes open for characters like that to apply them in different situations can completely change your approach to a location.

Similarly, as I mentioned earlier, we did a lot to make sure that, from a world logic perspective, you tend to find people in places where you’d expect them in real life. If players have a bit of common sense about where to find a certain type of person, they can go there and expect to find them. We’ve leaned into that heavily, to give players a natural leg up in that direction. If they just think logically, we reward them for doing so.

Above: Watch Dogs: Legion

There’s also a system that we call profiling, which is a hack you can unlock through the tech tree. After collecting tech points in the world, you can spend them to unlock additional hacks. That profiler allows you to profile anyone in the street, and it opens up an entire schedule of their day. You can look at what they’re doing, who they’re meeting. Are they going home to sleep? Do they have an engagement to see someone?

Characters have scheduled jobs, but they also have alone time. They’ll actually change their uniforms. You might meet a guy when he’s off work, so he’s wearing casual clothing, but when you look in the profile he’s a construction worker. He’s just not going to work until tomorrow. You can find people in their civilian clothes in different parts of the city. The profiler will also show you problems they might have. They might be being blackmailed, and you can help them deal with that in order to make them easier to recruit. In situations involving people who don’t like DedSec, that might be the only way you can get around that and sway their opinion.

You also have access to drones. If you look around outside, you can grab a drone, and a lot of them fit inside the spaces in buildings. You can use them in some instances, as well as the spider-bots.

GamesBeat: Can I just go to a computer and search for a certain kind of person? Say I need to find a police officer. Can I search for the nearest police officer in my area, something like that?

Crooks: Because everyone is on a schedule, everyone has jobs and works certain times of day, but your game is generated differently than everyone else’s. So you can’t nail it to a particular character. But for example, in every person’s game, if you go to a police station you’ll find police officers. You can search online and find the nearest location like that. We have a lot of fighters training in a lot of our parks because it’s a good spot to work out, just like in real life. Another point of guidance you might find online is to go to the park and find different people training combat abilities. Like I said, there’s some real-world logic to that part that you can learn. But when it comes to particular characters, no. Everyone’s game is generated and has a life of its own.

GamesBeat: Are some missions going to require specific people like that, deep undercover sorts of people?

Crooks: It’s only for narrative purposes that we make players choose a certain type of character. In the rest of the game, you can choose. It’s down to your preferences. Do you have a character with a cool ability you want to try? What’s your play style? Do you prefer stealth or combat? Do you prefer hacking, where you do everything remotely? It’s entirely up to you. That’s one of the things we’ve brought that a lot of games don’t — the sheer amount of options and choices, things you can try to play with. The amount of options the game provides for you to experiment with is phenomenal. I don’t think many games offer that many opportunities and options and different approaches to a particular problem.

Above: You can recruit anybody in Watch Dogs: Legion

GamesBeat: When you start, are you going to be assigned any particular starter characters, or do you have to start from scratch and find your initial crew?

Crooks: As the game starts, when Sabine reboots DedSec, she’s looking for any stragglers who might have gotten away from the original attack by Albion. You have a selection of characters that are randomly generated inside your game to choose from. You select your initial character from that initial array, and from that point on you’re in the world. You have to build DedSec out of the recruits you find.

GamesBeat: Can you play as Sabine?

Crooks: No, you can’t play as Sabine, because she’s a key supporting character. Narrative characters that appear in cinematics, you don’t play as them, and they don’t appear in the world as NPCs [non-player characters]. You don’t have access to them in that way. But everyone else, every NPC in the world, is playable.

GamesBeat: Is there anything else you’d like to spotlight?

Crooks: One more thing to talk about would be next-gen. One of the cool things we’ve done in Watch Dogs: Legion, obviously we’re coming out on PS5 digitally November 12, and November 10 on Xbox Series X. If you buy the current-generation version, you’ll automatically get the next-gen version for free once the consoles launch.

The other thing we worked hard on is what we call cross-progression. We made sure that your save will transfer between the two generations. If you pick up the Xbox One or PS4 Pro version, you won’t lose your progress if you upgrade to the Series X or PS5. Your saves can be transferred across. We’re closely supporting that, which is pretty cool. It means people aren’t left out and don’t waste any time if they want to grab the game at the current-generation launch.

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