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Friday, June 14, 2024

Watch Dogs Legion’s multiplayer is a profound disappointment

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Bagley wouldn’t be proud of me. Dedsec London, as organised by the sarcastic AI, is a community movement founded on the collaboration of strangers. United by ill feeling towards the establishment, they need not have anything else in common—judges and petty thieves, bankers and buskers. 

In that spirit, the most Dedsec way to play Watch Dogs Legion‘s co-op mode would be to matchmake with new acquaintances—raiding Albion compounds with randos, entrusting my life to people whose names I only know as name tags on-screen. But I’ve tried that, and I don’t like it.

Inegalitarian though it may be, I believe co-op games are almost always at their best when played with close friends. These are the partners who will stick around while you fiddle with your loadout in Borderlands, or match your careful pace in Hunt: Showdown (a stranger in the Bayou once fired two barrels into my back because I insisted on crouch-walking to our extraction point). They’re the people you can have on voice chat without feeling guarded in your own living room.

Ubisoft is familiar with the pleasures of private sessions. Most of the co-op focused games the publisher has put out in the past decade, like Ghost Recon Wildlands and Assassin’s Creed Unity, have enabled you to shut out the noise of public matchmaking and play with friends only. That choice might inflate the difficulty of missions balanced for four players, rather than two, but it’s one you can make with your eyes open—knowing there’s a pool of public players to pull from should the challenge prove insurmountable.

It’s weird, then, to discover that Watch Dogs Legion doesn’t work that way. Navigate to the Socials menu during a mission, and you’ll discover that “co-op missions are always public”. This despite the fact that they’re designed for ‘two players minimum’. Right now, Legion gives you no way to reduce the numbers to suit the group you’re playing with, instead filling all four possible slots through matchmaking.

It’s a killer in a game that ordinarily offers real freedom of approach. Watch Dogs objectives tend to be simple—steal a car, hack a laptop—and leave the methodology to you. You might reach the computer by leapfrogging between a series of CCTV and drone-mounted cameras, never once setting foot in enemy territory yourself. Or drive the car remotely onto the street, where you can safely climb in. Underpinning it all is a solid stealth system rooted in Splinter Cell. It’s a fantastic toolkit, practically none of which I’ve been able to make use of in co-op.

In public matchmaking, where voice chat is rare and players are understandably blind to the intent of their peers, any coordination swiftly breaks down. More than once, I’ve loaded into a mission to the sound of gunfire—my teammates already shooting up the joint before I’ve even had a chance to scope the place out. What could have been an intellectual obstacle course is bulldozed in five minutes flat. It’s a game I don’t recognise, despite the familiar sights and sounds—a humdrum co-op shooter that can’t match COD Zombies in the heft of its weapons or ferocity of its opponents.

I don’t blame the players, who have no realistic hope of thinking through a scenario they’ve just been shuffled into on a playlist, like a free-for-all match in Nuketown. And there’s nothing wrong with the mission design, which largely sticks to series principles. It’s easy to imagine the same objectives tackled in a variety of more satisfying ways. They’re simply paired with the wrong sort of infrastructure.

It doesn’t help that the more creative solutions for direct combat, like hijacking combat drones or planting a turret on the roof of a car, are locked behind the online mode’s grindy progression system. If you’re matchmade with a gang of fellow newcomers, you’re not going to have many surprising spanners from Legion’s toolkit at your disposal.

Ironically enough, there is a Watch Dogs multiplayer mode perfectly suited to public sessions: the Invasions that encouraged you to blend with NPCs while hacking data from a player in the open world. But that mode has yet to arrive in Legion.

Outside of missions, you can launch a ‘friends only’ free roam session, and have the entire city to yourselves. But in co-op London, as in the pandemic version, there’s almost nothing to do with a mate on a Saturday night. The handful of smaller assignments on the map—rescuing an informant, securing a weapon shipment, photographing somebody selling prescription drugs—are oddly reserved for solo players. And most of Legion’s less directed activities, like the upgrade collectables you could recover by infiltrating compounds or solving spiderbot puzzles, are reserved for the singleplayer portion of the game that’s launched separately on the main menu. 

Some of the daily and weekly challenges encourage you to make your own fun—driving a series of double decker buses into the Thames is undeniably diverting—but there’s no getting away from the sense that you’re playing charades while the real party goes on just next door. Of course, in theory you could fill up all four mission slots with friends, leaving no seats for strangers, but it’s a big ask. Corralling a full unit for Warzone Quads is difficult enough, and I don’t fancy my chances of achieving a full house in Legion—a game with less broad appeal and no crossplay.

Hope came in the form of an announcement a week ago: Ubisoft Toronto is working on implementing crossplay in a future update. It’s news that suggests private sessions may yet follow, if community feedback is anything like mine. I suspect that change alone could be all Legion needs. Assassin’s Creed Unity’s co-op was similarly chaotic in public sessions, descending into bloody sprints across Paris, stealth be damned. But in private, the same missions rewarded calm and caution, becoming deep endgame challenges for top players.

Maybe that can be Watch Dogs Legion, too. In the meantime, this scene is ded.

Update: Ubisoft has now confirmed to PC Gamer that private matchmaking will be available “in April”.

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