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Here’s an interesting question: Do games have to be good to be enjoyable?
Short answer = no. Not necessarily. Of course I’d prefer games to be well designed that don’t frustrate me. I’ve played many games which I’ve grown to love playing even if they have a lot of jank and problems holding them back. I’ll talk about two games today, and if people like the discussion I’ll be happy to make a little series on this topic!
The reason I ask is that I’ve been playing quite a bit of Watchdogs Legion over the last few weeks. I picked it up during the Christmas Sale on the Epic store, and with the coupon it was £6.49, quite the price drop for a AAA title released barely a year ago. Ubisoft games tend to discount quickly. This won’t be a full review of the game, but Legion is the primary reason why I came up with the topic for this article. There is one other game which I’ll cover to back up my argument.
The Watchdogs series had so much potential, but unfortunately as Ubisoft game design goes, it just slipped away. The original game suffered from a broken launch, though the sequel Watchdogs 2 is by far the best in the trilogy. Ubisoft’s game design philosophy is notorious now for favouring quantity over quality content, with vast open worlds, collectibles and generally mixed writing and characters. There have been the occasional bright spot, with some gems like Watchdogs 2, Immortals Fenyx Rising and Assassins Creed Origins being the better titles Ubisoft have cranked out in recent years. Most fall under mediocre, bloated experiences, and sadly 2020’s Watchdogs Legion slips into that category.
I appreciate them trying something different for once, which is rare for Ubisoft. Set in a dystopian London after a terrorist attack is blamed on hacking group Deadsec, the player is tasked with recruiting a revolution from the population to fight Albion and the shadowy entity Zero Day. The whole gimmick is ‘recruit everyone’, where you can literally play as any NPC in the game once they join your team. Each NPC can be their own protagonist, and they all provide different abilities and skills, or can infiltrate different locations more safely.
For example, a construction worker can call a drone and fly around at will, or a spy can kill people silently and call up a spy car. There’s quite a lot of different playstyles available, and missions take place in open areas with a lot of ways to experiment, often with an immersive sim lite approach to handling things. The city’s open world is a mixed bag in which there’s a lot of pretty things to look at, but very little interaction. There’s some good handling of lore and worldbuilding with people fighting Albion police, talking about their day etc, but it all feels a bit static for me. Cyberpunk 2077 had similar issues, but Night City is a place I far prefer to Watchdogs Dystopia London.
The game’s big gimmick sounds fantastic in theory, but it’s a little half baked and horribly balanced. With no central protagonist, the story and writing becomes a bit of a joke because I don’t feel for any character. Gameplay wise, the issue I found in playing Legion is that while different characters can do better in certain situations, the starting kit you can give anyone breaks the balance completely, in the name of an overpowered spiderbot that can do nearly everything for you. It makes the gimmick of tracking down people a little pointless, because the base spider everyone can use is so damn good! Why go into the effort of recruiting a guy who can fly above buildings when every character can just toddle off to a location, send off a spiderbot and it’ll reduce the danger of the mission drastically?
Recruiting the people can also get a bit annoying. There’s usually procedural missions in which you need to do something for them in order for them to join Deadsec, such as saving a friend from jail, hacking a place, killing someone etc. If they don’t like Deadsec, then you’ll need to do something to get their attention and sometimes this leads to a mini questline. It gets repetitive, and I wish there were more mission variety.
Sounds like Legion is a mixed bag, huh? Well, that’s the entire point of this article, isn’t it? I’ve played 25 hours of Watchdogs Legion so far. It’s not because of the story and writing, which is poor even by Ubisoft standards (although the dialogue of the sarcastic AI bot Bagley is surprisingly good). As mentioned, the balance is off the charts, and there’s a lot of repetitive mission design that gets old after a while. Combined with technical issues and poor optimization, Watchdogs Legion is a somewhat disappointing third game in the trilogy.
Despite all of this, I’ve found myself rather enjoying the gameplay. I like running around collecting civilians like a twisted version of Pokemon. I like it when my old lady character, unable to run and wearing a stupid pink hat successfully pulls off a heist. I like being able to fly a construction drone down over people’s heads, smashing into people and cars. I enjoy sitting in my car or van on auto drive, listening to music and the in-game podcasts. I’ll say that the podcasts and audio conversations you can pick up are very well made and always worth hunting down. At least they’ve worked out that some collectables can be worth doing!
It’s the ‘create your own enjoyment’ part of this game which is the best part, and while it comes at the game’s expense more often than not, I’m glad it doesn’t restrict the player.
I haven’t finished it yet, and not sure if I will, but I can’t help liking playing the game, even if I don’t think it’s particularly well made. There’s a Bloodline DLC for Legion which serves as a prequel and follows the protagonist from the first Watchdogs Adrian Pearce, which seems to fix a lot of the main game’s problems regarding character agency. I’ll be sure to try that.
Onto the second example: Biomutant. I covered Biomutant in my review of it last summer which you can read here:
Biomutant had quite a bit of hype to it; an incredibly amibitious open world game made by only nineteen people. It released to quite a mixed reception, being a strange game riddled by odd design choices which hurt more than help it. Launching at 60 USD did not help, leaving to some quite poor critical and commerical reviews.
The issue I had with Biomutant was for an open world game, its mission design was bland even for the already saturated open world genre. Many open world games have the problem of relying heavily on fetch quests, but Biomutant leans on it almost universially as a collectathon, making for a repetitive grind. With annoying boss battles, odd things in combat like clipping through enemies, Biomutant was a little disappointing.
That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it, though, and Biomutant shines in a few areas. The game has amazing visual design and the world is a joy to explore. Despite the messy combat, customizing the weapons from scrap keeps me engaged. Exploration is something Biomutant does well with all sorts of toys to experiment with, which all benefits the games huge emphasis on scrap and loot. This is combined with a world that’s suprisingly competent despite being ‘empty. And unlike Watchdogs Legion where I did not care for any character, Biomutant got me liking the characters despite no voice acting. I find it hard to recommend Biomutant at full price, but if you can pick it up on sale, you can probably find a lot to like.
That’s all for now, but I will probably return to this topic! Perhaps with the reverse: do games have to be enjoyable to be good? Let’s see.