Deaf / HoH Game Review – Watch Dogs: Legion

Watch Dogs: Legion is the next big Ubisoft title for this year. But can d/Deaf and HoH players fully access this action-adventure game?
A threatening man with a gun, a woman with an evil grin, a stern looking middle-aged man, a moder emo-gothic lwoman smiling and a thoughtful man with glasses. Below a varied group of hackers with drones, fighters with clenched fists and a person at the center with a pig mask.

Review copy provided by Ubisoft.

Introduction

Watch Dogs: Legion is an action-adventure game developed by Ubisoft Toronto and is the third installment of the Watch Dogs series. It is the formal sequel to Watch Dogs 2 but is set in an open world, fictional London. In Watch Dogs: Legion, hacking is your weapon and throughout this game, we can play as many different characters and team up with friends to take back the city. The game is releasing worldwide on October 29, 2020. 

But is the game accessible to d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers?

Ever since Ubisoft shared their wide range of accessibility tools back in August 2020, I was extremely excited to try out this latest installment. Past series, such as Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, have produced groundbreaking ideas for video game accessibility. The associate producer, Mihai Alexandru Nuta, shared that “removing barriers for all our players, regardless of their playstyle, inspired our team to push the boundaries of customization” for Watch Dogs: Legion. That being said, my expectations were surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) high going into this game and I am excited to share what we have discovered for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) accessibility.

This review will go over DHH accessibility and discuss what is working so far, but also suggest areas of improvement. This review is designed to provide design feedback, as well as assist gamers with disabilities in deciding if this might be a title for them.

Watch Dogs Legion logo in the center, where the title looks like it is glitching out. Behind is fictional London, where the Big Ben and ferris wheel are present. There is a fire in the distance and the sky is black.

SETTINGS

Upon launching the game, it prompts players to select and adjust options. The first is to adjust the settings for menu narration, spoken language, written language, color blindness mode, subtitles mode, and gameplay events cc. The next section performs a standard image calibration to make sure the screen brightness, gamma, and contrast matched the game’s design. All initial settings can be adjusted later.

Adjust settings: menu narration, spoken language, written language, color blindness mode, subtitles mode, and gameplay events cc. Below, the user can select confirm. To the right, setting descriptions exist.

During this initial experience, two things immediately stuck out to me:

(1) Subtitles mode and (2) gameplay events cc.  

The subtitles mode offers three different options. The first is completely turning subtitles off, which is a pretty standard practice. The second is a “dialogue only” option, which only displays the subtitles for voice lines within the script. The last is a “full captions” option, which displays subtitles for all spoken dialogue. This means that any non-pertinent dialogue, such as combat and background dialogue, is also included within the subtitles. Note that in Watch Dogs: Legion, the subtitles include a directional indicator to locate the speaker’s origin. This is something I am a huge fan of and absolutely love that it was automatically included. I hope more studios will follow suit.

Gameplay events cc means that we can toggle the closed captioning for gameplay events (i.e. siren sound, explosion, etc.). I think it is interesting that Ubisoft distinguishes “full captions” within the subtitles mode from gameplay events cc. In the entertainment industry, closed captions typically refer to displaying all sound effects and dialogue in written form, as to provide thorough context for DHH viewers. When I read the word “full captions” under the subtitles mode, I initially assumed that gameplay events would be included in this category until I scrolled down. Ubisoft decided to adjust the information architecture to separate closed captioned dialogue from closed captioned sound effects. 

Gameplay screenshot. It is dark and a man in a pinstriped suit is approaching a ladder. Two cc are found on the right-hand side. One says melee swing and is pointing south east, and another says door opening pointing to the characters exact location

To be honest, though, the distinction was initially very confusing to me. I didn’t understand the difference between “full captions” and gameplay events cc until I actually started the game. The descriptions are not very helpful, as one says that it is “full captions” (in my mind, I think traditional closed captioning) and the other says “toggles the closed captioning.” It doesn’t help that the game’s settings do not provide a gameplay capture to show what each setting looks like. I ended up turning both on and hoping that at least one of them would help me.

However, upon seeing the gameplay events cc in action, I completely understand the separated categories. In the above image, the gameplay events cc is captured on the right-hand side of the screen, where sound effects are displayed through text and localized through an arrow. This is different from “full captions,” which provides contextual information for any spoken dialogue within the subtitles (i.e. speakers’ intonation, emotion, etc.).

Perhaps adding language in the gameplay events cc such as “visualized sound effects” rather that “closed captioning” would make the distinction clearer. I understand that the gameplay events cc technically uses written text in addition to the directional indicators, but as of right now, it does not use the typical language that deaf gamers are used to. And it feels really bad to be left guessing what a DHH feature is, rather than confidently selecting it.

Still, I think that the overall design choice empowers gamers. Deafness is a spectrum and as so, every d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing person has their own unique abilities and experiences. Some people may use hearing aids whereas others might use a cochlear implant, and many do not use any hearing device. For example, someone with mild hearing loss may have difficulty understanding speech, but are fine with hearing gameplay events. We are all a little different.

As Ubisoft continues to collect analytics, I will be interested to see the patterns they come across between the subtitles mode and gameplay events cc. Sorry, I’m a data nerd… I can’t help it!

HUD menu, featuring the info modules that can be adjusted: hints, control reminders, update log, borough module, comms module, warnings module, and mission objectives. To the right, a sample screenshot of what the hints look like in game.

When delving into the rest of the settings, Watch Dogs: Legion offers an array of adjustable options in the Accessibility Menu for disabled gamers. For example, we can toggle the menu narration, aim lock-on, simplified puzzles, and camera effects. Within the HUD Menu, there is a number of info modules we can change, including hints, control reminders, objectives. I’m happy to see that there are a lot more cognitive-related accessibility options for this title.

Within the Accessibility Menu, the most notable DHH option is the Speech-to-Text (STT), which transcribes other player’s voices into text. This is an impressive feature that benefits those with hearing disabilities, as DHH gamers will be able to comfortably communicate with players who use their voices. I expand more on Ubisoft’s STT options in my Hyperscape review, and though the technology is imperfect, it still promotes accessible communication options. It is still unclear at this point if the STT is censored, something for which Ubisoft was previously criticized, but as multiplayer becomes more popular, I’ll be sure to provide that feedback. At this time, SST only supports English.

More so, the Accessibility Menu provides Text-to-Voice/Speech options that can be refined, such as the menu, narrator voice type, and speech rate. To learn more about how these features impact accessibility, I suggest you check out our Blind/low vision game review.

Accessibility menu, where we can adjust aim lock-on, simplified puzzles, camera effects, text chat to speech, text to voice chat, text to speech volume, text to speech voice, text to speech rate, and speech to text

The Audio and Language Menu is the last section that includes a list of DHH accessibility options. Here, we are provided a long list of options such as changing the language, adjusting varying volume sliders, and fine-tuning subtitles. 

For the audio, we are able to change the volume of the music, dialogue, sound effects, and chat sound. Ubisoft also provides a master volume, where we can adjust all volume options at the same time. This is a great accessibility practice for DHH gamers, as they can adjust each aspect of sound to meet their needs.

For example, if I am wearing cochlear implants, music makes it difficult for me to comprehend dialogue. My first instinct is to turn music down or completely off, as doing so allows me to access the other audio channels through my hearing device with ease. In this game, we also have the option to toggle autoplay music in the car, as well as all other music. For me, this was an added plus.

Audio and Language, where we can adjust subtitles mode, gameplay events cc, subtitles font bg, subtitles font size, subtitles width, subtitles color, subtitles speaker, autoplay music in car, and music.

In terms of subtitle adjustments, Ubisoft once again does not disappoint, as Watch Dogs: Legion allows us to really fine-tune subtitles. 

Not only can we change the subtitles mode and toggle gameplay events cc, but we can also change the subtitles’ font background, font size, width, color, and speaker labels. For the subtitles font background, we can make it transparent or black, as to make the subtitles contrast better and make the overall font more legible. Additionally, we can change the size, which is automatically set to 100%, but can get as large as 150%. We can also change the subtitles width from “normal” to “short,” though this is not available for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. The game includes a very large range of colors too, including white, red, yellow, green, blue, and cyan. Lastly, we can choose whether or not character names are displayed in the subtitles. To say the very least, I was very pleased with the text options.

It would be nice to offer font edging, as doing so may assist DHH gamers with certain types of reading-related disabilities. Luckily we have the subtitles font background, but that isn’t appropriate for every type of reader. Hopefully, for future titles, we’ll see the inclusion of font edging.

Additionally, the Audio and Language Menu does not offer a display to show gamers how their subtitles adjustments may look like. If we look at the earlier example from the HUD Menu, the right-hand side provides a sample image of how hints look like in the game. However, we do not have the same concept for subtitles. Though the right-hand side includes descriptions of what each subtitles setting does, we do not have a visual example. 

As Ubisoft continues to add more ways to fine-tune the subtitles, it becomes harder to imagine how the adjustments may all add up. As of right now, I have to save my settings, play some of the game, pause the game, and then adjust my settings again. I repeat this cycle over and over again until I get the settings just right for me. But, rather than playing the game, I’m spending so much time actively looking at the subtitles to see if I need to make any adjustments. Are they too big? Do I need to change the width? It’s hard to tell if I can only observe them through gameplay. By offering a display in the settings to show how the subtitles currently look like, gamers may be less overwhelmed by the vast options and can spend the very beginning portions of the game playing rather than fine-tuning settings.

HUD settings, where we can adjust reticle, reticle style, reticle color, reticle enemy color, reticle size, hacking reticle, hacking reticle color, and hacking reticle size. On the right, I changed the reticle to be green instead of white.

Though this review focuses on DHH accessibility, I would like to make an honorable mention of the HUD Menu again. In the above menu, players can adjust a number of HUD elements and info modules, with the list being extremely impressive. One thing I really like is that you can change the reticle color and size, something that can benefit a number of individuals with disabilities, including those with visual and cognitive related disabilities.

We can adjust camera centering, melee mode, climbing mode, hacking mode, sprinting mode, walking mode, aiming mode, weapon wheel mode, and emote wheel mode. The list is much longer but the gameplay screenshot could not fit it all.

I would also like to finish this section by noting that Watch Dogs: Legion includes a robust number of options for medical and mobility related disabilities. As seen above, we have the ability to toggle how to input melee, climbing, sprinting, walking, and more. We can also customize the mouse and keyboard controls, as well as modify the default control scheme for a gamepad. To me, Ubisoft’s list is impressive, and I suggest that readers take a look at our Mobility Game Review to learn more about these features.

Gameplay

To begin our gameplay, I went ahead and launched a new campaign. When doing so, Watch Dogs: Legions prompts the player to select a difficulty (easy, normal, and hard), as well as choose the permadeath mode (off, on, or ironman; the latter meaning that we cannot change our choice later). From there, players can dive straight into Watch Dogs: Legion’s fictional London.

Start screen. Users can select continue, load game, or new game. Below, users can also upload to cloud or load cloud save. Background image is six people in varying gear and costumes posing in an urban setting..

Subtitles and captions in action

For my gameplay, I have “full captions” and gameplay events cc turned on, as well as use a subtitles font background with my font color set to white. I played around with the size of the subtitles and settled for “100%.” Here is a sample of the minimum “100%” subtitles size compared to the maximum “150%” subtitles size:

User is standing on the streets of London. Subtitles are bottom center and set to 100%. Subtitle stats Ian: Personal space. Heard of it? the arrow is pointing to a man in front of the user. To the right-hand, cc states birds singing.
User is standing on the streets of London. Subtitles are bottom center and set to 150%. Subtitle states Renne: Mm, fine. Not pointing to anything, indicating it's the user speaking. cc on the right-hand says drone engine, and pointing north west.

It is a nice touch that the subtitles size affects both the subtitles on the bottom center of the screen and the gameplay events cc on the right-hand side of the screen.

For the subtitles mode, I am very impressed by the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of the “full captions” during cutscenes. Speakers’ names and intonations are perfectly labelled within the subtitles, allowing me to fully grasp the context of each line. For instance, in the below example during a cinematic, we see Dalton speaking with “effort” and after he says his line, we read that he is “breathing,” showing that he is out of breath after rushing to his current location.

A man in a pinstriped suit looking at the city of London from the rooftop. Subtitles say Dalton: (efforts) Where are you? (breathing)

In the next example from the same scene, Dalton expresses a “sigh of relief” in his line, showing that whatever just happened, he is relieved—though he still remains relatively breathless from his current climb to the roof. Overall, it is clear to me that the Ubisoft team carefully created text to properly represent intonation, emotion, and sound effects within the cinematics.

Also, did I mention how magnificent Dalton’s stubble is in this game? Cause… Wow.

A white man's face looking off to the right, big ben behind him. Subtitles read Dalton: (sigh of relief) Bingo. (breaths)

However, one pain point I came across during the subtitled cutscenes was the issue of overlapping dialogue. In an early cinematic, there is a number of overlapping voice lines from varying speakers. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed, as it was difficult for me to determine who the speaker was, even with the labels. In the below example, is the “News Anchor” the same person, or are they several anchors speaking at the same time for a dramatic effect? Typically if it’s the same speaker, they wouldn’t be labelled twice. Perhaps having “News Anchor 1” and “News Anchor 2” would make captions clearer.

A crowd of protests destroying a drone. Subtitles both read that there are two anchors speaking, but it is unclear if it is the same speaker and if it is simultaneous.

Additionally, while the subtitles were displayed in real-time during the cinematic, it was difficult for me to identify the reading order. As I read one line, the other line would quickly disappear. It’s not a big to do and over time, I’m sure I would get to know the product’s subtitle system a little more, but at the very least, it’s notable to say that it was mildly disorienting at first.

Still, the “full captions” serve as a useful tool for me. During certain missions, a speaker—whether they are with me or speaking through a device—would provide narrative context to enhance the overall storytelling. I do not find myself struggling to play and read the “full captions” at the same time, though in early gameplay moments, I would have to stop myself to read the text. This is likely because during the onboarding experience, I had to read tutorial notes, read the dialogue, and interact with the game at the same time—all of which is a lot of cognitive processing. However, I was not punished, as during the onboarding portion, the game provides proper affordances so people can play at their own pace.

Now to discuss my favorite DHH accessibility feature of the game: gameplay events cc.

The user is pinned behind a wall for cover. They are shooting at some enemies in a statue gallery. Two enemies are peeking to aim while the user shoots their heads. cc reads bullet impact ahead and pistol shot from the user.

On the right-hand side, gameplay events are captioned as to provide environmental context for deaf gamers. In the above capture, there is a captioned “bullet impact” and the arrow is pointing straight ahead, showing that an enemy directly in front of me took a hit from a bullet. Below that caption, we see a second one labelled “pistol shot” and is represented through two arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down, which is expressing that the pistol shot audio cue is coming from my character’s model and/or exact location. Anytime we see this symbol, it means that it is happening near or on the controlled character.

A blue car driving down the streets of London. Subtitles show a pedestrian is complaining and the cc shows that there was an impact behind the user, likely on metal.

Additionally, gameplay events cc will also clarify materials of the sound. In the above example, there is a visualized audio cue within the cc, labelled “impact – metal.” As a deaf gamer, this tells me that there is an impact behind me and the source is a metal object. Perhaps the sound was a clang of two metal objects hitting each other? Which in this case, it might’ve been me running my car over a sign… either way, I’m very impressed by how much time and effort went into the gameplay events cc. From my initial gameplay, I can tell that a lot of love went into making sure that each cc is clear and meaningful, and it really shows in the end product.

A game full of built-in accessibility

I think one of the best parts about Watch Dogs: Legion is that, besides adjusting the subtitles mode and gameplay events cc, I do not have to turn on any other options to gain equal access to the game. Watch Dogs: Legion’s core design makes it so that a majority of gameplay content is accessible for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers.

The user is hiding in a poorly lit room filled with bombs. There are three enemies nearby, which can only be seen through their white outline.

For example, the game outlines the enemies, making it easy to locate them without sound. The enemy outline plays an even more critical role for me as I try to navigate complex situations, such as the below example where I use the hacking system and remain in stealth at the same time. Though enemies are talking and making footstep noises, the enemy outline clues me to their exact location so that I can properly situate myself within my current environment.

The user is hiding in a poorly lit room filled with bombs. There are three enemies nearby, which can only be seen through their white outline.

During combat, the directional damage indicator is the most useful tool for me. At times, it is difficult for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers to locate enemies. However, in addition to enemy outlines, the directional damage indicator provides a clue for where the enemies currently are, so that DHH gamers can situate themselves accordingly. Directional damage indicators are automatically turned on for anyone to use and are pictured below.

The user is hiding behind a pew and shooting an enemy soldier. cc read that there is a bullet impact on the enemy soldier and a pistol shot from the user. The user is taking damage from their left side, as displayed through a red arc around the crosshair, also known as a directional damage indicator.

Seeing everything in action together, though, is where the game’s accessibility really starts to show. Here we see a scenario unfold where:

The user is next to a pillar and a subtitle notifies that user that someone is to their right.

First, I read the directional subtitle of an enemy, with the text reading, “Edwin: Hold up” and pointing to my right.

The user is looking toward an enemy, who has a white exclamation point above their head. cc reads concrete footsteps from the enemy.

Second, I rotate my camera to reveal an enemy, where there is a visual cue over their head of an exclamation mark, colored white. Since it is not red, I know that they have not spotted me yet. We can also confirm the enemy’s location through the cc, which states that they are making footstep noises on the concrete.

The user is hiding behind the pillar and can see the enemy by the outline.

Third, I hide myself behind a pillar to avoid the enemy. The enemy outline is visible beyond the pillar, where the exclamation mark is still white, letting me know that I am safe.

Between the built-in accessibility and the options I turned on, I am able to navigate my situation with ease. And when this moment happened, I felt immersed in the gameplay and genuinely felt fully engaged with the scenario.

And this was only in the first few minutes of gameplay! As a deaf gamer, it’s very rare for me to feel so quickly immersed, especially as I’m mentally adjusting to a new game. Oftentimes, when I start a new game, I’ll find something within the first 10 minutes that is not accessible for me. As a result, I’ll be distracted, as I’ll be focusing on how I plan to overcome the barrier for the potential 40-60 hours of gameplay. However, in Watch Dogs: Legion, the gameplay was natural to me. And as a deaf gamer, that’s something I really appreciate.

The user is hiding behind a pew and shooting an enemy soldier. cc read that there is a bullet impact on the enemy soldier and a pistol shot from the user. The user is taking damage from their left side, as displayed through a red arc around the crosshair, also known as a directional damage indicator.

Funny enough, though the gameplay events cc provides some context for sound, such as locating bullet impacts and pistol shots, I actually found myself relying more on the enemy outlines and directional damage indicators. This largely has to do with perception. The outline and directional damage indicators are within my center to near peripheral vision. However, the gameplay events cc is strictly in my mid to far peripheral vision. During combat, it is very difficult to keep flicking my eyes back and forth from the center to right-hand side of my screen. In the peak moments of the combat, the gameplay events cc went unnoticed. 

A potential solution is trying to find a way to integrate the gameplay events cc into the center to near peripheral vision. However, I understand that there may be some overlap with the HUD, causing a cluster of information. Still, it’s a shame that such a well-thought out DHH feature is left unnoticed during some of the most crucial parts of the game. It is clear that the developers and designers put a lot of care into the gameplay events cc, so I would hate for it to not be used to its fullest potential.

A loading screen that suggests users check out the color contrast and color blindness mode in the accessibility menu.

Lastly, for some bonus points, Watch Dogs: Legion also includes accessibility information in between loading screens. For example, the game takes the time to explain what color contrast is and also suggests players to take a look at the color blindness mode within the Accessibility Menu.

A personal note – motion sickness

One of the most iconic parts of the Watch Dogs series is driving your car while you listen to some tunes and use your super cool gadgets. However, within a couple minutes of driving, I ended up getting an aura that led into a full migraine, where I had to step away from the game to rest.

For context, I am diagnosed with bilateral vestibular hypofunction, which is a fancy way of saying that I am not very good at balancing my body and focusing my eyes. Though my diagnosis is severe in scale, vestibular issues are not uncommon for people with hearing loss, even if it is mild vertigo. They can lead to motion sickness and visual fatigue, and in some cases, headaches to severe migraines.

After some rest, I went back into the game to see if there was anything I could adjust. After perusing the settings, which took a surprisingly long time to do given the vastness of options, I found some settings that helped me:

A long list of mouse and keyboard driving settings that can be adjusted.

I took some time to adjust the steering curve and sensitivity of the driving mechanics, as to reduce sudden movements on my screen. Additionally, I turned off camera effects, which removes any shaky cam and screen distortion. My experience did improve after these adjustments, but is still imperfect for me, as I still find some mismatched messages about the movement happening on the screen and what my eyes are perceiving. It still feels like my eyes are bobbing as I drive through the busy city.

That being said, I think I did a pretty good job at driving, considering I’m an American trying to navigate the London streets on the “wrong” side of the road…

A user standing in front of a blue car, which has a broken windshield, is missing its mirrors, and the passenger window is busted. It took a nice beating.

Final Thoughts

So how accessible is Watch Dogs: Legion to d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers? Pretty freaking accessible.

To say I’m impressed is an understatement. Watch Dogs: Legion is Ubisoft’s most ambitious accessibility project yet. The game features a robust amount of options developed specifically (but not limited to) d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers. Between the subtitles mode and gameplay events cc, as well as the core design choices, Watch Dogs: Legions may be Ubisoft’s most accessible game to date.

However, a few points were deducted for a couple reasons. First, the settings do not display a sample for the subtitles, which makes it frustrating to fine-tune the overall text. Additionally, though I love the gameplay events cc, it is unfortunately outside of the average gamer’s peripheral vision, making it useless during fast-paced combat. Lastly, the display time and reading order for overlapping dialogue is a bit confusing to read, making the onboarding process a little overwhelming.

Still, I can say with great certainty that a large majority of d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will be able to access Watch Dogs: Legions. I look forward to seeing how else Ubisoft plans to use these features in the future.

Deaf / HoH Game Review – Watch Dogs: Legion

Overall Score - 9.2

9.2