As the level of immersion continues to deepen and our awareness and perception of the virtual worlds we inhabit and the environment around us unifies, we take a look at one cities digital and physical appearance. Gather the kindle, prepare the stones and take your place, around the bonfire as we take a personal look around the City of London using Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
Ubisoft emerged as one of the forerunners of the open world genre with the release of its franchise launching title Assassins Creed, then a technical marvel and exploration of the Holy Lands and the eternal crusade between the Assassin Order and the Templars. Each subsequent chapter has shifted focus both usually of the protagonist but also on the location in which they are set.
With the release of Syndicate allowed me to indulge my sense of discovery in Victorian London and compare and contrast the city as envisioned by Ubisoft over a century ago and what remains today. London, like Rome, faces restrictions and challenges in its growth and development. Maintaining certain historical sites for prosperity whilst building outwards towards the future. With Syndicate principally based around the City of London with slight deviation at times, this allowed me to limit to a degree the area covered whilst comparing the key attractions so familiar to player and resident.
Whitehall, a road and thorough fare synonymous with Governmental rule and representation lies to the south of Trafalgar Square connecting the location to the iconic home of democracy of Parliament Square. After a short brief walk you arrive at one of the more instantly recognisable parade squares in London at Horse Guards, once known for its military parades and formations before becoming a car park for much of the 20th century with its large open parade square providing an area of use for the civil service. What’s interesting from a historical and public perspective is how between these two-time frames, the Victorian era world of Syndicate and the modern world we live in today how this structure both in its appearance and purpose is now very similar returned for prosperity to its original use. The front of Horse Guards retains much of the character that has become so well-known and familiar both at home and abroad, most noticeably and of course captured on a number of formats the guard on duty. In the video game he wears the red uniform and bear skins hat standing to attention outside the gate although missing his side arm and rifle at this point. Visually the buildings exterior facade retains much of the charm and openness similar to its modern-day counter part, perhaps even more space in contrast to the more restrictive aspects of other landmark representations seen in the game. Tonally the colour of the buildings share a similar style to other locations in the game, an almost sand coloured facade and stone work which may have been true of that time.
In contrast the modern-day equivalent has a colder white wash effect similar to the other Government buildings location in and around Whitehall. Unlike St Paul’s which had a far more faithful reproduction in terms of the technical features that I observed from the smallest minutia of the number of arches and windows for example, here at Horse Guards that level of recreation whilst certainly similar doesn’t hold to the same detail. It has the general portrayal familiar to the casual observer, the guards, the front gate and fence and building shapes but certainly there are a number of inconsistencies and changes in comparison to the other famed architecture of Christopher Wren. Most noticeably the number of windows on the surrounding buildings doesn’t match up between the two periods, often multiplied and expanded perhaps for the sake of variety and to create more depth and excitement to these buildings. In truth, Whitehall beyond the pomp and circumstance purely on the external front is fairly compact and a fairly cold white stoned building, which works to contrast the dark uniforms of the blues and royals now routinely mounted and a greater attraction than the red uniformed soldiers who stood on duty historically. The greenery from the historical period is missing, questionably was it there or taken from historical records as it does seem to add a level of warmth and nature to the environment that isn’t today and doesn’t necessarily reflect the area. It is quite a cold, sterile location to visit beyond the attraction of the guards on duty, imposing in its design that isn’t reflected to the same degree within the game. Perhaps then best described as a loving homage to the this venue, done so for the right reasons but not how Horse Guards exists today.
Arriving in Parliament squares provides a view of the Palace of Westminster, home to the elected parliamentarians and the upper House of Lords. When I first learnt of Ubisoft’s intention to situate a game in London, based on previous experience of these games the first synchronization and landmark that came to mind was of course the clock tower providing a stunning vantage point of London and Westminster. In the modern world, access and the means to climb and perch atop Big Ben is not one afforded the common man and as such many of the images captured around this location were of course from street view. In relation to the appearance of the Palace of Westminster this of course, as with St Paul’s was one I would have expected to be faithfully copied and reproduced to the same standard. For my own personal preference whenever I tend to visit this location as a tourist in my own city I tend to approach from west along Abingdon Street which in gaming terms I played to suit my real life habits. From this approach you see the Old Palace Yard and the exterior facade of the House of Lords.
One of the better reproductions in the digital format in my personal opinion, of the issues I had with the attention to detail at Horse Guards in terms of the colour palette used not being consistent with its modern-day counterpart, this cannot be levelled at this location. Perhaps the colorization is a little more orange and muted in contrast to the gold and black colouring synonymous with Parliament, not necessarily a breaking fault but one consistent with the world inhabited in the game. There is a sharp, angular architectural style associated with Gothic era designed buildings, captured here almost faultlessly. There are faults to be found, some of the depth of the windows captured externally is missing in the digital world which looks almost entirely flat, the two tower structures that are visibly open are closed up and windows in Syndicate. Only small details and not necessarily memorable given the scope of reproduction of Parliament, the addition of the statue in the exterior was a welcome feature, one I had been curious to see if they would include but there it was.
Heading further west brings you to the Victoria Tower Gardens, an area I’m always astounded remains open and accessible to the general public given its proximity to Parliament but one none the less that doesn’t ever seem to garner the same publicity or level of interest as the more hectic and chaotic views from Parliament Square. This is a large stretch of open space running the length of the Thames from where the Palace ends up to Lambeth. In the gaming world, this section of greenery and open space was somewhat reduced and condensed in contrast to its modern-day equivalence and physical state. Approaching from Lambeth bridge the digital world gives the impression the Palace is only a short distance away with a small area of greenery and open space. In reality there is a fairly open and vast space between the two point of interest, a lovely serene area that is quite often, in contrast to London’s more famous and open green spaces relatively sparse in terms of visitors and locals despite the great views and appeal of the area. The view from this perspective does once more highlight some of the colorization issues prevalent with this location although again, objectively this is consistent with the game world even if you do come to realization you are playing this title through the prism of a historical snap chat filter.
The almost white stone washed material visible from this approach stands in contrast to the sand colour facade of the digital world. Presumably this was a general direction of choice given how prevalent this color palette prevails around the architecture of Syndicate. Personally, it does jar with me somewhat giving these locations in London an almost Mediterranean finish with the warm orange hues and lush greenery present. In contrast, the real world finish of a number of these buildings in and around Whitehall and Westminster tends to be white, the prevailing colour in Whitehall and certainly on a clear day as pictured in-game and when walking around the colours are a lot more muted lighter than those shown here. None of these are game breaking issues in terms of realism and authenticity just an observation on the overall finish, when you are so familiar and have ingrained the perception of the location you live in when you experience a virtual world through a different prism it does break the connection between the two.
So my journey around Westminster and the City concluded with Westminster Abbey, the grand ornate building that sits beside the Palace of Westminster and has its own dominance and character on the skyline no less equivalent to its neighbour close by. Walking around to the north of the Abbey grants a view of its main towers that maintain the gothic architectural style of the main palace and stand with prominence with the back drop of the bell tower behind. A closer approximation in terms of the colouring of the buildings real aesthetic it still suffers somewhat from the Victorian filter of choice so prevalent however studying the finer detail I was impressed with how faithful a job they managed to perform in capturing a lot of sharp angular features, the number of windows for example matching between the real and virtual world on this occasion. The indentation lacks a little depth as before, not as noticeable as the main Palace but certainly in contrast to the more nuanced depth and layers in the real Abbey building the external walls are relatively flat.
The perspective of the Palace behind does suffer somewhat from the constraints of the game’s decision to forcibly confine and restrict the area space available in the open world of London. Where they have done there best to fully recreate the depth and scale of the buildings in question because certain areas are smaller and reduced in terms of spacing it does knock the alignment out of perspective. Viewed from this angle the towers of the Palace behind area off, even the Abbey’s neighbouring building isn’t quite lining up as nicely and clearly as other areas of London. Perhaps not necessarily a deliberate design choice more a consequence of having two such grand and imposing buildings located so close by none the less there is a visible disconnect between the two locations when you stop to compare the virtual and real world. The absence of foliage and trees I can forgive, a city changes over the course of two centuries, the attention to detail on the buildings exterior a welcome change but certainly you would come to expect certain angles and viewpoints as already seen earlier in Picadilly Circus were almost faithfully recreated to perfection, perhaps through visiting and taking captures then recreating this digitally. It seem’s strange when this hasn’t been the case as shown here.
In contrast to the northern view of the tower the Abbey from the East side where you typically see the snaking queues is consistent in its recreation on the digital platform. Walking around the Abbey grounds this openness and access is now no longer permitted due to the volume of activity and crowd control measurements in place. You do feel somewhat of a regret that this is the case, certainly the exterior grounds of St Paul’s for example is entirely open and only the entrance way has barrier controls in place. Unfortunately in the world we live today the necessity of having railings and controls in place to protect large crowds especially around Westminster is required. Still, even from a distance with a good camera you can capture a good clear crisp image of the features and styles of the building, perhaps requiring a little love and for the first time giving a true reflection of the passage of time on the stone work and exterior features. Today’s world shows the Abbey in its current state, the brick work dirty and discoloured, the features prevalent and pointed in keeping with the architectural style but no longer the crisp, bold world tones of the other facades and facings. In contrast to the north tower, the level of depth does seemingly hold true to that of its real counterpart thanks in no small part to the shadow work at play. What angles and depth is visible against the sun light are faithfully reproduced.
In contrast the digital world as show is a lot bolder and clean, with bold bright colours where the weathered aged effect of todays Abbey stands. I was somewhat dubious about the level of greenery that exists in Syndicate in a number of locations that didn’t hold true and felt like an inclusion to add nature to an urban environment. Here, certainly when you visit the Abbey there is a substantial amount of greenery and tree’s in the grounds themselves and the use and level of inclusion in the digital world certainly does approximate the atmosphere and tone of the location. It works, with the range of tree’s and colours showing an astonishing feature. the random street furniture I can forgive, lampposts come and go as and when they serve a purpose and certainly I can imagine its inclusion here was purely an aesthetic choice but one that arguably works to some extent. In summary, having explored to some degree the Abbey both in the real and virtual world there is a great level of detail that has gone into this location, structurally the reproduction levels are consistent in both time periods and mediums and the finish in terms of color used almost matches it some regards, in others not to much. This concludes the tour around Westminster and the City but our time with Syndicate is about to take one final step into the ‘future’ as we explore in detail the Tower of London and Tower bridge using the temporal glitch of the game and the war era of this part of London. Join us next time.
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