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.
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. For this final chapter we travel through the temporal rift and explore the presentation of The Tower of London and Tower Bridge through the prism of war-torn London and the modern world.
The Tower of London
The Tower of London has through its history served a number of purposes and functions, from a penitentiary of the nations more notorious characters to a bastion of liberties and freedoms, and today in its current function an attraction to those curious of its legacy. One of the great pleasures of undertaking this personal project was the opportunity and purpose to return and visit this great attraction, made somewhat easier by holding a membership to the Historic Royal Palaces of which the Tower is one of the key locations.
For those familiar with the world of Syndicate the Tower is a location accessible when you have passed through the Temporal Glitch depositing your chosen protagonist before Tower Bridge in its glory to the East and the Tower itself to the North. Whilst the predominant majority of the games historical time frame is set around the Victorian era of Queen Victoria, this portion of the narrative is set around the First World War creating a slightly different atmosphere and character of the city, on the surface at the very least.
The location itself is heavily guarded in the game world and requires either direction confrontation with the British Troops on duty or utilising the protagonists ability to repel up the walls and into the Towers interior. Of course to undertake this project in the absence of a tourism mode or dedicated photography option did require engaging and dispensing with the soldiers on duty. Whilst there is a certain level of disconnect with the enemies featured in previous totals, I will admit I did feel somewhat uneasy about taking out the British soldiers on duty, despite being virtual constructs there was a certain level of resonance inbuilt to the location that was hard to shake. Regardless I pushed forward and began this phase by capturing the entrance to the tower opposite traitors gate.
A relatively easy comparative shot to obtain as shown the features in the foreground shared the greatest similarity especially the curvature of the stone arch, the detail of the windows and position and placement of the curved tower nearest to the camera. In contrast, where the similarity breaks down are the buildings towards the rear of the shot, the stone tower that has the stacked chimneys in the present and the arch of the black and white building prominent. Whilst certain structures and buildings were damaged and required restoration work following the conflict of the war, these buildings remained standing and seem a strange choice to change given the contrast in the white and black surface to the stone brickwork.
Climbing up to the inner rampart provides access to the Lanthorn Tower, in the modern contemporary world a pleasant walkway providing some great views of the White Tower to the North and the bridge to the East with a great, elevated vantage point to capture images of both. In the digital world, whilst serving the same function to a degree there are elements of the walkways purpose with the mounted machine gun turrets and search lights on the tower opposite. From a comparative stand point, there are small difference that present themselves when contrasting the two, predominantly the brick work and finishing of the exterior wall. The walkway itself has a different finish although both these changes I would probably accept or at the very least believe could be accounted for over the passage of time.
The contrasting shot that does stand out to me is the general shape of the tower itself which from the vantage point presented is certainly smaller with the details less pronounced. Approaching from this direction is the large visible window to the west which is entirely missing in the past. Even the entrance way itself is missing. The overall shape has a similarity with the pointed tower atop present in both which gives the Lanthorn Tower an element of differentiation from the Salt Tower beyond. The perfectionist in me see’s these small differences and breaks the immersion somewhat.
Leaving the rampart behind and entering the main square gives view and access to the White Tower, one of the more famous and usually associated structures and buildings of the Tower. And seemingly one of the hardest to present or capture the right perspective when comparing the two structures. The White Tower is predominantly cuboid in nature with only small deviations on the towers themselves to separate them. Using the tower with the dome as the central focus point in both images it became clear the perspective or spacing of the Tower was a little off, creating an almost rectangular finish in the digital presentation instead of the cubist building it was based on.
The overall finish in contrast was relatively similar with the stone pattern and effect present in both histories and conceptions, the amount of windows matching along the walls and towards although the archers slits in the fore tower were amplified in the finish game in contrast to the more humble two located in the real world. The intention of this comparison was never to lambasted or critique the overall presentation, Ubisoft have been consistent in relation to these titles that they were condensed representations of the cities based in and as such you can give them a measure of grace when distances and measurements are a little off. My only reservation would be the White Tower from any perspective tends to maintain its cube shape, here using the same central marker as a way to take the photo the Tower takes on a rectangular shape.
When I was considering undertaking this project inside The Tower of London one of the images that came to mind I was interested to contrast was the Royal Chapel and how visually it matched between the two different sources. As with other structures from this period there is a clear technical similarity between the two, from the number of windows matching to the pillars in those windows and even the general lattice and brick effect on the two structures. Of course there is some discrepancies, generally the spacing between the chapel and the building to the right is a little expanded, between the housing and the chapel again distanced a little more and the surface at the foreground concreted over as opposed to the greenery showing.
The position of the tree’s again have a nice connection to the future even if the quantity is a little lacking in the past and lastly examining the tower of the chapel there are some discrepancies in the two with the present day real spire more open and exposed in contrast to the built up brick effect. These are small differences, generally speaking I was curious to see if the captured image of the chapel was a decisive reflection of its real, modern-day counterpart, arguably I would suggest the games portrayal is a faithful reproduction.
One of the last images I chose to take for this project within the Tower of London was this view-point of the home of crown jewels and the view of the White Tower in the back ground, perhaps not as iconic or memorable as other locations but one having visited this attraction on multiple occasions has come to serve a natural conclusion to my journey as you leave the upper rampart and climb down the metal steps to be welcomed by this view. Certain locations in the Tower were restricted in the game hidden behind barriers and walls inaccessible that would cause the game to de synchronise around you, venturing further to the north along the rampart is such an area however you do have the option to follow in my current day steps and capture these comparative shots.
On review there is an immediate similarity and obvious differences that can be addressed but on a rare occasion I did actually prefer and found the digital presentation actually looked visually more appealing and proportionally correct. The depth and visual appearance of its modern counterpart does stand out quite substantially although despite its width there is a great gap between the tower and the armoury museum to the left giving a greater view of the White Tower. One of the last observations, I had picked up and commented on the use of the brick work effect throughout the game’s world, often used in areas and buildings that stood out from its real world counterpart. On this particular occasion, the effect and finish is remarkably similar, some small differences but overall the game functions well as a reproduction of the Tower.
Leaving the Tower of London introduces your protagonist to a view of one of London’s most famous and quite often incorrectly identified locations, Tower Bridge that serves and functions as a source of inspiration across the generations as a focal point in the River standing defiantly in its scope and design. Serving as the transit point in the game world between the Victorian era setting and London through the prism of the first world war this view and location inaccessible in the games main setting is a fascinating world area to explore in its own right.
The bridge itself is almost entirely accessible with the exception of the road way between the towers due to the bridge being open during the period visited. I was hoping there would be a mechanic to close the bridge purely for the curiosity of being able to cross as you traditionally would however given the virtual restrictions of being able to venture to far there was remarkable freedom in exploring the site, so without further a due lets approach the bridge from the West and view the world of Tower Bridge.
Not perhaps the most iconic or memorable aspect of the bridge but one that has become familiar as a resident of the city and on the occasion when I do play a tourist in London the access route to the bridges east side crossing. Quite often the west side stair case is considerably congested given the emergence onto an elevated view-point of the Tower of London and proximity to the tower experience. I tend, in real life and on this occasion within the game to use the east side stair case and wanted to capture and contrast the two.
As ever and usual the same remarks and observations can be made in terms of scale and minor alterations between the two, the more noticeable the pattern and shape of the stairs is inconsistent but still familiar, the colour work almost identical between the two using the blue and white style but a little different between the two eras. The brick work of the bridge is smooth as opposed to the gravelled, rough real world effect, the width of the stairs is wider in the virtual playground which is an interesting perspective given the restrictive nature of the world and condensed presentation of other locations. But, and whilst this is entirely a subjective and personalised observation, for me it captured the spirit and familiarity of the location evoking memories of the Bridge.
My next focal point was the view of the Bridge from East side looking south across the Thames. Whilst the more photogenic and captured view is from the opposite side outside the Tower of London I do tend to find this side a little more quieter and in truth a lot more majestic with the means to capture the bridge and its imposing towers from this more refined and tighter perspective. This view-point also, for me personally, provided the most consistent and closely reproduced angle, a few quibbles in terms of spacing and compression perhaps but generally a very well captured presentation of the north tower and curves of the support beams.
The general use of colour matching but also the small details like the white and red circle in the middle, the arches beneath the road way in both period and even the faithful reproduction of the stone support base that acts as the foundation of the Tower. As ever the familiar sand coloured effect returns, perhaps an effect of the lighting but certainly inconsistent with the darker grey base and the white finish towards the top. It create consistency across the game world, I do wish just to add to the complexity of the exterior and create a real aesthetic the designers had been bold enough to vary the finish if just to differentiate between the periods.
We climb the steps and cross the road and cross the bridge to the west approaching the Tower Bridge experience welcome desk, which did provide a number of interesting contrasting view points but for me personally none more so than this shot of the north tower looking upwards and dominating the skyline. From this perspective and location it does perhaps reveal a few of the games restrictions and limitations, the depth is certainly lacking with a number of the windows and arches almost flat in appearance in contrast to the noticeable finish of the bridge in its present day complexion. The pillars on either side of the tower are a little more square again contrasting to the curved shape of the support beams, the cabling dropping down expanded in the digital world and of course the sand coloured surface of the brickwork that by now had become a familiar trait of this worlds view of London.
The width of the bridge itself does seem a little compressed without the mass of its real world counterpart, the addition of the lamps and lighting a nice touch but again creating disparity between them both. But, as familiar as it felt climbing the stairs to the top of the bridge, having walked across Tower Bridge on a number of occasions to the south bank and looking up at this vantage point so many times it does capture the spirit of the place. I wanted to see if Syndicate could capture my imagination and recognition of London in the smallest detail and visiting more obscure and familiar spots as it did a number of years ago playing in Rome. On Tower Bridge so far it has served that function well
And so we come to the final shot and view of Tower Bridge and my exploration of London through the prism of a video game and the view-point of a DSLR camera concluding my exploration of whether a piece of software could capture the imagery and heart of the city. The familiar points and observations can be made and as before the overall effect is a familiar reproduction with a number of noticeable differences, some minor such as the width which from this perspective is almost on parity, some more pronounced such as the colour work which from this view-point on the bridge is actually more refined in the digital world as opposed to that of its real world self.
As a final shot of this project then it does serve as a fitting summary perspective, a studio having developed a title with certain limitations and compression to allow the user to explore the world of London, creating these iconic landmarks with a remarkable familiarity and faithfulness in its similarity. Providing a nostalgic, welcoming finish as you stand on the south bank of the Thames and realise that yes, there was certain disparity in some areas, certain artistic license to create the back streets and stations that have changed noticeably over the passage of time. But London, given its history and renown throughout the world provides a sandbox experience that in the hands of a talented studio should in theory be relatively easy in part to reproduce, as shown whether at St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey or even Tower Bridge they have in my opinion succeeded with merit.
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