“Just put me back in London, I need to get to know the place again, breathe it in. Feel every quiver of its beating heart”
With the first, intimation of the latest in the Watch Dogs series suggesting a setting in London in a near, dystopian future I was intrigued. My last adventure around the capital city I call home in the digital playground occured in the historical setting of Victorian London using Assassins Creed Syndicate. As a personal challenge last year I decided to use the game’s engine and interpretation of the city to compare and contrast the historical portrayal to their real world equivalence. I detailed my findings extensively using a mixture of in game screen captures and real world photography:
- St Pauls to Covent Garden
- Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square
- Whitehall to Parliament Square
- Tower of London and Tower Bridge
Whilst the game itself wasn’t particularly remarkable or exceptional the dedication to the recreation of London was impressive. This inspired me to grab my DSLR and find out just how faithfully the design team had been in recreating the buildings. When I picked up the rumours of Watch Dogs being set in a modern day London I was instantly intrigued. Whilst the foundations of photography and image capture were occuring in that period certainly any images of London were largely sketches and paintings leading to an interpretation of the city. With a present day or near future setting there is little reason to believe the developers won’t step up their game and present something fairly special, for all the criticisms of Ubisoft as a studio their dedication and research into their locations is second to none.
Looking at the reveal trailer and gameplay walkthrough, taking these with a certain amount of trepidation of course as early release videos and trailers can often mislead of mask a broken or unfinished product, they suggest a faithful interpretation of the city. Starting in the instantly familiar haunt of Piccadilly Circus my first mental note was the abundance of traffic and population in the surrounding areas as you explore the heart of Westminster. What surprised me given the protectionism of London Underground as a brand within media was the presence of the familiar logo as you approach the entrance to Piccadilly Circus station looking towards Bond Street to the North. I’m anticipating some form of anarchy and chaos as you attempt to liberate the city from the implied menace, quite honestly though in these moments it does have the feel of London from what I’ve seen so far. Following a car chase in the walk through video the optics shifted towards another playable character who utilises her ‘experience’ as a former Assassin. Immediately, unlike Syndicate which suffered to a degree from the monumental changes to the river skyline and architecture this was instantly familiar to any resident of the city with the iconic London Eye seemingly having survived into the near future. My concern at the moment comes largely from the use of lighting and the night time setting which does limit or restrict being able to do a comparative piece however, the atmosphere and shots used does certainly capture the changing nature of the city and the immense light of the various buildings that make up the skyline. How faithfully it recreates the capital we’ll only tell come its release next year.
The implied narration from the Trailer suggests the exploration and restoration of the ‘boroughs’, London as a city is conversely large and expansive whilst also feeling compact and condensed at times. Ubisoft were quite open that in Syndicate it was a condensed presentation of the city, whether the same approach is used here is anyone’s guess. I was quite willing to accept they would use a similar approach however the scope of that game was somewhat confined to the City of London and a few surrounding areas, you had the scope as in life to move between a half dozen boroughs such as Camden and Westminster however the scale of their use was heavily curtailed. The trailer made use of a transport mechanic to take you from one area to another making me wonder whether they will use an approach like Dragon Age Inquisition which allowed you to explore large areas with a central hub, home location. Certainly what we’ve seen so far includes a number of well known areas north of the river, Camden Market, China Town and Piccadilly Circus in Westminster as well as Embankment. Using Syndicate as a benchmark, there really wasn’t to much historically to explore or see in contrast to the City of London in that period, as such there wasn’t that same drive or push to go south of the River in that game. Today, and presumably in the future there’s a great deal to see and explore including the Tate Modern, Imperial War Museum and South Bank centre. These would all be fascinating to explore and presumably free climb to various degrees and present a vantage point even the most dedicated of city dwellers fail to see on a daily basis. All we’ve seen so far is North of the river. There is a great deal to see, I just hope given the growth and expansion of the city over the last couple of decades they do service to that part of London. And there in lies my thought they might utilise a different structure with the inclusion of buses and the tube network creating an easy mechanic to get around. Equally, and most likely we will see a condensed version of London, which would be ambitious to present the city in its true form, there are a great deal of unattractive buildings amongst the jewels and certainly a fair distance between Camden that we’ve seen, and the visually distinctive Docklands area if they wanted to venture slightly away from Westminster.
So there we are, a brief break down of the game’s setting without focusing at all on the combat, characters and narrative. My excitement I’ll openly admit comes from being able to be a virtual tourist in my own home city, unlike the multitude of games set in New York or LA, setting an open world game outside of America is a rare experience to behold, despite the anarchic elements eluded to I am optimistic this will allow me to venture out once more both in the virtual and real world to see how the two contrasting environments compare. My hope, as utilised in Assassins Creed Origins is the inclusion of a tourist mode, effectively a safe mode to explore the area without the fear of random attacks or side missions to distract you. Given the restriction of the area in Syndicate, its nearest equivalence, the areas shown suggest a focus on the North side of the river however with the growth of the Docklands and financial heart of the city in addition to the more rebellious nature of the south boroughs you would imagine they would feature some how. Either way, for the first time in a long time a Ubisoft game I can follow and get a little excited about.
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