As was observed by some guy who used to work here (RPS in peace), it’s really weird when bits of the UK turn up in games in an authentic way. Which is to say, in a way that isn’t over-the-top Victoriana Steampunk. I say I say. Tea and crumpets. (Not that I don’t like crumpets, or drink an amount of tea that means I get caffeine headaches without it, obviously.)
Anyway, the refracting of “things in-game are not real life -> my real life things appearing in-game -> my real life not real???” is so weird that when I was offered hands-on time with Watch Dogs Legion at Gamescom, I spent most of my time running around central London enraptured, shrieking the names of locations as they appeared where they are supposed to be, like a combined tourist/tour guide/idiot.
And yes, yes, I did all the things in Ubisoft’s hack-em-me-do you’re supposed to do, in this big open world adventure where you can recruit anyone to your high-tech revolutionary gang. I suspect my playthrough went much like Matt’s did at E3. I cackled at the man who my phone told me had a clown fetish, and was quietly impressed that a dominatrix had “teaches shibari rope technique” in her other info. I recruited a woman because the same phone told me she had once ripped a door off a car to save a child. I broke into a police station, I hacked cameras, stole encrypted data, commandeered drones. I damned the man. That’s all fine, and whatever. But mostly I enjoyed London.
“Did you know,” I said to the poor Canadian man who was burdened with helping me while I played, “that Trafalgar Square has been a historic site of protest in London for years, even all the way back in Victorian times, in the 1800s?” I said this because I had happened upon the aforementioned square, and it was host to an anti-government protest, with MDF boards with slogans sprayed on them and everything.
These pockets of civil unrest aside, Ubi’s near-future-but-almost-present dystopian capital is like the current day one, with a bit more trash, fash, and neon splash. And I sort of wasn’t expecting that. So when I drove down a street and saw Nelson’s Column (wahey!) I slammed on the breaks of the car I’d nicked, and got out to look, the digital equivalent of Dr. Alan Grant taking his aviators off to look at a big dinosaur in Jurassic Park. Except instead of “They do move in herds!”, I said “Oh my god, there’s the Canadian Embassy!”
The Canadian Embassy on the other side of Trafalgar Square! And on the right, there’s the National Portrait Gallery! So I instantly abandoned the mission I was supposed to be doing (which was, incidentally, to meet a man at Westminster Abbey) and doubled back up the street behind me. Because if that was Trafalgar Square, then surely if I went up this side street I’d be at — yes, Leicester Square! And the fountain jets in the middle shot up and down in a circle just like in real life! It even had the weird round glockenspiel left over from the now-demolished Swiss Centre. And the round-edged glass hotel building where the Centre used to be.
Then I walked, wonderingly, through Piccadilly Circus and along Regent Street, until I ran into All Souls Church and the weird, U-shaped front of Broadcasting House, where the BBC lives. Then I found Horseguards. Then, when we fast travelled via the tube, of course, to Camden, I pointed out the grubby market on the right that sells knock-off t-shirts, and the bridge over the canal (“It even has the willow tree!”), and the shops that have big fibreglass model shoes and animals over the doors, for some reason. There was even a blatant takeoff of Cyberdog, a trance and dance music-themed clothing shop where everything is neon. In real life it has two big sexy robots either side of the door; in fake-London they were big sexy robot dogs.
The nice Canadian dev, who had never been to London, and who had the good grace to laugh when I told him off for saying “metro” instead of “tube”, encouraged me to zoom out to look at the whole map. Only about 20% of it was available in the demo, but in the full thing it has a lot of the major boroughs, and their districts. Lambeth has Brixton and Stockwell. There’s Whitechapel, of course, there’s Islington. Aldgate. Bloody hell. It’s all the wrong shape and too small, like a pork pie version of London what’s been sat on, but still: London! Thus, my real life is not real???
I’m not trying to show off, like, here are all the bits of London I know. I’m trying to tell you how much of London is recognisable in Watch Dogs Legion. From what I saw, it’s enough that a real-life Londoner could get around Ubi-London without needing a map. And I didn’t overhear any NPCs screeching “APPLES AN’ PEARS!” like a pissed Barbara Windsor drag act, or singing My Old Man’s A Dustman or anything. So now I’m like, did they do this with San Francisco too? Are they actually very good at this? I suppose only time will tell.
I always want places in games to become places that I can navigate without the map because I grow to know them. But it turns out that an easier way is to make a sufficiently accurate version of somewhere I already know. Whodathunk?