Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was released on the 23rd October 2015 as a direct sequel to the French, revolutionary era set game Unity. Crossing the English channel, this new chapter in the franchise brought the action and intrigue to the streets of industrial London with all the grit and crime players had come to expect from this series. It was the first opportunity to explore an open world interpretation of London with many of its well known buildings and landmarks present at this period of time before the devastation caused by the Great Wars and the subsequent landscape and societal changes following this period. In 2018 I set out to capture many of the cities most well known landmarks on camera to compare and contrast the digital and real world equivalence of these locations, to look at the level of authenticity applied by Ubisoft in bringing the City to life. And where for artistic reasons, concessions and changes were made. It wasn’t a project designed to expose the fallacies of the Open World engine used in Syndicate, more an opportunity to explore the City I have resided in all my life and know very well and to shine a spotlight on the differences discovered on my digital and real world adventures. This tour took place in the Summer of 2018 across the City of London taking in many of its most famous landmarks and attractions, concluding in the Spring of 2019 with one final visit to the Tower of London to bring this series to a close.
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 fictional, 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. It was during the third title Brotherhood the potential for a Discovery Tour, released for Origins as a way to shift the series back further into the timeline, took hold and became apparent as the aesthetic appearance behind the construction of historical Rome was evident in the minutiae of the detail. Rome is a fascinating, contrasting city to behold in person, a construct of both modern and historical archaeology, the two sides clashing for dominance and prominence on the Italian skyline. To an extent, despite degradation and vandalism over the course of time the Colosseo and Foro Romano today, visually remain largely untouched with the extent of the preservation work around the foundations to retain the appearance and impression of the historical ruins. The liberation and freedom to explore the Foro Romano in Brotherhood broke the immersion factor of the title, all pretence of concern for the plight of the Assassin’s Guild lost in its entirety as you turned your attention to the Roman architecture and legacy.
Subsequently each release has indulged that level of wonderment as an aside to the story surrounding your central character. In Origins, the decision was made to strip away the story and quest modes and allow you to explore the Egyptian history of that time period in question. But taking a step back one title with the release of Syndicate it allowed players to indulge their 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 you to limit to a degree the area covered whilst comparing the key attractions so familiar to player and residents alike. Many of the historical buildings remain, restored and preserved over the years to retain a certain timeless aesthetic and appearance that affords Syndicate the opportunity to be a remarkable tool to explore this period of London’s history, recognisable at once for its landmarks whilst also a world away from the bright lights and energy of the City today.
St Paul’s Cathedral
This first chapter on this tour begun at one of the cities most famous buildings and landmarks, the Baroque styled Anglican cathedral of St Pauls. Designed by the architect Sir Christopher Wren, it was part of the cities rebuilding efforts after the devastation caused by the Great Fire of London. Putting certain sacrilegious animosities aside, one of the central features of the Assassin’s Creed games has been the ability to scale and climb the grand, imposing religious architecture paramount in the tapestry of both Western and Eastern European design. From the Pantheon in Rome to the Galata Tower in Revelations, Notre Dame in Unity and here St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. The imposing Neo Gothic Architecture designed by St Christopher Wren is one of the earlier locations acting as a synchronization spot to progress your awareness of the environment and seemed a fitting place to begin this particular tour of the City. Ubisoft has consistently been open about the work that goes into recreating these open world environments, undertaking both historical research on material available in addition to location scouting akin to cinematography. This level of immersion, to an extent is made easier when certain attractions and sites remain, largely untouched and intact to where they stood over a century before. Where the American centred titles struggled to a degree with having recognisable landmarks to hold that sense of belonging, certainly New England as shown in Assassin’s Creed 3 stands in sharp contrast to the world as it exists now.
With a deeper level of historical preservation and indeed history, Europe provided a virtual playground to explore and recreate. London in particular for the landmarks that remain from the Victorian era to the present day. Exploring the green area surrounding the Cathedral gives insight into the detail picked up by the game developers. Going back and retroactively exploring the environments of gaming worlds either through Art Books or the Discovery Tour mode does illuminate the intricate detail picked up and recreated at this level. Equally, and I would imagine entirely unintentionally I did appreciate the fact certain tree’s present in the game scaled down for size and appearance have seemingly grown in the last century to now have a prominent position in the view line obscuring the same angle the character found themselves in during gameplay. The detail in the stone facing was of interest to me, here you gain a sense of the detail the digital artists were able to capture in recreating St Pauls. Whilst capturing the angles having focus points to align to, in the picture below for example the black window above the entrance point and the curved recess above that allowed me to capture the contrasting image to the screen capture taken during the game. Certainly static and pre-rendered images have been a consistent feature with the expansion of onto discs in media however the additional memory present in modern consoles and certainly looking further ahead into this generation allows the smaller, finer details present.
South Entrance, St Pauls Cathedral
West Entrance, St Pauls Cathedral
North Entrance, St Pauls Cathedral
Of the buildings recreated in London, the easiest and perhaps the benchmark standard for the game is the Cathedral, an iconic and central feature on the London Skyline. Today under legislation St Paul’s maintains its importance and focus by being on the protected view planning list ensuring its prominence is maintained across the sight at the cost of development and construction. As such when centring a game in the English capital it deserves the attention to detail provided and for me at least the game’s developers captured this to a high degree. As a gamer and amateur photographer being able to so easily capture these angles and shots with minimal effort is testament to the faithful recreation of these landmarks. That the Cathedral largely remained intact during the blitz which may have reshaped the skyline had that fateful night ended differently provided an easier task for the developers. Ultimately however, like similar open world titles the building whilst an impressive feature remains a static shell unable to venture inside and explore the interior. It would be noble to attribute this to religious sensitivity however many of the building in syndicate are just shells which makes the game feel somewhat, empty and sparse. My personal preference at least for these landmarks would have been to have the option to enter and explore within. Thankfully the next landmark, due to its design and purpose allowed a degree of exploration to take place.
Whilst restoration work has been extensive on this landmark the preservation of the original design and appearance has been paramount. As such when presented with the opportunity to bring the structure into the digital format relatively little has been amended or changed. From my own perspective the front of St Paul’s has always been a little underwhelming, or perhaps the Cathedral is so well-known for its dome that any view that obscures this aspect of its design induces a sense of dismay. Looking at the two images in detail however objectively from these viewpoints is one of the clearest examples of the recreative work undertaken. The minutiae in the detail from the exact number of external pillars matching to the windows on the left and the right. The recreation of the two towers rising up. Even from the same specific angle and viewpoint the spire of the dome obscured to the same degree but visible. These immersive details so quickly overlooked are what I crave when I explore these titles in greater detail. I readily accept the thrill in these titles to climb to the highest points, for me they are a momentary diversion from the cheer joy exploring this city of mine at street level and basking in its presentation and portrayal.
Covent Garden in contrast to the Cathedral design of Christopher Wren is a relatively new construct whose origins date back to the 17th Century as a market place before construction began in earnest into the structure that is in place today. The market itself whilst a shell in nature is relatively open plan and accessible to pass through when not in use. Certainly, unlike St Paul’s, when looking to compare and contrast the buildings as displayed in Syndicate to their modern counterparts it is evident development has been forthcoming, the relatively empty skyline in the Victorian era game now taken up by modern construction that overshadows the marketplace. What remains is relatively unchanged although this wasn’t always the case is the pedestrianized nature of the immediate environment although as evidenced above both carriages and cars do still populate the area as and when they are required. What struck me immediately that broke the immersion were some of the smaller details that were changed such as the addition of steps to the entrance of the market on the North Side and the expansion upwards of the roof giving this prominence on the display. The street furniture is forgivable as it comes across as the game developer giving depth to the environment however these changes to the buildings do break the immersion personally when contrasting the physical and digital world.
Approaching from the south along Southampton Street the connecting road used in the game has been adjusted to provide a direct line of sight to the main entrance to the market. In reality the street itself is offset to the left and when approached from the south gives a view to the left side of the structure. These small incremental changes are understood from a creative viewpoint, the sense of recognition of emerging into this familiar London landmark when exploring the world of Syndicate gives vindication to the design choices. Today to obtain a similar view of Covent Garden requires standing on the stone steps of Jubilee Hall market avoiding the stands that sell their wares. Another small detail that challenged the immersion for me was the elevation and grandeur of the roof as shown in game both from this perspective and in the first comparative shot of the market. It struck me to a degree this may have been a reused or rushed design as it bares a similarity to the station roof designs in the game world. In truth, as shown the roof is far less elevated and more simplistic in design if retracted to a degree. The prominence and position of the central entrance and triangular arch has been redacted in the game design, an interesting choice, from a design aesthetic digitally it creates a more consistent standard with the pillars along the exterior. The basic design is familiar but noticeably different.
Approaching Covent Garden from Southampton Street
South Hall, Covent Garden
Apple Market, Covent Garden
Moving into the interior of the south hall and looking to the East provides an opportunity to view the lower hall, now replete with cafe’s and dining areas. Much of the fittings and fixtures of the game market as shown portray the railings to be a more ornate design, quite possibly based on historical records and images this may have been the case. Given the dedication and attention to detail of the game’s design team presumably much of the design and creation of the structures would be based on the original schematics or images obtained from the period. Compared to its modern counterpart which has a minimalist appearance certainly the allure of the gaming world is striking. Equally the darker tones of the roof support beams and struts for me, visually a more appealing colour palette in contrast to the light blue metallic finish as used now. Interestingly the roof takes on a more swept forward appearance in keeping with the more streamlined interior aesthetic and contrasting to the dropped down glass panes pictured. In today’s Covent Garden the exit to the East has in place pillars dropping down creating archways to the courtyard beyond. In the world of Syndicate the same opening to the market is almost entirely open with a view of the buildings and market beyond. Whilst the design of Covent Garden is recognisable with certain embellished changes in comparing the two shots there is a reduction in the height of the main structure with greater curvature of the walls and support pillars.
Passing through the connecting corridor gives an interesting contrasting shot, stylised in a brick work design in the digital format in keeping with the appearance of the building. Today the same location has a white washed design giving a cleaner, more modern finish. The roof in both images shares an almost identical design although the triangular support beams are more frequent. Once more the exit point is open to the world beyond where pillars are now situated to the entry point. Personally I enjoy these small touches and intrigue as to whether this was a deliberate design decision, constrained by time for example to circumvent a minor detail or whether these finishes are a contemporary addition. A similar observation can be made when looking at the north hall and what in today’s world is the Apple Market although remarkably still serving the same purpose and remit of its counterpart in Victorian England. Similar observations to the South Hall can be made however there does appear to be a similar curvature in both digital and physical construction. In both conditions however the capture and presence of light into the market is captured with great effect, perhaps with a certain grandiose flare in the digital format but certainly similar to the saturation that occurs on a clear day.
We finished this first part of our tour around the Victorian era and modern-day city of London with a look down James Street. Today, a large proportion of visitors to Covent Garden will exit the underground station and walk south down James Street to the Market directly ahead. From the vantage point of Evie Frye we look north to the station entrance on the left hand side. The street design in the Victorian era retains the brick styled street surface as shown in the modern era, although the building facades of the buildings to the left and right of the images have undergone some evolution in that same period. The more brick based Victorian design replaced with the almost Greco-Roman white washed exterior façade that exists today. Covent Garden in contrast to St Pauls has undergone certain changes both to its presentation and design when comparing the digital to the real world. Certainly a predication to streamline certain aspects, opening up others where in its current setting the differences are notable. But from my personal opinion despite these changes they do evoke the memory of the buildings they replicate to a high degree. Whilst the immersion factor can be challenged when presented to their contemporary, actual selves, quite clearly the atmosphere of London is captured.
That was part of the reason and motivation to undertake this project, to see whether the game could capture the spirit and feeling of exploring London by foot. Certain aspects have been changed and amended but there was something to be said for standing in Covent Garden market between the two main halls and feeling that instant sensation of familiarity. When I first played Unity there was a similar feeling standing inside the cathedral of Notre Dame, through faithful and careful observation, the ability to create a detailed sense of immersion in the surrounding environment. St Paul’s captures the look of its real world equivalence, on this concluding part of the tour, Covent Garden without doubt recreated and infused the spirit of the location into the gaming world. From here, we continue this tour of the world of Syndicate travelling deeper into the West End of London and following the path towards Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and ending in Trafalgar Square. I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of these London attractions and look forward to seeing you again soon.
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