On Tour With Watch Dogs Legion: Barbican Estate

London, the vibrant, historical capital of the United Kingdom was brought to life through the digital prism with the release of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs Legion. The third chapter in the Watch Dogs series, this release moved the action of the American based series across the Atlantic to imbue it with that distinct British spirit and character. It was the biggest departure and change in the series and one of the few games in recent memory to base a modern open world narrative away from the familiar North American settings of its peers and contemporaries. Whilst sharing a similar language with many familiar cultural trappings, there is still a distinct look and feel to the setting of the game that is uniquely British. From the road signs to the cursing, when you first step out onto the rain soaked pavements of a near future dystopian London setting, you really do feel you are walking in the Capital.

Strapping on your digital boots, this recreation of the capital afforded an opportunity to explore and discover a number of my favourite locations at street level, points of beauty and natural interest opened for exploration and discovery. The studio first attempted to recreate the tone and aesthetic of London in another of its series as featured in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. That was a Victorian playground, with Legion, the ambition is clear to see as they have attempted to create this living, breathing expansive city with many familiar landmarks and buildings that leaves little to hide behind when they do make aesthetic changes or decisions. The games principle setting is the City of Westminster with certain Boroughs south of the river featured in both releases however it has expanded into the north with an impressive recreation of the urban and distinct area of Camden.

For this series, I will be getting back out and about on the streets of London and comparing and contrasting the real world locations as featured in the game Watch Dogs Legion to their digital equivalence. Each review features a distinct part of the Capital with many of the most well known and famous buildings and structures represented as well as a few personal hidden treasures from that area. For the third chapter in this series, we continue our exploration of London by travelling south from Camden and arriving at the Barbican Estate, home to one of the most distinct and unique housing developments in the Capital as well as the cities own Museum. A great example of the Brutalist Architectural style prominent during the post war reconstruction period of history, today a Grade II listed area with its prominent concrete aesthetic and appearance that encapsulates the design approach of that period of time. A fascinating location to discover and explore.

Museum of London

The Museum of London, as with nearly every other cultural destination in London isn’t directly featured or credited in the fictional setting of Watch Dogs Legion though its distinct presence on the skyline is immediately evident when approaching the City of London from St Pauls to the south. Opened in 1976 as part of the Barbican Estate, it was an ambition to bring together the cities cultural heritage that had been divided between the Guildhall Museum and Kensington Palace into one distinct location. With plans to relocate to a new destination nearby at Smithfield Market in the coming year, it is one of the more inadvertent accurate depictions of the area that manages to capture the setting of the game to reflect how the area will transform when this museum moves the short distance to its new home near Farringdon. Today, it remains accessible and open and as one of my personal favourite museums to spend a morning exploring the history of this city I call home, made an interesting place to explore in more detail. Immediately, what is evident is how closed off and inaccessible this corner of London is within the setting of the game, though with the use of drones you are able to walk around the open terrace that stands out as one of the more unique elements of the design of the Barbican Estate surrounding it. It made for a focal point to begin this adventure, immediately of note the elevated walkways removed that provide access to the Museum in the present day.

Upper Walkways overlooking Museum Courtyard
Upper Walkways overlooking Museum Courtyard

Looking towards the museum as you approach from the station, you are immediately struck by the unique and distinct appearance of the courtyard exterior. Many of the surrounding roads layout have been recreated with an observant authenticity, in particular the application of tunnels and covered roadways that does look and feel authentic to their real world equivalence. As with many other Boroughs in the City that have benefited through regeneration in recent years, there is an eclectic mix of designs and styles in close proximity to each other, the modern clean and warm colours of the neighbouring office buildings contrasting to the cold, brutalist aesthetic of the Museum wall. As a listed structure and area, you do imagine there are restrictions in what can be altered or changed, as such it does feel a little dated in contrast to its neighbours and peers, equally it gives it a more unique appearance that is recreated faithfully to a degree in the digital future though certainly some changes have been made. One of the aspects of the brutalist, urban architecture design, it is very much a style of its time. The elevated courtyard feels more compact, retaining the general shape of the structure but less imposing on the skyline. The lettering has of course been removed, an approximation of its future direction and purpose as the Museum moves to its new location, but for the most part the digital depiction does have a strong connotation to its real world counterpart.

Museum Exterior Wall
Museum Exterior Wall

It sits almost as a citadel, a solitary island surrounded by the urban tower blocks of modern design, unique in its appearance and a visual anchor that draws your attention. One aspect of its design that has always been a challenge to come to peace with is its accessibility from street level, a noted point that has been addressed with its purposed move to Smithfield Market. In the digital world of London, this challenge has been removed entirely with no evident or direct way to climb up above street level to access the area, instead relying on the use of Drones featured prominently in the game to grant access. From up above you are afforded a more quiet and serene depiction of the area that feels similar to its real world equivalence and did evoke a similar emotional reaction to standing there in person. In other open world games when you manage to achieve or exploit a barrier within the setting to access these areas, it does sometimes come across as barren or threadbare in its depiction, utilising an aesthetic lifted from other surfaces with minimal application. Here, it must be said despite the barriers to overcome, the look and feel of the walkways does resemble their real world equivalence even if the hollowed garden interior is replaced with a generic terrace which did feel a little odd and not true to life. Part of the design approach to the Barbican Estate was to build in and integrate open spaces in contrast to the surrounding urban environment allowing its residents an opportunity to breathe. It was nice to see the spirit of approach to its architectural methodology reflected in the design of the island interior.

Interior Courtyard.
Interior Courtyard.

It is possible to follow the elevated walkways in the modern day away from the Museum towards the Barbican Centre a short walk away that permits a contrasting view of the water features in the heart of the estate to the surrounding buildings. In the fictional setting of the game, as noted these have been removed entirely affording limited progress before your access is curtailed. Dropping down to street level permits some interesting contrasting views of the two locations, Barbican station itself has been removed entirely from the transport network in the setting of the game, in the spirit of authenticity and reflecting my usual personal predication the short walk up from St Pauls is a delightful sojourn on a clear day allowing a great view of the museum and estate from the south. Before you arrive at the concealed entrances to the Museum, there is a small open space called Postman’s Park next to the Presbyterian Church that is brought to life that felt like a private, hidden space. Having sat and enjoyed the opportunity to rest my feet here on numerous occasions after exploring the Museum a short distance away, it was enjoyable to see this small hidden park recreated and reflecting its modern day state without the dystopian degradation and damage typified in other parts of London in the game. From this point, the game does make changes to the accessways to the estate itself given its use as a fortified location to overcome, you can access the interior by following the London Wall, a departure from the intricate series of walk ways and passages in the modern day, for authenticity from here I opted instead to walk towards the residential estates that is an experience in itself.

Barbican Estate

The Estate is brought to life as a sprawling and open space in the digital world of Watch Dogs Legion recreating many of its most famous land marks and general aesthetic detail with remarkable accuracy. Walking around the virtual reconstruction it was remarkably easy to navigate and find familiar landmarks that translated into a visit to the real location that made for an enjoyable tour of this location in The City. One of the Estate’s more unique and visually pleasing points of interest are the Lakeside Terrace and Watergardens that are recreated in the digital realm. It serves in that context as a fortified location to overcome, as such it loses a degree of the openness and space that gives the real world location a respite and distinction to the elevated residence and buildings surrounding it. There are certain specific aesthetic changes made to the location, the introduction of island fountains for instance duplicating those in the circular inland basins. In addition, given its fortified status a perimeter fence is situated to the south of the terrace that provides a pleasing view of St Giles, the Gothic Styled church in the Estate in the real world. The general look and layout of the lakeside terrace captures the tone and style of its real world counterpart but noticeable changes have been made that takes away the general serenity and cathartic nature of the area. It is a pleasant and enjoyable area to rest and sit watching the world go by, an open area in a part of London that is urban and built up. Unlike other locations in the game that transform when you overcome the imminent threat, it remains hostile to the user and with no meaningful purpose in the game’s narrative beyond the thrill of exploration it is entirely there as a point of interest to discover.

East Facing View Lakeside Terrace, Barbican Estate
East Facing View Lakeside Terrace, Barbican Estate

Having liberated and departed the terraces and gardens, it was an opportunity to walk around the residential estate and entrance ways to the complex that is sealed and closed off in its entirety. The Centre has established itself as a destination for a broader international art movement and style, bringing to a domestic audience a number of distinct shows and presentations including the AI Exhibit in 2019. Visually it is one of the more unique complexes in the capital, a fascinating building to explore inside and out from an architectural perspective though it’s inclusion is restricted to the exterior in the digital environment. Away from the threat posed by the fenced off secure complex, the game captures the quiet and peaceful tone of the area remarkably. Exploring the Barbican by foot is an enjoyable experience, you do have to remember it is a residential estate that requires a certain level of awareness and respect but it was fascinating to discover how true to life the game was in its recreation of the area. The North Entrance to the Centre was a point of interest I came across in the game that was instantly recognisable having used this approach on my visit to the AI exhibit and been struck by the distinct building structures on show. Visiting this location once more in both settings it was startling to see how well it had recreated this vantage point, the height and elevation of the buildings almost to scale. Interestingly, the entrance way had introduced a scattering of plant pots and benches since my visit that were scaled down but present in the virtual setting. As noted, the location doesn’t serve a functional purpose to the games narrative so it was interesting to see this much attention to detail in an otherwise superfluous location in this approximation of London.

North Side Entrance to the Barbican Centre
North Side Entrance to the Barbican Centre

The Estate is divided into a number of distinct buildings and areas, designed in a way to create an impression of an open planned area to explore though a number of pathways are restricted through entrance gates and doorway to residents only. These elevated walkways are almost entirely absent in the game in a similar style to the Museum of London which does in turn lose an element of the mystique to the area of hidden passageways and areas to discover. In contrast, it just looks a little too normal in the game, an assortment of high rise tower blocks and street furniture though it does manage to capture certain elements unique to this area. The colour tones of the buildings for example are incredibly similar capturing the light sandy tones of the brickwork and the slightly darker balconies. The dual tone nature of brutalist architectural design on show. The plant installations are remarkably accurate, small details but for a resident of the City it captures the atmosphere and tone of the area by including this street furniture. Even the shape and style of the light fittings bare a striking resemblance. This view to the North looking towards Defoe House and the approach to Barbican Station, absent from the game’s transport network was enjoyable to explore in both settings, you can see the visible changes below to the skyline of the area, the contrasting architectural styles of the buildings amalgamated into one approach in the digital world of the game. This is a slight fallacy and weakness of game design in creating open world titles of this type, reusing assets to create near identical buildings and structures, a modern day equivalence of copying surface textures to populate and bring life to the open world though inadvertently leading to overt familiarity in the setting.

Defoe House, Barbican Estate
Defoe House, Barbican Estate

There are areas of the Estate I tried to discover in the digital world that were removed to create a more condensed version of the area, notably its conservatory, home to a number of plants and insects that highlights the unique and distinct nature of the area. It really is a microcosm of a number of styles and cultures, from its open lakes and water features to its greenery surrounded by buildings designed and built in the brutalist style, now an historical aesthetic in contrast to the approach of modern building architecture surrounding this distinct corner of London. From here, this particular tour of the game and the real world drew to a close walking towards Barbican station. There is a peaceful, elevated square called Beech Gardens that provides a view of the surrounding roads and streets leading into The City that made a fitting place to end this tour. Part of the ethos in the design of the Barbican was removing and hiding the roadways and parking structures beneath the surface creating these elevated walkways and squares above road level that are a unique and distinct feature in London for the benefit of it’s residents. Other attractions have been built in recent years that look to continue this approach recognising the cathartic and healing quality of nature in human interaction, the Sky Garden providing some remarkable views of the surrounding areas. In other cities, a similar desire to introduce the benefits of nature to an urban population, the Sky Line in New York for instance. What’s incredible about the Barbican Estate, this approach was ingrained in it’s design that remains to the present day for the benefit of residents and visitors alike. Of course in the absence of walkways in the digital world, this meant dropping down to the street and continuing my tour of the City at a later date.

In Summary

This chapter in the series draws to a close, an illuminating and informative journey through one of the City’s more visually unique and distinct looking areas and points of interest. As a community, it’s artistic and communal spirit is interesting to see in person, from an aesthetic perspective, it’s liberal use of brutalist architecture in contrast to the more modern approaches surrounding it in it’s entirety creates a remarkable series of buildings and structures to study and appreciate. This area of The City marks an expansion beyond other open world games interpretation of London in depicting an area to the north of Westminster, the Borough of Camden brought to life with its vibrant street art and market place, here, this small but distinct residential estate and entertainment venue recreated in remarkable detail capturing both the smaller nuanced detail in addition to the wider perspective of the area. The area continues to transform and change, a defining characteristic of what gives the Barbican Estate a persona of its own. The forecasted closure of the Museum of London in the near future is inadvertently captured with changes to the location in the game reflecting what may happen to this curious looking structure on the boundaries of The City. Whilst the game’s inability to forecast or amend the digital landscape to changes in Camden brought about or accelerated by the Pandemic are noticeable, equally, it was interesting to see how this area will change when the Museum leaves the complex and moves to its new home a short distance away. It’s difficult to imagine what will fill the void left behind by the Museum though in its digital approximation it was pleasing to see the presence of nature still existed in the game’s near future setting.

It continues to highlight the attention to detail in recreating these environments and stands as one of the more visually accurate visions of this area. The Brutalist style, typified by substance over style with a prominence of utilising and promoting building materials over decorative design was a leading approach as the country emerged out of the post war economy and begun a period of reconstruction. It typified a desire to rebuild parts of the city damaged during the war utilising the materials available to hand, focusing on constructing affordable housing in a minimalist style. It can appear cold, monotone in its aesthetic but equally contrasts to the modern office buildings and flats that surround the Barbican estate with their use of glass reflecting the blue of the sky. The use of repeating surface textures and building assets takes away a measure of the distinct look of the area but in the whole it does manage to capture the spirit of the Estate and how visually it stands out in this corner of London. It is a little disappointing the interiors of the Estate and Centre are restricted and closed off, in the absence of serving a function in the game’s narrative it would have created work to recreate an area for no real purpose but from personal experience, the interior is a fascinating multi levelled building to explore that would have added a measure of variety to the familiar styles encountered throughout the game. A weakness, and one in time you do hope open world games will overcome. The next stop on this tour takes us across the river to the Tate Modern, an old power station that was converted to one of the countries leading Modern Art galleries and a prominent visual locations in the digital world of Watch Dog’s Legion.

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