London loves: how Assassin's Creed Syndicate brought a city to life

Justin Mahboubian-Jones visits Ubisoft's Quebec HQ and finds a Victorian version of his home town

Inside the plush offices of Ubisoft’s new studio in Quebec City I sit staring at a 19th century map of London, awaiting the arrival of the minds behind Assassin’s Creed.

Curiosity gets the better of me and I creep from my seat to the map’s stained folds to search for the street in Greenwich where I live. It’s not there, but somehow the pattern I’m staring at has me entranced with its series of familiar winding shapes and names that whisper of the place I call home. This is definitely London, but not quite as I know it.

A city of divides

I return to my seat only slightly despondent as the presentation begins. "This is a city of difference, a city of divides," says world director Jonathan Dumont, as he commences our journey through the streets of reconstructed London.

Living as I do in one of the city’s most deprived areas his words ring true, but as we travel, one by one, through each of Syndicate’s many boroughs, I begin to understand what Dumont truly means: late-19th Century London is a many-headed hydra, far more so than the city that I know. 

The screen behind him springs into life and all of a sudden we're in Westminster, 'the home of the bourgeois'. Its wide streets are bright and swimming with whale-bone corsets and polite well-to-dos. Before I know it we’ve moved on to Lambeth, which Dumont describes as ‘The Rotten Marsh Borough’: its peasants are caked in mud, dragging themselves between what little remains of London’s Tudor architecture. 

Next up, Whitechapel, where cramped streets are home to fingersmiths and ladies of the night. Unlike previous boroughs, its dark alleys reek of claustrophobia and ooze an atmosphere something akin to that of the Thief games. Old-school Assassin's Creed players will feel most at home here, within the dense gathering of rooftops that offer a conveniently short drop on to some poor fellow's neck below.

The journey goes on, and I'm continually struck by the near-incongruent faces of London lain out before me. Guts and grime rubs up against wealth and wonder. Yep, this is definitely my home town.

It's a sharp contrast from the pallid experience that was Unity. Paris, in its uniformity, forms an impressive whole, but its ordered opulence translated to a game environment that lacked localised character. Industrial England, and specifically the hodge-podge of an architecturally chaotic city such as London, has afforded Ubisoft the chance to sculpt a playground of unusual and distinct wonders. 

The colours are richer, the sights brighter, not only thanks a new, higher contrast palette that does away with the dismal ivories of supposedly Gay Paris, but also thanks to the now-reinstated dynamic time of day, which often sees London soaked in the amber rays of sunset.

Bend it like Peckham

Next we arrive in Southwark. It’s a far cry from the open expanses of marble surrounding St Paul’s or Lambeth’s sinking mud; red-brick monoliths poke their heads into billows of black smog as workers covered head-to-toe in soot labour inside factories, bathed in the embers of industry.

Something about this arrangement strikes me as wrong. Southwark is my neighbouring borough and I struggle to remember anything from my year 10 history lessons about gasworks or steel forging so close to the square mile of London’s centre.

I’m not wrong, Dumont explains. London’s menagerie of locales - the industrial, the urban, the commercial - are situated primarily around the meandering west to east flow of the Thames - a name which the French-Canadian team endearingly pronounce with a soft Th - which would make for an open world shaped like a winding snake; undesirable to say the least. In order to create a relatively circular border to the city, and prevent unwanted trekking, London has been carefully edited.

Some of the changes are subtle - a sharper curve in the Thames here, a missing street there, but others are more severe. The gasworks is one of many sites of interest that have migrated toward the city centre, partially to maintain a functional open world, but also to preserve the more interesting features on London’s periphery.

Later in the day, with my hands on the PS4 controller, I climb the full height of St.Paul’s to see I can spot the nips and tucks on London’s lined face, but to no avail. The reconstruction feels natural, as if the towers of smoke sailing upward from the South Bank had always been there and I had simply failed to notice.

The Devil's in the detail

Just as I begin to wonder what inhuman levels of attentiveness were required to assemble the sights I’ve just seen, Jean-Vincent Roy, the game’s resident historian, steps up to explain the titanic task of reassembling an entire city.

"We started with maps," he says, gesturing to the one behind him I had previously trawled for my own street. Unlike previous cities given the Lazarus treatment, there still exists an abundance of information about London in the 1860s. Slides of photographs, maps and flyers flash before me, as if the computer is attempting to regurgitate a history-in-images of the city.

This research was just the beginning. As Roy continues I discover that the team also travelled to London to "get a feeling for how the streets unwind", and take in its atmosphere. There they paid visits to the V&A, The National Gallery, and even oddball locations such as the London Fireman’s Museum. A clear necessity.

It’s here that I get a true impression of the team’s degree of obsession. While in London they met with, and subsequently brought on board, a Victorian history expert to help iron out inaccuracies and maintain the highest possible standard of authenticity. After examining the appearance of London's virtual denizens in of the game’s many builds, she informed them that this was, without question, 1880s fashion - and thus totally out of place in the 1860s. Syndicate’s streets now feature couture accurate not only to the century, but to the exact decade of their popularity.

Later in the day, while attempting to absorb a tech demo from a kindly developer, I glance across at a pair of screens on the desk opposite which are overflowing with black and white photographs of steam engines. Staring at the dozens of grainy pictures I notice that these aren’t machines of wildly differing configurations, but in all likelihood pictures of the same train.

Where on Earth do you find 30-something pictures of the same locomotive from 1865? When it comes to historical accuracy, these people mean business.

Sounds of the past

Last but not least we meet Lydia Andrew, the game's audio director. Her voice immediately gives her away as another Londoner and I'm somewhat cheered; across the Atlantic any sounds of home become welcome ones.

Her voice may be familiar, but her presentation is the most foreign of the entire day. She leads us through Syndicate's dynamic score which, from top to bottom, sounds completely unlike any previous game to bear the name Assassin's Creed. Strings skip playfully and the tone is light, energetic, and only mildly suggestive of the darkness associated with Victorian London. We watch one of the game's twin protagonists Jacob fight to see how the music follows suit, and it does - but instead of a war drum, his actions are set against a delightful Danse Macabre.

Only in the most serious of fights, Lydia explains, will Jacob (or his twin Evie) experience heavier, more panic-inducing melodies. This is a time of burgeoning industry and constant change, a time when the city of London is full of optimism - and the score should reflect that.

In places where Jacob's gang is successful, or where his feats become known, the pubs and bars will begin to sing 'victory ballads', each one a celebration of the assassin's exploits. 

There are notes here that strike a chord with me, tunes which I can swear I've heard before. I ask Lydia the source of these eerily familiar chants and she explains that many of them she simply knew as she was growing up, some she heard in pubs, some were simply sung by friends or acquaintances. London's rich history of communal sing-song persists, and some of that very real culture has seeped itself into the bones of Syndicate.

It's not a time machine... but

By the time I step out of Ubisoft's front doors I'm left with the distinct impression that everyone I've met knows more about my home town than I do. Rather than feeling embarrassment, I'm simply somewhat dumbstruck by the zealous dedication to the past that the French-Canadian masters of assassination have displayed.

Whether or not Assassin's Creed's mechanics agree with you or not, as an exercise in historic reconstruction there are very few, if any parallel creations within the games industry - or for that matter, any industry.

This city, more than any the studio has tackled before, talks the talk of its real-life counterpart.