Much has been made of the accuracy of the depiction of San Francisco in Ubisoft’s latest blockbuster release, Watch Dogs 2. While the game exhibits something of a tonal shift from the dingy twilight of the prequel’s Chicago setting, Watch Dogs 2 has received plaudits across the board and the sun-bleached environs in which the nefarious hacktivism is played out have been instrumental in this praise. Likewise, another recent release, The Division was highly acclaimed because of the accurate recreation of New York City; and before that InFamous Second Son was championed for its analogue of Seattle. Granted, the world of InFamous Second Son was more an approximation of the home of Starbucks and grunge than a truly verbatim virtual version…but it still looked great and captured the atmosphere of the city.
I would hazard a guess that the reason the majority of video games are set in the United States, is that the majority of people buying video games live in the United states. Much like in the movies, where every alien aggressor wants to destroy New York or Los Angeles or any number of other American cities and the rest of the world is largely ignored, American culture has pretty much completely consumed western video games and so it’s only natural that they’re predominantly set in that country. With this in mind, I started to think about games set in my country and in cities I might be familiar with. Instantly my thoughts turned to virtual recreations of London…and there came my inspiration for this article. How many times have we seen games set in the UK and the only destination shown is our fair capital city?
It’s the same with movies to be honest – as London is the largest and most recognisable urban sprawl in the UK, it almost smacks of laziness that the vast majority of games or movies that dare to venture to this (fairly) green and (sometimes) pleasant land all end up with a shot of Nelson’s Column, Buckingham Palace or Tower Bridge front and centre. So, I started to think about games that have ventured outside of London and dared to show the other 99% of the UK. Believe it or not, it isn’t all thatched roofs and sleepy Bag End villages. There are multiple thriving cities and towns, vast swathes of incredible countryside and breathtaking coastal vistas. The UK is not just London, it is a rich and deeply historic patchwork of dialects, accents, customs and traditions that date back thousands of years.
The list of games that turned their backs on London and decided to show the world what the other side of the M25 looks like isn’t particularly exhaustive, but here for your enjoyment are 5 games that did just that.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
The Chinese Room’s 2015 adventure attracted a lot of attention upon release. The most notable reason seemed to be down to the walking speed of the main character, with many complaining that it took too long to plod around the fictional Shropshire village of Yaughton. For me, this sedate pace is what gave the game an almost ethereal, dreamlike feel. That, and the stunningly realised depiction of 1980s country life. Before playing the game, I had no idea that it was set in England and so it was something of a shock when I started it and found myself confronted with familiar road markings, pubs, phone boxes and proper red letter boxes.
On top of this, authentic English accents and vehicle models that actually looked like old Ford Transits and the like were littered throughout; and the foibles of life in a small village were captured perfectly. The squabbles and gossip between townsfolk played out in the flashback sequences; the washed out campsites, the references to a village show. It was all so beautifully twee and having lived in a place like Yaughton in real life, it was refreshing to see such an environment in a mainstream title.
Driveclub represents one of the greatest turnarounds I think I’ve ever witnessed in all the years I’ve been playing games. Yes, it’s true that the original game was light on options and was inherently broken. And yes it’s also true that at any other point in history a game as knackered from the off as Driveclub was would have probably been consigned to history as a disastrous failure. But after multiple gigabytes of update patches and additional content, Evolution Studios’ PlayStation 4 racer has morphed into one of the experiences of the generation (and the VR version isn’t half bad, either). When Driveclub initially shipped, it did so with a complement of tracks set in the Scottish highlands.
These tracks (much like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) excited me because it seemed so novel to be playing a major, mainstream game and be able to race on tracks with familiar and authentic road markings and signage, as well as landscape features I’ve actually seen and been in the midst of in reality. The bleak, windswept countryside of the highlands with the heather pressed to the ground due to the force of the gales whipping across the peaks; the bruised sky ominously dark, ready to crack and release a maelstrom of biblical proportions. With the later addition of the urban tracks, players were invited to take a breakneck sojourn through the tight and winding streets of an approximation of Edinburgh, and the team at Evolution nailed it. But not as well as Bizarre Creations did in…
Project Gotham Racing 2
Another racing game, but this time an Xbox exclusive. Project Gotham Racing 2 went one further than Driveclub (even though it was released…erm…11 years earlier) by featuring Edinburgh proper as a racing location. The previous games in the PGR series went to ridiculous lengths to accurately model their environments, with thousands of photographs and maps aiding the design teams of Metropolis Street Racer and Project Gotham Racing in their quest to digitally recreate the major cities of the world down to minute detail.
I seem to recall reading one interview where the game developers claimed to have even gone to the lengths of measuring the height of the curbs to make MSR’s London tracks as faithful as possible…but whether that’s true is open to discussion. Regardless, PGR2’s Edinburgh is every bit as challenging as it is beautiful. The winding cobbled streets, the iconic Edinburgh Castle and the historic facades of Princess Street, Grassmarket and Lothian Road. Of course, Edinburgh is one of seven cities depicted in Project Gotham 2, but to be able to race in a UK location that wasn’t London was amazing back in 2003.
Resistance: Fall of Man
When Insomniac’s first person shooter hit the PlayStation 3 in 2006, it was met with largely positive reviews. An early title for Sony’s answer to the Xbox 360, Resistance: Fall of Man told the alternate history tale of a world ravaged by war, a war being fought against an alien race called the Chimera. Unusually, the game’s missions were set in various British cities and towns and locations as exotic as Nottingham, Grimsby and Bristol were all included as theatres or war. However, Resistance: Fall of Man is perhaps best known for one mission in particular – Manchester. Now, Manchester is actually my home town so naturally I was rather interested to see how accurate the depiction was…but I was left slightly disappointed to discover that the locations aren’t really based on any kind of accurate representation of their namesakes.
However, that didn’t stop the game becoming the focus of national headlines when the Church of England learned of the inclusion of Manchester Cathedral as a location for gunfights, and threats of legal action were made against Sony. To be honest, the internal sections of the cathedral aren’t really that accurate (I’ve been there several times to soak up the slightly spooky atmosphere you can only experience in a 15th century ecclesiastical building full of terrifying grotesques), but that didn’t stop the Church claiming that the game was disrespectful and actually constituted desecration of a holy place. Resistance: Fall of Man isn’t the most faithful of representations of the UK outside of London, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting.
OK, I know this one is a bit of a cop-out. Pretty much every FIFA game and PES update includes real world stadia located in real world cities from around the UK. Liverpool’s Anfield, Manchester United’s Old Trafford, and Newcastle’s St James’ Park/The Primark Arena/Poundland Stadium (or whatever bargain basement brand is sponsoring it this week) are mainstays of the ‘big two.’ It wasn’t always like this though. Back in 1996 when England hosted the European Championships, Gremlin acquired the rights to the tournament, slapped it on their Actua Soccer engine and shat it out onto the PC and Sega Saturn. Euro ’96 was a bit of a mess in truth, but back in those days real stadiums simply weren’t a given in football games. FIFA was still messing about with ‘virtual stadium technology;’ and Konami was even further out in the licensing wilderness than it is now, so real stadiums were the last thing on the ISS radar (although the legend of Trad Brick may never have come about otherwise).
So, it came as something of a shock to this teenage gamer when – upon firing up the Sega Saturn and playing Euro ’96 – real world stadiums were available to select from the options menu! Naturally, this being the officially licensed videogame of the Euros it should have come as no surprise that grounds like Elland Road, Old Trafford, Hillsborough and Villa Park were all accurately modelled and even had their own little stat screens and rotating render…but to the 15-year-old me it was staggering. There I was, playing a Euro ’96 match on my Saturn with the stadium set to Old Trafford – a stadium that was literally a stone’s throw from my house. Incidentally, Manchester was rocked by a massive IRA bomb during the height of Euro ’96 and Gremlin missed a trick by not featuring it in the game via a badly animated, mesh-effect Sega Saturn fire effect…but you can’t have it all.
Obviously, this isn’t a completely comprehensive list (I didn’t add the Scotland level from Uncharted 4 because overkill, and race tracks like Silverstone/rally courses etc aren’t really depictions of normality or specific towns) and there will undoubtedly be other games with non-London UK locales depicted in them. If you know of any other good ones, please let me know in the comments!