Say cheese! Videogames have turned us all into virtual tourists

As videogames have grown ever more complex and detailed, and the machines we play them have become ever more powerful, so their representation of real world places has become increasingly believable. So much so that part of the allure of these games is as much about the sightseeing as it is the adventure you’re engaged in. You can visit places you might never usually travel to or venture back in time to experience medieval and ancient cities in all their glory.

It’s not a new idea. Famous landmarks have been a feature of racing games since the coin-op days. But titles such as the 1999 game Driver took things a step further, placing the action in real world environments, with stylised versions of Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

Building a virtual London

This concept was refined in 2000 with Metropolis Street Racer on the Sega Dreamcast, which featured accurate depictions of London, Tokyo and San Francisco. The latter would be replicated in the Driver sequel, Driver: San Francisco, which included 208 miles of roads and a variety of famous buildings.

Wanting to get one over on Sega’s killer app, Sony’s Team Soho embarked on street racing crime caper The Getaway. Intended as a launch title alongside the PlayStation 2 in 2000, it was actually delayed by 27 months as the developer struggled with the mammoth task of photographing and building ten square miles of London. On its release, gamers familiar with the capital could become virtual tourists, navigating its streets and recognisable attractions. It set a benchmark for other open world games to follow.

In 2005, Sega replicated Kabukichō, the red light district of Tokyo’s Shinjuki ward, for its action RPG, Yakuza. To help fund its $21 million budget, many of the stores and game centres were modelled on their real-life equivalents, and the game used product placement in its bars and on advertising billboards. The fictional region was renamed Kamurocho, but its neon-festooned inspiration is accurately depicted.

The same world-building technique was used to great effect in 2007’s survival-horror outing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, which is set in 12 square miles of radioactive wasteland in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Time travelling adventuring

Ukrainian team GSG used huge amounts of reference material – as well as trips to ‘The Zone’ – to build spookily accurate representations of Pripyat, the town that was abandoned when the reactor caught fire, as well as other deserted settlements and the wreckage of the power plant itself. It’s a great way to experience the site as a virtual tourist, without all that wearisome radiation poisoning…

That same year Ubisoft ignited a brand new IP in the shape of Assassin’s Creed. With its atmospheric renditions of Jerusalem, Acre and Damascus – as well as the deserts surrounding them – the game set a new benchmark for open world environments. Over the next decade the series would transports gamers to the Renaissance Italian cities of Florence and Venice; 16th-century Rome and Constantinople; 18th-century Boston, New York City, and the forests of the American frontier; the Caribbean islands of 18th century; Paris during the French revolution; and the grimy streets of Victorian London – all replicated with impressive attention to detail and accuracy.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate
Grubby Victorian London (with famous landmarks like St. Paul’s Cathedral) was the setting for Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

The series’ latest incarnation, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, takes us back to the start of the story. Set in Ptolemaic Egypt (48 BC), the vast, detailed and immersive world – which was built with the help of Egyptologists – encompasses the cities of Memphis and Alexandria and the pyramids at Giza, as well as the Nile Delta and huge tracts of Egyptian desert (at walking pace, it takes a virtual tourist three hours to cross the map!)

The resulting environments are so handsome, Ubisoft has built in a photo mode, while a future update will include a ‘Discovery Tour’ that takes virtual visitors on a guided expedition of historical Egyptian sites.

Visit 1947 Los Angeles

Although the cities of Grand Theft Auto do not strictly resemble real-life places, GTA IV (2008) and GTA V (2013) both did a great job of presenting a believable metropolis in which the virtual sightseer can spend as much time exploring the beautifully rendered streets and alleys as embarking on nefarious missions.

However, Rockstar stuck to the facts with its 2011 release L.A. Noire. Set in 1947 Los Angeles, it provided a charming backdrop for the exploits of its motion-captured detectives. Using aerial photos taken by photographer Robert Earl Spence and held in the UCLA department of Geography, Australian developer Team Bondi built an accurate eight-square-mile representation of L.A., including its most famous buildings, realistic traffic patterns, and even the nodding donkey oil wells that punctuated the landscape.

If taking in the sights of 1940s L.A. is a bit too sedate, 2012’s Sleeping Dogs ups the ante with its tale of an undercover cop tasked with bringing down a Triad organisation. Set in a stylised rendition of modern day Hong Kong, the city is nicely detailed and offers a sense of what the real Hong Kong is like, especially when exploring the busy streets at night, with its correct neon billboards and bustling city soundtrack.

Ubisoft kickstarted another open world franchise in 2014 with Watch_Dogs, an adventure game of hacking and espionage. While the original took place in a gritty but fictionalised version of Chicago, the 2016 sequel transplanted the action to the San Francisco bay area.

Amazing attention to detail

A few liberties have been taken with precise locations and scale, but if you’ve never been to Fog City, Watch_Dogs 2 is an excellent introduction for any virtual tourist. For an action videogame, the attention to detail is incredible – and no wonder: Ubisoft flew designers, artists and audio engineers to the city eight times, capturing 40,000 pictures and over 200 hours of video. From the Golden Gate bridge (see top image) to Chinatown, Watch_Dogs 2 is littered with recognisable landmarks and familiar attractions.

It’s one thing to recreate a city; it’s quite another to build an entire country. Released earlier this year, Ghost Recon Wildlands did just that, presenting a cut-down version of Bolivia and its varied environs, as playground for its cartel-busting squad of spec ops soldiers. Four teams of developers spent two weeks in Bolivia capturing images and footage in order to build more than 200 square miles of playable map. It accurately depicts Bolivia’s landscape, from jungles and mountains to salt flats and swamps, so if you’ve always fancied a trip down South America way, but don’t have the funds, try this virtual vacation instead.

What’s your favourite virtual destination?

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