Video games have been drawing inspiration from, and even using, real life locations as the settings for their stories for years now. But it’s only with recent advancements in 3D visuals and animation can these recreations truly come to life. It’s a risky endeavor to use a real world city or region as the backdrop for a game rather than building a world from scratch, but there’s no better way to immerse a player than to put them in a place that they can really visit one day. These are the Best Real Life Cities in Video Games.
Driver: San Francisco
Anyone who lives in or around San Francisco will tell you that driving is one of the last things they want to do there. Perhaps it’s that idea that makes San Francisco the perfect choice for a game like Driver San Francisco. The entire city, from Balboa Park to Lombard Street, the Golden Gate and even the Bay Bridge are recreated in great detail and all of the hills, dips, and bumps are all present and ready to make your drive an interesting one. Not only is the city faithfully represented in the game but it’s also fun to drive around in and take in the sights. Video games often put us in worlds that challenge us and immerse us by pitting us against deadly creatures, Driver San Francisco does this by making us drive in San Francisco.
Infamous: Second Son
While the previous two Infamous games took place in fictionalized versions of New York (Empire City) and New Orleans (New Marais) in America, Infamous Second Son takes place in the real city of Seattle. Infamous games are very good at using the setting to establish a mood outside of the narrative that makes the world feel alive and Seattle was a great choice for the game’s theme. Seattle is recreated in this game with meticulous detail and the realistic feel lends to game’s youthful and almost rebellious atmosphere. All of the iconic places are present and explorable in this game from the Space Needle to the lesser known gum wall. Infamous Second Son does the city of flowers justice.
The Windy City. The Second City. Call it what you will, Chicago has been the backdrop of many movies and shows, but not very many games. Watch Dogs gives us a peek into a beautiful yet hauntingly realistic rendition of this midwestern metropolis. The skyline looming in the background as Aiden Pearce stalks the gritty streets and patrols the numerous ports really immerses the player in this painstakingly accurate version of Chicago. The more subdued yet instantly recognizable nature of Chicago’s many landmarks and attraction are a great analogy for Watch Dogs’ familiar yet unique gameplay mechanics and narrative. The attention to detail and marriage of setting and story make Watch Dogs and Chicago a perfect combination.
It might seem like Fallout 3’s setting could be a secondary concern due to the almost unrecognizably destroyed nature of the place. The choice of Washington, D.C. was a perfect one however, as the juxtaposition of the game’s sheltered and wholesome values in the vaults and the twisted mess of the nation’s capital really help sell the feeling of being thrust into a world that’s brand new to the player. If it were any other city, real or fake, the effect wouldn’t be as strong. However it’s the apple pie, white picket fence American Dream beliefs that the characters in the vault hold so dear while their nation’s capitol. An almost literal representation of what they stand for lies in shambles just outside that adds so much more to the narrative. Even though the majority of the city is ruined, the layout and most of the major landmarks and presented very accurately in this game. The attention to detail creates a nice “What if?” feeling even though the game takes some liberties with the locale for the sake of the game.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations
Istanbul, or as it’s known in Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Constantinople is one of the most famous cities in European history. Known for its walls as well as being the capital of many different empires, Constantinople’s densely packed buildings and sprawling landscape make it a perfect place for an assassin like Ezio. The classic old world European architecture is in full force here and almost every nook and cranny that you can explore is faithful to the millennia old city. Assassin’s Creed has a knack for immersing the player in a historically accurate city hundreds of years ago and this game is no different. The city’s major landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, Galata Tower and the walls are all present and make this one of the most accurate video game counterparts to a real city of all time.
It’s not often we get to explore a fully realized city in a video game that isn’t a major American city. Sleeping Dogs gives us the rare opportunity of exploring the bustling and beautiful yet seedy and dangerous city of Hong Kong. The busy streets and neon lights make this city feel alive and gives the game another layer of depth beyond the story and gameplay. The in-game environment only represents Hong Kong Island and not the entirety of Hong Kong and all of its boroughs, but what the game does include is a great representation of the city. The city in this game is more than just a pretty background though, as there’s plenty to do here, things that you would even expect to do in the real Hong Kong. Things like singing karaoke, visiting massage parlors and even gambling are all present. Sleeping Dogs presents Hong Kong as the beautiful yet deadly wonderland that it truly is.
New York City
While it certainly wasn’t the first video game to feature a real city as the setting, Spider-Man 2 was one of the first to get it absolutely right. Not only is Manhattan fully explorable, but the accuracy to the real island is astounding. The level of detail here is as good as one could hope for given the time period, but the real star here is the overall accuracy and feel of the city. Even with repetitive side-missions the entire still feels fresh and alive and almost becomes a whole new place at night, just like the real New York. The setting in this game does a great job of bridging the gap between the real life island of Manhattan and the fictional version portrayed in the comics, lending the game an air of believability it wouldn’t normally have. Spider-Man 2 makes Manhattan the place to see, partially because you can skip the crowds.
The post-apocalyptic Boston portrayed in The Last of Us is a haunting and all too possible vision of the future. Much like Fallout 3, the setting here is almost unrecognizable at times but landmarks such as the State House and Leonard Zakim bridge remind you of where you are. The Last of Us might jump from state to state throughout the game, but Boston is not only the first, but one of the most accurate depictions of a real life city in the game. That's not even counting the real-life transit maps (somewhat controversially) included in the game, too.
Tokyo makes an appearance in numerous games spanning just as many genres and interpretations. None of those games do it quite like Tokyo Jungle though, as the context and perspective from which you experience the city are both unique. In Tokyo Jungle you play as an animal trying to survive in a futuristic version of Tokyo that has become a savage wasteland, a jungle if you will. Once again, a post-apocalyptic setting allows for more creative freedom, but the overall feel of the environment and what remains of the buildings and landmarks feels genuine. The game relies less on 1:1 accuracy with its real life counterpart and more on an overall feel an aesthetic that really puts the player in the shoes, or in this case paws, of an animal trying to survive in this literal urban jungle.
While Grand Theft Auto V recently gave us a modern day recreation of Los Angeles with Los Santos, L.A. Noire took us to the actual place, albeit in a different time period. L.A. Noire gives us an in depth look at the Los Angeles of your grandparents in the 1940s. The era of gangsters, the golden age of Hollywood, and a crime on every street corner. The monuments and buildings from the antique L.A. skyline are all included in meticulous detail and not only is the city fun to explore, but seeing a version of L.A. that we’ve only ever seen on TV or in movies in such detail is a real treat. This sandbox version of Los Angeles captures the architecture and layout of the city at the time, and the atmosphere here feels genuine and it truly is a faithful recreation of the city of angels.
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