Is this a video game, or is it real life? What we know for sure: Watch Dogs 2 is taking great pains to show off the San Francisco Bay Area.
The game about hacking the system, due November 15 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and November 29 on PC, has re-created "The City by the Bay" all the way down to some very specific details. We took photos of these places with a virtual camera inside the game, then compared them to the real world.
The result? Judge for yourself.
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The views from Rincon Park are a pretty good representation of the way Watch Dogs 2 recreates most of San Francisco: just like you remember it, with great attention to detail. Even if in reality, it's a bit bigger, wider and grander.
Swapping out Cupid's Span for an old-school optical mouse is a pretty cool touch, and the greenery (and typical passerby!) are pretty spot-on. The skyline looks way different, though, and Rincon Park's also way further away from the Ferry Building in reality. But honestly, I didn't remember that until I went back in person.
The Ferry Building is a good bit taller in real life, and you won't find palm trees directly in front. Plenty of them exist elsewhere on this street, though.
There's always a nifty pop-up market in front of the Ferry Building, and that's neatly recreated here, though it's not quite as bustling as in real life.
You can still see the Ferry Building way down at the end of Market Street, just like in real life, but Market Street in reality often has way more people. The mix of architecture feels pretty good, though. (Ubisoft says the game represents 36 different architectural styles.)
SOMA (South of Market)
I pass SF's historic Clock Tower on my way to work practically every single day. It's been shrunken down a tad inside the game. Note that while the left side of the street looks a little too industrial, it's a great representation of another part of the SOMA neighborhood. Just one of the many places Ubisoft did a nip-and-tuck.
Just past the Clock Tower is this spiky fenced parking lot underneath the freeway. Nice attention to detail. (Ubisoft flew designers, artists and audio engineers to the city eight times over, capturing 40,000 pictures and over 200 hours of video to get details like this.)
And just past the spiky fence...I'm not sure if the real-life Beer Garden existed a few years back when Ubisoft started scouting San Francisco, but I've gotten lunch from its food trucks several times this year!
I'll be very surprised if this building, which I walk by daily, doesn't have a role in the game. It's the infamous AT&T building at 611 Folsom, where whistleblower Mark Klein discovered that the NSA was tapping into fiber optic lines to spy on internet traffic. In Watch Dogs 2, the building isn't on the right street, though. It's a couple blocks away.
Some days, I walk by Ubisoft's San Francisco offices on my way to work. I'm pretty sure I've even seen a giant game banner hanging off the side of the building before, but generally it's not as flashy what is hanging in the game.
On the rare occasions I drive to work, I often get off the freeway at 4th and Bryant. Weirdly, there's no freeway exit here, and it's a two-way street instead of one, but otherwise the feel of this intersection (gas station across from a Mexican restaurant) is pretty spot-on.
Chavo's (the Mexican restaurant) is sadly now closed, and this fence with the embedded slats is long gone, but I dug up a Google Maps photo so you can see the attention to detail. The creeping vines are a nice touch.
The Transbay Center doesn't quite exist yet (it's still under construction) but that didn't keep Ubisoft from basing this one off early architectural renders. In the game, the building itself is a freeway offramp.
You'll definitely find the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in Watch Dogs 2, but the beautiful Yerba Buena Gardens, across from the MOMA, are practically nonexistent. There's also no Metreon shopping mall or even a sliver of the giant Moscone Center convention halls, either!
Union Square and beyond
While the Union Square shopping plaza is under repair at the moment, it's clearly the same place. Just a shame it isn't completely surrounded by tall buildings and pushy brands the way it is in reality.
Both the Dewey Monument (statue) and the Westin St. Francis (hotel in the background) have lost a bit of their stature. It's also worth noting that while you'll find plenty of cable cars (and they sound brilliant), Powell Street (the main cable car thoroughfare) doesn't exist. Shame to lose all that glitz.
The Chinatown Gate is here, and it definitely leads to a recognizable Chinatown with its own architecture and bystanders speaking Chinese, though it's also a bit smaller and less colorful than in reality.
Japantown has a similar treatment. The main shopping mall, the Peace Pagoda and some recognizable signage are clearly there...
...but the real-life Japantown isn't just one street. I took this picture from roughly the same vantage point, and this section (with some of my favorite restaurants) is missing.
It wouldn't be a tour of San Francisco without a shot of Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge...
...but it wouldn't be a game, either, if the scale was accurate. The in-game bridge has two lanes instead of the real-world's three, for instance.
The game isn't just San Francisco, you know. Watch Dogs 2 also has super-compressed versions of Oakland, Marin and the Silicon Valley. Here's a shot of Google's campus in Mountain View, parodied in the game under the Nudle name. Looks like the same flowers and shrubs!
Unfortunately, Google's self-driving car doesn't drive itself in Watch Dogs 2. (It has a steering wheel, unlike the real one.) You might also be thinking that Google's campus doesn't have giant tube slides coming out of the building -- but YouTube actually does have a slide inside of their San Mateo headquarters.
Here it is, the furthest south you can go in Watch Dogs 2's representation of the Silicon Valley; Moffett Field's historical Hangar One, now retrofitted into a high-security facility for a company called Galilei. Not sure what's up with that, but in real-life the aging military blimp hangar is already under a tech company's wing: Google agreed to lease it from NASA in 2014.
(Not) the final word
If you ask me, a Bay Area native, much of Watch Dogs 2 feels a little bit flatter, more open, empty and yet more compressed than it should be. You don't get quite the same sense of verticality in the game: The sense that the whole city is looming over you and bustling with life, often in towers scraping the sky over your head. That, more than missing chunks of the city, was the hardest difference to swallow.
But I won't deny I loved spending hours finding these differences between the real and game worlds, and I'm looking forward to finding many more when Watch Dogs 2 arrives next month. Plus, it'll be great to just play the game instead of snapping photos.
Watch Dogs 2 is out on November 15 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.