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Finding Ubisoft's Chicago: "Mad Mile"

A series I've been working on since December 2015. Looking for where Ubisoft got the inspiration for "Watch Dogs'" version of Chicago.

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The Mad Mile in Watch Dogs is based on the real-life Magnificent Mile district of Chicago. A high-end area of upper-class shops and eateries. Even in November of 2016, it's a busy area despite the Windy City's known colder temperatures, so there is a reason Ubisoft called it "Mad Mile." A name I also use too to describe it thanks to this game.

Of course in the game the area looks like a futuristic Toronto; rather than an older, rustic, historical locality with a high-end resurgence. When I first went to Chicago there was, of course, Ditka's, the best views from the John Hancock Building, and stores that you can only find in an actual city like Chicago (Bloomingdale's, Boyd's, etc.) you know the high-end joints people from Baltimore can't afford. The thing that really blew my mind, of course, was a car dealership that had a Bugatti Veyron for sale. Yeah . . . Definitely not like any place in Baltimore I assure you. If ever I wanted to feel like a country bumpkin out of my element, yet somehow still welcome, Magnificent Mile was the part of town for it.

Other Regions of Chicago Covered:

"Mad Mile" Part 1

(A1) 2nd Regiment Armory/Harpo Studios

Ok, so Ubisoft just comes flat out and tells us, in the info card, that they couldn't truly incorporate this location for legal reasons. Well let's be real for a second, folks, I think you realize now by this point that everything in Watch Dogs was switched around for legal reasons. However, there's no better reason than this location, which was the site where the victims of the Chicago Eastland Disaster were brought for families to identify. Later on, this very building was Incorporated into a section of Harpo Studios where Oprah Winfrey has produced pretty much every movie and television production that has her direct involvement. There had been stories for years of ghost sightings in and around the building. All of whom victims of the Eastland Disaster. YOU get a haunting, and YOU get a haunting, and YOU get a haunting . . .

(B1) WKZ-TV Mad Mile/NBC Tower

So the WKZ-TV that was in "The Loop", in real life, is actually ABC affiliate WLS-TV. However in the fictional who-gives-a-crap-about-getting-it-right world of Watch Dogs, there's only one news program affiliate (keep it simple like the free roam map, why not?). Of course in real life, this particular "Mad Mile" WKZ-TV is actually based on NBC Tower. Confused? I know that's easy for people these days, but really it's as simple as alphabets and basic knowledge of network television.

As you'll see in the comparison pictures below that I didn't really make a great job of this one. Basically, the real-life shot was taken in December 2015, practically by accident, at night, and the in-game one was taken during the day.

(C1) Chicago World News Tower/Tribune Tower

Home to the famous Chicago Tribune newspaper. Completed in 1925 the 36-floor building was always built specifically to house the newspaper. Early in its designs the Tribune's foreign corespondents (no they were white Americans, they just reported stories in foreign lands, remember this was 1925) were encouraged to bring back pieces from world-renowned structures. Bricks, stones, blocks, etc. from places such as The Great Wall of China, the Taj Mihal, the first White Castle that was built at Michigan Avenue, and other man-made gifts of ingenuity, were just some of the places the lower levels of Tribune Tower were constructed with.

In Watch Dogs none of this interesting history is showcased, and instead, is another Gothic style building to fill out the game world. Even the hotspot info card is half heartily written, though they were right about the design of the building coming down to a contest. It's just the rest that's fabrication. Much like modern news media . . . Hmm . . .

(D1) The Sands

Quite simply The Sands was a district of shanties built up North of the Chicago River. It was a den of vice populated by seafaring men and prostitute women. Just with that alone can you image the smell!? Imagine a fish market next to a poorly maintained methane plant. Odor aside The Sands was not a popular place among Chicago's mayors. Yeah, I know, ironic right? I mean the first sign of a brothel and you would imagine every politician within the region to appear there, but no, in this case, The Sands was a problem. A ruse was put in place by then-mayor Long John Wentworth to invite the gambling sailor residents of the neighborhood to a horse track. While away the former mayor William Ogden, who at this point had bought up a lot of the land that was within this district, brought a team of horses in to demolish the poorly built shakes while the "residents" were away at the track.

The counter prank, of course, being a massive looting riot, when the sailors/whores/gamblers/etc. found out the real point of the horse track invitation. The chaos resulted in a neighborhood-wide fire (from whatever the hell was left) after which The Sands was no more, and as usual, Chicago built over it's sorted history with nicer things.

In Watch Dogs there isn't really much of a "The Sands" remnant, just like in real life, but the hotspot info card is located in one of the underground roads that is supposed to be either Lower Wacker or Lower Michigan.

(E1) The Crowley Building/The Wrigley Building

It might not surprise you to know that the Wrigley Building was built by the same guy who created Wrigley Field. Oh it doesn't? How about that it was the first Chicago high rise building to have built in air conditioning? No? Well if those factoids don't put a chubby in your history pants than it might be interesting to know that it's the same Wrigley who made Wrigley chewing gum. Now William Wrigley Jr. didn't INVENT chewing gum, but he was the first to be a marketing genius within that particular field. He also offered several flavors that competitors (not like there were many in the late 1800s) didn't have. The guy essentially became a millionaire off of fucking chewing gum! Let that sink in for a minute. This was a time when oil was not yet discovered in the Middle East, people were fighting wars over bananas or something, and guys could have handlebar mustaches without looking like douche try hards. Yes, the turn of the century was an interesting, and simpler, time in the field of marketing.

The Wrigley Building is, of course, one of the quintessential tourist spots in Chicago, and one of the oldest high rises in the country. Even to this day the architecture and structural integrity hold up by today's standards. In Watch Dogs Ubisoft actually did a decent job of recreating the building, however, the courtyard is not as elaborate as depicted in the game. Not sure why they named it Crowley, I mean apart from legal reasons.

(F1) Triomphe Tower/Trump Tower

I've never been a big fan of politics. I've always seen it as a bunch of rich old people spending their days arguing over things that will never happen. $3 being taken from my pay every hour so some congressman can run around behind his wife's back, take private jets, and eat expensive lunches while they argue with their fellow congressman over plans that will never come about. So let's just say I'm neither a fan nor a supporter of Donald Trump and I'll just leave it at that. Doesn't matter which way you lean in anything these days, you're going to get crapped on for your opinion. So I'll point out the hardest pill for you to swallow; Alec Baldwin does a funny Trump, but that's not saying much since Saturday Night Live has been a dumpster fire ever since Will Ferrel and Jimmy Fallon left. If I'm gonna get crapped on for an opinion it might as well be one I truly believe in.

Trump Tower sits on the Chicago River, for the usual legal reasons, Ubisoft changed the name but kept a similar design. It's also the location of a device used to shut down the Ctos system during the final mission, which seems like a very Obama era French developer plot device.

(G1) Navy Pier Building

Navy Pier. One of the major tourist attractions of Chicago. Do you want to know the history behind it? Yeah, me too, but for once I'm just going to point out how terrible it is to be there on the 4th of July. Every schmuck, his mother, and offspring corral to this location. Hell, I feel bad for the "security" that has to examine every person's bag before they can "enter" the pier. Just because some guy named Abdul read a religious text the wrong way. Jesus . . . Anyway, Navy Pier is actually pretty nice if you don't go there during a popular holiday on a Saturday.

In Watch Dogs, the amusement park is replaced with the "Mad Mile" Ctos center. Also should be noted that this courtyard has a modern-day Toronto vibe like other areas of the city. Also, that aforementioned amusement park is on an elevated portion of the pier. I would have explored more of this interesting location, but there were too many mouth breathers at the time. Of course this was back in July of 2015, before I knew better.

Luckily since some moron ate a bat I had the chance to properly explore this location. Especially free of any complaining and emotional baggage anyone named Brittany could weigh me down with. Like some other spots in the game Ubisoft captured the vibe while still maintaining some free roam creative license.

The Lipstick Killer

Due to the upsetting nature of these crimes, and the individual involved, I respectfully refrain from going to each of these locations. Yeah I know, you probably think that’s a cop-out considering I have no problem with mob killings, and gangster related places, but I’m not into that serial killer stuff.

I would post a link, but my editor would have a fit.

(H1) O'Banion's Flowershop/Dion O'Banion's Flowershop

This is another one of those examples of Chicago drastically building over its gangster history. If you're into the mob history of depression-era Chi-town then paradise has literally been paved over to put up a parking lot . . . and a bus stop too. Luckily the Holy Name Cathedral is still standing. My friend Chris likes to talk up this location (relax he's a Chicago native) and mentions that there are bullet holes in the wall of the church, near the entrance. He says that Dean O'Banion was assassinated on the steps of this church and that those are a few stray rounds that passed by/through. In actuality, O'Banion was murdered inside his shop, across the street, in the middle of the night, from four well-placed shots during a faux handshake.

In Watchdogs this location is actually depicted as a multi level parking structure. Which from a game design standpoint can serve as both a homage and an area for a side mission, or two, to take place.

(I1) Water Tower/Chicago Water Tower

Built in 1869 to house a large pump, this was the 19th Century version of the Water Treatment Facilities that are present these days. However in a much smaller package and with multiple locations and off-shore water cribs. It was one of the only structures to have survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. And it was no doubt used to help fight that blaze. Although I think the most impressive thing about this structure is that it inspired the design of the White Castle restaurants.

In December of 2015, I managed to get a picture of this structure a couple of weeks before Christmas, and the shopping district, it was packed with holiday goers. You would think that Ubisoft would have used the crowd systems from the Assassin's Creed series or something for this part of town. Other than that the Water Tower is on par with the one in real life, like other structures in the "Mad Mile." It even has a little park around it.

(J1) The Saga Theater/Biograph Theater

The infamous theater where John Dillinger went to see Manhattan Melodrama the night he was shot by federal agents in 1934. Well . . . actually he was shot down the street in an alley, but the drama started outside of the Biograph Theater. There are multiple accounts of what actually happened but in the end agents Charles Winstead, Clarence Hurt, and Herman Hollis shot down Dillinger in the alley off of Lincoln Avenue.

In Watch Dogs, I don't know what the hell this is supposed to be. The Biograph Theater is in a North neighborhood near Lincoln Park. A neighborhood that has been mostly unchanged in the last 80 (or more) years. This looks like some kind of post-modern neighborhood.

The Sausage Vat Murder

This particular slaying ground was another place that I skipped. Once again because I didn't want to focus on serial killer related locations. So like Lipstick Killer I'm skipping this hotspot, but the other reason is because I like sausage and I think I get the gist of the story behind this one. For the sake of my inner foodie, let's move on . . .

For what it's worth, and based on my research, The Sausage Vat Murders took place in an old re-purposed building like the one in game. Though it looks like a post modern condominium in real life.

For what it's worth, and based on my research, The Sausage Vat Murders took place in an old re-purposed building like the one in game. Though it looks like a post modern condominium in real life.

Birthplace of the Chicago South Club

This was another one of those hotspots where I didn't need to waste too much time trying to research it. Luckily it didn't take long before I realized this was a reference to the gangster crew started by the game's antagonist Lucky Quinn. It's not to say the Chicago South Club isn't based on composites of other mob-related gangs and syndicates. However, like the Vice Roys alley, I'm just going to skip this.

"Mad Mile" Part 2

(A2) The House of Samuel "Nails" Morton

So back in June of 2016, you Chicagoans might get a kick out of this, stick with me here, I took this big road trip because the Baltimore Orioles were playing against the White Sox. You already know who won in that bout but while I was in town, and had access to my own vehicle, I drove out to get a picture of the house that was once owned by Samuel "Nails" Morton. It's now a semi-detached apartment building but it doesn't look like much has changed over the years.

Now, who was Samuel Morton and how did he get the nickname "Nails"? Well, he was a gangster in Dean O'Banion's crew back in the 1920s. He was a tough-as-nails fighter. You're probably thinking he got shot on his doorstep at this hotspot or something? No, he just lived here. He was actually killed while horseback riding, which was a favorite interest and pastime of his. Following his funeral, some of his gangster friends took it upon themselves to execute the horse for this.

For once, unlike reality, Watch Dogs depiction of the site is a construction yard. Typically this would be true given Chicago's nature to try and bury it's gangster roots, but the house is very much still standing. Although just re-purposed into apartments.

(B2) John Hancock Plaza

I remember the first time I went to Chicago back in July 2015. I did the tourist thing; Navy Pier, Willis Tower, marveled at Face Fountain, etc. It wasn't until toward the end of my trip that I went to John Hancock Plaza. I was disappointed in Willis Tower, how it didn't have a bar at the top and not a real clear view of Lake Michigan. Well the John Hancock building might not have a Plexiglas box for foreign tourists to fight over pictures in, but it does have beer, coffee, and a better view of the lake! Which is why I've tried to make it a habit to always come here when I'm in town. One of the many friendly Chicagoans I met was at this building. I didn't catch her name but she showed me how to get back to a nearby red line station. I think one of the times I ever felt truly at peace was drinking a soup bowl-sized cup of hot chocolate while viewing the Christmas lights across the city . . .

While I reevaluate what the hell I'm doing with my life let me point out that Ubisoft actually got this location pretty spot on. I mean if I had a 65 million dollar budget I would take my time with this beloved landmark as well. Sure the surrounding area still feels like a Seattle wannabe but the immediate block is copied over well enough.

(C2) Sheridan Wave Club/Bugs Moran's Sheridan Wave Club

Ok so picture me thinking what this even was before I used the power of Google to do the research. Was it some new age techno club? Another yacht club? Another fake manifestation from an edgy French Canadian developer? Nope, none of these thankfully! It was a speakeasy and gambling den owned by George "Bugs" Moran in the 1920s. The Chicago police department let the club stay open if they got a 10% cut of the profits. The liquor and beer flowed from this location turning a huge profit despite the numerous payoffs. However, after the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre Moran was under pressure to close the club. Both because of his gang's involvement in the incident and from, I'm guessing, lack of patrons from the height in crime. Think about it; a few guys get blasted apart from machine-gunning fire I would be open to changing venue too. Not that I'm a big clubber, or gambler, or live in a city where "gangsters" settle their differences with Tommy Guns. I am a drinker, and Baltimore cops take a lot of hush money! So I can relate a little . . .

In Watch Dogs, the place is depicted as a park, where as in real life, at least based on what I researched, the building is still standing. However, it is now (a most likely overpriced) apartment complex in Northside, just down the street from Lincoln Park. Also kudos to the guy that wrote the info card for this hotspot it's pretty much a simplified history of what happened.

(D2) Seaside Restaurant/Castaways

There are several lakeside restaurants in Chicago but the one that reminds me most of this location is Castaways, at North Avenue Beach. The restaurant is modeled off of a cruise ship. The "Seaside Restaurant" is also modeled off a ship. Wait! I know what you're thinking, but there's more to my mental rhetoric at play here. The beach in-game East of this location is modeled pretty closely off of North Avenue Beach. It has a similar "pier" in real life.

There's also an Oak Street Beach restaurant which has really good Ahi Tuna sliders. And there's a restaurant up at Montrose Beach called The Dock which is only open during the summer. I don't know if I told you this but the majority of times I've come to the Windy City, for this project or other reasons, it's either been in the "off-season." It's a lot more peaceful that way.

In the game, it's technically a sea-based on the way the free roam is set up but it would actually be a "lakeside" restaurant. Granted Lake Michigan is a really really big body of water, but it's not really a "sea." However this location is structured sort of like a ship, and on a side note is the location of a pivotal mission in the story. The restaurant might not look the same, but the beach geography makes it likely to be North Avenue Beach.

(E2 and F2) Commonwealth Hotel/Commonwealth Apartments

Ok, I screwed up on this one, and I'm just realizing it now that I am typing this. The Commonwealth Hotel is now an elderly apartment complex called the Commonwealth Apartments. Still the same building. I don't know how to explain how off my research really was. Especially since I ended up in Roscoe Village, at the Commonwealth Tavern. This was back in December 2015 where I had a lot of ground to cover but no driver's license or proper cell phone GPS navigation. How did I do it? By using an iPod Touch 5th Gen and ripping off the wifi from the three billion Starbucks located in Chicago. Or "oasis's" as I referred to them.

In March 2020 while hung over from Irish car bombs, and dodging people like the plague (literally because of the China Batsoup Virus) I made my way to Pine Grove Avenue to get the proper picture you see below. I also bought a hotdog from Chipmunks which was not bad if you are ever in the area.

I don't know if John Dillinger received his plastic surgery within the confines of the Commonwealth Hotel, as said in the hotspot info card, but it has another sinister story to it. Joe Lewis, a famous comedian, was invited to Chicago to do a standup routine at Jack McGurn's nightclub. Of course, you know how comedians like to rib their host in situations like that? No I mean back in the 1920s and 30s, God forbid they're allowed to be funny and "offend" someone THESE DAYS. McGurn took it the wrong way as you would expect a hot-headed gangster to do. However, instead of just striking back in a Twitter feud, like a modern S.J.W., he sent three of his goons to brutally beat and cut up Joe Lewis. The attack occurred in Lewis's room at the Commonwealth Hotel. The attackers made sure to focus on his mouth so he would have trouble speaking, this of course near ruined Lewis' career.

In the game, the Commonwealth Hotel is depicted as another postmodern building. I mean they have the shape right, but in-game it's much darker and is built on columns.

(G2) The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre

Ok so here it is, the number one thing everyone thinks of when you mention "gangsters" and "Chicago" in the same sentence. I'm sure Chicagoans are as annoyed by an outsider talking about this subject as a Baltimorean is tired of hearing about The Wire. The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre was a calculated gangland assassination of seven members of the North Side Gang. On February 14th, 1929 the gang members were shot down in a garage. The killers, who have never been identified, posed as police officers and were hoping to kill George "Bugs" Moran. Instead they had to settle for seven of his high ranking compatriots instead; including Frank Gusenberg who despite briefly surviving the hit, and taking 14 shots in the process, still would not snitch on the gunmen that did it. I guess he was one of those "noble" fellas.

Anyway, some of my research was based on a friend of mine's stories of Chicago. He mentioned something about a tree with bullet holes in it. This, of course, made me think it was the corner building down the street, back in November of 2016. Luckily in March of 2019, and with more careful information gathering, I discovered that the garage the massacre took place in is yet another parking lot. In case you're looking for the wall with all of the bullet holes in it, no Dad it's not at the Chicago Field Museum anymore.

As for the location depiction in Watch Dogs, there is a similarity. It's not spot-on like it could be, but at least the devs visited the site and came up with something akin to the real place.

(H2) Saint Valentine's Day Lookout

So I think this might be relatable to pretty much anyone that works with morons. Imagine you have a great plan in motion, something that you believe will set the course for your whole organization. And then two idiots screw up, you make your play, then you get egg on your face from both rivals and the public. I mean it's almost enough to make you want to beat them to death with a baseball bat. Funny I should mention that since it's theorized that Al Capone did just that, with the lookouts John Scalise and Albert Anselmi. These men were hired by Jack McGurn (yeah that guy that mutilated Joe Lewis because he couldn't take a joke) who is said to be the main constructor of the massacre. That's what you get for hiring out-of-town help.

The location I actually did get right back in November 2016 is still standing. It's a small office building with an Italian restaurant at the bottom. Nice to see Chicago kept that at least! In Watch Dogs, the hotspot is depicted as a larger apartment building, just up the street from the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre hotspot.

(I2) Hanson Park

I hate to end this entire project on a bland note but, well, here's a park. I didn't go to this location the first few times I was in town because it was out of my way, but after my March 2019 visit, I think I could have just skipped this. Now I did do some Google research but all I'm seeing is "people shot" which from what I hear isn't a rarity in the windy city. So I honestly don't know why Ubisoft picked THIS particular park. In all truth it's... well it's a basic park. I mean there are a couple of game fields, a school nearby, and benches. I don't know what else I could say about it with the little information I have.

In the game, it's also a park! I know right!? Except Ubisoft made it look more... park-ish; with like a monument and stuff. No, really I don't know why they picked THIS park when they could have added in Lincoln Park, but from what I hear they had time constraints. I suppose they had "add in a park" or "add grassy area" on their list of locations to make for the free roam map, and this was the result? Kudos for making it something interesting looking, therefore actually upstaging the real-world counterpart for once.

© 2019 Eric Seidel