Remember when you escaped the Imperial City sewers in Oblivion and got a first glimpse of the majesty and magnitude of the game world that lay before you? How about when you landed on the Halo ring world for the first time? How about…. well, what I’m getting at here is that, as great as the core mechanics of any game might be, it’s more often than not the world in which they inhabit that stick in the mind longest.
Take a look at any ‘greatest games of all time’ list and despite being all, well, really rather good, they also tend to have one other thing in common – a fantastic game world. Be it Final Fantasy VII’s steam-punk inspired Gaia or Super Mario Bros. obviously drug inspired Mushroom Kingdom, each game, regardless of scope or genre, tend to be set within the confines of a truly unforgettable location.
From the level design and general aesthetics through to the tone and minor ambient details of the surroundings, all the best games convey a palpable sense of place – they whisk you away and position you firmly within the world created.
There have been some truly unforgettable game worlds created over the years – here are our top 5 Game Worlds
#5 – Cocoon – Final Fantasy XIII – PS3/360 – Square Enix (2010)
Few rpg’s could get away with the kind of linear, on the rails design found in Final Fantasy XIII – but then few have a world as beautiful and rich as Cocoon to fall back on. It might be a glorified dungeon crawler, but thanks in large to the beauty and range of Cocoon’s vast locations, it becomes much easier to submit to the slow burn battle system and melodramatic, but nonetheless, top drawer storyline.
From the outer-rim of Bresha and the expansive Hanging Edge to the more personal sea-side town of Palupolum and the splendour of its capital Eden, Cocoon is never anything less than a complete, cohesive world. Cocoon is a technical and artistic wonder from beginning to end and, despite what you may have heard about the games linearity, is a place any fan of the genre should take the time to visit.
And that’s not even the whole story – Gran Pulse, a vast world that stretches below the floating continent of Cocoon offers up a more naturalistic, evolutionary yin to Cocoon’s structured, technologically advanced yang that opens up the latter sections of the game to more traditional jrpg exploration. An epic of epic epicness.
#4 -Outer Space – Super Mario Galaxy 2 – Wii – Nintendo (2010)
How could Nintendo possibly top the genre defining Mario 64? They perfected the gameplay on the first attempt, and in the Mushroom Kingdom, they had a setting both familiar and ripe with potential? Well, they did it alright, and as we have come to expect from Nintendo over the years, they did it with a stroke of genius few saw coming.
By making the games canvas the universe itself, with individual ‘Galaxies’ set as levels, Nintendo opened up the creative possibilities exponentially. While the original Mario Galaxy may have benefited from that initial wow factor, it’s the sequel that really embraced the settings potential for experimentation.
In fairness, you could take any aspect of Mario Galaxy 2 and it wouldn’t look out of place on a best of list; the universe, the gameplay, the audio, the delightful graphics – every part of Mario Galaxy 2 is refined to within an inch of perfection. Thing is, all the other aspects were present and accounted for in the original and, while great first time around; it was the level design and imagination that really went up a notch for the superior sequel.
With levels that play with gravity and expectations at every turn, Mario Galaxy 2’s world (ok….universe) gets better the more you stop and think about it – everything about this game is so effortless that it’s sometimes easy to underestimate quite what an achievement Mario Galaxy 2 truly is. The moves from 3D to 2D, the changes in gravity, the ever shifting themes; all this can happen without the player even noticing, as is the seamlessness of the universe created.
Honestly, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting playground for Mario’s peerless core mechanics……let’s just hope Nintendo can.
#3 – Tokyo-To – Jet Set Radio Future – Xbox – Smilebit (2002)
While photo-realism will always be something of a Holy Grail for the medium, it’s great to see many developers continuing to embrace the more stylistic approach that has served the industry so well over the years – case in point – Smilebit and the truly outstanding Jet Set Radio/Grind series
After the cel-shaded success of the original back on the Dreamcast, Smilebit allowed their creativity to run wild by setting their Xbox based sequel in a future Tokyo-To where creativity and freedom of expression are both outlawed by the evil Rokkaku Group. By doing so, Smilebit allowed themselves the freedom to re-imagine Tokyo from the ground up, creating a world both familiar and new all at the same time.
By expanding the scope of the city and removing the stringent, arcade styled time limits of the original, Smilebit opened up this beautifully realized city for exploration. You can still tear around the city’s huge inner city locations using a combination of boosts, jumps and grinds of course, it’s just that, well, it’s nice to stop and smell the roses so to speak. Tokyo-To is a city of fine details and beautiful design – it deserves to be experienced in top gear and at a complete standstill.
If you’re one of the many who overlooked this absolute classic, I seriously suggest picking it up post haste – it works on the 360, still looks absolutely fantastic and arguably has one of the greatest soundtracks in videogame history.
#2 – Hyrule – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – N64 – Nintendo (1998)
Everyone has a collection of favourite videogame moments and I’m no different – playing Turrican on the C64, clearing the flag pole in Super Mario Bros…..the list goes on. Without question though, the top of my list has to be the moment when I realised just how epic in scope Ocarina of Time was as I took my first tentative steps out onto the open plains of Hyrule Field. It’s certainly my most enduring videogame memory of all time – one I don’t expect to top anytime soon.
In these days of huge processing power and vast gaming worlds, it’s easy to underestimate just how big a leap this was for gaming at the time. In terms of freedom within the confines of a 3D game world, nothing like it had been seen before; the immense freedom, traversing the land on your trusty steed Epona, the night/day cycle, the chance to just ride in any direction you saw fit – this was all utterly mind blowing back in 1998.
Of course, even with that initial wow factor, Hyrule Field wouldn’t carry a game of Ocarina’s length – what carries it and what has kept the game top of so many gamers all time lists over the years is the huge dungeons, hidden locations and areas of pleasing normality that are all held together in one, cohesive, completely immersive world. As great as each dungeon or specific location was though, it was Hyrule Field that gave it all a sense of scale, providing the glue that holds the rest of this incredible adventure together.
If you haven’t played it yet, this is without question the best excuse to purchase a 3DS and still stands as one of the finest games of all time.
#1 – City 17 – Half Life 2 – PC – Valve (2004)
City 17 is in a state or rapid urban decay. The dilapidated structures and abandoned homes tell the story of a city no longer cared for. The road blocks, high levels of propaganda and alien structures inform of an invading force more interested in intergalactic imperialism than the usual extermination tactics. The signs of Soviet Union modernism and dated neoclassicism enlighten to the city’s geography and once prospering society. Simply put – City 17 tells a story without words.
The immense level of detail, the wide ranging architectural styles, the Combine structures littered across the city streets – City 17 not only provides the high watermark for fully developed, completely immersive game worlds, but also makes exposition all but redundant.
From the opening train ride, to those first steps onto the city streets, City 17 paints a picture of its past, present and potential future before your very eyes. There have been a handful of visually superior game worlds since, but none have come close to the depth and storytelling abilities of Valve’s eastern European masterpiece. Will it be bettered? Well, there’s always Half Life 3 I suppose.
So, what do you think? Any glaring omissions? Any terrible choices made? As usual, feel free to tear into our humble opinion and let us know your own favourite game worlds.
Final Fantasy VII – Gaia – Dropped from the top 5 at the expense of Final Fantasy XIII, VII still stands as one of the artistic high points of the series.
Fallout 3 – Washington D.C. – Although lacking the initial wow factor that made Oblivion so special, Fallout 3’s desolate take on a nuclear war ravaged US is the more complete game world.
Shenmue – Yokosuka – Obviously not as magical as many of the other game worlds on this list, Shenmue’s highly detailed, lovingly recreated Yokosuka nonetheless remains one of the most realistic recreations of a real world setting the industry has ever seen.
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