Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Ten Most Inspiring Gaming Locations

It says good things for the state of gaming that our list of the ten least inspiring gaming locations was a struggle to compile (see them after the jump), while our list of the ten most inspiring locations quickly grew out of control. In fact, the hardest part was cutting the list down to size. In the end, the only way to do it was to make some swinging cuts, along with some rather fickle ones too.

First to be removed was Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City for the simple reason that we just couldn’t bear to type the words “living, breathing city” one more time. Simply scratching Liberty City off the list didn’t finish the job. We removed the Collossi from Shadow of the Collossus because we thought of them as characters as much as environments.

We wanted to include locations that created a mood, added to the story or were interactive, not simply ones that provided a cool backdrop. With that in mind, the Green Hill Zone had to go, despite our fond memories of it blurring past.

Eventually, we had to make the hardest choice of all, and limit our list to games of this generation, saying goodbye to Shadow Moses and, worst of all, Raccoon City, the cartoonishly named but incredibly evocative setting for Resident Evil II and III.

Finally, we were left with our list of the ten most inspiring locations in gaming-the places that changed the mood of the game, or offered hours of interactive fun, or downright made us want to settle down and live in a videogame.

If you missed the list of the least inspiring locations, click here.

Giles’s Farm / Fable II
Albion is a strange land, far less baroque than most RPG settings, yet still filled with dramatic venues ranging from pirate towns to sunken cathedrals filled with Balverines, but amidst all the excitement and exploring it was a sun dappled glade in the woods of Bowerstone that really left us smitten with the game. Giles’s Farm offers you a pair of quests, a unique weapon and a moral choice, but more importantly for a game that wants you to build an imaginary life as you play, it offers you an idyllic home.

Bright Falls / Alan Wake
For a brief period during its notoriously lengthy development, Alan Wake was intended to be an open world game. Thankfully the finished game chose instead to unfold its story in a series of neatly placed plot points that gradually up the excitement, an effective piece of pacing that would have been impossible in the baggier, player-driven layout of an open-world game. Nevertheless, the town of Bright Falls retains the size and variety of a game world that was once conceived as a single sprawling entity. From the timber yards to the abandoned mines, the farmlands to the trailer park, the watch towers to the small town high street, the many separate parts of Bright Falls fit together to create a convincing town. Granted, it’s a town flavoured with a touch of Twin Peaks, a dollop of Stephen King and a dash of Silent Hill, but the knowing winks at other properties are more homage than rip off, and add to the character of Bright Falls.

City 17 / Half Life 2
Yeah, we know, it’s technically a last gen game, but the last direct comparison of sales figures had The Orange Box doing half as many sales in a single year as Half Life 2 had managed in four. The logical upshot is that more people have experienced the spartan metropolis on current gen hardware than anywhere else. And what an experience it is. City 17’s stark, wintery sky, grubby brickwork and faded colours make a striking change from moody darkness of most urban game settings, but what’s even more impressive is how distinctive a city it is- City 17’s stripped out, deprived feel is so well realised that before the first bit of Cyrillic appears, you already know you’re in a rundown part of Eastern Europe, somewhere that flowered and faded as a satellite soviet state before being conquered by the combine.

Rapture / Bioshock
What do you get if you combine self-serving objectivist claptrap with brassy art deco architecture and 800 million metric tonnes of seawater? Rapture may not be the sort of place where we’d want to live, but it’s an incredible place to visit. Bioshock’s gorgeous graphics work wonders with the glow of neon reflecting on brass and the warp of running water, but re-imagine Rapture as 8-bit renderings and it would still stand out, thanks to its towering structures, all repetition and streamline moderne curves. The clever conceits of Bioshock’s story demanded an equally striking setting, and in Rapture, it gets one.

Williamette Mall / Dead Rising
The ghoul infested Colorado mall in which Dead Rising takes place may owe a massive conceptual debt to George Romero, but in practice, it’s more like an enormous overflowing toybox. It seems like every single inch of the Williamette Mall contains something new to wear or play with. And by play, we mean kill zombies. You can skateboard over them, bash them with one of their buddies impaled on a roto-rooter, if you’re feeling sporty you can off them with footballs, boomerangs or tennis balls. There are hidden psychos and a car to be found as well, but the real joy of the Williamette Mall is in its profusion of very ordinary stores, each one tantalising you with the possibility of more weapons to be put to crazy uses.

Mars / Red Faction Guerrilla
The ability to leave a lasting impression on the environment is one of the holy grails of gaming, a stepping stone towards perfect immersion. The lasting change all gamers want to leave on the environment is the ability to build a nice rockery, with some shrubs and a water feature to twinkle in the sunlight. No, wait, that’s what gamers wives want. Gamers just want to see how many pieces they can break $h*t into, and Red Faction Guerrilla offers the answer: more pieces than you can possibly count. There isn’t a structure on the map that can’t be smashed to bits, and the game combines an excellent grasp physics with a hilarious ignorance of structural rigidity to make the smashing such glorious fun. There are hundreds of different structures that can be blasted with bombs, battered with rockets or even deconstructed on a molecular level with a squad of angry Von Neumann machines. If all that sounds a little hands off, you can just drive a truck through them, or wade in Thor style and smite them with a hammer. There’s a very enjoyable game attached to all this mayhem too, but you’ll only notice it when you’re trying to open up new areas to flatten.

The Holy Land / Assassins’s Creed
Assassin’s Creed was dull and repetitive compared to its significantly more enjoyable sequel, but what it lacked in variety it madeu p for in beauty. From the top of Al Mualim’s mountain you venture forth into a beautiful recreation of the middle east. Rather than settling for cliched deserts, Ubisoft offer mountainous vistas, gentle scrubland and bustling 12th century cities, beautifully rendered and lit with a low, white sun. The soft lighting is complemented by a sparse, spacious audio presentation notable for its silences and echoes that add to the feeling of an empty, pre-modern environment. It’s strangely moving. Perhaps that’s why they thought it would be a good idea to have us trudge through it so many times.

Arkham Asylum / Batman: Arkham Asylum
Drawing on everything from comics and cartoons to movies and graphic novels, Arkham Asylum feels like a seamless merger of all the portrayals of Gotham City’s most famous home for the criminally insane, and retains the most distinguishing aspect of all of them: if you’re not mad when you get there, you will be when you leave. Gothic buildings, grotty cellars, oppressive prison corridors and freaky gargoyles abound. This is not architecture intended to sooth. It is, however, architecture intended to entertain-from grappling off gargoyles to blasting your way into secret chambers and gliding over the whole estate, every inch of Arkham Asylum contains things to do and secrets to be revealed, fully justifying the criss-crossing you’ll do as you attempt to foil the Joker’s lunatic scheme.

Cyrodiil / Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
We’re sure that Cyrodiil will have been eclipsed by Skyrim come 2012, but right now it remains our favourite RPG environment simply for the joy to be had in exploring its open, unrestricted vastness. In the far North you have looming mountains and frosty foothills, in the midlands you’ll find forests and grasslands, while the south contains marshlands. Scattered across this developing environment you can find Viking style settlements, sprawling marble cities and rural hamlets. Forget the horse, ignore the quest, in Cyrodiil, sometimes it’s best just to pick up your sword and set off to see what you can see.

Panau / Just Cause 2
Panau is a tropical island known for its bustling cities, lush jungles and an abundance of heavily armed military helicopters. Oh, and for some borderline racist accents, but we’ll ignore that for now. While Panau might not match Red Faction’s Mars for detailed destruction, it exceeds it in terms of volume. The largest game world yet created, Panau is liberally sprinkled with villages, towns, army bases and even nuclear power stations, all begging to be destroyed with a few well placed rockets or a hastily hijacked fighter jet. Not only does Just Cause 2 bring you a gigantic playground of devastation, but it presents it all beautifully-it’s a wonderfully detailed, brightly coloured island paradise so delightful it could take your breath away. Pause a moment, take in that flat, blue ocean, and rich green hillsides, the charming native villages and venerable temples. Right, now go set light to it all-good looks and interactivity blending in sick and seamless fashion.