Friday, January 27, 2012

Megabits' Ten Greatest Ship Levels

After our Top Ten Train Levels article, I figured I'd return to the gaming world to list my favourite wet and wild game levels. So, here's our Top Ten Ship Levels. For clarity's sake, I'm using 'ship' as a catch-all term for nautical vessels of any kind, be it on the sea or in space, and 'level' for games not entirely built around being on a ship. Enjoy!

AVAST YE MATEYS! Here be spoilers!

10) USS Nautilus, Crysis 2
Cruising through the waters off New York, the Nautilus makes a good impression of the might of the US armed forces - until it's sunk in the opening moments of Crysis 2, leaving the US Marine strike force trapped belowdecks, scrambling to get out before the mighty sub is left at bottom of the Hudson.

It may have only been a fleeting moment, but this opening set the tone for the rest of the game - brutal, intense, and with the odds stacked firmly against you. Plus, the fact that it looks great graphically - and the music is perfectly pitched - adds to the experience.

9) The cargo ship, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Although the plot of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was the kind of techno-drek that rattles around in Tom Clancy's mind and is occasionally vomited onto a page and turned into a best-seller , the game itself turned out to be pretty good.

About half-way through the title, agent Sam Fisher finds himself infiltrating a cargo ship filled with terrorists, in order to have a nice chat with a bad guy up on the mess deck. Starting you off on the poop deck (no jokes, please, we're British), the canny agent has to sneak his way through the superstructure of the aged lady.

Taking you through the noisy, hot engine room (which makes your thermal goggles useless) and along rainswept decks alike, sneaking around a ship at sea was never more fun - or more deadly.

8) U-4901, Medal of Honor
Although looking at it now you'd think you were fighting boxes of pixels in Nazi uniforms, at the time, Medal of Honor's 'Scuttle Das Boot U-4901' mission was a thrilling battle.

Starting with the infiltration of the mighty, oversized Nazi U-boat, the mission saw OSS agent Jimmy Patterson storming through the metal guts of the boat, killing off its crew, stealing codebooks and finally forcing the ship to the surface.

Sure, the level was linear as hell, but the close-range firefights left an impression on my 13-year-old mind, as did the angry Captain yelling "You're Jimmy Patterson!" at me. Exactly how he knew that remains a mystery... I had a hat on and everything!

7) The cargo ship, Final Fantasy 7
Another game which looks woefully awful when compared to today's graphics, FF7 is nevertheless the best RPG of all time - and it has a pretty kickass level set on a ship as well.

Having snuck onto a Shin-Ra cargo ship, spiky-haired, psychologically deranged, cross-dressing hero Cloud Strife and his band of weirdos are on their way to Costa Del Sol for a much-needed break. Donning stolen uniforms, which don't fit very well - leaving gun-armed Barret looking like a terrifying nightmare of a sailor, and talking wolf/lion/tiger Red XIII on his hind legs - with a tail sticking out - the team try to keep a low profile.

That is, until the calamity from the skies bursts in, and needs to be put back in her box in the cargo hold before she rips the ship to shreds.

Combining comedy with utter terror as Jenova makes an appearance, this ship-based level was both tricky and fun in equal measure.

6) Pirate ships, The Curse of Monkey Island
Everybody loves pirates - and Guybrush Threepwood wants to be one. A shame he can't get the hang of the insult sword-fighting...

Yes, The Curse of Monkey Island takes a break from it's nautical point-and-clickery to indulge in a little piracy two thirds through the game, as Threepwood and his crew of singing barber/sailors taking on other pirates for their booty, cannons and kudos.

Once the crew have subdued an enemy vessel (or the tourist boat that is also cruising the Caribbean – "Oooh! Pirates!"), Threepwood must board and beat the enemy captain in insult sword-fighting, which is a hell of a lot less bloody than the Master and Commander approach...

Hilarious and fun, this challenging section of a great game has stayed with me for a long time.

5) The Katariah, Skyrim
As one of the later missions in the Dark Brotherhood story arc, the mission to the Katariah sees the Dragonborn infiltrating the stately vessel, which is anchored just off the citadel of Solitude - your mission? Kill the Emperor of Tamriel.

That's no easy task...

Sneaking aboard from the lower decks, the gamer has to battle a legion of bodyguards, mages and lowly deckhands as you close on your quarry, forcing back the furious soldiers with magic and sword, while no doubt robbing every bit of shiny loot you can find (of which there is a lot...).

A while later, after breaking into the cabin occupied by the prey, the assassin comes to face-to-face with the Emperor himself - who's been waiting for you. Instead of a huge, brutal fight, you instead find yourself standing in front of an old man who's come to terms with his death and meets you as an equal, turning his back and allowing you to finish your mission.

A hell of a moment, which certainly stopped me in my tracks, even though it didn't stop me killing him and looting his corpse.

4) The Normandy, Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect was a brilliant game. It captured my attention right from the start, and I played through it ferociously, almost obsessively. Bioware did such a good job creating believable, understandable characters and a galaxy with such depth of intrigue that I just kept coming back for more, especially with my trusty starship, the Normandy.

So, for the developers to open Mass Effect 2 with the total and utter destruction of the Normandy, and the apparent death of lead character Commander Shepherd, was a massive shock to me, and a moment that seared itself on my memory.

Characters I’d come to enjoy listening to died in an instant, and the ship I’d come to think of as my own personal passport to the galaxy was gutted and left to crash.

A chilling level to play through, after all the battles the Normandy fought and survived, as well as a kick-ass opening sequence.

3) The Sulon Star, Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight
Quite possibly the best Star Wars game ever made, Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight also featured one of the most atmospheric, intense levels of the 1990s.

Wannabe Jedi Kyle Katarn has tracked his foe, Imperial Inquisitor Jerec, to the Valley of the Jedi, confronting him on the refueling dock of Jerec's huge cargo ship, the Sulon Star. Pretty quickly Kyle finds himself Force-pushed on to the ship - which is hanging over a huge drop - trapped on board, and left to die as the vessel plunges towards the ground.

What follows is as crazy a level as I've every played, as the Star falls into the canyon, rolling over, turning the floor into the ceiling, seeing the artificial gravity failing - and leaving panicking Stormtroopers desperately trying to escape.

A breakneck sprint through the creaking, cracking ship follows, until Katarn manages to make it to his ship, the Mouldy Crow, and gets the hell off the Star before it's consumed in a pillar of fire. Of course, that's only the start off his problems... (incidentally, check out the live-action cutscenes - they don't make 'em like this anymore!).

2) The Long Night of Solace, Halo Reach
Something of a nod to the first Halo's 'Truth and Reconciliation ', the Halo: Reach mission involving the Covenant corvette Long Night of Solace was a bold step for the series, introducing enjoyable, colourful space combat in a pretty nippy little fighter, as well as battleships blowing the crap out of each other - and a zero-G boarding action.

Follow this with an intense, close-range firefight against a legion of pissed off Covenant creatures, a bomb strapped to a gunship and a sad (but not unexpected) sacrifice, and you've got a lengthy game level that leaves a strong impression on you. Naturally, having some friends along for the ride - from launchpad to interstellar combat to boarding action to HALO-jump escape (yes, we get the pun, Bungie) - makes it all the better.

For graphical beauty, brilliant sound effects and capturing the beauty of space warfare, this one is well worth a look. I especially enjoyed the low-gravity scrap in the corvette before Noble Five makes his arrival - the eerie lack of sound makes the battle all the more intense.

1) Discovery/Arsenal Gear, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
If, like me when I thought up the title of this quote, you immediately thought of this game being number one for levels set on ships, you'd be right - it's not just got one, but two whole suites of levels devoted to battling on the high seas.

Starting off, we have Solid Snake's infiltration of the tanker Discovery, which is slowly moving up the Hudson river with a very unusual cargo - Metal Gear Ray , a bipedal, amphibious mech with some terrifying offensive powers.

Cue the stealth action, contrasted with the tension of an invading group of Russian special forces soldiers, driving rain, helicopters strafing you, creaking metal - and cardboard boxes.

Later, the action moves to the form-fitting 'skull suit' of Raiden, a pretty boy-cum badass who finds himself trapped aboard a massive, submersible battleship called Arsenal Gear. The huge ship is full to the brim with supersoldiers, crazed artificial intelligences who keep insisting "It's all a game! Turn off your computer!" and no less than 30 mass-produced Metal Gear Rays defending it.

Add in the fact that the ship's innards have names like 'rectum' and 'ascending colon', and you get the feeling that you're into something special.

I mean, who can honestly say they spent a good 20 minutes fighting off waves of enemies with a ninja's katana... in a giant rectum.

Yep, for variety, great level design and sheer fun, MGS2's ship-based levels deserve the top spot.

As for Raiden... yeah - he got awesome.

You really don't wanna mess with him.