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21 Features

Generation review: Iconic worlds

By Tamoor Hussain on Friday 27th Dec 2013 at 12:00 PM UTC

The last few years of gaming have proved that, moreso than any other contemporary medium, video games are best suited to transporting people to fantastical alternative worlds.

In this generation the virtual constructs developers were able to create became more real and intricate than ever; and player were empowered with the freedom to explore and the agency to affect in meaningful ways. It's no wonder then that many of us have poured hundreds of hours into places on screens.

Compiling a comprehensive list of the most memorable gaming worlds we've been to over the course of the generation would encompass reams of text across dozens of pages. But, mercifully, some worlds have made a more lasting impression on us than others.

Below is a list of some of our favourite recent gaming worlds. Let us know which worlds you've enjoyed inhabiting in the comments.


USG Ishimura

Words: Rob Crossley

The best way a game can tell its story, I've found, is with as little storytelling as possible.

That's not intended to smear all the hard work that goes into a game's script writing, character design, voice acting and so forth. It's just that, on a structural level, interactive gameplay and linear stories tend to mix like oil and water. You play then watch, play then watch, play then watch. And, with a few memorable exceptions (usually by Naughty Dog), most of what you watch won't grip you the way movies and TV dramas can.

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Dead Space takes a different approach - it tells stories through surroundings. A space vessel called the USG Ishimura undergoes a horrifying transformation, but the player only joins the story after the event occurs. The game is a journey through the abandoned ship, walking across its emptied halls and waiting for its rickety elevator shafts to arrive.

Scattered bodies, smeared blood stains and hidden secrets will feed the story through the player's imagination. What happened here?

The Ishimura and your explorer, a masked engineer by the name of Isaac Clarke, both demonstrate what games can be uniquely brilliant at - ripping entire stories from their script pages and scattering them across virtual environments as remnants to find.

But it will also give you stories to share yourself. I still remember horrors of the medical bay. Its metal slide-door at the entrance, built as though it belonged on Star Trek, slammed shut and burst open randomly. It was as though I was being warned.

The audio work, created by the amazing perfectionists at Visceral Games, gets into your head as you venture deeper into the medical bay. Bangs of metal from the distance, possibly floors above, echo across as you creep through its halls.

I might be wrong, but I could have sworn I heard playroom noises as I searched through the office of some lost scientist who, though his diaries, reveals the more gruesome details of the ship's downfall. As you exit, faintly you can hear something struggling to breathe, a sort of depravity staccato punctuated by sudden sharp screeches of metal.

"Hazardous anomaly detected, quarantine activated". The doors lock. An alarm fires off. A hazard light stalks the room, throwing shadows in one direction and bursting beams of yellow in an endless loop. The ship's undead inhabitants pour into the bay.

As Isaac fights, his groans and grunts ring empty. Because of the way his engineer's helmet is positioned, his sounds are lonely echoes. Dead Space can be a brutal gorefest at times, and a deeply eerie crawlspace at others, but at all times it reinforces the notion that you are lost and alone on a ship suspended in space. When I finally escaped, a part of it stayed with me.


Arkham City

Arkham City is a nightmarish walled-off area of Gotham where criminals are given the freedom to roam the streets and do as they please, provided they never try to breach the wall.

Although it's an open-world in the traditional sense, in comparison to the likes of GTA's Los Santos, Arkham City is much smaller in scale. But standing on the rooftop, looking out into the city, the benefits of a smaller canvas are immediately apparent.

By sacrificing a greater landmass, developer Rocksteady gained the ability to cram much more detail into its world. From sky to sewer, Arkham City is dense in detail, almost bewilderingly so.

From beyond the surrounding walls, a crown of towering Gotham skyscrapers circles the open-plan prison. The distant city stares in, beaming golden lights like a parliament of owls watching from the darkness.

Down at street level, the degree of care given to construction of the city is uncompromising. The walls are plastered with oppressive personality; the unmistakable cartoonish green scrawl of the Joker's gang, advertisements for Penguin's enterprises, or the dictatorish face of Hugo Strange reminding the criminal element to "obey order".

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Shopfronts have fallen into disrepair, some with windows and doors boarded up, others pillaged, with their innards laid bare. The streets are caked in filth, a mixture of garbage and the crumbling remains of derelict buildings.

Despite the divergent styles, the brushstrokes form a cohesive picture. Arkham City has a wonderfully varied aesthetic, but it has also been designed to reinforce that you are Batman.

Although Gotham City has been the setting for the majority of Batman's adventures, it has only been shown briefly in comic panels and movie scenes, mere snapshots. Rocksteady's game realised it fully, and in painstaking detail.

What had been just a philosophical anchor for Batman, or simply the background furnishing for his exploits, became a very real character in this game. Finally, fans were given the freedom to explore a piece of the city he fights to save; to soak up the atmosphere in what they had been told for years is the most dangerous city in DC's universe. It didn't disappoint.


Rapture

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Rapture, Andrew Ryan's underwater utopia where gods and kings stand in the shadow of the learned and the enterprising, was the real star of BioShock.

After taking the bathysphere trip into the depths of the sea, players found themselves stranded in a city torn apart by corruption and haunted by the ghosts of an ambition. Rapture was one of the most extraordinary and atmospheric game worlds we had the pleasure of exploring this generation.

Every nook and cranny meticulously crafted and every furnishing thoughtfully placed to suggest a rich, dark history that added more colour to the already radiant story of the Rapture's downfall. Although the key players involved in the collapse of the would-be utopia were explored by the game's core narrative, much of the context surrounding the events and the ramifications of them were either alluded to through environmental storytelling, or left to the imagination entirely.

Our review put it best: "after what felt like an eternity of space marines, knock-off Middle-earths and WWII beaches, Irrational's underwater city was a refreshing and disturbing change of scenery".

Rapture was a place we wouldn't have expected to see from behind the barrel of a gun, and it's a place we're not likely to forget any time soon.


Limbo City

There are two very different sides to Limbo City. The human world, designed as an illusionary curtain to keep people in check, was a painful echo of a modern day city. It choked with ads for poisonous soft drinks and pulsed with the faint neon glow of seedy bars and strip joints. Its streets, grey and dull from every angle, rattled with the sound of humans mindlessly scurrying around, oblivious to the influence of their demonic overlords.

But a peek behind the curtain revealed something far more exciting: Limbo, a world of angels and demons superimposed over the human world. It was blindingly bright, colourful place with the kind of schizophrenic design that can only be the product of a warped, demonic mind. There was very little rhyme or reason to it; in one moment players are engulfed in towering European architecture; in the next they're in a modern nightclub having their eyes whipped by strobe lights and ears assaulted by deafening dubstep.

Visually, Limbo is undoubtedly one of the most striking and varied worlds of this generation, but it has personality beyond its visual style. What really makes hacking-and-slashing through it a joy is that it despises Dante; he is a virus in its veins and it wants nothing more than to expunge it from the system.

To that end, the world is constantly breaking and rebuilding itself to make life just a little bit harder for him; floors pull away from him mid-jump, the corners of rooms converge to deny access, enemies are funnelled in to ambush him. There's also the barrage of insults and putdowns that appear on walls to let Dante know exactly what the demon world thinks of him.

It's a spiteful, deeply, malevolent, vile world, and you can definitely feel it. The phrase "living and breathing world" may be a little overused these days but it's a very apt way to describe what makes Limbo City unique.


Tibetan Village

Walking through the picturesque Tibetan village in chapter 15 of Uncharted 2, it's easy to forget that you're playing a game in which the primary way you interact with other characters involves riddling them with bullets or shattering their bones.

The change of pace is sudden; In terms of gameplay, just moments before waking up in a quaint little stone house players were clambering up a train precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff, fending off multiple waves of mercenaries and on the verge of death by hypothermia. But the transition is masterful, and before long the memories of the preceding betrayal and battle are pushed aside.

Instead, the player finds themselves guiding Nathan Drake through a small mountain village, shaking hands with the elders as they joyfully greet him in a language he can't understand; petting a mountain buffalo and chasing chickens.

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Nathan Drake, still recovering from a previous show-stopping dance with death, is now hopelessly following Tenzin into a twisting cave blanketed with snow and icicles. As you pass through the gaping monstrous mouth of the cave's entrance, you enter a dazzling labyrinth of crystal-blue ice. Clearly, getting around will be a challenge.

Following Tenzin's lead, players swing across perilous pits with old rope, dash across crumbling ice bridges and, as a reward, will be attacked by a terrifyingly fast Yeti-like creature.

But throughout it all, the two characters form a very special bond. What makes this connection so special and charming is that neither Drake nor Tenzin speak the same language.

What makes Uncharted 2's Tibetan Village unforgettable is the emphasis it placed on genuine, human interactions between the player and the game's characters. From the small ones, like kicking a ball around with a pair of giggling children, to the more meaningful one like the bond between Drake and Tenzin, which Naughty Dog has cited as the inspiration for The Last of Us.


Yamatai

Words: Chris Scullion

In real life Yamatai is a lost ancient Japanese kingdom believed to have been around until the end of the third century. Scholars have long debated where Yamatai would exist were it still around today, with recent finds suggesting its most likely location was Nara prefecture in Japan.

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In 2013's Tomb Raider reboot, Yamatai is found elsewhere. Rather than part of the Japanese mainland it's a long-lost island located inside the Dragon's Triangle (100km south of Tokyo). When Lara finds Yamatai her ship crashes and she's trapped there until she can find a way out.

Were it not for the presence of a sadistic cult and an ancient Shogun army, Yamatai would be a dream location. The island is packed with character, with each of its clearly defined locations offering their own type of atmosphere.

The overgrown forest section, with wildlife running free. The mountain village, complete with flowing river and those sharp wooden spiky bits. The eerie Shanty Town. The World War II bunkers. The beachside. The numerous secret caverns. They're all a joy to discover. Finding the numerous collectibles dotted around - a task usually considered a chore in most other open-world games - is instead a welcome assignment here, as it gives the player a chance to explore even more.

But it's the ancient Yamatai buildings that are by far the most interesting. The dilapidated remains of temples, shrines and monasteries have clearly been built with a great deal of care by the developers, with an incredible attention to detail. If you wanted to you could spend an age studying every sculptural figure on the walls, every statue and every relic, in an attempt to piece together the history of Yamatai.

It speaks volumes that even when I finished the game and disposed of all Lara's enemies, I was still more than happy to continue exploring the deserted island to find the remaining GPS caches, relics, documents, maps and challenges I had still to recover. This was the first time in years that a Tomb Raider game actually had tombs that were worth raiding.


Pacific City

Words: Chris Scullion

In most urban open-world environments, the city's buildings are there for two reasons and two reasons only: decoration and the creation of walls and boundaries. Crackdown was the first game to add a third, turning the city skyline into a massive playground.

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With the addition of super powers enabling your hero to literally leap (relatively) tall buildings in a single bound, Crackdown's skyscrapers are longer mere scenery in an open-world action game, they're platforms in an open-world platformer.

As the game progresses and the player's leaping ability improves, boundaries and limits are continually rewritten and the strategy required to climb each structure changes. Smaller buildings that previously needed you to hop up via the windowsills to reach the roof can now be scaled in one larger leap. When you reach the top your longer jump means you can finally make it over to that adjacent tower.

Then there's the Agency Tower, Crackdown's equivalent of Mount Everest. Impossible to climb by conventional means at the start of the game, it's only when your character is fully powered up that you can begin to scale this epic construction using every climbing skill you've learned to that point.

For weeks after playing Crackdown we'd walk the streets of London, look up at the buildings and plan a route to the top (this isn't an exaggeration). Only the likes of Tetris had a similar effect on us in the past.

There are plenty of game environments that look stunning, and Crackdown's cel-shaded metropolis is no different. But it's the way in which this city becomes your own enormous climbing frame that earns it a place on this list.