Games are pretty great. They give you things to do, systems to interact with, and places to explore. With 2014 coming to an end, we take a look at the top five settings we got to venture through and explore this year.
We’re giving fifth place to two games – Watch_Dogs’ Chicago and Infamous: Second Son’s Seattle – because it was so hard to split them. They are both very good, very accurate, very interesting representations of real-world American cities. And, as such, they reflect each city’s architecture and culture quite well, and it wouldn’t be entirely fair to split them, since that would be like choosing one real city over another.
Watch_Dogs’ Chicago gave us the comparison between high rise business, clean glass, modern parks, and the modern urban decay of the poorer slum-like gang territories that divides the haves and have-nots. Rushing around from place to place, hacking bridges and traffic lights and people’s dirty porn habits, Watch_Dogs shows Chicago in its full high-tech light.
Infamous: Second Son, on the other hand, chooses to show Seattle’s hyper-grunge hipster creative roots while showing off Delsin’s impressive vertical mobility. Second Son’s Seattle has a great sense of height to it – something that it isn’t shy of exploiting for fun times.
4. Red Creek Valley – The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
From the first step into The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s lavish woodlands, you know you’re in for a visual treat. It’s not until you walk out of that first woodland area and reach the old train bridge that you realise just how much of a visual treat you are in for.
Everything about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s graphics screams at you. The lighting. The details. The objects. The textures. Oh those objects and textures. Taking advantage of photogrammetry techniques, The Astronauts have lovingly rendered a small American mining town in the most stunning way possible. Fleshing Red Creek Valley into a real place, however, is the job of the solid writing, and the delicately depicted lonely isolation of this tiny mining community gives Ethan Carter a place in our memories and our list for having one of the best settings this year.
Ethan Carter also has some of the very best moss I have ever seen and I love me some good moss.
3. Drangleic – Dark Souls 2
Dark Souls is known for being able to provide an overwhelming sense of place, and Dark Souls 2 is no exception. While not as twisted and intricate and unintuitive and realistically impractical as Lordran’s geography, Drangleic still manages to deliver a range of memorable, fantastical environments – and one that is slightly more straight-forward to navigate.
I love Dark Souls 2, and I will viciously excoriate anyone who says a bad word against it, but I must admit that Drangleic is not quite as wondrous as Lordran. But it comes pretty close. Forests, castle ruins, underground lakes, iron fortresses, undead sepulchres, and who could forget the vertigo-inducing spires of Dragon Aerie – Drangleic is full of awe. Like its predecessor, Dark Souls 2 never forces any lore on you, rather trusting you to absorb its world first-hand, and that works in its favour. Drangleic, from its geography to its history, is a place, and you are a creature in it. For better or worse, the world was not made for you, and that it would hold together so beautifully without the player at all is a testament to its quality.
2. Mordor – Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Mordor was not always the blasted wasteland we know it as being during the War of the Ring. In fact, it was once quite pretty. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor takes this pre-destruction land and develops it into a place full of personality waiting to be explored.
Fortresses and castles rise out of the steep cliffs and wide planes, and clever architecture lets Talion get the drop on his prey. What was most impressive, however, was how well Monolith recreated a world many have often wanted to be in. Middle-earth is the fantasy world archetype embodied. There have been so very many words written describing it, and stage and film adaptations showing it. And there are games about it too. And now there is a game that lets you be in Middle-earth in detail never before allowed. Shadow of Mordor is the best game adaptation of the world of Men and Orcs yet.
1. Sevastopol – Alien: Isolation
Claustrophobia and uncertainty. Clutter. A scuttering. A hiss. And then death. Alien: Isolation is not for the faint of heart. Reason one is the titular Xenomorph which stalks Amanda Ripley relentlessly. Reason two is the oppressive weight of space – kept out by the thin metal walls of the Sevastopol.
The space station Sevastopol, orbiting gas giant KG384, is a twisting hulk of a thing. Originally designed as a freeport and trade centre, years of mismanagement, neglect, and bad luck have pushed the Sevastopol past its best days. And then a great big murderous alien gets dumped right in the middle and everything goes to hell. The Sevastopol’s metal walkways, maintenance passageways, and open areas hedge Amanda in, showing her all the space in the universe and then shoving her in a tiny locker. The Sevastopol perfectly captures the future-punk feel of the Alien film and its practically-cluttered space architecture, dripping personality like acid blood from a hungry maw.