Top 10 Game Worlds of the Generation
Written Thursday, November 07, 2013 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
The end is nigh. As the Xbox 360 nears the end of its tenure as Microsoft’s leading console, X360A is remembering some of this generation’s highlights. So, in the run up to the launch of the Xbox One, we’ll be publishing features that celebrate the very best the current-gen console has to offer. This time, it’s game worlds.
Game worlds can be great for a number of reasons. They could be visually distinctive and characterful; populated by fascinating characters, class and races; vast and steeped in lore, or small and intricately crafted. There are no hard and fast rules as to what makes a good world, but the great ones live long in the memory, their nooks and crannies imprinted in our imaginations. Below you’ll find our picks for the very best you can explore on Xbox 360.
Tamriel - The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion & Skyrim
In terms of both depth and breadth, nothing comes close to the world of The Elder Scrolls. Across 2006’s Oblivion and 2011’s Skyrim, Bethesda crafted vast and varied landscapes encompassing snowy mountains, dank dungeons, gleaming stone cities and ramshackle rural villages, all populated with inhabitants going about their daily lives.
Perhaps most impressive, however, is the history of these places. Whether in the literature you find scattered around the world, or on the lips of its lords, paupers, knights and servants, the lore of Tamriel stretches back centuries. Combined with the expansive geography it conspires to create a sense of time and place that’s so detailed, only a very few players have uncovered all of its secrets. A staggering achievement.
GTA’s America - Los Santos & Liberty City
The cities of Liberty City and Los Santos are the most densely populated, fully-realised settings ever created. From the ambient conversations of its inhabitants, to the radio stations, the billboards, the traffic flow and the stores, Rockstar delves deeper into what defines an American city than anyone else, taking some rather broad satirical swipes at the nation in the process.
Drive from one end of Los Santos to the other and you’ll encounter wonderfully distinct socio-economic microcosms, as the beach gives way to the industrial district, ghettos, hillside mansions and eventually, the trailer parks of Blaine County. Every single one of those places has its own community, with its own fashions, vehicles, activities and media. The urban sprawl of Liberty City is no different. Nobody comes close to packing in as much detail as Rockstar.
Rapture & Columbia - BioShock & BioShock Infinite
Aside from their narrative connections, Rapture and Columbia are united by politics, both exploring what a city would look like and how it would operate if removed from the rest of the world and allowed to explore its own misguided ideals. In terms of using video games as an exploration of these ideas, both settings are remarkable. But that’s only part of the appeal.
The other part comes from just how visually distinct they are. In a generation dominated by destroyed cityscapes, urban expanses and fantasy realms, the BioShock games dared to plunge beneath the sea and soar above the clouds, creating memorable locations that are utterly unique, not just to this generation but to the history of games. Look at screenshots from any number of military shooters or zombie-infested action titles and you’d struggle to tell them apart. Nothing looks like Rapture or Columbia.
Mass Effectiverse - The Mass Effect Trilogy
Some games give you a city to explore, some add the surrounding countryside. Some games offer up a county or maybe even an island. BioWare’s Mass Effect series gives you an entire galaxy, encompassing countless systems and planets. Yet just like The Elder Scrolls, it’s not just the scope of the game that impresses, it’s the depth of it too.
Mass Effect’s galaxy is inhabited by some wonderfully defined races. There’s the hilariously monotone Elcor, the militaristic Turians, the nomadic Quarians, the powerfully biotic Asari, the upstart humans and more, all with their own cultures and values, co-existing with various degrees of tension. This is no more apparent than on the Citadel, Mass Effect’s most iconic location, which brings together many of these disparate beings in a melting pot of class, race and politics. From Earth to the furthest reaches of space, BioWare’s galaxy-building is astounding.
The Wild West - Red Dead Redemption
Far from the modern, urban environments of the Grand Theft Auto series, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption offers a vast, massively atmospheric and utterly beautiful vision of early 20th century America. And although signs of industry are creeping in, with automobiles and fledgling cities, it’s out in the wilds that the game really shines.
Thanks to the roaming wildlife, bandits, frontier dwellers and a gobsmacking weather cycle, no journey through the game’s deserts, prairies, forests and rockies is the same. You might be attacked by coyotes, stumble across a stagecoach robbery, get soaked in a downpour or just stumble across a previously undiscovered area while roaming around picking up flowers. And entering New Mexico for the first time, as José González’s Far Away gently twangs over the soundtrack? Jaw-dropping.
Arkham - Arkham Asylum and Arkham City
When Arkham Asylum released to an unsuspecting public in 2009, it was a revelation. This was a game that not only combined action and stealth mechanics in a astoundingly smooth and satisfying manner, but also reinvented a comic staple as one of this generation’s most atmospheric and opportunity-filled game environments; The Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
Expanded to include a huge chunk of Gotham in Batman: Arkham City, these spaces crawl with menace, as thugs cast shadows in side-alleys and supervillains cackle threats in the gloom. Every encounter in this world is a perfectly formed combat puzzle, with gargoyles to perch upon and environmental traps to spring. Batman knows every inch of his surroundings, and despite all his gadgets, the world is his most powerful weapon.
The USG Ishimura - Dead Space 1 & 2
Dead Space makes it onto this list almost exclusively thanks to the USG Ishimura. Tiny compared to some of the environments celebrated here, it’s so well realised it’s almost alive. Its engines scream like a legion of Necromorph victims being simultaneously devoured; its corridors resemble twisted, splintered steel ribcages; and its secrets are multiple and horrifying. Sure it owes a huge debt to H.R. Giger and Event Horizon, but in terms of immersive video game horror it’s unequaled.
Flickering lights filtered through rattling fans make monsters dance in the corner of your eyes, freakish beasts lie around every corner, and you’re not even safe toiling away at workbenches. The Ishimura is a representation of protagonist Isaac Clarke’s degrading mental health, a tortuous nightmare of ghouls both physical and psychological. It’s a masterpiece of atmospherics.
An Augmented Future - Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Deus Ex: Human Revolution offers one of the most unique and distinct game worlds we’ve ever played, across any generation. Set at a time of great tension regarding the rise of transhumanism, it’s a renaissance inspired, cyberpunk-esque, black and gold age of class-divides, uber-powerful multinational corporations and political intrigue.
From the grim and industrial Detroit on its knees, to the muddled, messy Chinese metropolis of Hengsha, through to Shanghai, Montreal, the Arctic Ocean and beyond, Deus Ex’s globe-trotting shows off some wonderful locations. Whether you’re traipsing through the streets or catching a glimpse of a breathtaking vista through a window, you feel like you’ve been transported to a different time and place in a manner that few other games can manage. It’s magnificent.
Lordran - Dark Souls
Dark Souls. There is not one inch of Lordran that hasn’t been discovered without a serious amount of skill and numerous deaths, in what has to be one of gaming’s most gruelling geography lessons. Every step forward is hard-earned.
But Dark Souls’ world isn’t really remarkable for how dangerous it is. What makes it so distinct are its secrets and lies, its shortcuts and branching paths. This is a game with a sense of wonder and discovery to go along with all that dread, its intricacies slowly unravelling themselves with every playthrough. You’ll probably never learn everything there is to know about Lordran, but even the briefest of visits will leave an indelible imprint on your mind. It’s frighteningly deep.
Albion - The Fable series
Has a more British game world ever been created than Albion? We’re not sure there has. Steeped in the same kind of history as The Hobbit, it could so easily have been a twee, chocolate box confection of fantasy and fairy tale tropes. And while it does display some of that, Albion plays with it in such a characterful way; like a kind of avuncular, rambunctious Christmas drunk.
Across its tumbledown villages, crumbling castles, haunted swamps and wild woods, Albion is a world that can only have been dreamed up by a team raised on Monty Python, Dickens and Rik Mayall, a world in which your choices have a lasting and profound effect on its inhabitants. Hell, it even managed to sustain the piss-poor Kinect gameplay of Fable: The Journey, and if there’s a stronger endorsement for a world than that, we don’t know it. Fable's Albion makes us nostalgic for a time and place that never truly existed.