Gaming’s Top 10 Original Settings

EA accidentally revealed Crysis 3 in an Origin blunder that saw a screenshot and box art revealed on the site’s store. Today the company confirmed the game in a press release promising players the chance to “fight in the New York ‘Liberty Dome’, exploit seven natural wonders and wield advanced alien weaponry in the ultimate sandbox shooter.”

Crysis 2 suffered from its linearity so the move to sandbox is certainly welcome and screenshots of the game indicate that the New York of the third entry in the series will mesh the environments of the first and second game.

The ‘liberty dome’ features a city overgrown with vegetation in the same way New York had become a jungle in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West or the urban areas of The Last of Us which have been surrendered to nature.

Nevertheless New York is still New York. Here’s a list of some of the most original settings in video games.

10. Blackreach – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

There are many notable locations in Bethesda’s seminal RPG but none are quite as remarkable as the dungeon/cave Blackreach. Obviously, there is nothing new with dungeons as a setting but what makes Blackreach so memorable is the cavern that stretches out before you into the recesses of a vast cavern fill with dwarven ruins, mist, and glowing… mushrooms.

These luminous fungi hang from the ceiling, grow up in stacks around you and are a very cool background to you skirmishes against the dwemer centurions and the primitive, animalistic falmer. Skyrim is a very grounded place in many respects, (dragons, zombies, and magic aside) but Blackreach is a glimpse of true high fantasy.

There are certain types of mushrooms that glow in the dark in the real world, but I don’t know of any caves where you can fight dwarven automatons with glass swords and dragon shouts at the same time as you’re bathed in light.

Blackreach was a location that stepped away from the standard RPG dungeon and delivered a true fantasy experience.

9. Cocoon and Gran Pulse – Final Fantasy XIII/Final Fantasy XIII – 2

Two worlds in near orbit are a remarkable sight regardless of what you think of XIII/XIII-2.  Cocoon was originally held in place by fal’Cie, mythical beings with god-like powers. But with destruction of the fal’Cie Vanille and Fang Cocoon are transformed into Ragnarok thus preventing a collision between Cocoon and Pulse.  By turning themselves into a crystal pillar that links the two worlds they not only save countless lives but create some inspired vistas for the sequel.

With the pillar’s destruction inevitable in XIII-2 Hope Estheim travels through time to build a new manmade Cocoon. Of course, if you’ve finished that game you’ll know everything doesn’t quite go according to plan and while many of you may have been disappointed with the game’s end the collapse of the new Cocoon made for one impressive cutscene.

8. Columbia – Bioshock Infinite

Technically this could be considered cheating since Infinite isn’t even out yet but as settings go Columbia, like the cloud city of Bespin in Star Wars, is set to be quite inspired. A floating city and a monument to the theory of 20th century American exceptionalism Columbia takes Bioshock away from the damp and crumbling submerged city of Rapture to the clouds.

Apart from the fact that it must be tad nippy up there Columbia is embroiled in a bitter civil war between the Vox Populi (the Voice of the People) and the Founders that is anything but cold. Jingoism, xenophobia, steampunk and a city Ken Levine has compared to the Death Star will surely make Colombia one of the greatest settings of any game this year.

7. The Internet – Child of Eden

In the future, the internet is known as Eden and in Child of Eden it’s your job is to save Project Lumi from a virus attack. If finished, Project Lumi would reproduce a human consciousness in Eden, the artificial intelligence inside which Rez took place.

As was the case with Rez, Child of Eden was envisaged as a synaesthesia experiment, integrating sound, vision, and touch in one seamless experience.

Child of Eden was certainly one of the most colourful gaming experiences of recent years and while the concept, in terms of virtual worlds, might not be new the idea of using the internet as a game setting is. If nothing else the internet has never looked so beautiful.

6. New Marais – InFamous 2

Essentially New Orleans SuckerPunch moved their sequel out of the New York clone that was Empire City. New Marais felt much more alive than Empire City ever did (though that may have had something to do with the crab like swamp monsters) and was far more atmospheric.

New Marais was divided into  Ville Cochon, Ascension Parish, Flood Town, and Gas Works and each area a was distinctly different area.  Ville Cochon was New Marais’ red light district, but also the city’s historical district. Ascension Parish meanwhile was home to poorer inhabitants as well as one quite eerie graveyard.

Flood Town, ravaged by a hurricane several years earlier and still not restored to its former, questionable, glory is one of the most difficult for protagonist Cole McGrath who is injured by contact with water. Gas Works, well it’s exactly what you’d expect but it was unlike anywhere else in the city.

SuckerPunch choose a setting that was unique to videogames and made it their own.

5. The Galactic Core – Mass Effect 2

There have been many fantastical locations in sci-fi but few can match a galaxy’s core. Essentially centred around a supermassive black hole the Milky Way’s core is a minefield of super nova’s and dust being pulled into the accretion disk (you can’t actually see a black hole only the debris being pulled into it).

Science aside Mass Effect 2 finale was set in one of the standout locations of the entire series with a rousing score and an epic conclusion to an incredible game. The boss fight against the human reaper may not have been a classic but that’s not the point.

The “suicide run” on the Collector Base, from the moment you stepped through the Omega 4 relay to the moment the credits roll, is an almost flawless piece of gaming. You’re rewarded or punished for your efforts with the Normandy’s upgrades and the loyalty of your crew in the fight through the Tartarus Debris Field and on the base itself but the cinematic between the Normandy the Collector ship has a simply stunning backdrop.

4. Tranquility Lane – Fallout 3

You cross Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland, enter Smith Casey’s Garage descend to Vault 112 and then you enter a virtual world where you are reduced to a child. A world where everything is rendered in black and white.

Even though Bethesda drained the colour from this section, what stands out is the morally ambiguous situation you are placed in. Betty, also known as Doctor Braun, challenges you to entertain her/him and all of his amusements earn you bad karma.

Whereas the “good” decision is to initiate a Chinese Communist Invasion of Tranquillity Lane where the inhabitants are butchered by assault rifle toting soldiers.

Rarely has a game had such a grey ethical area (no pun intended) as Fallout 3 does in here, compare it to the decision to destroy Megaton or save it, for instance, or the choice to use President Eden’s modified F.E.V.

Braun/Betty is a standout character in a standout game and Tranquillity Lane was a change of pace that didn’t interfere with your enjoyment of the Lone Wanderer’s adventure.

3. Hengsha – Deus Ex: Human Revolution

A city above a city has been done before but rarely has any metropolis been as stylized as Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s Hengsha. In a game so clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner Hengsha is perhaps the most notable tribute, aesthetically, to the classic movie with its backdrop of an orange sun and towering sky scrapers.

Lower Hengsha is a dangerous mix of criminality and the Illuminati mercenaries of Belltower. It’s dark, the streets are filled with trash and you’re constantly aware of the city above. Unfortunately, you don’t see much of Upper Hengsha except for the Tai Yong Medical building but what you do see marks Hengsha out as being a very split city.

Upper Hengsha is clean; sterile even, more importantly it’s bright. Sunlight is a commodity in Hengsha and the two tiered city could not be more different.

2. Halo – Halo: Combat Evolved/Anniversary

For many the standout moment of the entire Halo series in seeing the ring world stretch up into the sky for the first time in Combat Evolved. A grandiose sci-fi setting even more impressive than a core of a galaxy seeing Halo rise into the sky is a visual feast that few games have matched for sheer awe.

Parts of the ring are lush woodland; parts of it are covered in snow, others in sand. It’s obviously artificial and yet oddly real. It’s a shame the game was rushed because if Bungie hadn’t been forced to repeat the Library over and over again you wonder what else they might have shown us of the setting that made the Xbox’s definitive game.

1. Rapture – Bioshock/Bioshock 2

“…I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality. Where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.”

―Andrew Ryan

How could it be anything else? Again not an entirely new idea (in gaming the submerged Precursor City in Jak and Daxter the Precursor Legacy would be an earlier example) but few locations are as instantly recognisable as Irrational’s Rapture.

It’s haunting, it’s strangely beautiful, and from the moment you enter the underwater city you know you’re in for something special.  A metropolis of Art Deco style buildings connected by networks of reinforced glass tunnels and bathyspheres and railways Rapture is one of the finest examples of an enchanting backdrop to any story in any medium. In fact, Rapture is more than a backdrop, Rapture is Bioshock.

The game relied on audio cues and tapes to inform of the history of the city leaving you time to breathe in the fallen glory of Andrew Ryan’s folly. Rapture is greater than the sum of its parts, as much as a character as Atlus, or Tenenbaum and one of the most immersive settings of any game.

The Bioshock movie project has been raked with problems but it remains a setting that could be wondrous on the silver screen (evidenced by this).

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